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Rob Riley Lecture

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


Rob Riley Memorial Lecture

Mick Gooda

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission

Friday 8 May 2015

Elizabeth Jolley Lecture Theatre, Curtin University, Bentley Campus, Kent Street, Perth


Thank you Sue for your kind introduction and Simon (Forrest) can I acknowledge your warm welcome and can I reciprocate by paying my respects to the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, the traditional owners of the place that is now known as Perth. I thank you for allowing me on your country. I salute the Elders who are here today, those that have gone before us, and those who are yet to come.

Simon, my people are freshwater people, the Gangulu, from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland.

My Elders send a message of gratitude and solidarity with the Whadjuk people for allowing one of theirs on your country, and for allowing my own daughters to grow up and my sister Cathy to live on Noongar country.

They tell me to pass onto to you their respect and admiration for your continued caring of your country and your continuing practice of your culture.

I acknowledge Ben Wyatt, Tom Stephens, Howard Pedersen, Jim Morrison and Jason Oakley, who has been known to act as a bodyguard for my daughter Paris.

I especially acknowledge the staff at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies here at Curtin University, and particularly Associate Professor Marion Kickett.

To Jay, Deis and Derek from Kiara College, you inspire optimism that our future is in good hands.

And Derek I haven’t seen any stereotypes here tonight!

I am particularly honoured and feel totally humbled to have been asked by Rob’s family to deliver this annual lecture, following in the footprints of some noted people such as Patrick Dodson and my country woman Jackie Huggins.

To Rob’s daughters Emma and Jaymea who are here tonight and Megan in Karratha, I hope to be able to do justice to Rob’s legacy in speaking about his life and what his aspirations for our mob may have been, alongside the many challenges that we face.

Tonight friends, we honour Rob Riley, fierce leader, warrior, fearless advocate, father, grandfather and inspiration.

I want to begin tonight by remembering a little bit about Rob’s life, and then I want to reflect on the current challenges and opportunities facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and explore what Rob would have made of it. To give you a clue: I suspect he would have plenty to say.

I came to Perth in the late nineties, having heard of the exploits of Rob but having met him only very briefly. In those days so far down the food chain even glimpses of leaders such as Rob were treasured and skited about, let alone sitting down at the table and yarning.

However, I have very rarely seen leaders of any ilk held in the esteem in which Rob is held. Even today, people speak in awe of their admiration and respect for the man and everything he stood for in a way that I have rarely seen before.

Rob was at the forefront of everything for our mob back in the 1970s through to the nineties and understandably kept some pretty good company. People who have themselves become giants in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

I am talking about people like Charlie Perkins, Patrick Dodson, Cedric Wyatt, Sandy Davies, Lowitja O’Donoghue, Ted Wilkes, Dennis Eggington, Brian Wyatt, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Colleen Hayward, Noel Pearson, Peter Yu, John Ah Kit, and Darryl Kickett.

I remember being in Canberra when word came that Rob had passed and witnessed firsthand that despair that descended. Lowitja, Pat Turner and Jackie Oakley inconsolable, broken hearted, devastated.

The anguish was profound.

Pat Dodson at the National Reconciliation Convention in 1997 said:

“There is one whom I would like to acknowledge and thank who is not here with us today. One who was always prepared to walk together with us no matter what the burden and hurt that entailed. He had the vision when others were still searching in the darkness. He had the courage to walk without trepidation when others had difficulty finding the strength to confront the barriers that were raised before us. Our brother Rob left us physically twelve months ago, but where the candle of the stolen generations has burned in the corner of the stage over these days, his spirit has filled this auditorium. And we thank him for that.”

A big regret that I harbour is that I never got to work with Rob as closely as like others here tonight who have had that privilege. But even today you can’t do any meaningful work in Western Australia and not feel his presence across the many areas in which he fought.

Areas such as native title, justice, child welfare, the Stolen Generations, the treaty debate, race relations and of course, giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a voice on a national stage.

Rob cast a long shadow and his spirit is still here and will be carried on to future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in WA particularly and Australia more generally long after I am gone.

