Robert Bropho, Susan Taylor and the Western Australian Government

Gerry Georgatos The Stringer 13 May 2014

Sovereign Union does not have a fixed view or comment on matters relating to any First Nation community and it is not privy to any inside information. However, the union supports the community members who were not convicted of any wrong doing, in their plight for returning to country and also their right to be heard.

In this article Gerry Georgatos expands on some appalling details of the Swan Valley community. It also includes some information which potentially supports the family of Mr Robert Bropho, by providing some arguments in an attempt to clear his name.

The late Elder Robert Bropho outside Western Australia's State Parliament - Image, www.perthnow.com.au
The late Elder Robert Bropho outside Western Australia's State Parliament
(Image: The Sunday Times, WA - perthnow.com.au)

The Swan Valley Nyungah Community was closed down in 2003 by a rushed Act of Parliament - casting families on to the streets and into chronic homelessness despite public promises by the Western Australian Government that every family would be rehoused. Instead many former residents of the Community have died on the streets - but not a single story on this has been published by any mainstream media.

The 'all-white' Geoff Gallop-led Government pushed through the Act to close the Community, which had enjoyed several years of good housing after decades of shanty living and campaigns for the right of the families who wanted to call the Community home to build the environmentally sensitive rammed earth homes and other facilities, who were finally able to connect water and electricity. Premier Geoff Gallop did what many would have once thought of him impossibly uncharacteristic; he bought into anecdotal evidence and hearsay of sexual abuses within the Community, but in fairness was also spooked by a despicable incident at the Community in the midst of all the hearsay. He then did what Prime Minister John Howard would do three years later with the Northern Territory and 'The Intervention' and alleged 'rife abuses', did away with natural justice and reacted like most politicians - who are not our brightest minds - with a hash of hysteria and on the wave of hysteria legislated the closure of the site and the eviction of the residents - men, women and children. To this day, Government agencies lay claim that they rehoused everyone. This is not true, as with my various work with the homeless during the years, I met many of them, including some of those who have passed away.

The late Elder Robert Bropho, once a much lauded figure, a stalwart for Nyungah justice and an archive of historical and contemporary Nyungah identity, was accused of child sexual abuse. He was convicted twice over, and his one sentence of three years was appealed by the Department of Public Prosecutions and doubled to six years. Many now believe he was guilty because of the fact of his convictions. For quite some time, many, including myself, have suggested to the Swan Valley Nyungah Community that the focus of their campaigns should be the reclamation of their Community, the bringing home of the chronically homeless, who include children, who include a pregnant young woman, who include the elderly. The logical, humane, civilised argument has been why should a whole Community be evicted on the presumption of allegations against one or two people? Why wouldn't the allegations be contained, as would be the case anywhere else, to the individuals concerned? Sexual abuse and child sexual abuse can occur in any suburb, in any community, in any household in Australia, but do you punish the whole suburb, the whole community, everyone in the household? So why then was the entire Swan Valley Nyungah Community punished for the presumption of the sins against one person?

Rrecently, I have come into contact with certain individuals who argue that Robert Charles Bropho was innocent. In speaking to a number of parties, it may well be that Mr Bropho was innocent and that not only was the Community vilified unjustly but so too was Mr Bropho. The Government's vigilantism and the media hysteria may have inadvertently perverted the course of justice.

Mr Bropho was born at the back of the Coorinjie wine saloon near Toodyay, on February 9, 1930, and died while serving his prison sentence on October 24, 2011, having served nearly six years, just shy of his release. The judge who sentenced Mr Bropho described his crimes the "lowest form of abuse imaginable." But did these crimes occur?

Family members at the funeral of Robert Bropho
Even at Robert Bropho's Funeral, the family were constantly hounded by the media and the police.
(Image: The Sunday Times, WA - perthnow.com.au)

Mr Bropho led the Swan Valley Nyungah Community for more than four decades. In the late 1980s he was one of the organisers of the protest against the Swan Brewery redevelopment and in the late 1990s he was part of the campaign to repatriate Yagan's head from England, and which occurred in 1997.

