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Brash, Elton Thomas (1938–1998)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This article was published online in 2022

Elton Thomas Brash (1938–1998), vice-chancellor and international aid consultant, was born on 4 July 1938 at Dubbo, New South Wales, second of three children of Scottish-born Thomas Brash, Seventh Day Adventist pastor, and his Western Australian-born wife Clara Ellen, née Chandler, a former nurse. Clara was from a prominent Adventist family and Thomas converted from Presbyterianism for them to marry. He was posted to the Radio Advent Church, Dubbo, and then to nearby Wellington where Clara died from pneumonia and thrombosis of the leg in 1941. Thomas struggled to raise his children alone and in the next year married Nora Ashton, a New Zealand-born nurse. In 1943 Elton and his older brother were enrolled in the Hurstville Adventist School, Sydney, the first of seven schools he would attend over the next thirteen years.

Pastor Brash’s calling took the family to New Zealand (1944) and then Scotland (1947), where he conducted evangelical mission campaigns. They returned to Australia in June 1954, after he was appointed to undertake missions in Perth. Elton completed his final years of secondary education at Kent Street High School. Supported by a Hackett bursary and a Commonwealth scholarship, he majored in English and history at the University of Western Australia (BA, 1959). Moving to Sydney he was a cadet education officer of the Australian Department of Territories. He trained as a secondary teacher at the University of Sydney (DipEd, 1960) and attended classes at the Australian School of Pacific Administration to prepare him for teaching in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

Brash was posted to government high schools at Lae (1960) and Rabaul (1961). Specialising in English, he was promoted to lecturer at Port Moresby Teachers’ College (1963) and then tutor at the Administrative College of Papua and New Guinea (1964), established for the training of indigenous public servants. There his students included future leaders who would take the territory to political self-government and independence—(Sir) Michael Somare (prime minister 1975–80, 1982–85, and 2002–11) and (Sir) Albert Maori Kiki (deputy prime minister 1975–77). Having been active in the youth ministry and preaching for the Adventist church in Australia, Brash had initially viewed his employment as an evangelical opportunity. The church, however, imposed constraints which he began to reject. He was expected to be vegetarian, shun alcohol, and eschew ‘unclean’ foods, notably pork, which locally had great cultural importance. Further, he was unable to participate in competitive sports, which were usually played on Saturdays, the Adventist Sabbath.

On 20 December 1966 at the United Church, Boroko, Port Moresby, he married Nora Magi Vagi, a primary school teacher from a Motuan family, daughter of the late Egi Vagi, a London Missionary Society evangelist. They would have a son and daughter before adopting a further five children. His parents had not approved of their union, believing that the racial and cultural differences were too great for the marriage to succeed. By then he had also quit the church. At the end of 1966 he was promoted to senior lecturer at Goroka Teachers’ College. On study leave in 1969, he visited Nigeria and England to gather material on the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, the focus of his master of arts thesis at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). He returned to Goroka as its vice-principal in March 1970, but four months later moved back to Port Moresby to take up a lectureship at UPNG. In August his degree was awarded at the university’s inaugural conferral ceremony.

Nora’s career ambitions complemented Elton’s. With his encouragement, she earned a diploma in journalism and a bachelor of arts from UPNG. She became a successful playwright and poet, one among a group of prominent indigenous Papua New Guinean writers that emerged from the university. Aided by his contact with her family, Elton became a fluent speaker of Motu, the language of the Port Moresby area, and spoke Tok Pisin (Melanesian pidgin). His language proficiency led to his appointment as a part-time parliamentary translator. Tall and well-built, he sported a bushy beard and blonde hair that had starting to recede by the 1970s. He was unassuming and affable, popular with his students and colleagues.

