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Issue #1732      May 25, 2016

Warrior advocate for Indigenous rights

Rob Riley Memorial Lecture – Curtin University WA, May 13, 2016

Rob Riley died on May 1, 1996. He waged a life long battle on behalf of Aboriginal Australians to lift the profile of their struggle in white dominated Australia. In 2004, the inaugural Rob Riley Memorial Lecture was held at which the keynote speaker was indigenous leader Pat Dodson. He recently became a Senator for the Australian Labor Party.

A pamphlet from that first lecture said of Rob Riley that he was “an Indigenous statesman and leader of his people whose untimely death was mourned throughout Australia. Inspired by his conviction that Australia had to confront its history of dispossession of Aboriginal people from their lands and all that has flowed from it, Riley worked tirelessly to advance social justice and reconciliation with non-Indigenous Australia.”

Twelve years later these words still resonate about one of the true warriors for the cause of Aboriginal people.

The welcome to country and smoking ceremony inside the Tim Winton Lecture Theatre was undertaken by Professor Simon Forrest, lifting the scent of grass, tree and Sandlewood to all the 200 plus people who had attended to remember Rob Riley. The Vice Chancellor of Curtin University Deborah Terry introduced the keynote speaker Ben Wyatt, Labor member for Victoria Park and son of Cedric Wyatt who as leader of the Aboriginal Legal Service in WA in 1979 had hired Rob Riley as a field officer.

Ben commenced saying that Rob and his father Cedric had both been to the Mogumber Mission near Moora north of Perth as well as the orphanage of Sister Kate’s where both were raised as white boys.

The experience was to help shape Riley’s life as he, “wanted Aboriginal people to take their place at the table where decisions were made about the wealth and future of Australia.”

Rob fought the struggles on behalf of Aboriginal people for land rights, Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, Stolen Generations and against racism.

Ben Wyatt spoke of the intensity of the Aboriginal debates during the 1980s and 1990s which Riley thrived on for his strong sense of justice while at the same time it also ground him down.

Riley became the leader of the Aboriginal Legal Service and under his leadership was able to challenge the status quo of the mining companies, the corporate media and the political establishment of the Liberal and Labor parties. It is a struggle that white people need to know is real and ongoing.

It was Rob Riley in 1980 who helped make the Noonkanbah dispute over land rights and sacred sites versus miners’ greed to drill wherever they wanted, into a national and international issue.

Riley realised that racism needed to be broken if Australians were ever to heal.

It is a problem that persists within Australia to this day despite the Apology by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008.

The next speaker was someone who knew Rob Riley well and had also spoken at the inaugural Rob Riley Memorial Lecture, Professor Pat Dudgeon. Ms Dudgeon is now a commissioner at the Mental Health Commission and spoke of Rob Riley as a role model to his people – especially his Noongar people of the south west of Western Australia.

Dudgeon recalled a speech in psychology at WAIT (Western Australian Institute of Technology – later Curtin University) in 1996 for the Psychology Society in which he challenged the bio-medical model used to deal with patients at the time.

Riley said that we must help to direct where our world is going which for people who work with Aboriginal people in the mental health field, meant having an understanding of Aboriginal justice, society, culture and history.

Jim Morrison, Rob’s brother in law and long time friend, touched on his friend’s suicide by speaking about the rising rates of suicide amongst Aboriginal people as well as their high and increasing rates of incarceration – 100 Aboriginal people take their lives each year.

Morrison spoke of the National Conference on Suicide Prevention which he had attended on May 6 in Alice Springs and how the stories he had heard had affected him – the stories from Aboriginal communities and the despair especially amongst young people.

The next speaker was Darryl Kickett who was also a former associate of Rob Riley. Kickett spoke of Rob Riley as being a, “chief negotiator for all our people” when he took on the struggles of the Aboriginal people such as land rights, sovereignty, the stolen generations and high levels of incarceration and deaths in incarceration.

Kickett spoke of white people only deciding to do things if it was in the “national interest” and posed the question: is it in the national interest to have our jails filling up with Aboriginal people, in particular in Western Australia which has the highest rates of Aboriginal incarceration in Australia.

Kickett remarked, “It’s time to fix our Aboriginal nation” – “It is not how we fall down but how we pick ourselves up”.

The final speaker was Rob Riley’s biographer Quentin Beresford. Beresford was approached by Jeannie Riley (Rob’s partner) one day in 2003, “to write the book of Rob Riley’s life.”

As he started to write “it brought out the rawness of Aboriginal intergenerational violence, trauma and racism.”

Beresford described in detail how Riley’s grandmother Anna Miller lost control of her children including his mother Violet to the government administrator of Auber Octavius Neville or Mister Neville (“The Devil”) as he was known to Aboriginal people, Chief Protector of Aborigines.

Violet Riley in turn lost her son Rob Riley to the institution of Sister Kate’s – a situation repeated many times in WA in the last 100 years plus since the Aborigines Act 1905.

Beresford described how Anna Miller wrote 40 letters to Neville pleading for the return of her children or even to spend some time with them – all of which were denied. Further details are described in the book published in 2006. It is still available for those wishing to explore further the life of Rob Riley.

Beresford said of Rob Riley that he had to confront outright racism in parts of the corporate media – and then the mining lobby and the infamous comments in 1984 from Lang Hancock the mining magnate who said, “I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future.”

Rob was also a good humoured and competitive character who loved his wife and children dearly.

The spirit of Rob Riley lives on in today’s Aboriginal activists. It is about speaking out and telling the truth about racism and exploitation.

Next article – Hillsborough – A pack of lies

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