Mr Bropho's mother, Isobel Layland, was a Nyungah woman who lived on the fringes of Perth, near swamp country. Mr Bropho's heritage to the Country he would fight for so many decades is matrilineal. His father was Tommy Bropho, born at Argyle Downs Station on Durack pastoral land - aged 7, he had been taken from his mother under the 1905 Aborigines Acts and sent to an 'orphanage' on the Swan River. This was child abuse, Government-orchestrated but none of the culprits have been brought to 'justice'. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have been a good start instead of just a Stolen Generations Apology.

Mr Bropho's Grandfather and his eleven siblings camped on Perth's outskirts, in fringe communities, including a period living in humpies in John Forrest National Park but finally finishing up in the community that is now within Eden Hill. At times they had to live near rubbish dumps and they survived by working in brick kilns, by carting rubbish and sewerage. Did the State care? Of course not, it was the height of Australia's apartheid and ugly racism. It was the period that the South Africans were learning from Australia and copying Australia's policies, the 'Native Welfare Acts' to implement their own dastardly apartheid. Australia had been a beacon of racism driven eugenics - let us not forget Australia's first Prime Minister and his 'signature piece', the White Australia Policy and how Australia clung to it for seven decades.

In September 1977, Mr Robert Bropho led the Bropho, Anderson, Mead and Kickett families on the near 4000 km drive across the continent, once known as 'Terra Nullius', to Canberra to petition the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Ian Viner, for the right to housing on their land, for the right to connect electricity, for the right to connect water. On their return they coordinated a public protest camp. To secure public attention, they set up a protest camp, a sort of Tent Embassy, on the grounds of St Matthews Anglican Church, in nearby Guildford, and in the following year, they set up a protest camp in the heart of Perth, at Heirisson, where 34 years later Noongar Tent Embassy would set itself up for a thriving of six weeks before 150 police in militia-like formation, others on horseback, with dog squads and police helicopters, a throwback to South Africa's worst, crushed the Embassy. Mr Bropho's son, Herbert would be the last person standing at the 2012 Aboriginal Tent Embassy, finally hurtled to the ground by police and arrested - such has been the First Nations struggle, long and drawn out, with rights hard won for, most of them still denied.

The 1978 Heirisson protest was supported by the Kimberley Land Council and by the Aboriginal Medical Service and therefore had traction and secured Government attention. When people stand together solid, the shifts occur. In 1980, Mr Bropho's book, Fringe Dweller, was published - describing the third world akin living conditions homeless First Nations people endure. During the 1980s Mr Bropho was a stalwart of First Nations protest movements - beginning with Noonkanbah. In 1989, Mr Bropho was head and shoulders into the protest against the State Government development of the Old Swan Brewery because the site was sacred. The Construction, Forrest, Mining and Energy Union supported the protestors but despite the protestors securing a Supreme Court injunction, protestors were arrested and soon after then Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Carmen Lawrence approved the development.

In 1990, Mr Bropho was the recipient of the NAIDOC Person of the Year.

The children of Mr Bropho do not believe their father abused anyone, not Susan Taylor in 1999 nor Lena Spratt in 1975. His daughter Bella Bropho said, "My father is innocent. I do not believe he did any of what has been said."

"We knew him always."

His son, Herbert Bropho said, "I asked my father if he did any of what was said, I asked him while he was in prison, and he told me he did not. He didn't."

"I know my father, he didn't do any of it."

"I know my father, he didn't do any of it." said Herbert Bropho, the son of the late Robert Bropho.
(Picture: Daniel Wilkins Source: PerthNow)

Ms Taylor was the grandniece of Mr Bropho. At the time of her suicide he was a 70 year old man.

Mr Herbert Bropho was one of the last people to see Ms Taylor on that fateful day. "Susan was sniffing glue, she and two others were arguing over the bottle. It was a bottle that they were fighting over and then soon after she did what she did."

"I had tried to warn them off what they were doing. I told Susan to come to me for help."

"I told Susan to stay away from the others."

"The glue sniffing was a problem, it was trouble brought into our Community from outsiders."

"The police would pick up youth glue sniffing and drop them off at our Community. I often told them to not do this because it brought trouble into the Community. Sometimes I would tell them to walk away."

But the police did do this, using the Community as some sort of halfway place, safe place rather than locking up Nyungah youth.

