I was born in Sydney; after completing school I started, but did not complete studies for the Catholic priesthood. During those studies I got involved working with Aboriginal people in Redfern, and in 1977 I went to work in Kununurra in the North East Kimberley. It was here I became intensely involved in the struggle for Aboriginal land and voting rights. As well as working on the first three election campaigns for Ernie Bridge for the state seat of Kimberley (and the related Court of Disputed Returns and the Electoral Act (‘Kay’) Inquiry), I worked at putting together the Kimberley Land Council, which flowed from a huge dance meeting at Noonkanbah Station in May, 1978.
Following Ernie’s successful election campaign in February 1980, I was arrested on charges (that were subsequently withdrawn) that alleged ‘persuading and inducement’ of Aboriginal voters to cast postal votes, through which I ended up, briefly, in the Wyndham Prison. I was somewhat stunned, but comforted by an Aboriginal prison mate, the boxer Norman Horace with the words ‘People like you, who work with people like us, have to expect to end up in places like this!’
I first came into the Pilbara on my way back up from Perth (where Steve Hawke and I had been meeting with lawyers, preparing for our anticipated court appearances). Peter Dowding, newly elected as the MLC for North Province asked us to drive his white Range Rover up to Port Hedland. Steve fell asleep at the wheel while driving north, writing off this vehicle somewhere north of Geraldton; after embarrassed calls to Peter we pressed north on a Greyhound Bus, which was then involved in a double fatality crash south of Karratha. We eventually limped into Karratha, somewhat traumatised and in my case, with a permanent back injury. We were met by Union Organiser Bill Donoghue. He and his wife Judy generously looked after us both in their home before taking us on to Port Hedland, where we stayed next to the Mining Union offices on the western-end of Kingsmill Street, in what was then Geoff Schaeffer’s old ‘war-time military igloo’ that he ran as a transient hostel; it has since, relatively recently, been demolished.
My memory is awash with faces, names and images of those who people my 35 year connection to the northwest. The Pilbara Bush Meetings of the early 1980s saw me discover new faces, strong characters and warm friendships with men like Herbert Parker and Peter Coppin; and from these bush settings out into the white snappy gum territory of the inland Pilbara to meetings with Don McLeod and his Strelley Mob. These first settings, these first landscapes, these first links are the most memorable for me. Later, I was able to add on additional texture and new layers, finding my way into the multicultural community of the
Through Val Gaddes in Port Hedland I was introduced into the community of the Cocos and Christmas Islanders who had settled in large numbers in South Hedland and beyond. I was soon a much welcomed guest at the celebrations and the marriages of these many Malay families, and the smaller number of Chinese families from the islands. Added to the family celebrations came the religious feast days and a new understanding of Islam and its calendar of prayers, and fasts and feasts and life. I remember Mustapha Bin Amat starting his Malay language broadcasts on Radio Station 6NW broadcasting from Kennedy Street in South Hedland; I remember work starting on the construction of the South Hedland Mosque; and the opening celebration some years later. The Filipina women, through Nanette Dunn were the next to add me into their community life in Hedland and beyond. Not far behind came the Torres Strait Islanders and little by little, I found links into the multicultural world of Italians, Croats, Greeks and Macedonians.
Beyond doubt my memories of life in the Pilbara and the Kimberley, and the North West more generally, are filled with the sense of multicultural richness spread across the vast canvases of these huge and beautiful landscapes. Today, change, rapid change, is a defining feature of Port Hedland: it was a comparatively sleepy port into which I walked in the early 1980s; iron ore prices had fallen and the pressure was off. Community life was big. People had homes and gardens and families and played sports and volunteered and even occasionally went on strike. This has all changed now.
Strong community life was the rich texture of life in Port Hedland in the early 1980s: strong and lasting friendships, memorable outings that shaped and moulded the participants. Road trips down to Cossack for the Australia Day Bush Dance with Mucky Duck and others! Dancing all night until the back pain was unbearable and hospitalisation, the consequence. Train trips down to Newman on board the ‘Sundowner’ added to the texture of Pilbara life. Sunset departure and mid-night arrivals, with much fun and conversation on board. Occasional trips out to the towns like Goldsworthy; and on to Shay Gap (with architecture creating a sense of a science-fiction like community, living a hermeneutically sealed existence inside the homes and buildings of this very strange little town; now long gone).
I recently walked the scrub where Goldsworthy stood, where I once door-knocked
and visited my constituents, but where the tiny remnants, with just shards of concrete and bitumen, have reduced this place to an archaeological dig. Visits in the early 1980s to the towns and communities of Telfer, Wittenoom and more easily, to the nearby community of Finnucane Island or the busy half-way pub at Whim Creek; these are now largely all things of the past.