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Robert Samuel (Rob) Riley (1954–1996)

by Quentin Beresford

This article was published online in 2022

Robert Samuel Riley (1954–1996), Aboriginal leader and activist, was born on 10 December 1954 at Moora, Western Australia, eldest of seven children of Violet Denise Dinah. The identity of his father is not known, but Violet’s husband, the Noongar man Bill Riley, later helped to raise him. As a child he was known by his birth name, Rob Dinah. Two generations of his family before him had been institutionalised under the Aborigines Act 1905. His grandmother Anna Dinah had been held at Moore River Native Settlement, and his mother and her siblings at Carrolup Native Settlement, near Katanning, then Roelands Native Mission Farm, near Bunbury. As an infant Rob was institutionalised at Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home in Perth. He was told that his parents were dead and did not return to the care of his mother until he was twelve.

This intergenerational experience shaped Dinah’s life. It was the foundation of his lifelong struggle against racism and injustice and for his call to Australians to confront the nation’s Indigenous history. Like many Aboriginal people who experienced removal from their families and culture as children, he suffered from its traumatising effects. A sexual assault by three older boys when he was nine further compounded his trauma.

On being released from Sister Kate’s, Dinah lived with his mother in West Perth and attended (1967–68) Perth Modern School. A capable student and sportsman, his magnetic personality began to emerge. After his mother’s marriage broke down, he went to live with his stepfather’s family on the Aboriginal reserve at the south-western town of Pingelly, a squalid compound of corrugated iron huts located on the edge of town to house the region’s Noongar population. Racism in the town was rampant, and he was once violently attacked for transgressing its rules of segregation. During this time, he adopted his stepfather’s family name, and learned much about the oppression of his people from his stepfather’s mother, Lila Riley.

Educated at Pingelly District High School, Riley passed his junior examinations in 1969 and left the town to live with relatives in the cramped Aboriginal part of East Perth, later moving to Katakutu Employment Hostel, Mount Lawley. He worked for a short time as an apprentice fitter and turner, and then gained employment as a clerk at Beaufort Street Law Courts. On 18 January 1975, at Sister Kate’s Memorial Chapel, he married Jeannie Roseanne Morrison, a business college student and member of a large Noongar family. On 10 June 1974 he had enlisted in the Australian Regular Army (Supplement) and, after initial training, served as a trooper (driver-signaller) crewing armoured personnel carriers with the 4th Cavalry Regiment at Enoggera, Brisbane. He qualified for the rank of corporal but was not promoted before his engagement expired on 9 June 1977.

Returning to Perth, Riley commenced a bridging course at Curtin University, and immersed himself in the emerging Aboriginal rights movement, becoming a seasoned campaigner by his mid-twenties. He joined the Aboriginal rights organisation Black Action, where he met and formed lifelong friendships with a new generation of activists. In 1979 he was employed as a field officer with the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) of Western Australia. As he encountered the systemic discrimination Aboriginal people faced in the health, justice, and political systems his commitment to social justice activism deepened. He came to the attention of Cedric Wyatt, executive officer of the ALS, who encouraged Riley to take over his role on his departure in 1980. Heading such a high-profile organisation allowed him to develop his grassroots political skills, his strategic thinking on advancing Aboriginal rights, and his charismatic style of leadership.

Through his leadership of the ALS, Riley was thrust into the land rights dispute (1978–80) at Noonkanbah station in the Kimberley. The traditional owners wanted to stop mining exploration which posed a threat to sacred sites, but which had the backing of Premier Sir Charles Court. When the government sent police to quash the protest, Riley was present to offer legal assistance when arrests were made. The defeat of the protest was a seminal moment in Australian politics: a powerful signal that mining companies and governments would fiercely resist the land rights movement, it also foreshadowed the growing pressure by Indigenous people for a wider recognition of traditional rights to land.

These tensions came to the fore in the next phase of Riley’s career. In 1981 he was elected to the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC), an advisory body to the Commonwealth government which shaped debates about land rights, a treaty, and Aboriginal cultural protection. Appointed in 1984 for a three-year term as full-time chair, Riley came to be recognised as a national Aboriginal leader. He was at the forefront of the NAC’s calls for sovereignty for Aboriginal people, and a system of land rights which included a veto over mining projects, compensation for dispossessed Indigenous people, and the protection of sacred sites. The campaign waged by mining companies, politicians, and the mainstream media against these proposals led Riley to mount scathing attacks on the Western Australian premier Brian Burke and Prime Minister Bob Hawke for dropping their commitments to land rights.

Riley was one of the organisers of a May 1985 land rights rally outside Parliament House in Canberra. At the time, he spoke of the fatigue caused by unfulfilled government promises and getting ‘kicked from pillar to post’ (Beresford 2006, 193) in the process. The abolition of the NAC in 1985, amid infighting and concerns over its powerlessness to effect change, carried bitter lessons for him. As he wrote at the time, ‘we have no political friends … we can trust no-one’ (Beresford 2006, 202). He was labelled by the press as ‘the angry young man of black politics’ (Beresford 2006, 197), though many of his fellow Aboriginal activists admired him for his commitment and fearlessness, as well as his humour.

After working as assistant manager of field operations (1985–87) with the Northern Land Council in Darwin, a rejuvenated Riley stepped back into national Aboriginal politics in October 1987 when he was appointed adviser to Gerry Hand, minister for Aboriginal affairs in the Hawke government. Attracted by Hand’s long history of social justice advocacy and his progressive stance on Aboriginal affairs, Riley was keen to help realise the government’s commitment to establish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), a replacement for the NAC. He was responsible for consultations to formulate a preamble to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act, which would formally recognise rights to land based on prior ownership and occupation.

