Merle Mitchell AM, social justice advocate and former Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) president, has died.
Tributes have been flowing on social media for Mitchell, who is being remembered as “determined, tenacious, compassionate”, and for her life dedicated to fighting for the rights of people less powerful in society.
Merle Mitchell began her career as a kindergarten teacher, before moving into community and advocacy work, eventually serving as the president of ACOSS from 1989-1993. She worked as the Director of the Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau. In 1991, she was awarded the Member for the Order of Australia.
In 2020, Mitchell appeared as a voice for aged care residents during the Royal Commission into Aged Care, where she spoke about the reality of living in an aged care home in Victoria.
“I have had to learn to accept that I am living in an institution and that’s they way things work. This includes regimentation of meals, showers and other activities,” she wrote in a submission to the Royal Commission.
“There is also a loss of contact with nature. When I look out the window, I see only a brick wall. There is a lack of understanding of and support for the experience of grief and loss when moving into aged care.”
Over video, Mitchell told the Royal Commission she would rather be dead than wake up for another day in the aged care facility.
“[It] is not to say I’m not being cared for but I am sure if you asked most people here they would all say they would rather be dead, rather than living more, if they’re honest”,” she said.
Merle Mitchell was one of my heroes. A fierce woman. An honest woman. A woman whose anger was driven by her bottomless compassion. https://t.co/bXv2wQzPXy— Jane Caro (@JaneCaro) September 21, 2021
Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of ACOSS, paid tribute to Mitchell, remembering her as someone who touched the lives of millions across her long life.
“Merle leaves an extraordinary legacy of lives made better, organisations built and stronger, and policies which have stood the test of time,” Goldie said.
“As importantly, Merle Mitchell leaves a powerful message to us all about what true leadership really takes. Merle spoke not in slogans but with truth, heart and head, and showed us all what true courage takes.
“Merle spoke out to the end about the appalling conditions of aged care in Australia. In doing so, she showed again the power of the community voice, speaking with courage and truth. May her life and her passing call us all to do better in the days, months and years ahead.”
ACOSS President, Peter McNamara said Mitchell was very well known by members of the local community, and far beyond, “for her grace, courage and tireless advocacy”.
“Her work helped to shape and inform state and federal government social welfare policies through her roles with both ACOSS and VCOSS. In addition, Merle played a vital role in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne for almost five decades,” McNamara said.
“As the founder and patron of South East Community Links, she advocated for migrants and refugees experiencing poverty and structural inequalities so that they feel a sense of belonging and contribute to a vibrant multicultural Australia. Our community is richer for her having lived in it and we extend our deepest sympathies to her friends and family.”
Vale Merle Mitchell. You will be deeply missed.