I rise to speak today of the passing of Bill South, an unsung hero who changed the lives of Aboriginal people in some of Australia’s most remote Indigenous communities.
Bill South passed away suddenly, a day before his 63rd birthday, on 16 March this year in the remote community of Robertson River, a place he came to call his home. Robertson River is in the
Gulf of Carpentaria, around 150 kilometres southeast of Borroloola and about 800 kilometres northwest of Tennant Creek. Anyone who has visited this community would acknowledge that it is one of the
most remote communities in the area and probably in Australia.
Bill had been the Chief Executive Officer of the Mungoorbada Aboriginal Corporation for the last decade of his life. His son Rick says that, while his dad will be missed as a brother, a father, an uncle,
a grandfather and a partner, he will be missed even more by those in Robertson River. His son went on to say: ‘He showed them a dream. He gave them the skills and the desire to achieve that dream—the dream
of turning Robertson River back into a self-sufficient cattle station that would stand on its own two feet, that would no longer have to hold its hand out to the government for grants for its survival into
He said that the only way to truly understand Bill’s impact was to see the smiles on the faces of the kids running around the community, the pride of the young stockmen mustering the scrub bulls, and the
determination of the community elders and the council members in the meetings as they worked together to reach this dream.
I was very lucky to witness this firsthand. I go into so many communities—and I know that Senator Siewert travels to many of the same communities—and it is not that you are depressed or upset when you leave
but you have a sense of sameness. If you have gone to the same communities for over 20 years not much seems to change. The great thing about visiting communities like Robertson River, Finke and Borroloola,
was that Bill had made a difference in those places. Wherever he went he made a difference. He got things done. Most importantly, he took people along with him. Wherever he went, you saw a change for the
better; you saw the community actually feeling differently about itself.
He got pride back in the community. He got people working again, and got people to see what he saw as the benefits of work. Bill had a philosophy that work was not a right—it was a privilege. He imbued that in the community. They realised that there were
not many jobs, that they were important, valuable things, and that you should strive to get up early to make sure you did them well and got the real benefit of working
and getting something done. Bill was great. Perhaps it was because of his background, but he could always get things done on the smell of an oily rag. There was invariably equipment lying around that was
held together with things, but he could always fix it; he could always get it done.
He was born in Bombala in New South Wales, just south of Canberra, on 17 March 1950. He was brought up on farms around New South Wales, which gave him many of the skills that were so valued in places like
Robertson River. He went to school in Queensland, at the Anglican Church Grammar School, known as Churchie, where he met his lifelong mate David Murray. David reflects that Bill was a great athlete.
Not only was he in the first 15 for rugby and the top 8 for rowing; he was also a good hurdler. He was in the Army for six years, where he became a platoon commander of 4 Platoon B Company.
Bill left the Army to set up a furniture restoration business.
In 1994, with his wife, Sandy, he decided to set off on a new enterprise, and went to the Aboriginal community of Finke, in the Northern Territory, which is pretty
close to the New South Wales border. This isolated desert town was well served by Bill. He was there for two years, and in those two years it won the Territory tidiest town competition.
I recall people telling me about the impact that the Souths’s arrival had in that community. Bill’s style was never to impose things on people. He had the capacity to go into a community
and suddenly make his goals and vision the whole community’s goals and vision. He would make the community work together to clean up the community and make things better. The sewerage system did not
work when he got there but Bill rolled his sleeves up and, with the help of the community—no outside contractors—he fixed up the sewerage system and got it running.
There were a lot of dogs in Finke in those times. It was a bit unsafe. Dogs in Aboriginal communities from time to time do not belong to anyone; they are community dogs; they can be a bit cheeky. So he decided that at one end of the town basically we should all have a fence so that we could control the area and make sure we were safe from dogs.
So every house in Finke, as he moved around, had a fence. It made a huge difference.
As I said, he always got people involved and he ensured that his value and ethic about work was passed on to people. He reckoned that they needed a reason to get up in the morning and that was to feel
good about working.
He was always willing to pitch in. It was a great lesson to all of us. He was willing to work alongside you and show you what to do, but he was not willing to do itall the time for you.
In the way of a real teacher, he would show us how it was done but then he would want to move out of the way and let it be done by the local people, including running the organisations and taking
leadership roles in some of the programs.
So, as David Murray indicated, that particular community was lifted out of what can only be described as squalor to what was clearly prosperity and happiness. There were so many more people
working and engaged in the community, and it became a community of hope.
In April 2001 Bill, with Sandy, moved to the Gulf of Carpentaria to become the town clerk of Borroloola.
This was the first time that I had met Bill. He was there for two years. He had a major hand in designing and implementing a causeway to ensure that the large community on the other side of the Mcarthur
River was able to get access to the store, the school and the hospital. He ran a very tight ship.
In 2003 he moved to the community of Robertson River, and it did not take him too long before the place was up and running. His list of achievements in Robertson River is huge. He helped turn the
community around from, as I said, a sense of dependency as a welfare community—it was fairly despondent and there were a lot of challenges in the community, as we find, sadly, across many Aboriginal
communities, particularly in Northern Australia—to a place that, whenever you went there, was full of activity. People were proud of what they were doing.
People all had a place to go to work every day. That was part of his legacy.
One of the first things he did was to get the cattle business moving. I can recall that the last time I was there I actually recognised some of the cattle: they were from the Coodardie stud, from the
O’Briens, and from Numul-Numul—fantastic bloodlines, and some of the best in the Territory. And when they made money from their enterprises they reinvested in the community.
There is a fantastic cattle herd there.
It was fantastic to see Aboriginal stockman. That is who they are. You say, ‘Joey, what do you do? Who are you?’ And the answer is: ‘I am a stockman, brother.
That is what I do. I am proud of that.’ So natural skill sets have suddenly become valuable again. They have got a cattle herd. They are out there. They are looking after the cattle.
And they are going fencing. The last time I was there I saw extensive fences, beautifully graded fence lines, to deal with the fires and suchlike.
Interestingly, there was a bit of a demarcation. Fence ends are all welded because in the Northern Territory the white ants make a real meal out of anything else.
And it is interesting that the demarcation there is that there is only women’s work in Robertson River and one of the particular areas that is women’s work only, of course, is the welding team.
They will tell you, ‘Welding is women’s work. This is not anyone else’s work.’ No men weld anything in Robertson River.
They have this well-known team. I know that Senator Siewert knows them well. They have built up their own welding teams. They make frames and joists for houses. They make all the rigid ends for the fencing.
They are a wonderful group of women who have said,’This is our work; we guard it jealously; this is what we are going to do.’ They have basically banned men from doing any of this stuff on the very probably
correct principle that they are absolutely hopeless at it and only women can really weld!
The important thing about reinforcing the benefits of this in this community is that they use local people.
Yes, that was more difficult. He would say, ‘Yes, it’d be great to get a plumber in,’ because he would know all about it. ‘This just takes us longer. But every time we finish a job that is hard and we have
not had any help, we have this wonderful new capacity. So the next time we have this plumbing drama, the eight of us, instead of one plumber, who have had to scratch our heads and nut it out, will know how
to do it. We will know how to fix it.’ He knew this was all about ensuring that, with everything that he did, there was a legacy of capacity built.
Robertson River had developed a brand, a solution to transform dysfunctional communities into functional, healthy working environments that can be replicated in other communities.
Bill used to reinforce that this was not something that could just be imposed. It had to be something with a willingness and you had to grow that from the community. It was through his particular skills
of communication that he was able to achieve that.
I can remember he pushed for and eventually got an airstrip upgraded. It was in the middle of nowhere. I do not know how he did it. He managed to get the resources to make it an all-weather strip.
He established a store and it was a major boost to the community He decided they would have a no-freight policy for healthy food. If you had enough money you could go and buy a meat pie, but it is an expensive business to buy a meat pie in Robertson River.
If you wanted to buy an apple or fruit or vegetables, they were very cheap.
The profit that the store made subsidised the healthy foods, because healthy foods were a little cheaper. If you wanted to lash out on a meat pie every now and then, you had some savings.
It has been a fantastic process. The store makes enough money to run as a sustainable one.
Wherever you go in Robertson River is amazing. Their vegetable garden is three times the size of this Senate chamber. I am a bit of a brown thumb rather than a green thumb, but in the Territory
you have about eight weeks to grow something. It either gets eaten or it gets too hot. They have it down to a fine art. Year round, they provide the vegetables for the store. You go round
the corner a bit and you say, ‘They’ve got a few chooks; I can hear a couple scrapping around.’ There is one pen there and about 500 chickens. I said, ‘What’s going on here, guys?’
They said, ‘We send 30-dozen eggs to the mine so that miners can get fresh eggs. The price we give for the miners subsidises our own eggs and feed.’
It is a system. So they have access to cheap food in a place where food is the most costly thing anywhere.
He has done a fantastic job in changing those things around.
They have a herd of goats for milking and they have a beef herd. When you go and buy beef from the Robertson River shop it comes from down the road —you just drove past dad or mum on the way there.
They butcher it themselves and are able to sell it at a price people can afford. It is so important to provide good nutrition at an affordable rate. That has been the answer—as Bill always knew—to many
of the health challenges faced by Aboriginal Australians in some of these remote areas.
He was a great believer in education. Without education, he believed, you did not have a great deal of a future. He was always lecturing, to those who would listen, about the importance of education.
The schools and the kids are so engaged with the education system, and it is really a testament to his constant lecturing and badgering of everybody in that area. He was a very practical bloke.
He would not say no; nothing was too hard. He had heaps of energy. Whilst he was very forthright about advocating for the people of Robertson River, he was a quiet achiever behind the scenes. It
ensured an opportunity for people who would take Bill’s place—like Tony Jack—to step up and play that leadership role when he stood aside.
The people who met Bill, including the politicians and other influential Australians who were lucky enough to pass through Robertson River, would always come back with great stories about him. I would often get phone calls from people saying, ‘You should go and meet this Bill South fro
m Robertson!’ and I would say’I have; it’s doing well and we’re really trying to pass that on.’ He was never shy of ringing up the minister, I understand, and explaining what was right and what was wrong.
It was tremendous that he had this capacity to connect with people of influence in Canberra.
I remember David Murray, when Major General Dave Chalmers visited during the intervention. His parting words were: ‘If only I could clone 100 Bill Souths, we wouldn’t be in this mess.’
Truer words were never said.
Bill had a great affection for and relationship with the Garawa people and they had a great affection for him.
I trust this is a fitting tribute to Bill South: an unsung hero, a great bloke, a great Australian. Many things come and go in this world but his legacy will live on,
because it is in the hearts of the local people. They will take it forward. Robertson River will remain a beacon for others and a testament to Bill South.