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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 57

Senator RIDGEWAY (1:15 PM) —I rise this afternoon to speak on the life of a great Aboriginal man. Over the course of the last six years in this chamber, I have made it a point to record details of the lives of those significant Australians and, more particularly, those people that I regard as not only my role models but also, most of all, trailblazers. In this particular case I want to speak on the life of a great man, Judge Robert Bellear, who passed away in Sydney yesterday afternoon after a long illness—a long battle with cancer. I first want to offer my sympathies to his family, who have been through a very distressing time. While we mourn his passing, we know he is now released from his suffering.

Bob was of Noonuccal/Bunjalung decent. He was a saltwater man from the south-east Queensland/northern New South Wales region. Like the majority of Aboriginal people, he came from a background of poverty. He worked against the odds to become in 1996 Australia’s first Aboriginal man to be appointed as a judge. I think in that respect it is very important that Hansard becomes a record of the history of those sorts of achievements. He was born in Murwillumbah 60 years ago as the eldest of nine children. Bob Bellear left school early to help support his family, first working as a fitter and turner and eventually putting himself through university because he believed that was the only way forward for him and his family. It says a lot in that the integrity and capacity of this man has demonstrated many of the things that we require in contemporary times.

Bob was at the forefront of the Aboriginal struggle all his life, leaving historical markers as he moved on. Way back in 1971, along with the now magistrate Pat O’Shane, he was one of the first two Aboriginal students to be taken into the University of New South Wales law faculty. Yesterday, after hearing of his death, I marvelled at a photograph taken back in 1972 of a young Bob Bellear, standing with Bobby McLeod and Tiga Bayles, in the thick of the action at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy just down the road. Last week in this place, I spoke of the struggle to retain Aboriginal housing in Redfern and outlined the history of activism that resulted in the Block becoming Aboriginal property. Bob Bellear was there as well; he was one of the main instigators that led the charge that brought that about. In January 1973 he led a group of Aboriginal men back to squat in the derelict houses in Louis Street in Redfern, from which they had been evicted, to claim them as Aboriginal houses. A committee was then formed to approach the Whitlam government for funds to buy housing, and the rest is history. He went on to cofound the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern and worked as director of the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Children’s Service.

Bob graduated from the law school of the University of New South Wales and was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1979. Following that, on behalf of the Northern Land Council, he undertook a number of land rights cases for traditional owners. From 1979 to 1983 he was a member of the New South Wales Corrective Services Advisory Committee and in 1987 was appointed Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. He was the first chairman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council, which was the first committee of its type to be set up in the nation as a result of one of the key recommendations of the royal commission addressing deaths in custody. He was also a member of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council of New South Wales.

When he was sworn in as a judge on 17 May 1996, he said that racism was endemic in Australia and that many Aborigines received inferior legal representation once they were charged with criminal offences. He stressed that all Australians had a right to competent legal counsel and that this right should not be dependent on one’s race or the contents of one’s bank account. This is a pertinent statement, given some of the recent decisions by government to look at tendering out legal services being provided to Indigenous communities. The then New South Wales Attorney-General, Mr Shaw, said that Judge Bellear was ‘an accomplished trial lawyer with a proven forensic mind’. As most Aboriginal people who work in the mainstream do, Bob also spent much time educating his fellow judges in Indigenous issues. When in 1993 he received his honorary doctorate of laws from Macquarie University in recognition of his personal and professional commitment to the advancement of Aboriginal people, he stressed the importance of this type of education and communication, saying that ‘both Aborigines and non-Aborigines have got to strive to educate each other in their respective cultures’.

Barrister, judge and respected community member that he was, he was also a much-loved husband, father and grandfather and an uncle to us all within our communities. His wife, Kaye Bellear, told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1990 of the racism that the couple encountered after they married way back in 1966. She said:

I can remember the stares we got walking down the street. The view was: ‘Fancy a mother letting her daughter run off with one of them!’

She also said:

I can clearly recall in the Redfern police station in the late 1960s police officers ripping off my wedding ring and shouting at me: ‘What’s the matter, Kaye, is there something wrong with you?’