But what of Rob, the man himself. Robert Riley, or Robert Dinah as he was born, was removed from his mother Violet as a small baby and placed into the care of Sister Kate’s in Queen’s Park. Like his mother and grandmother before him, Rob lived an uncertain life at the hands of Government authorities and experienced firsthand some of the most insidious policies that have been applied to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation’s history - that of removal and assimilation.

Understanding Rob’s life at Sister Kate’s is fundamental to understanding what drove Rob’s quest for achieving justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

That life was marked by some happy times with the warmth and comfort that was provided by the cottage mothers and children, or ‘Homies’ as they were known to each other. The ‘group mentality’ acted like a protective agent in some respects, such as when the children endured the racism of the school across the road and the hardships that followed later on in life – one thing he could count on was that ‘Homies’ stuck strong.

But life at the ‘half caste’ institution was still unpredictable and hard.

Along with many other children at the home, he still had to contend with the mission management mentality, which was often punitive and un-nurturing.

He remembered vividly being belted with a leather thong for enquiring about his family and was also the victim of sexual assault when he was only 9 years of age. These events were further devastating and isolating in a place where he must have already felt so alone.

For all of the connections that Rob had with the Sister Kate’s kids and his cottage mothers Aunty Vi and Min, he still had to transition to different cottages as he got older and endure the ‘cottage mother lottery’.

This was particularly the case when Min left Sister Kate’s. The protective comfort he found there, such as it was, had been lost again.

Despite its appearance of an outwardly nurturing environment, which contrasted starkly to the Moore River Settlement, where Rob’s grandmother spent 25 years of her life, Sister Kate’s was still a cog in the bigger wheel of racial policy at that time in Western Australia.

The Sister Kate’s kids were still told lies about why they had come into care, that their parents had abandoned them, and that they weren’t Aboriginal. Families were prevented from coming to visit the children and when they did these precious moments were often left to fleeting times at public outings when members of family would arrange to be at the same place at a particular point in time.

I think this separation of mothers and children is one of the most pernicious and devious, and dare I say evil effects of this horrendous policy. Similar to the situation as Sister Kate’s I remember talking to Charlie Perkins about how mothers covert arrangements to be at a certain part of the fence caging kids in at the Bungalow in Alice Springs to see them and pass on everyday treats such as a packet of biscuits just to let them know they were in the forefront of their love.

Sister Kate’s for all of its differences to Moore River Settlement and Carroulop still actively worked against the reunion of families. Rob’s mum Violet tells of how she managed to sneak a look of Rob when he was just a baby in the nursery at the home, because of the strict rules about separating families and children. It took many years of fighting to finally have Rob returned to her care.

That this was a legislated and deliberate policy makes it even more frightening and I don’t think that the wider public will ever really know nor understand what it was like to live through these types of destructive policies.

Whilst Rob’s time at the home and later Pingelly Reserve undoubtedly left a great mark on his life, it is not one he spoke about often. But the impact of these policies can be heard in the words of his grandmother, Anna Miller.

Like many mothers and grandmothers, she wrote to A.O Neville or his counterparts many times pleading to leave Moore River Settlement with her children. After spending years without success and being told she could only leave or get married if her children remained at the settlement, she asked to go on a holiday to see her father:

“I have been waiting to hear from you about my holiday – you are a long time letting me know true Mr Neville. You can’t imagine how this place worries me. I have been here such a long time and I know I can’t get away any other ways only you can help me. So I depends on you for a help. True Mr Neville, I rather be dead than live here any longer”

It is through these historical accounts that the devastating nature of these policies and their ongoing effects finally gave us the Bringing Them Home report and shone a light on the Stolen Generations. 

As I said earlier understanding this part of Rob’s life is fundamental to understanding his motivation to become the influence that he became for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

His quick transition through the ranks of the Western Australian Aboriginal Legal Service from Field Officer to CEO also shaped his mind to the broader issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the state. Racial tensions, police brutality and discrimination were coming to a boiling point and Rob was at the forefront of every one of these fights.

He was also growing a reputation for himself as a bold strategist who stood up to whatever injustice was presenting itself at the time. The leadership and vision that the late Cedric Wyatt saw in a young Rob was about to translate into much bigger things.