During Hand’s period as minister (1987–90) a continuing incidence of Aboriginal deaths in custody led to the establishment of a royal commission. His tenure also coincided with Hawke’s surprise commitment to negotiate a treaty with Indigenous people on the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations of Australia’s European settlement. With the minister’s office involved in managing this contentious agenda, Riley again observed a sustained backlash against the advancement of Aboriginal rights. Instead of ATSIC paving the way for Indigenous self-determination as he had hoped, it was scaled back to an elected advisory body, albeit with important funding allocation responsibilities. The government scuttled the preamble and abandoned the treaty proposal. Only the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC) was implemented, being established in October 1987 and reporting in 1991. Riley was deeply affected by the campaign waged against Aboriginal rights by conservatives led by the Federal Opposition leader, John Howard. Having worked long hours in Hand’s office, with little time for his growing family, he despaired that the nation’s leaders, and much of the public, would ever understand Aboriginal disadvantage or appreciate Aboriginal aspirations for greater control over their affairs.

Patrick Dodson, a RCIADC commissioner, recruited Riley in 1989 to head the commission’s Perth-based Western Australian Issues Unit, thus ending his tenure as Hand’s advisor. Identifying the factors that lay behind Aboriginal disadvantage and discrimination and their contribution to high incarceration rates was an immense task. Riley’s role was to liaise with communities, assist them to give evidence, and to advise Dodson. For Riley, the work was personally challenging. He identified with those who had died in custody as nearly all had a background of forced removal from their families. The experience reconnected him to his own traumatic childhood which he had kept under close guard. In addition, the hearings again exposed the depths of ongoing discrimination and violence towards Indigenous people by police and prison officers and the endemic poverty and social chaos of many Indigenous communities.

On completion of the royal commission hearings, Riley resumed leadership of the ALS in June 1990. He saw the opportunity to transform the organisation from its traditional mandate of offering legal representation into a State-wide body to champion Aboriginal rights, and specifically as a vehicle to implement the wide-ranging recommendations of the RCIADC. Already exhausted from his work with the royal commission, his ambitions for the ALS thrust him further into race-based conflicts. Foremost among them was a community outcry over juvenile crime sparked by the involvement of Aboriginal young people in stealing cars and engaging in high-speed car chases with police. Troubled by a highly charged media campaign for tougher laws on juvenile crime, Riley tried unsuccessfully to convince the State government of Premier Carmen Lawrence to take an alternative approach by addressing the underlying causes of Aboriginal youth disadvantage. The government’s resort to tougher penalties amplified his frustration at governments’ failure to implement many of the 339 recommendations of the royal commission.

Concurrently Riley participated in the Federal government-initiated consultations on proposed native title legislation following the landmark 1992 High Court Mabo decision. Prime Minister Paul Keating brought Indigenous delegates from across the nation to consider the shape of legislation that would reflect the court’s finding that native title existed only in circumstances where it had not been extinguished by a lawful crown grant of title, and where Indigenous people could prove a continuous cultural connection to such land. The protracted negotiations split the delegates between those who endorsed a pragmatic approach in line with the court’s decision and those, like Riley, who argued that dispossessed Aboriginal people should also be able to benefit from the proposed laws. With long-standing friends and colleagues on both sides of the debate, he was personally conflicted in consenting to support the subsequent Native Title Act 1993. At the same time, he became a prominent advocate for the establishment of an inquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families, the ‘stolen generations.’ In 1994 the Commonwealth Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) initiated such an inquiry.

Behind these high-profile campaigns, Riley’s emotional life was in turmoil under the combined weight of the pressures of his career, the ending of his marriage, and his unresolved childhood traumas. In July 1995 he was arrested after a drunken high-speed car chase with police and was subsequently dismissed by the ALS. A period of psychiatric care failed to heal his depression and the despair he felt at the poor state of race relations in Australia. In the early hours of 1 May 1996, he took his own life in a Perth motel room. Survived by his former wife and their three daughters, he was buried in Pingelly cemetery. In a suicide note he berated white Australia for ‘your greed, your massacres, your sanitised history’ (Beresford 2006, 1). He pleaded that the findings of the HREOC inquiry not ‘be swept under the carpet’ (Beresford 2006, 2). In an obituary, his friend and colleague Peter Yu wrote that Riley’s life constituted a lesson ‘for us to continue the struggle, but to give priority to supporting our own mob’ (Yu 1996, 12). An annual lecture and a postgraduate scholarship at Curtin University, and a prize awarded annually to the top-performing Aboriginal student at a Western Australian public school commemorates his contribution to Aboriginal Australia.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Beresford, Quentin. Rob Riley: An Aboriginal Leader’s Quest for Justice. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006
  • Glass, Colleen, and Archie Weller. Us Fellas: An Anthology of Aboriginal Writing. Perth: Artlook Books, 1987
  • Hawke, Steven, and Michael Gallagher. Noonkanbah: Whose Land, Whose Law. Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989
  • Howard, Michael. Aboriginal Politics in Southwestern Australia. Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia Press, 1981
  • Mayman, Jan. ‘Aborigines Lose Brilliant and Charismatic Leader.’ Age (Melbourne), 22 May 1996, A14
  • Morgan, Sally, ed. Echoes of the Past: Sister Kate’s Home Revisited. Nedlands, WA: School of Indigenous Studies, University of Western Australia, 2002
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 58117
  • Skyring, Fiona. Justice: A History of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2011
  • Tickner, Robert. Taking a Stand: Land Rights to Reconciliation. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2001
  • Yu, Peter. ‘Aboriginal Leader a Champion of Justice.’ Australian, 9 May 1996, 12

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Citation details

Quentin Beresford, 'Riley, Robert Samuel (Rob) (1954–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 26 May 2024.

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