Attended Elwood High 1969–1972
Damien is a Professor of International Politics at Deakin University specialising in political and security issues in Southeast Asia. He has worked extensively in Timor-Leste since the mid-1990s. He led the Australian observer group to Timor’s 1999 ballot for independence and all subsequent ballots (he is pictured here with independence leader Xanana Gusmao at the launch of his most recent book).
“I came to Elwood High from Richmond High in 1969. The cultural mix of students at Elwood from Northern and Eastern Europe stood me in good stead for future life as it helped me to easily mix with people from non-Anglo backgrounds.
While the school was generally a good social experience I was not a good student. I refused to wear the school uniform (which was abolished in 1973), I never did homework and was much more interested in, what were then, wider social changes.
Our Drama teacher Mr Whitehead was brilliant and helped many of us build self-confidence. As a then introspective person, the classes helped me to feel confident about standing up to speak in large groups.
I also enjoyed English and History classes with Mr Pittock. Despite telling me that I could not express myself in writing, he was kind enough to write to me to congratulate me on having my first book published, years later, when I was at Monash University.
I played drums – badly - in the school band and had minor roles in school productions but, like other “alternative” kids in the school, was not interested in sport.
In 1972 I lived out the rebellious youth thing when I led a school strike over the lack of student involvement in school decision making. I remember attending an organising meeting at Melbourne Uni and there being a radical element there. This led, in May of that year, to some Elwood students joining in a protest in the city. A friend and I were pictured on the front page of the Sun Newspaper with our fists, grasping pencils, raised in a symbol of student protest. In Melbourne, 900 students attended the city march from Treasury Gardens to the City Square. Despite the threat of being suspended for taking a day off school, the protest led to the Principal agreeing to set up the first Students Representative Council (SRC) at Elwood High.
As often happens to people who lead ‘the revolution’, I became its first victim when my nomination for Chairman was defeated by a bloc of more conservative students.
At the end of a confrontational Year 11 and with a very poor academic record, I was asked not to come back to the school. I took myself off to Sydney where, aged 17, I talked my way into a job as a cadet journalist with News Limited. I abandoned this after a year and returned to Melbourne where I continued to hang out in a shared house with some of my old friends from Elwood High."
Damien revelled in Melbourne’s mid-19070s alternative/intellectual environment and, surrounded by very bright people, he began to read voraciously. This led to returning to study politics and journalism at RMIT.
In 1980 he travelled and wrote articles from El Salvador during the civil war, which were published in The Age in 1981. This led to work for the next four years as a journalist for the newspaper. In 1983 he was awarded a scholarship to undertake a Masters in Journalism at Columbia University, New York for his journalism from El Salvador.
In 1981, Damien interviewed political prisoners in San Salvador. Photographs of the prisoners were widely published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and some London newspapers and this helped get them released. One of the prisoners became El Salvador's vice-president. The prison is now an art gallery and community art school.
He continued on with academic study with a MA at Monash University in 1993 and a Doctor of Philosophy at Monash in 1997.
In 1985, he left The Age to join the ABC’s Radio News Division and then with Radio Australia covered Asia and the South Pacific. Since 1989, Damien has contributed to a number of media outlets, is a regular international affairs commentator for ABC 774 and writer for Crikey. He is currently Deputy Chair of the Balibo House trust, a small NGO operating in Timor-Leste, and has worked extensively there since the mid-1990s, having led the supervision of the independence ballot in 1999 when Xanana Gusmao was elected leader.
In academia, Damien lectured in Journalism at Deakin University (1989-1991), Asian and Development Studies and International and Community Development.
While with Deakin, in 2005, he was adviser to the Free Aceh Movement in the Helsinki peace talks, which ended almost three decades of conflict in the western Indonesian province of Aceh.
Damien has also advised on conflict resolution to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, West Papua Coalition for National Liberation and on separatist internecine conflict in Nagaland (India).
He coordinated election observer missions to Timor-Leste in 2007, 2012 and 2017 and Myanmar in 2015.
In 2015, he was named Professor of International Politics.