Frank Walker, the former NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, who passed away last month, aged 69.
LALC LAND: Frank Walker, the NSW Labor Minister who guided the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act through parliament in 1983, passed away last month after a long battle with cancer.
He was 69. At his state funeral at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, a grateful state paid tribute to a man who fought hard for black rights. One of those was friend and political rival, current NSW Police Minister, Michael Gallacher. His tribute is reprinted here.
Frank Walker was one of the leading lights of the Left of the Labor Party, both here in New South Wales and nationally. I, on the other hand, am a long-standing member of the Liberal Party and a conservative.
Worse still, from Frank’s point of view, I am a former serving police officer, a detective no less, and the current Minister for Police.
So the obvious question is: what am I doing here speaking about Frank Walker to a hall that includes so many Labor Party luminaries, members and supporters?
Firstly, I’m here in a formal capacity on behalf of the Premier and the New South Wales Government to acknowledge Frank Walker’s impressive contribution to public life.
And I will have more to say about that in due course.
But I am also here because I was lucky enough to have a friendship with Frank Walker across the political divide.
I can’t claim to be one of Frank’s closest friends – there are some limitations that a Labor icon and a Liberal just can’t transcend.
But a friend none the less.
Frank and I shared a passion for the Central Coast. We shared a love of democracy. We also shared a belief that democracy is best served when people with strong principles and genuine beliefs are prepared to argue for their different views and then let the voters decide which course to follow: when politics is a contest of ideas not just personalities.
Even though I might hold a different policy position, I always admired Frank’s passion, his commitment and his ability to articulate a case.
Frank was a more than worthy advocate for his cause but he also respected the positions of those he disagreed with.
Frequently an opponent; never an enemy.
Joining the Police Force in 1980, it’s pretty fair to say Frank was the subject of many a conversation within the old sandstone Police Station at Darlinghurst where I arrived as a 19-year-old.
Every weak sentence; every hopeless law; every decision taken by the Government which was viewed as being anti-police was laid to rest at the feet of the Attorney General.
My, how that sounds so strikingly familiar.
To say that he became the focus of police frustration with the Government was an understatement. But, of course, so many of the changes he made to the way in which police dealt with individuals in custody, have now resulted in methods that actually protect police.
No longer could police interview juveniles without the presence of a relative or independent adult, with the interview now electronically recorded. The shameful neglect of Aboriginal deaths in custody and self-harm in general with the maintenance of a police lock-up system one could only describe as 18th century and barbaric.
His undying efforts to eliminate the suggestion that police ‘on occasions’ assisted suspects who were having difficulty expressing themselves…. Some might have viewed it as a cry for help; others like Frank called it a verbal. It’s ironic that an ex-policeman gets to speak on Frank’s behalf today, but as Frank would quickly return… ‘Old habits die hard’.
Frank Walker served in the New South Wales legislative assembly, representing the electorate of Georges River, from 1970 until 1988.
He served as a Minister in the Wran and Unsworth cabinets between 1976 and 1988. He served with distinction in a range of portfolios.
Frank was the Attorney General from 1976 until 1983 – the youngest person ever to hold that post. At various times Frank had other responsibilities such as Minister for Justice, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Minister for Youth and Community Services, Minister for Housing, and Minister for the Arts. For much of that period Frank was also the Leader of the House, the Government’s tactician in the Legislative Assembly.
In that capacity he did on many occasions contribute to the misery of my Parliamentary colleagues in Opposition.
And I can tell you that very few tears were shed on my side of politics when he relinquished that position.
Following his defeat at the 1988 election, Frank moved to the Central Coast.
Remarkably, he defeated the then favourite for Labor pre-selection for the Federal seat of Robertson – a lady by the name of Belinda Neal – and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1990.
It was an astonishing comeback. As I stood there at the scrutineers table at the Kincumber Polling Booth that night, watching the dreams of yet another hopeful candidate go down the drain – knowing it now fell to me to prepare myself to stand against Frank Walker.
