Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights
1944 - 2005
1944 - 2005
Australia is called a classless society. But Bob Bellear, who has died at 60, did what few other Australians have done: he rose from the very bottom rung to the very top. Not just from working-class and rural origins but from Aboriginal deprivation to become Australia's first indigenous judge.
Raised in the far North Coast town of Billinudgel, near Mullumbimby, he was the grandson of a Vanuatu sugar-cutting slave and an Aboriginal woman from the Noonuccal people of Stradbroke Island. One of nine children, he knew poverty, hunger and a widespread culture of alcoholism as he grew to manhood. He told an interviewer in 1978: "Drunkenness was our only refuge. But when you emerged from the haze of drunkenness, there was always the harsh reality of racism to face."
He left school early, he said, and "I couldn't even get a job as a bank teller, attitudes being what they were then."
Bellear joined the navy. He learned mechanical engineering and clearance diving, and loved his time at sea. He became a champion rugby player for the navy. Tall and lean, he was an outstanding and talented centre. In the navy he met his wife and life partner Kaye Williams, the daughter of a Ballarat trade unionist. At the time, she was going out with one of Bellear's shipmates and was in the process of moving house from Bondi to Kings Cross. Bellear helped her move - in every sense of the word.
Within six weeks the couple had fallen in love and married. They became inseparable and a devastating combination. Kaye saw in Bellear the qualities of a natural leader: a man of charm, conviction, humanity, common sense, humour and ambition.
Bellear became the first Aborigine to rise to the level of petty officer in the navy. By the time he left in 1968, he was a qualified diver, bricklayer, furnace lagger, and fitter and turner. He gained jobs at the Clyde oil refinery and elsewhere on the strength of his trade skills. He was already a man on the march.
But this was also the time in Sydney of rising Aboriginal consciousness about civil rights. The use of the hated Summary Offences Act on Aboriginal people in Redfern became a kind of police sport. Bellear watched with horror as friends suffered not for being criminal but for being black. The overt racism of the police actions every Friday and Saturday night appalled him.
The former attorney-general who welcomed Bellear to the bench, Jeff Shaw, said at the time: "It was easy for police to arrest Aboriginal people. They had a formula. It was the trifecta, 'unseemly words', 'resist arrest' and 'assault police'. Seeing this injustice repeated week after week hit hard, and there was no way that Bob Bellear was going to sit back and watch it happening."
One evening in 1972, Kaye and Bellear were sitting in the Clifton Hotel, Redfern, when the paddy wagons dragged away another clutch of local blacks. Together they decided he would study law.
Bellear went to Sydney Technical College to finish his high school studies, getting his HSC in 1973. The next year he joined the University of NSW law school. He gained his degree in 1978 and was admitted to the bar the next year. In less than 10 years from taking that decision at the Clifton Hotel, he had become a barrister.
Bellear founded the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern in 1972, was a director of the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service through most of the 1970s, and was a director and chairman of Tranby College. He was a key South Sydney community activist and a close adviser to the remarkable Father Ted Kennedy of St Vincent's Church, Redfern. He was also on myriad Labor committees advising on Aboriginal policy.
In the 1980s there was no stopping this man of quiet determination, affable humour and unaffected friendliness. He represented Aboriginal people (and whites) in a wide range of courts. The main emphasis of his practice, however, was criminal trials, instructed by the Aboriginal Legal Service, Legal Aid Commission or private practitioners. He was constantly working on the side of the poor. He also successfully represented traditional owners in three important land claims, and was appointed as counsel assisting to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987.
Meanwhile, he was a committee member of the Redfern All Blacks rugby league club and patron of the Moree Boomerang Football Club.
In 1990 he won the University of NSW Alumni Award and in 1993 Macquarie University awarded him an honorary doctor of laws in recognition of his services to law, the community and the Aboriginal people. By then he had been appointed public defender in NSW and could be found at the Matthew Talbot Hostel dispensing free legal advice to the homeless in his spare time.
In 1996, he became the first Aborigine to be appointed a judge. From the benches of District Courts around NSW, Bellear worked for eight years bringing fair and compassionate justice to those before him.
He also worked without stint for young Aboriginal people thinking of studying law. He was a mentor to young black lawyers and law students, and encouraged Aboriginal high school students to join him in his court. He opened the court to national indigenous legal studies students from Tranby. He was a strong supporter of the construction union, and was patron of the Construction Industry Drug and Alcohol Foundation.
He had a special place in his heart for his son Malu, who died young. At his appointment as a judge in 1996, Bellear said: "My son Malu, for all his short life, loved me unconditionally and taught me the value of compassion and courage. He will be with me for the entire journey both on and off the bench."
When Bellear's son, Kali, had a boy last year, he was named Tanna Jamarra Bellear - Tanna for his grandfather's ancestral Vanuatu home and Jamarra for kangaroo (the same meaning as Malu). And when Bellear died in his bed, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, Kaye's last words were to invite him to rejoin his beloved Malu.
Bellear has been a role model for his people, a source of enormous pride and joy to his family, especially his wife, and a beacon of hope in dark times for all those who believe in Aboriginal rights and justice. He wore his extraordinary achievements with great humility. A great friend, an easy mate, he never lost his ordinary touch. He will remain strong in the hearts of all he touched.
He is survived by Kaye, his children, Joanne and Kali, and four grandchildren.
by Peter Manning