At the university Brash continued his research into the English literature of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Africa, and the Caribbean. He encouraged indigenous authors to publish their work, including in collections he edited: Modern Poetry from Papua New Guinea (1972), Niugini Stories (1973), and Traditional Poems, Chants & Songs of Papua New Guinea (1973). On leave from 1973, he undertook doctoral studies at the School of Asian and African Studies at the University of Sussex (DPhil, 1977) in Britain on the works of a number of West African, Caribbean, and Melanesian writers. He returned in time for the PNG independence celebrations (September 1975), and was made chair of the English department. In 1978 he was appointed deputy vice-chancellor. He also began assisting the film-maker Dennis O’Rourke in his documentaries including The Sharkcallers of Kontu (1982) and The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991).

In 1982 Brash was appointed vice-chancellor of the university. He took over the role during turbulent times. Since the mid-1970s, the campuses at Goroka, Lae, and Port Moresby had experienced student demonstrations and strikes, often violent. Much of his time was spent resolving the grievances triggering the protests. The students’ diverse and entrenched concerns encompassed living conditions, the university’s tardiness in appointing indigenous Papua New Guineans, parliamentarians’ privileges and political corruption, and the alleged interference by the Australian government in PNG affairs. A commission of inquiry to investigate the unrest led to a new University of Papua New Guinea Act in 1983 that restructured the UPNG council to include representation of students and graduates. Brash worked closely with the government to help plan and implement the new legislation. In 1985 he was appointed OBE.

During November the same year Brash left to take up a position in Canberra as the projects director of the International Development Program (IDP) of Australian Universities and Colleges. Responsible for managing the delivery of foreign aid programs to universities in developing nations in Africa, the Pacific, and South-East Asia, he described his job as being ‘the interface of Australian universities’ relationship with the developing world’ (Juddery 1997, 7). He managed a budget of $40 million (largely provided by AusAID, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and various United Nations agencies) and travelled frequently overseas to assess the needs of universities, evaluate their programs, and guide the implementation of the aid packages. His family did not adjust well to life in Australia and their difficulties would cause him much anguish.

In 1994 Brash left IDP to establish with Nora the consultancy firm Tanorama Australia Pty Ltd. They undertook overseas development projects on contract with international aid providers. Their work included reviewing the effectiveness of Australian education and training support programs in Africa; assessing the needs of the vocational training sector in Indonesia; and analysing the developmental difficulties experienced by Universitas Cenderawasih, Jayapura, Irian Jaya (West Papua). The company also developed a special interest in projects involving tropical agriculture, health, and electronics. In 1995 Griffith University, Queensland, appointed Brash an adjunct professor for international development.

Brash was recalled as ‘a charismatic man of absolute integrity,’ who was ‘generous to a fault with his time and money’ (Lazenby and Blight 1999, 189). Outside work, he was an early enthusiast for the internet and mobile telephones and enjoyed the theatre, cinema, and bushwalking. During 1992 and 1993 he battled leukaemia and four years later developed an inoperable brain tumor. He died in Canberra on 10 September 1998, survived by his wife, and their children. He was buried on a hilltop, on his wife’s customary land near Port Moresby. A memorial service was also held at the PNG high commissioner’s residence, Canberra.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Brash, Elton. Interview by James Griffin, 21 January–2 February 1998. National Library of Australia
  • Brash, Nora. Interview by Ann Turner, 26–30 November 2006. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Fenton, Olwen. Personal communication, January and February 2022
  • Griffin, James. ‘Obituary: Elton Thomas Brash (1938–1998).’ Canberra Times, 12 September 1998, 4
  • Howie-Willis, Ian. Information from anonymous informants, January 2022. Copies held by the author
  • Juddery, Bruce. ‘International Networker Extraordinaire.’ Campus Review 7, no. 3 (29 January–4 February 1997): 7–8
  • Lazenby, Alec, and Denis Blight. Thirty Years in International Aid and Development: The IDP Story. Canberra: IDP Education Australia Ltd, 1999
  • Papua New Guinea Australia Association (PNGAA). ‘Elton Thomas Brash.’ Vale, December 1998. Accessed 12 March 2012. https://www.pngaa.net/Vale/vale_dec98.htm#Brash. Copy held on ADB file
  • Watters, Prue. Personal communication, January 2022

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Brash, Elton Thomas (1938–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brash-elton-thomas-32346/text40091, published online 2022, accessed online 8 October 2022.

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