Rob Riley Memorial Lecture

By May 13, 2016 Victoria Park

I want to begin by acknowledging all of Rob’s family.  His children, his friends, his brothers and sisters in activism.  And I want to say what a privilege this is, to be here tonight, speaking about Rob Riley on the 20th anniversary of his passing.  It is a true honour to share the platform with the speakers that will follow to reflect on a quite extraordinary life.  A life too short but a life that the times most certainly demanded.

I well remember Rob.  Not just from what seemed his permanent place on the evening TV news, but, most enduringly, from his friendship with my Dad, Cedric Wyatt.  My Dad was taken by Rob the moment he met him.  Dad met Rob in 1979 when my Dad was the CEO of the ALS (then known as the Executive Field Officer).  They developed an enduring friendship that played out, at its best, on the golf course, where life beyond the green fairways in South Perth simply did not matter.  Despite the 15 years that separated them Dad recognised in Rob a story similar to his own with a similar struggle of identity.  They shared a background at Mogumber and Sister Kate’s.  Dad was born at Moore River Settlement in April 1940 and like the files of so many, Dad’s native welfare file contains a note written by the Deputy Commissioner for Native Affairs that:

I then told Jean (my Grandmother) that she could remain at the Settlement and when her baby was born no doubt she would be employed there for a while until it was of a suitable age to place in the kindergarten, no doubt after which it would be sent to Sister Kate’s Home to be reared as a white person

With the benefit of time I can see that the interaction of my father and his Mum reflected a similar pattern as Rob and his mum, Violet.  Dad spent his first three years with his mother, at Moore River, the East Perth Girls’ Home and for a spell in Albany ,where my grandmother was working as a domestic.  Shortly after my Dad turned three he was taken to Sister Kate’s.  My Dad would not reconnect with his Mother until an adult.

It was not only their shared experiences as takeaway kids that my Dad saw in Rob.  He saw, early on, that Rob had an innate leadership quality that meant, within 3 years of his starting with the ALS, he was leading it.

Funnily enough, like Rob, Dad struggled with the issue of his identity and it was not something I think he ever resolved. It seems that some of our strongest leaders, most determined advocates, struggled internally with their own views of themselves. Unsurprisingly, given that they were taken by the State Government because they weren’t black but never considered white.   Dad I think saw this struggle in Rob and, like Rob, I don’t think that Dad was able to finally resolve this issue himself.

Dad never got over Rob’s death.

 A story of Justice

Fundamentally, the story of Rob Riley is the story of justice and his pursuit of it for Aboriginal Australia.  The story of Aboriginal Australia’s search for its position in our nation’s psyche.  In Rob Riley we had the story-teller, the advocate and the protector of Aboriginal cultural relevance.  Rob Riley saw the absolute necessity for Aboriginal people to have the capacity and ability to take their place at the table of Australia’s wealth.  Rob was determined in his conviction that Australians would embrace Aboriginal Australia’s pursuit of justice, of fairness, if they could only be told, educated, about our nation’s history of colonial dispossession, racism and bigotry. 

Rob offered up a great big test to white Australia.

Quentin’s book outlines the tragic life of poor Anna Miller, Rob’s maternal grandmother. Taken to Moore River Settlement as a 14 year old in 1922 Anna’s story is a perpetual and desperate fight for permission either to marry or to see her children.  Of her six children, Anna lost control over them all, including Rob’s mother Violet.  The desperate life of Anna is highlighted in one of the many letters she was writing to the various Protector’s and Commissioners of Native Affairs.  Upon release from Moore River for the second time in her life Anna wrote to Commissioner McBeath:

‘I stayed in the settlement all those years with my children…I stayed and spent the best of life with children, as you know I getting old now, and I would like to stay with Brother and Dad….I will never make any troubles of any sort; I will truthfully say when I’m sick of being down here I will gladly come back to Settlement…But Mr McBeath you will understand a few month away from the Settlement make you satisfied of being out’.

The Commissioners were strangely obsessed with Anna and she never spent long away from Moore River Settlement.  Many a letter she wrote begging access to her children until eventually dying after a life of unnatural justice, at the age of thirty-nine.

Whilst he can’t possibly have known until later in life, the life of Anna Miller, and the racist bullying by the WA Government of her, her family and, ultimately, her life, could well have been the emotional high octane fuel that drove Rob and his fight for justice. 

When Rob died he was forty-one. My age.  Keep that in mind as we listen to tonight’s reflections on his life and the legacy

Rob Riley was not just involved, he was integral, in all the key debates around Aboriginal rights during his too short a life.  Land rights, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Mabo, Wik, Native Title and the one that was perhaps his most personal of crusades, the Stolen Generations.  Rob Riley was a key leader in all of these debates.  Debates that were fractious, racist, and belligerent.  All these debates saw Rob at the end of the spear against a powerful and conservative establishment. 

