Rick Griffiths: Remembering one of the true legends of land rights

Land rights legend and political leader Rick Griffiths, who passed away after a battle with cancer.

Land rights legend and political leader Rick Griffiths, who passed away after a battle with cancer.

DECEMBER 2011 marks a year since the passing of Rick Griffiths, one of the legends of the NSW Aboriginal land rights network. CHRIS GRAHAM looks back on a man who fought to change his community and his country for the betterment of all Australians.

1948 – December 13, 2010

IF THE mark of a man is the size of his funeral, then Rick Griffiths was a very, very marked man. Born in Gunnedah, Rick was a Gomeroi man, with family links to Moree as well. It became apparent from a young age that Rick was destined for a bigger life than that on offer in rural NSW.

When Rick entered politics later in life, no-one who knew him was surprised. After working his way up through the land council system throughout the late 80s and 90s, shortly after the turn of the century, he reached the pinnacle of Aboriginal politics, as a Commissioner for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Popular among the Aboriginal electorate, Rick also happened to be intensely disliked by the Howard government.
He was smart and he was articulate. But what made him most dangerous to politicians in Canberra is that he was deeply principled.

At a time when ATSIC was being torn limb from limb, with help from within, Rick Griffiths was one of the Commissioners who publicly refused to sell out his own. It made Rick a target – a marked man. But it also firmed up a strong sense of loyalty from his own people. This came to the fore late last year, after Rick lost his battle with cancer, passing away on December 13.

His family and friends knew a lot of people would come to honour a man who gave his all for Aboriginal advancement. So they hired the Maitland Town Hall for his service. Turns out it was still barely big enough.

It wasn’t so much a case of standing room only, rather people were lining the walls. At the back of the hall – which comfortably holds over 1,000 people – mourners stood six and seven deep.
And it wasn’t just quantity.

There was quality there as well.

People from all over Australia – black and white – came to pay tribute to a man who’d touched many, many lives.
There were Mayors, members of parliament, CEOs of large companies, sports stars, elders – black and white – and hundreds of kids.

People travelled from all over the country, and messages poured in from those who couldn’t make it.
But of all the high achievers at his funeral, the people Rick would undoubtedly have been most focused on were his family, his many close friends, and his adopted community of Maitland.

In particular, he would have focused on those involved in the Mindaribba Local Aboriginal Land Council, just like he did in life.

Mindaribba LALC was an institution Rick lived and loved until the day he died, something for which Marg Anderson, a Mindaribba elder, will always be grateful. She remembers a man with a big work ethic, and a bigger heart.

“He was such a nice, polite man. He always treated everybody with respect. He was always there for his people, especially the children.

“He loved the elders, and he loved his family. He was a beautiful, beautiful man.”

Marg has many memories of Rick. One of those, she’d like to forget, although she knows she never will.
Rick’s funeral will stay with Marg forever.

“It was like a state funeral,” she recalls. “So many people. A few months before Rick died, I asked him if he could do my eulogy at my funeral. He said he’d be honoured.”

By a cruel twist of fate, a few months later Marg found herself speaking at Rick’s funeral.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m 74 years old, I shouldn’t be here doing his, he should be here doing mine.”

Geoff Scott is the CEO of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. Land rights, of course, played a central part of Rick’s life. Speaking at his funeral, Mr Scott remembered a man who left an enormous mark on his family, and his community.

“Anyone who met and worked with Rick was far richer for the experience,” Mr Scott told mourners.

“While we mourn the passing of his physical presence in our lives today we are also here to celebrate his life, and the many gifts he has left us. Rick gave so much to so many people. He has left much to celebrate.

“Wise people say the most valuable commodity to be taken out of this life is the respect and goodwill of those you have shared it with.

“Your presence here today bears testimony to the fact that Rick clearly enjoyed both in abundance. He was, in essence, a fair, decent and honest man possessed of a strong sense of duty to family and friends.

“But above all, he possessed the compassion, the sense of justice, and the common sense of the common man. He was as much at ease moving around the halls of power in Canberra or Macquarie Street as he was in the company of his family and friends from Maitland to Moree and beyond. He never forgot where he came from…..and he always appeared to know exactly where he was going.”

Mr Scott had the honour of working with Rick at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

“I agree with Robyn when she says he was a politician at heart, with a particular love of, and talent for, lobbying.

“Politicians, Aboriginal and mainstream, from all sides of the fence sought out his wise counsel. It is fair to say that Rick came to national prominence when he was elected to the Board of Commissioners at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. It was a testing time.

“But it is also fair to say that ATSIC might still be around today if all Commissioners on that Board were struck from the same cloth as Commissioner Griffiths.

“I asked a number of them to tell me about his contribution in preparation for today. Klynton Wanganeen, who is now South Australia’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement, put it best. Klynton says from the day they all attended their first meeting as newly elected Commissioners of ATSIC the organisation was under attack.

“This attack came from the media and the Howard government. It meant from day one the Commissioners were either defending themselves and the community while trying to do their jobs at the regional, state, national and international level.

“Rick, he says, was very much a staunch contributer and defender of their rights from the very beginning. He was unashamedly a believer in the black arm band view of Australian history. He never sat back to let others do the work and he would never sit on the fence. If there was a decision to made, or a debate to be had, he was in there all the way.”

The funeral of land rights legend Rick Griffiths. It was held at the Maitland Town Hall in order to accommodate the massive guest list, which topped 1,000.

The funeral of land rights legend Rick Griffiths. It was held at the Maitland Town Hall in order to accommodate the massive guest list, which topped 1,000.