Mr Herbert Bropho was never called as a witness to his father's trial despite this seemingly vital testimony. He and other family members had tried to provide testimony but were rebuffed. The trial of Mr Bropho had been closed to the public and relied on hearsay and the testimonies of people who had also been heavy users of substances.

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I have written this article not because I know whether Mr Bropho was innocent or guilty of the allegations, I do not know, but because one credible person highly involved with the Community has come to me and said that Mr Bropho never sexually abused or harassed Ms Taylor or indeed anyone. This person said, "The person who abused Susan is now dead and many people know who he is but the authorities did not want to know about it. They were after Robert and wanting to close what they saw as a fringe dwellers camp and pack off the residents to the suburbs like everyone else. They wanted to get rid of what they saw as an eyesore - the Community - and the rumours around the place."

"Susan saw the (Swan Valley Nyungah) Community as a refuge from her real abuser, it was not where she was abused. Susan was never abused by anyone at the Community."

"She was at the Community running away from her abuser."

"But the Community was not the be all end all safe place for her, to rid herself of violations against her from a young age she turned for solace to drugs, glue and petrol sniffing."

The person who has been alleged to have abused Ms Taylor was identified to me, and he did have a history of abuse. Authorities did not intervene. Why this information never made it into the trial of Mr Bropho should raise questions - there were far too many who knew of the allegations for it not to be known by the lawyers.

But before Mr Bropho was tried in Court, before he was even charged, the State Government rushed through an Act of Parliament and closed the camp.

It is true that various neglect and various abuses do occur at higher rates among First Peoples communities than occur in the rest of the Australian population, but then again the extreme poverty and third world akin conditions are owned near exclusively by First Nations peoples, in this the world's 12th largest economy and 2nd wealthiest nation per capita. First Peoples endure the highest rates of homelessness, highest rates of poverty, highest rates of incarceration, highest rates of various deprivations, highest rates of chronic diseases and various traumas and the highest rates of suicides. The correlation to substance abuse as a means to relieve one from the hopelessness and aimlessness, the tragedy of their lives into the tumult of disturbing incoherent aberrations, is resultant.

Mr Herbert Bropho said, "There is abuse in some Aboriginal families, we know that, just like there is in non-Aboriginal families, but my father was innocent."

The Coronial Hearing into Ms Taylor's death commented heavily on what it described "rampant solvent sniffing". Solvent sniffing is rife among Perth's Aboriginal youth homelessness. The inner city Church of Christ Mission Centre where I have often sat with homeless youth, has on a weekend night long queues of solvent sniffers, passing the bottle around. The Centre's doors are locked and workers and volunteers step out to provide assistance. Many of the solvent users appear in stateless-like conditions, trapped in aberration, a danger to themselves foremost. They are no longer who they really are.

Youth homelessness is an endemic and pernicious problem for Perth but one that is conveniently neglected by Government and instead vigorously swept to homelessness support agencies and workers. Western Australia, the nation's wealthiest jurisdiction has the highest homelessness rate in the nation. The substance abuse on the streets is rife, the vile sexual abuses are heartbreaking, the vulnerable are victim to myriad abuses and trauma on the streets.

There were three suicides in five years at the Swan Valley Nyungah Community, that is the tragic lot of First Peoples all over the nation but more so in Western Australia and then in the Northern Territory. Western Australia has the nation's worst suicide rate. The national rate is 10 per 100,000 but for First Peoples in Western Australia it is 36 per 100,000. The tragedy in the Kimberley should be front page of every newspaper, but sadly barely a mention. The suicides at Beagle Bay, Halls Creeks, Broome, Derby, Mowanjum, Balgo, Oombulgarri, Wyndham just go on and on. Instead of helping people, instead of empowering communities, the Governments just turn a blind eye, and allow communities for instance right throughout the Kimberley to live in shanty towns and dustbowls. This is racism. The Swan Valley Nyungah Community was an established community with good homes and in proximity to every opportunity. It was home to ordinary people, but instead of helping the Community, people were turfed out and lives have been told.

In 2001 Mr Bropho said of the accusations against him, "When people point their fingers, their fingers are crooked."

Mr Bropho said he never solicited sex from any young girl but that he did give them money.

"If they wanted some money for something to eat, if they do not get it, they are going to go and break into a house, or they are going to go into a shop and steal."

The former mayor of Bassendean, Bevan Carter, remains a supporter of the late Mr Bropho.

"I think the closure of the Community had more to do with Government wanting to redevelop it."

"The evidence at the Coronial Inquest (into Susan's death) was inconclusive," said Mr Carter.

Others at the time stood solid with Mr Bropho including the then Subiaco mayor, Tony Costa. "I would stand next to Robert Bropho anywhere, after all he has done for Aboriginal people."

A stalwart of the Community had been Iva Hayward-Jackson, a Nyungah Lore and Land Culture worker. At the time of the accusations Mr Hayward-Jackson responded to media questions with, "I'd trust him with my own daughter."

What tipped the Government to orchestrate the demise of the Community was not the Sue Gordon Inquiry - a state wide inquiry into child and sexual abuses in Aboriginal communities, most of it anecdotal but not necessarily untrue in generic terms. The tipping point was a horrific incident - the rape of a two and a half year old baby girl - at the Community. This near unbelievable incident occurred a year after Susan's death. One of the two perpetrators was Timothy Lenin Bropho, at the time in his early twenties - in 2002 he was sentenced to 12 years. The other perpetrator was his 15 year old cousin, who finished up with a four year sentence. The baby was their niece.

The Justice, and now the President of the Perth's Children Court, Denis Reynolds said, "This case involves such a gross violation of a very young child. All good minded people are revolted by such offences."

Mr Timothy Bropho pled not guilty. The baby had to be taken to hospital, needing surgery for genital lacerations.

The two offenders had been solvent abusing, sniffing glue and were out of their minds, zombie-like. Talking to people about this incident, reading about this heinous crime kept me up most of the night. I asked myself 'what sort of place is it in that something like this could happen?'

Mr Herbert Bropho said that he did not want the solvent abuse in the Community but that the police used the Community as some sort of drop off safe place for troubled Aboriginal youth. I cannot condemn the Swan Valley Community Nyungah Community for what happened to this baby because in the end it was not the Community who did this but solvent abuse induced madness, which is not to say that the offenders did not deserve their prison sentences. The streets of Perth, the streets of Western Australia, are filled with cheap and dangerous drugs, cheap and dangerous solvents to be abused, whether it's glue, petrol or other solvents. Where are the State Government sponsored programs to help children off the streets? Where are the State Government sponsored programs to eliminate solvent abuse among our young? Where are the half way houses, the transitional accommodation, the homeless friendly precincts, and where is the never to be seen help for Aboriginal homelessness? Instead the Government reactively closed a Community, targeted Mr Robert Bropho and hurtled the residents onto the cold dank streets into myriad violations.

The Swan Valley Nyungah Community was portrayed as a place of ruined lives and Dr Gallop carried on that he was not prepared to let another young person die there. Instead they have died in the worst possible conditions on the streets. Some First Nations Elders stood alongside the Gallop chorus and derided the Community as a place of shame.

Dr Gallop got it all wrong when he said, "(The Community is responsible) for the provision of alcohol and intoxicants, such as paint and glue to children." The scores of former residents and people involved with the Community said this is just not true, it is what has been portrayed but it is not true - that indeed many of them had never seen any of it because it was not regular and was 'trouble' that came into the Community, often by police who dropped off the 'trouble' and the Community did not have the heart to turn them away.

In recent months, I have been approached by a former Government worker, Matthew Fowler who wants to do something about Perth's solvent abusers, particularly among Nyungah youth. For now most of what we have been discussing has been falling on the deaf ears of Government.

Ms Taylor took her life at the Swan Valley Nyungah Community in 1999, aged 15 years, she would have been 30 years old today, but the violations against her may have occurred many kilometres away, and that the Community was her refuge from at least the physical nightmare. An independent inquiry, without unlimited terms of reference, should investigate and get to the truth, not just for Susan Taylor, not just for Mr Bropho, not just for the children of Mr Bropho, not just for the former residents, not just for the homeless, but for all Australians - because in the end the closing of the Swan Valley Nyungah Community and the Sue Gordon Inquiry were used as pro forma for the Northern Territory Intervention and the Anderson/Wilderstrom Little Children Are Sacred Report.

The truth does matter.