What is striking about that time, not distant in our past, is the sheer intensity of the Aboriginal debates.  Not just in respect of the issues but the audacity and commitment it demanded of its Aboriginal leaders.  The pressure was 100 per cent.  There was no room, no space, for personal recovery.  Rob thrived on this at the same time it exhausted him.

Aboriginal Advocacy

Rob’s story is a story of the rise of Aboriginal advocacy during a time of extraordinary advocates and activists.  The New Era Aboriginal Fellowship and the Aboriginal Rights Council, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee saw the emergence of a strong, determined and sophisticated Aboriginal leadership.  However it is the story of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, its rise and positioning as the key organisation that the media went to for an Aboriginal perspective, that, perhaps, is most closely associated with Rob.  It was Rob who, finally, brought the Aboriginal voice into mainstream and regular consideration by the media establishment.  While that was often hostile and confrontational, finally, through Rob’s leadership of the ALS, did the Aboriginal voice become part of the debate about Aboriginal people.  Rob used the platform given to him by his role as CEO of the ALSWA to push firmly and decidedly against the great status quo in Australia, in particular, in Western Australia, in Aboriginal Affairs.  Great leaders come along and bend the status quo but rarely break it and create permanent change. 

Although Rob, at the end of his life, was overcome with hopelessness as to the outcomes of his lifetime battles, and one can only imagine the enormous exhaustion he must have felt to again, with the election of a new Conservative authority in Canberra in 1996, have to saddle up for battles renewed, the fact is Rob Riley DID achieve lasting change.

 He did break that Western Australian status quo.

Rob believed passionately that Australians could be convinced if they had a proper understanding, hence his determination, based around his personal life story, of the push for a Royal Commission into the Stolen Generation.  The trauma, dislocation, uncertainty, fear and guilt Rob felt as a member of the Stolen Generation.  The shame of this intrusive control of his life.  The fact that Rob was, like so many of those children at Sister Kate’s, including my Dad, neither white, nor were they black, led Rob on his journey of self-discovery that primarily manifested itself in his fierce advocacy for Aboriginal people.  For recognition and justice.

Being asked to reflect on the life of Rob Riley at this time, 20 years after his death, is not a task one can take on – on their own.  In preparation for tonight’s speech I have spoken with some of you here this evening, and some of the people who will speak after me.  It seems to me that the legacy of Rob is two-fold:

  1. Racism: white people needed to understand that the impact of colonisation was real and ongoing.  As Rob wrote in his final letter: “Understand white Australia that you have so much to answer for.  Your greed, your massacres, your sanitised history in the name of might and right”.  For Rob, racism was part of the status quo that had to be broken if Aboriginal Australia was ever going to have the chance to take their place in a reconciled Australia.
  2.          Warrior and Co-operator.  Rob understood that the relationship between police and Aboriginal people needed to be improved for sustainable justice.

Through both strands of the legacy of Rob, the one continuous issue was ‘Justice’.  And through Rob, this became the story of the ALSWA.    

As Rob aged, his life experiences, that dominated his private thoughts, of Moore River, Sister Kate’s, the reserve on the outskirts of Pingelly, left scars and Rob hid them deep within him. But these scars did not disappear, in fact, they defined Rob as his personal experiences of life manifested themselves in his fight against the systemic racism that had cemented itself into Australian society.

Through the many battles Rob fought, it was not until the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, that he was largely responsible for, did Rob have to confront his own institutional background.  His work in the ALS submission, Telling our Story, and his speech at Sister Kate’s launching the project, took its final toll on Rob.

 For me, my public awareness of Rob came in the racist horror of his battles with Howard Sattler.  And wasn’t Rob wonderful!  Why did Rob take on this debate with such force?? With such personal conviction?  Speaking with Quentin Beresford he noted that Rob “saw the potential of himself in those kids”.  The life of those kids was not dissimilar to his own, he saw the potential of not only himself in those kids but the potential of those kids in him.  He knew that these kids would never be given the chance with all the legal decks stacked against them, with all the anger of a white community unfairly targeted at them.  And Rob knew, these flowed from their own childhood.

Through Rob’s own life he had personalised his own justice campaign.

 The Conservative Agenda

When I started thinking about this speech my first thought was to try and avoid politics.  However, my second thought was how can I possibly talk about Rob without talking about politics!!  Rob was, after all, the most political of beasts.

I want to talk about the Conservative Agenda that Rob Riley saw before him when he reached his political awakening.  That great racist bigoted wall that confronted Aboriginal people at the time Rob emerged from School and into the Army and then drew him into Aboriginal activism.  Rob hurled himself at this wall. 

It is important to emphasise that whilst politically, the Conservative Agenda was cemented in the Liberal Party he was no patsy for the Labor Party.  Indeed, some of his strongest critiques of Government were directed to the Burke Labor Government over the land rights capitulation.  Federal Labor also felt the lash of Rob’s tongue.  Speaking in 1986 Rob, of the political parties, said:

you can imagine the frustration and anger people feel after having specific promises from the Labor Party, having trusted them and organised Aboriginal people to vote for them.  All that trust and hope has been dashed’.

On the other extreme, the Liberal Party promised us nothing and gave us nothing and we are, really, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and they expect us to swim on top of it

His language towards Labor was often most bitter as much had been expected of Labor.

Rob knew that Conservatives played their race politics hard.  He learnt this from two generations of Court Governments over land rights, firstly at Noonkanbah and secondly after Mabo.  He knew this from the hysterical racist reaction from the mining and corporate community to the Mabo decision and the debate that surrounded the Native Title Act.   He knew this from the Supreme Court in Ridge –v- Bridge and he knew this from the effort Charles Court went to to exclude Aboriginal people from voting.

He knew this from the corporate establishment at the time, the 1981 Lang Hancock proposal to ‘dope up the water so that they (half-castes) were sterile and would breed themselves out in future’.

While Hancock’s comments were widely condemned, this was part of the race politics in which Rob fought.

Think about that, a lifetime of raging against the Conservative Agenda, and then, in 1996 Australia’s ‘most Conservative Prime Minister’ is elected in a landslide.  Could Rob saddle up again?


Rob Riley changed much.  He changed the ignorance that white Australia considered itself entitled to when it came to the plight of Aboriginal people.  Rob dedicated his life to break a determined conservative establishment.  Rob, in his unique, strong, determined style took white Australia by the scruff of the neck and demanded that they pay attention to the legacy of what had happened to Aboriginal people.  Looking back 20 years after he left us there can be no doubt that Rob Riley’s battle for justice achieved much. 

Rob was a warrior for the Noongar Nation but he also transcended geographic parochialism and fought for pan-Indigenous Australia. Nowhere was this more evident than the Noonkanbah dispute where Rob as head of the ALSWA threw his energies into supporting the Noonkanbah community to defend their right to live on their traditional country and protect their cultural sites. In doing so he made life-long friendships with people like Peter Yu and was instrumental in making Noonkanbah a national and international issue.

What has replaced the entitled ignorance of our community prior to Rob Riley life?  Much has changed, the Apology to the Stolen Generation, the fact that Aboriginal people can no longer be ignored in the debates about Aboriginal Affairs and the fact that the colonial history of our nation can no longer ignore a millennia of Aboriginal occupation.  Had Rob lived to see all this, lived to see his old comrade, Pat Dodson, become an Australian Senator, and the son of his old mentor, a State Parliamentarian, he would, I hope, have reflected on his extraordinary and profound advocacy and considered it a success.  So hard to see when in the fog of the battle and clouded by the painful burden of the past. But so clear now with the clarity of what has been achieved in recent years.

However, I do fear that what has replaced Australia’s entitled ignorance is a ‘great impatience’.  A great impatience with Aboriginal people, culture and aspirations.  A great impatience with Aboriginal people’s demand for inclusion, genuine inclusion, in laws that affect them.  To me, this has been the underlying frustration from Government about our State’s remote communities.  Not that they exist, but they have failed to thrive.  The fact that we have, when we pass laws in the State Parliament, specifically exempt our housing and public health laws from these lands, the fact that most remote communities exist on a land tenure of no security whatsoever, is lost in Government demands for immediate satisfaction. 

So our laws discriminate against Aboriginal people and then Government points at them and accuses them of failure.  They are blamed for the failure of Government policy to change their lives. 

There is no other group in Australia that is held to account for the failure of Government policy more than Aboriginal people.

The fact that the Government looks to the laws that allow for Aboriginal sites of significance to be ‘excavated, destroyed or damaged’ and, at the end of the greatest mining boom of our generation, claim that they have been ‘stifling development’ and seek to correct this balance by removing any legislative right for Aboriginal people to be consulted when their sites of significance are excavated, destroyed or damaged, emphasises to me that the position of Aboriginal people is always subject to debate. 

The great threat of that status quo, broken by Rob Riley, remains there like some form of ‘Banquo’s Ghost’, ready to take back what it lost.

 Rob Riley allowed us to take up the rights of Aboriginal Australians.  When Rob first started his life, Aboriginal people were not part of the debate.  Rob’s life at the hands of the Protectors, Aboriginal people were ignored, demeaned and discriminated against – he forced into the mainstream the Aboriginal voice.  It has not yet been adopted as an Australian voice but it certainly can no longer be conveniently ignored.  This is Rob’s legacy.  Our right to be heard, to legitimately fight when Governments need to be fought and Rob’s unbending challenge of racism and bigotry forced it out of the mainstream establishment from ‘the way things are done’ and forced them into the extreme and unacceptable parts of our community.  This is what Rob has left us and I will, with the memories of his impact on my father, be eternally grateful.

Thank you.