Some people inspire us by the act of simply ‘being’. You get the sense John Morse, AM and previously Tourism Australia CEO, is one of those. We asked him to walk us through what has so far been an interesting life journey – including developing Indigenous Tourism and his involvement in the Sydney Olympics…
John’s life by evolution…
“I think, to get the most out of life you have to regularly reinvent yourself – at least partially”, says John Morse, who has many strings to his bow. “For me, about every seven years I’ve done something completely unexpected with my life, which always takes me to amazing places.”
It all started with…
“…the fast-paced Advertising-world in Sydney (where, thanks to Whirlpool, I first met Toni Lamond. But more on that later). This led me on a journey through the Tourism industry where I was off to London on behalf of the Australian Tourist Commission – and responsible for promoting our country to the world.
A couple of profound things happened for me here:
- I saw the vast potential for indigenous tourism and how it would provide employment opportunities to Aboriginal people; and
- Following a major airlines strike which saw tourism plummet, I got to work with Qantas to plan a tour through Europe with a group of Aboriginal people, to get tourists excited about not just visiting Australia, but having a uniquely Australian experience.
This was my first experience with our Indigenous people and it was life changing. By good luck or good management, I was embraced into their world where I became captivated by their culture, their sense of humour, strong family connections, generosity and their inventiveness.”
The Sydney Olympic Games – “the best games ever!”…
John continued working with Tourism Australia back in Sydney alongside SOGOC and other organisations connected with The Games where, he said, “I’m proud to say Indigenous stories and culture featured heavily.”
“But let me tell you. From where I sat, the world was totally in love with Australia. And I think Australians need to know this. I have hours and hours of footage and stories, media quotes and so much more, which would make a truly inspiring and uplifting documentary series.”
“We made sure we worked closely with the international media, making all areas available to them so they could move beyond ‘kangaroos & koalas’, and so we could showcase our depth of talent and diversity. We exposed them to our architectural prowess, our design capabilities, our wines, our rich fresh produce and ingenuity around food… The world was seriously totally in love with Australia – did I say that already?”
John later urged the Prime Minister’s office to consider crafting a vision for the future of our country by taking inspiration from what the Olympics had done for Australia. Unfortunately they didn’t believe we needed a vision.
Tell us a thing or two we probably don’t know about the Sydney Olympic Games…
- “SOCOG had a staff canteen which was named ‘in honour’ of’ IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch. In a creative play of language, it was called “Wayne & Tony’s Sandwich Ranch”.
- “There were a number of condoms found around the stadium after the Closing Ceremony. What you make of that is up to you, and that’s all I have to say about that!”
Post-Olympics and time to reinvent… again.
Leaving his position of Tourism Australia CEO opened the door for John to work more specifically with the Aboriginal population. Firstly through the Mutitjulu Foundation – established by Ayers Rock Resort to help fund Aboriginal community projects – then, by Government request to review & report on how Indigenous people could benefit from tourism in Kakadu National Park.
“Later on, when I was working in Arnhem Land, I was honoured to be adopted by the Yolngu people and was given the ‘name’ – Mangirr Gondarra. However when I learnt it meant ‘Weaver’, my pride turned to puzzlement. Wasn’t weaving ‘womens business’? They laughed and assured me it was because “you’re a weaver of people”. Pride restored.
Distinguished awards (and what did Toni Lamond have to do with it?)…
John was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) for his work in services to Tourism (during his time as Tourism Australia CEO) and development of Indigenous tourism.
“I was hesitant about accepting this because I was very angry at the time about certain treatment from our government to people who needed our help. But my friends convinced me, saying I could do more for them with the letters ‘AM’ after my name than without. It’s true.” So off to Government House John went. “As you can imagine it was a pretty big deal.” But in true Aussie spirit the experience was very grounding. “I found myself seated in between Patricia Amphlett – “Little Pattie” – lively pop singer in the 1960s, and Toni Lamond – cabaret performer, actor and comedian (and sister of successful singer, Helen Reddy – remember her?). I reminded Toni of the time I’d recruited her for a Whirlpool fridge tv commercial back in my Advertising heydays when, rather than delivering her lines, she faced the camera and said (of the fridge) “the f*^#ing thing won’t move!”.
Living in the moment…
“Years ago, did I envisage sitting on my balcony in the Bellingen Shire, listening to the extraordinary sounds of the rainforest rich in birdlife, and watching river water rolling over pebbles and around boulders as it courses its way past my verandah? Not literally. I try to live in the moment – sometimes to my downfall, sometimes with great success. But you sure know you’re alive! However at no stage did I ever make a decision to be powerful or rich. I just made a decision to live my life to the max and be open to anything that came my way. Sometimes that has involved pain. But for the most part…overwhelming joy. Living here is truly joyous!”
“In 2013 I was picking up my daughter at Sydney airport and I bumped into George Negus. We got chatting – which led to dinner – where I had this inexplicable urge to announce I wanted to leave Sydney. George asked me if I’d heard of Bellingen. I hadn’t. Three weeks later I was here and signing the contract on my new home. Never looked back. I moved in at midnight on the eve of my birthday. What a treat!”
“Wherever I go, I connect with the local Aboriginal community. That’s just the way it is for me. And I wanted to have my country smoked and cleansed by the local Gumbaynggirr people. Smoking ceremonies essentially drive away bad spirit and bad energy. I met a local elder who agreed to do it and around the same time I had friends coming from Arnhem Land to conduct workshops. They brought Arnhem Land soil, which we mixed with local soil for the Smoking ceremony – ‘joining’ the two countries. They sang in language to the mountains and river. The whole ceremony was very powerful. Later, an Elder Gumbaynggirr woman visited and said “the river spirits are very happy here”. She also told me I’d been “brought home”.
“My children. My family and loved ones are my greatest reward.
But in a commercial sense – it has to be my time as Tourism Australia CEO. I had a ball… a time of ‘international recognition’ and ‘fame’ (he says with a wry smile).”
Well who wouldn’t love that?
“Seriously though, that position gave me the opportunity to present at many assemblies and conferences. And when young people in their late teens and 20s approached me to say ‘thank you for inspiring me…” as they told me their story, I was the one who was inspired. The future looks bright.”