In 1988—the year that we all remembered Australia’s black history—two of his children, then aged 15 and 13, handed back their bicentennial medals, saying that they ‘could not accept a medal that celebrates what has happened to our families’. They continued:

They were tortured, massacred and herded like animals on to reserves, denied the right to live by their laws, speak their language or practise their religion.

As the only two Aboriginal students at Vaucluse High School, the young Bellears told the 800 or so assembled students on that particular day that they would place a box in the school’s main foyer and students who supported the Aboriginal attitude to the bicentenary could put their medals in it. I think that really typifies the role of leadership undertaken by Bob himself. The medals were to be sent back to the Prime Minister of the day with a letter. The end result was that the box contained more than 160 medals. I congratulate all those students who recognised there was something untoward that needed to be addressed in looking at the question of what we were celebrating. Unfortunately Malu, one of those brave children, has since passed away.

I offer my sympathies to Kaye and to Kali and Jo and their children. We want to share in their sadness at this time. However, as Bob Bellear knew and as any high-achieving Aboriginal person knows, it sometimes does not matter how many suits you wear, how well off you are or what kind of outstanding contributions you have made for the betterment of society; many people still cannot see past the fact that you are Aboriginal.

It was with some disgust that I read in a news clipping from 2001—not that long ago, in the lifetime of the previous parliament—that Bob, not only a judge but also a local resident, could not get a taxi in his home town of Sydney. Thankfully on that occasion a non-Aboriginal man, a white man, hailed a taxi for him and he was allowed to jump into it. We have seen our distinguished elders treated with such disrespect since 1788, and the treatment goes on until this very day. We like to pretend that these things are not present. People still insist that there is no racism and that the problem is purely an Aboriginal one. I spoke of that last week when I referred to an example of the re-enactment of the Freedom Ride and what happened to a young Aboriginal man with a CountryLink ticket who was not allowed to get on a bus.

It was the type of attitude that Bob Bellear fought against through his work and his life every day. It is one which we have to acknowledge and one on which we must remain ever vigilant. As I said during the debate that was looking at the fate of ATSIC and Indigenous people, when we look up to Lady Justice, we see that the she has a blindfold on. It is there for a particular reason: she is not meant to look down and see the colour of a person’s skin. It is no wonder that Bob thought that, by joining the legal profession and becoming a judge, he would be part of a system that works for all in the same manner.

Bob made his mark in Moree as a judge in 2000. For the first time this northern New South Wales town, so long troubled by racial tension and high crime, found itself receiving justice for the first time from a judge who just happened to be an Aboriginal man. It says a lot about the whole notion of being judged by your peers. We remember him today not only as a modern day fighter for Aboriginal rights but also as a community member and a family man with tattooed forearms and a gold ear stud. He was a blackfella like me, a blackfella with family like the rest of us across the country and a blackfella like every other Indigenous person listening out there today.

I want to give credit to the Carr government in New South Wales, because they have recognised his contribution to the state of New South Wales and, indeed, to the entire country. Judge Bob Bellear will be given a state funeral next week in Sydney, and instead of flowers the family have said that, if people wish to kindly respond, donations will be accepted for a diabetes clinic being set up in his name as part of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern. I would like to finish with some of his words when he received his honorary doctorate back in 1993:

While, slowly, there have been gains, Aborigines are still behind in education, health and housing to name just a few.

Things are a lot better than they were 10 years ago, and multiculturalism has gone a long way towards bringing about equality.

But I hasten to add there’s still a long way to go.

He echoes the words of what we now call unfinished business. It is not about politics or the convenient way of drawing lines that divide us and create the ‘us and them’ mentality. First and foremost, we have to acknowledge the courage of people like Bob Bellear. They have paved the way. They have become trailblazers. I hope that all the young Indigenous people now attending universities across the country, perhaps contemplating work in law or other professions, will be able to walk down these paths and that we will see more Indigenous people joining those professions. Bob is someone whom I regard personally as an uncle, and that is a statement of respect for Aboriginal people. I want to acknowledge his contribution as a role model, an advocate, an activist and a fighter for Aboriginal people right across the country. I am sure those words are echoed right across the chamber, especially by those who have had the opportunity to meet Judge Bob Bellear. He was a well-respected and dignified man. He was principled and believed in what he fought for. He believed that right through to the end and that legacy will continue to live on.