Tom Miller is the deputy chair of Mindaribba LALC. For more than three decades, he also worked closely with Rick.

“I knew Rick since we’d been in the land council together, which was about 1987. I knew him as a personal friend as well. We had a lot to do with each other besides the land councils through sport and other things.

“Rick and Trevor (Patten) were instrumental in keeping it afloat … helping us get some finances, some housing funds.

“Rick was very good to all the young ones. He always had time for the pre-school kids, always had lollies in his drawer for the kids coming through. Not every day of course, but especially on Fridays.

“He was the driving force with us getting the pre-school, him and the board and executives.”

Tom remembers a man with a very public job, but a strong sense of family, and privacy.

“I’d go out to his place and have a yarn, talk about his dogs. He loved his greyhounds. When he got his house out in the bush (near Kurri Kurri), he loved the quiet and solitude. I’d go out there and have a listen and a talk.

“He was the driving force behind a lot of things that happened at the land council. He is sadly missed, by not only the board but all the members of the land council and also the other community people. He was very fair in his judgment of everything he did. He’s very, very hard to replace.”

Tara Dever-Prestwich knows that better than most, having relied on Rick for more than a decade for advice, support and mentorship while she served on the Board of Mindaribba LALC.

Tara says Rick always made her feel like she was part of his family. “Rick was like a father to me, and like a brother to me. He was just a million things.

“He was definitely the backbone of the land council. If someone walked in off the street and had no idea where they came from or where they belonged, he would be there to help them. He’d say, ‘Okay, let’s look and see what we can do.’

“Often community organisations will frown at or look badly on people like that, but it was never the case with Rick.

“Everyone got a chance. I think that’s how he retained the backbone of our organisation and our community. He was always open-armed.”

Tara says a particular focus of Rick’s was education.

“He supported me in getting re-educated myself. He was a man before his time and he was a thinker,” she says.

“It’s hard to explain, to sum him up in a sentence, because he was so many things. As far as I go, he’s taught me on a number of levels – just about being a human being or about being able to do my job, to deal with people from politicians to local people in the community. All of that I would give to him.

“I have a large community role in what I do now. And I know when I deal with those people a lot of what I do is based on what I learned from Rick.”

Tara says Rick was particularly focused on transitional change – he understood the importance of bringing young leaders through the land council system.

“That’s what made him such a wonderful leader. He’d give people a go and if they did fall down, he’d lift them up.

“I learned a lot from him. It wasn’t always nice. Sometimes he would let me get burnt. But you got through it.

“That’s just what he did, that’s how he led – by letting you go out, make your own mistakes.

“Then you’d come back, battered and bruised maybe, or maybe with a win. But he’d be there to support you either way. He knew he wasn’t going to be around forever. Ronald (Rick’s son) and I talk about it often. It was a faith environment. In his teachings, he wasn’t always a kind teacher, but it made him a better teacher.

“I don’t think there will never be anyone quite like Rick. Someone who can deal with so many different people, and understand those different people. As a mentor and friend, and a father and grandfather to my children, even though I’m not related at all, he was just the most amazing man.”

Being able to straddle two worlds – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – is a theme that constantly emerges when talking to people about their memories of Rick Griffiths.

Most agree there were few who were better at it.

Mindaribba elder Marg Anderson feels the loss of Rick deeply as well.

“In my books you could not do enough for that man – he was a top man and I miss him dearly. We all miss him.

“He was just a beautiful man. Rick’s was a life well lived. He was the top man for the Mindaribba Land Council. He made it what it is today. It doesn’t matter who they get in his place, he’ll never be replaced.”

When I was asked by Robyn to write Rick Griffiths’ eulogy, I must admit to feeling a little daunted. Writing is my life, but adequately summing a man of Rick’s character is no mean feat.

So I thought I’d stick to my memories of the man, an Aboriginal leader I knew for the last decade of his life.

I recall a man who had an enormous capacity for giving. As others have recalled, he took you in, kept you under his wing. That was certainly my experience as well.

I entered Aboriginal affairs as a young, white journalist with all the misperceptions about Aboriginal people that white people develop.

And then I met Rick Griffiths.

Among the myriad of politicians, advisers and Aboriginal leaders I’ve interacted with, there are many reasons why Rick stands out in my mind.

His sense of calm, and his ability to get things done are just two of them. His sense of family and community, and his understanding of his place in this country, are two others.

But what I really remember Rick for is far more personal.

Rick was the first Aboriginal person to call me ‘brother’. It might not sound all that significant to Aboriginal people, but for a white guy trying to find his way through the maze that is Aboriginal affairs, it left a mark.

Looking back, I understand now it was because Rick was the first person to open my eyes to the generosity of the Aboriginal spirit. He made me realize very early on that there was a place for whitefellas in black affairs. A place in the background, helping Aboriginal people control Aboriginal affairs, but a place none-the-less.

I’ve watched a lot of white people enter Aboriginal affairs, and exit a short time later, leaving a trail of wreckage in their wake. I often find myself wondering what might have come of them if they’d met Rick Griffiths early on.

Aunty Marg is right when she says Rick Griffiths will never be replaced. But the thing about Rick is how much he has left behind, how great a mark he made on his family, his community, his country.

Rick was a man ahead of his time, and he gave so much of it to other people.

His legacy will live on for a very, very long time through the thousands of people whose lives he touched, and changed forever.

Rick Griffiths is survived by his wife Robyn, his children Kelly, Elizabeth, Ricki-Jo, Ronald and Tanille, and his nine grandchildren. Rick’s obituary was written for the Mindaribba Local Aboriginal Land Council’s annual report. It appears in Tracker with Mindaribba’s kind permission.

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