Rob’s time in political activism through the Black Action group and advocacy through the ALS were stepping-stones in his rise into the National Aboriginal Conference (the NAC).

Rob’s flair, vision and presence meant that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around the country knew they could count on this hard-nosed voice at the national level. His transition into the national stage of black and white politics was a turbulent time but Rob quickly found his feet to be front and centre with a few others to grow our consciousness around two emerging and very important issues: sovereignty and land rights.

These were and still are very polarising issues and these ideas were vehemently attacked by vested interests scaremongering campaigns about what the ‘Aboriginal rights movement’ would mean for their own existence and their own land ownership.

Rob used his time at the NAC and on the negotiating team of the Native Title Act to continually correct the misinformation being peddled and then muster greater public support for the issue of Indigenous land rights.

As with his role at the NAC and later as adviser to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gerry Hand, Rob pushed the envelope on all fronts and cut through the issues like nobody else around him.

His first and foremost fight was for our people to have a voice, to be heard, no matter whether you came from Moore River, Redfern, Tiwi Island or Canberra in the ACT.

Today this is one of the enduring qualities for which he is most remembered - his uncompromising ability for straight talking.

But beyond these major achievements, Rob also headed up the Aboriginal Issues Unit of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, helped establish the Perth Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Child Care Agency, the WA Aboriginal Media Association and also the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at this very University. Like I said earlier he cast a really long shadow across many red-button issues.

I’d to talk a bit about the current issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and think of what Rob might have made of them.

As ever, there is no one, single issue, but many, and they are all inter-related, and there are some promising signs but from my perspective there are also many issues that still require much work.

First of all we are starting to make inroads to close the gap of inequality in health and welfare between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians. There have been some improvements in smoking rates, maternal and child health, including child mortality rates are on a downward trend and there is a narrowing of the literacy gap.

In the medical area we now have around 204 doctors with over 300 working their way through the system. Not bad, given our first doctors graduated just over 30 years ago.

We are also seeing people at the community level taking up the challenge on justice reinvestment and we now have momentum in the process of getting justice targets on the table.

In the wider community who would ever forget the Bridge Walk, where over 300,000 people walked over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in an act of solidarity around reconciliation?

By year’s end another 300,000 people also walked across bridges in every capital city.

And how that plane putting the word ‘Sorry’ into the bright blue Sydney sky became an iconic image of that day.

These efforts eventually culminated on one of the landmark moments in our recent history when the national Apology was delivered by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as a bipartisan act of Parliament on 13 February 2008. Although all the States and Territories provided formal apologies in their Parliaments between 1997 and 2001, the significance of a national apology ran deep because of the previous Prime Minister’s refusal to utter that word. For some people sorry was really the hardest word to say.

Dr Tom Calma AO, the Social Justice Commissioner at that time, was present for the Apology and had the honour of addressing Parliament on that day. His remarks sum up the impact on the nation:

"By acknowledging and paying respect, Parliament has now laid the foundations for healing to take place and for a reconciled Australia in which everyone belongs.  

For today is not just about the Stolen Generations – it is about every Australian.

Today’s actions enable every single one of us to move forward together – with joint aspirations and a national story that contains a shared past and future." 

However our hearts were with those people such as Rob who never got to hear this word from our Government. It would never have undone what had happened to Rob and his family, but it may have gone some way to acknowledging the deep harm caused. For all that can be said about the lack of substantive change since the Apology- it was still an important moment in this nation’s history.

But even with all of this, many challenges remain.

Let’s start with the so called closure of communities in WA. Last year Premier Barnett announced that up to 150 Aboriginal communities would be closed.

The reasons for these proposed closures is somewhat of a moving feast of unviability, child abuse, family violence, the cost of per capita service provision, poor education outcomes and no prospect of employment. From afar in Sydney it seems there is a new reason every day and those reasons, in my view, seek to dehumanise us to the status of some pest that needs to be managed and controlled rather than be included as part of the WA family.

We have heard rumours of list of communities earmarked for closure, of assessments produced by somebody somewhere, we have seen the eternal endless debate between the Federal and WA Government about who has funding responsibility and we have seen the stress and anxiety produced with these broad statements which target and threaten all Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.

