Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 August 2022


Roach, Uncle Archibald William (Archie), AM

12:17 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Let me congratulate you, Deputy President, on your esteemed position. I haven't had the chance to do so.

Archie Roach touched the lives of so many people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. I dubbed him the poet warrior of our nation, for his songs, his sound and his integrity. His artistic talent would always be greater and more enduring than the efforts of any orator. His haunting lyrics are the work of a modern poet laureate. Archie was a special storyteller and a captivating performer. His voice expressed his stories so powerfully. When I listen to his songs, I hear the dimensions of his life and his experiences, and I am always moved. When I listen to his songs, his voice transports me to places all over—to stories to our country and its past, to hard times and to loss but also to hope. Such is the power of his great gift to us all. This great and powerful gift, Archie's voice telling those stories in his songs, will grow only more relevant and more powerful as time goes on. They are songs that have been the soundtrack to our lives, to key moments and memories, and in that way they have become part of us and our stories. It is difficult to express how important an impact that is, and because of it he will never be forgotten and he will never be truly gone. We will always play his music and share his songs and remember and think of Archie and the great and lasting impact he has had on us and on our country.

We all know the words, the melody, the rhythm of what may be his best work known to us, 'Took the Children Away'. He himself was taken away in 1959, at the age of three, from his biological parents, who were living at Framlingham in Victoria, as Senator Thorpe has mentioned. No wonder he was able to write with such depth of feeling, such empathy and understanding, the lyrics, those words, in 'Took the Children Away', and in a song about Melbourne-born Aboriginal man Russell Moore, who died just over a year ago in a Florida jail. During the royal commission we tried, through the American authorities, to get Russell returned to our country. We were unsuccessful in our efforts.

Russell was a member of the Stolen Generations. He had served 30 years in jail before his death, having been convicted of murder, robbery and sexual assault. An Australian lawyer, Richard Bourke, who lives and practises in Florida, was a tireless advocate for Russell Moore to be transferred to his home country here in Australia. Russell Moore's birth mother, Beverly Whyman, from Swan Hill, also spent many years campaigning for her son to be returned to Australia, until her death in 2017.

'Take the Children Away' was Archie's tribute and lament. On this day of remembrance and mourning, I want to quote just a few lines:

His one true mother who'd searched in vain

For her son she never thought she'd see again

She received a phone call from Florida

They found her son and more bad news for Munjana

Hello Russell, this is your mother calling

Please forgive me I can't stop the tears from falling

You come from this land and sun above

And always remember the strength of your mother's love

They took you there when you were five

Now you're in some jail trying to survive

And if the truth be told when all have testified

Another crime committed here was genocide

My own memories of Archie Roach are focused back in my home country in Broome. I remember sitting under a bower shed at my home with Archie, and with us were Mr Bill Johnson and the late British actor Pete Postlethwaite. Archie and Pete had been on a journey of discovery in the Kimberley. They'd camped out in the desert with the Ngurra native title claimants and witnessed the senior leaders paint a huge canvas depicting their desert country. At night the elders sang the songs of that country and its significance—a huge experience for both Pete and Archie at the time. They walked across the old Fitzroy River at the Fitzroy Crossing and heard the stories of Jandamarra, the famous Bunuba warrior, and his deeds against the encroaching pastoralists and the police possies out to kill him because he had shot one of them. These were the stories of the killing times in the Kimberley being told to Archie and Pete. These travels were undertaken after meeting in Perth with Bill and his family and learning of the brutal murder of Bill's adopted Aboriginal son, Louis St John Johnson, by British backpackers, who used a vehicle instead of horses in the killing.

Bill and Pete had been friends together in England and had accidentally met in Perth when Pete was out here doing a play. We were all working on a documentary called Liyarn Ngarn, for how the two stories of our encounters with each other might become as one and free us from our ignorance, our fears and our prejudices. We were trying to expose truth about events in our historical and contemporary relationships. We involved the AFL legend Michael Long and his reflections upon his courageous walk from Melbourne to Canberra. Michael had attended so many funerals and so many Sorry Days, and he put the question to Prime Minister Howard: 'Where is the love for my people, Prime Minister?'

Archie had composed yet another song for the documentary. It was 'Liyarn Ngarn'. He sang it for us. Its underpinning plea was that we come together because we were already too far apart. As on many occasions when Archie sang, there was not a dry eye in that location. Again, allow me the indulgence of quoting a few lines from the lyrics of 'Liyarn Ngarn':

Where the forest meets the plain

Where the desert meets the rain

Where the river meets the sea

You and me, you and me

Liyarn ngarn, oh we've got to make a start

Liyarn ngarn, 'cause we've been too far apart

Liyarn ngarn, liyarn ngarn—mend all these broken hearts

Life is sour, life is sweet

And our stories seldom meet

But I believe the time has come—

To be one, to be one

How tragic that Archie passed away so young, at just 66 years old. It's not just another premature death of an Aboriginal person; gone is a wonderful, creative spirit. Gone is a great storyteller who knew how to touch the hearts and the souls—the conscience—of our nation, and how those words of Archie in 'Liyarn Ngarn' have a special resonance now as we move towards implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Archie already believed the time had come, to be one, to be one. The generosity embedded in the Uluru statement is matched by the readiness of Archie Roach to understand, to stimulate, to lift us up to a better place. Guliya, my friend.


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