Despite having heard his name around police and Liberal Party circles for over 12 years, in becoming the Liberal candidate in 1992, I finally got to meet this man that so much had been said and written about over the years.
Although our paths had crossed many times during the campaign, including a very heated public debate in the Central Coast Leagues Club, it wasn’t until the last week before election day at yet another public debate, Frank walked up to me and said “Can I give you some advice.
If you don’t win next Saturday, don’t go back to the cops.”
He was quick to realise I had taken his comment the wrong way and he told me that whilst he didn’t necessarily agree with my views on a raft of issues, he did believe in encouraging people to get involved in politics; stand up and argue your position, particularly in light of criticism, and never walk away following defeat.
As a testament, Frank’s election in 1993 saw him rise to even greater heights when he became Special Minister of State and Vice-President of the Executive Council.
He later served as Minister for Administrative Services until he lost his seat when the Keating Government was defeated in 1996.
In all, Frank served as a Minister in either a State or Federal Government for a total of 15 years.
Very few politicians in Australia would have had longer ministerial careers.
I think Billy Hughes’ cumulative record may stretch for a longer period. But that’s not an entirely fair comparison. After all Frank Walker was only ever in one political Party.
Frank subsequently served on the Workers Compensation Tribunal between 1997 and 2003, when he was appointed to the District Court and the Dust Diseases Tribunal of New South Wales.
It was during this period, I was approached by the family of a Police officer who had taken his own life, and despite the strength of their case, the family had been denied their claim his mental illness was work related.
After following my advice, they again made contact wondering whether they had done the right thing, because the Judge listed to hear their application was Frank Walker.
I assured this police family that despite his reputation as a civil libertarian often prepared to question police practice, he was a fair man and I had every confidence in his ability to genuinely consider their application.
Needless to say, my beliefs were well founded and Frank had once again come to the protection of police.
Frank’s caseload in the District Court was basically in the area of asbestos related claims.
As always, Frank Walker was diligent, perceptive and committed. His integrity and fairness were never in dispute though I don’t think it would surprise anyone here to say that Frank was regarded as a judge who was particularly sensitive to the plight of injured workers.
Frank also continued to serve our community in other ways, particularly through his involvement with the Schizophrenia Fellowship, a subject which Robert Ramjan will expound upon in a few minutes time.
For more than seven years Frank battled a range of cancers. His declining health meant that Frank had to retire from public life, as a judge and also as the President of the Schizophrenia Fellowship.
The last of those cancers ultimately took Frank’s life.
Frank Walker served this state and our nation with distinction. He left behind many achievements which other speakers will talk about today.
Perhaps Frank’s greatest political legacy is in the area of Aboriginal land rights.
Frank Walker was the driving force at a Parliamentary level for the Aboriginal land rights legislation in both the New South Wales and the national parliaments.
These fundamental reforms were initiated as a result of campaigns by Aboriginal Australians and they, of course, deserve the ultimate credit. But at the legislative level someone had to take the lead in convincing a government and a parliament to make those changes.
It is a tribute to the maturity of our community that these matters are now essentially seen as bipartisan, mainstream issues.
However, at the time the New South Wales legislation was put through, these were much more contentious matters and Frank Walker showed great determination, skill and commitment.
It is an achievement our Premier, Barry O’Farrell, who kindly let me represent him so I could speak about my friend Frank Walker today, has publicly praised on other occasions.
On behalf of the Premier, and in the Government’s role as representatives of the people of NSW, I want to recognise Frank Walker’s very significant contributions to public life.
I also extend to Pam, to Frank’s brother Rob, and to their families our sincere condolences on Frank’s passing.
• Watch a video tribute to Frank Walker on the Tracker website at http://tracker.org.au/2012/06/nsw-land-rights-network-mourns-passing-of-frank-walker/