But we have also seen Parliament doing its job and trying its best to make Government accountable, and thank God for Ben Wyatt leading that charge. And of course we have seen our mob and our supporters hit the streets in ways that would have gladdened Rob’s heart. Last week there were marches all around the country highlighting the travesty of this approach.

And we have seen newspaper headlines which have tagged marchers as indulgent rabble for closing the city down for a couple of hours, provocatively comparing the inconvenience of getting home late on a Friday night to the removal of people from their homes, not just for one night, but forever.

But in all of this what we haven’t seen at all is the engagement of those who will be most affected by this policy, those Aboriginal people living in those communities across the length and breadth of Western Australia.

Rob would be reminded of the frustration of being cut out of dealings that directly impacted Aboriginal lives many years earlier. National land rights legislation had been proposed by the Hawke Government which in turn was targeted by the miners and some unions with a large scale media campaign which were designed to invoke public outrage against land rights.

Rob worked with urgency to get the campaign shut down. He succeeded, but not before there had been wide circulation of TV commercials, newspaper advertisements and radio spots depicting black hands reaching into and grabbing suburban back yards.

This was a time in which public opinion polls were still in their infancy, yet even then, the polls were able to spook the federal and Western Australian Governments. Rather than work on an awareness campaign with Rob, or take heed of the advice to counter the misconceptions and ignorance of the public, the Government instead shut the doors.

In a huge blow to the land rights movement and Aboriginal activism in general, Burke and Hawke did a deal that would kill that land rights legislation forever. 

There would be no federal intervention in WA’s land rights legislation, no veto over mineral exploration, no mining royalty equivalents and no mention of lost lands. Both leaders were able to retain their popularity and stay in the good graces of the miners and unions. But the losses in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community cut deep.

Rob's lament was that Aboriginal people were kept out of the process and that leaders as popular as Burke and Hawke were unwilling to use their positions and political capital to help educate the public.

One of the pivotal issues facing Rob Riley in his early career was the standoff between Aboriginal people over proposals to mine the Noonkanbah site in WA.  What started off as a battle over the sacred sites ignited the long-term struggle for Aboriginal land rights and a passion that marked Rob’s entire career.

Many of you will know the story of Noonkanbah - how local elders and other Aboriginal people took part in a blockade at Mickey’s Pool armed with 20 trucks chained together to prevent access to the mining site.

Silent, non-violent protest was the method used so as to avoid unwanted arrests that came with speaking at public protests. Rob and Peter Yu had already been arrested under the infamous 54b of the Police Act in WA, which had been used to prevent and silence Aboriginal protest.

Tragically their efforts to prevent the mining were defeated and many old people were initially arrested and were later successfully defended by the ALS.

As devastating as the loss must have been, it was a portent of things to come. The reality of the Nookanbah dust was brought to the lounge rooms of Australia and the mood was beginning to change.

Its other effect was to strengthen Rob’s resolve for the fight for land rights. It galvanised both the support for the broader land rights movement, including seeing the birth of the Kimberley Lands Council and raised the profile of the ALS and Rob Riley as key political figures in WA landscape.

However, the Noonkanbah incident illustrated the power of government and particular Ministers to override decisions regarding Aboriginal land without Aboriginal consent- such as happened through the Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972 in WA.

It also showed the willingness of government to tip the scales of justice against Aboriginal interests through other means, facilitating the provision of mining equipment to companies themselves and the loosening of legislative restraints such as allowing public access to roads for the purposes of mining.

The Noonkanbah case started the wheels turning on a long road that eventually gave us the Mabo case and legal rights to land through native title.

We are now in a situation where Aboriginal people control 54% of land in the Northern Territory  and almost 24% of the Australian land mass, where traditional owners can economically develop their land look after their sacred places and where the first successful compensation case for the extinguishment of native title rights has taken place.

Last year I wrote about the De Rose Hill case in my Social Justice and Native Title Report, which told of the Federal Court delivering its landmark judgment for compensation in 2013. It was a momentous judgement because it finally brought a positive end to the claim brought by the various traditional owner groups after nearly 10 years of legal battles.

But the case was also significant because it was the first successful compensation case after 20 years of the operation of the Native Title Act.

