NEW SOUTH WALES: 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.”