The West Australian government has offered the family of Australia’s first Aboriginal cabinet minister Ernie Bridge a state funeral or memorial service.
Mr Bridge, who died last weekend, and has been remembered as a politician who was respected by both sides of the West Australian Parliament.
He served 21 years in politics as a Labor and then an Independent member and became Australia’s first Aboriginal Minister of any Australian Parliament in 1986.
Aged 76, he died from asbestos-related diseases after launching legal action against those he believed were responsible.
Perth correspondent Ryan Emery takes a look back at his life.
(Sound of country and western singer):
Ernie Bridge performing a country and western song.
But it wasn’t on stage – it was in State Parliament.
Jim McGinty is a former state Labor Party leader and colleague of Mr Bridge.
“I think it’s the only time it’s happened in the history of the Westminister System because he was a great Country and Western singer.”
Ernie Bridge was one for firsts.
He became Western Australia’s first Aboriginal Member of Parliament in 1980 and six years later became the nation’s first Aboriginal cabinet minister.
He was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Water Resources and the North West.
Jim McGinty says the Kimberley man, born in Halls Creek, was respected by both sides of Parliament.
“Ernie’s life has made him a role model for Indigenous Australians, but it’s also been important for non-Indigenous Australians to have someone as successful as Ernie. Shire president at a very young age, first Indigenous cabinet minister, but it wasn’t just positions that he held, he dreamt big and he thought big and has left a significant legacy of achievements behind him in the various portfolios he held.”
His son Noel Bridge remembers a father who was always there for his children.
“Look just a wonderful, loving and caring father to me and always someone prepared to listen and take interest in what I had to say and what I was doing as I grew up. Dad was always someone I could reliably speak to whatever the circumstances or situation. I was very privileged to have a very strong bond and relationship with dad in that way and that’s something I’ll always cherish and something I’ll miss going into the future.”
Mr Bridge was a big ideas man.
One of his biggest was to pipe water from the mighty Fitzroy River in the Kimberley to the south of the state.
The idea, which never got off the ground, was what he was singing about in State Parliament.
Federal Minister for Resources Gary Gray says Mr Bridge inspired many and began the culture of strong Indigenous leadership in the Kimberley region.
“Firstly the idea that through hard work you could get through the institutional barriers and become a representative of the Kimberley in the Parliament of Western Australia. And while he was there, he didn’t just do that job well, he became a minister and he also made his mark on important and enduring legacy things for Western Australia such as the better use of the land and water in the north and the Kimberley for horticulture and other purposes. Ernie was a great man.”
Jim McGinty says even now, Mr Bridge can continue to be inspirational.
“He was the sort of person who had a strong set of values and convictions, but he went about it in the nicest possible way. I think modern politicians could learn a lesson from Ernie.”
Ernie Bridge was a great advocate for Aboriginal people.
He pushed for Aboriginal aides in the police force and was successful – paving the way for Aboriginal police officers.
He headed a Royal Commission into the unlawful arrests of Aboriginal people at Skull Creek, which began to change the way West Australian police interacted with Aboriginal people.
After he left politics, he championed the health and education of Aboriginal people.
Last year, he was named a Member of the Order of Australia for his parliamentary work and advocacy for Aboriginal people.
Western Australia’s Opposition leader, Mark McGowan, visited Mr Bridge in hospital during the recent state election campaign.
“He was upbeat. He was in good spirits. He was determined to do his best to defeat the illness that afflicted him, but unfortunately he is now passed away. It was great to meet him on that final occasion. Great to have a last conversation with him. I know he’ll be missed by many West Australians.”
Mr Bridge was determined to fight his asbestos-related diseases and also those he believed were responsible.
He had launched legal action about two weeks before his death against companies owned by Gina Rineheart and Angela Bennett.
He’d also included the state government, the Shire of Ashburton and the CSR and Midalco companies in his legal challenge.
Mr Bridge believed his exposure to asbestos dust and fibres at the town of Wittenoom led to his terminal illness.
He visited the town as the Minister for the North West, overseeing the withdrawal of government services from the town in the 1980s.
Noel Bridge says the family is yet to decide if it’ll continue the legal action, which they are entitled to do by law.
“We were aware that there is some sort of press running around at the moment in regards to that matter, but we’re certainly not contributing to that press at this point in time. We’re focused pretty much on what’s before us and that is to give dad the right send off and show him the respect and allow the celebration of the contribution to this state to occur in the best way we can possibly do.”
(Ends with Ernie Bridge singing)