So even though some progress has been slow, and there are still many impediments that exist for Aboriginal people around how they gain native title and what they can do with it once they have it – we have come a long way from disheartening days immediately after Nookanbah.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now have a seat at the table when discussions of land issues and development with government and business interests are taking place. And Rob helped pave the way for this to happen.

Today we see this in the COAG Land Inquiry and its Expert Indigenous Working group as well as from the important role that land councils continue to play in this area.

Together with the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, I will be co-convening a meeting of Indigenous leader’s in Broome later this month to work through the various challenges that impede the enjoyment and exercise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander property rights.

I see Rob’s legacy in many positive developments that have happened following those frantic days out at Noonkanbah, not just across native title but across the many other areas about which he was so passionate.

One of the lessons from Rob’s legacy is this.

The only way we move forward is with communities meaningfully participating in the decisions that affect them and this means there has to be fundamental changes to the way governments engage with us.

The way to achieve this is by improving relationships and realising rights.

Rob consistently advocated for a relationship between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities built on mutual trust and respect, where our voices are heard, where we are treated as equals with government and where we are allowed to say both yes and no.

This relationship supports an understanding that sustainable improvements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will only be attained with our participation in the design and delivery of policy, legislation and programs.

Improving each of these relationships could be seen as practical manifestations of a human rights-based approach.

However, it worries me that in certain parts of the Australian body politic and community, rights, when exercised in the Indigenous context, are almost used as a pejorative. Advocates are often derided as somehow disconnected from the real lives of real people. Looking at and knowing the people who have always advocated rights-based approaches, it is hard to sustain the view of them as somehow disconnected from their own communities.

In Australia, we generally have a proud history of advocating human rights. In 1948 we were represented on the committee tasked with drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we were one of the first countries to franchise women in our elections and we have committed to seven of the most important international human rights conventions and treaties.

But somehow, a ‘rights-based approach’ is seen by some as an abhorrence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs; somehow for us, our situation is so dire that governments and others can justify the non-recognition and removal of our rights for the ‘greater good’ without discussion, without engagement and certainly without our agreement.

I believe we need a new narrative in which a rights-based approach is essential in providing sustainable improvements in our communities and families, an approach where rights and responsibilities stand side-by-side.

I propose that we reframe self-determination not only as a right but also as a call to our people to rise to this challenge and take responsibility and control over our internal and local affairs, and we measure its effectiveness by how the most vulnerable in the community, women, children and Elders, are engaged and heard.

Rather than think of rights that we demand, I want to think of responsibilities and opportunities that we grasp.

I am told the WA Government this morning released its blue print for moving forward around this issue of community closures. They’re saying the ’strategic regional advisory councils’ will be established to guide ‘leadership groups’ in particular parts of the State.

For this approach to be fair dinkum, requires commitment, patience and time. I will mean challenging the status quo and making meaningful change in the relationship.

Governments must therefore be prepared to ‘let go’ of many of the decisions that affect our lives with policies and programs being designed in ways that allow for the greatest flexibility for implementation at the community level.

If engagement is to be effective and if programs are to deliver the optimum outcomes, this must done in ways that fit our ways of doing things.

If WA can get this right, it is where we will see the most profound change over time.

I want to finish now by talking about a story involving Rob crossing a flooded gully with Dennis Eggington in a little Ford Sedan whilst his colleagues crossed in the safety of a large 4WD. Many of you will know this one.

Rob encouraged mate and driver at the time, Dennis Eggington to floor the accelerator in order to cross the rushing torrent that faced them on the way back from Karratha. Rob was said to say to an anxious Dennis:

“She’ll be right, just keep your foot planted on the accelerator, no matter what, keep the car straight and don’t drop the revs”.

I think that this approach really epitomises Rob’s approach to life’s challenges. No matter what they were, he took them head on. I think we can all learn something from this thinking in the way we confront the many challenges we are presented with every day as well.

Finally can I remember with what most of us consider Rob’s mantra and which has become a clarion call to action.

He said:

"There are two things you must always remember:

You can’t be wrong if you are right and

You don’t stop fighting for justice simply because those around you don’t like it

You just keep on fighting."

Thank you ladies and gentlemen for listening.

Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner