Death Of Mrs Colleen Shirley Smith

About this Item
SpeakersRefshauge Dr Andrew; Hazzard Mr Brad
BusinessCondolence, Ministerial Statement

Ministerial Statement

Dr REFSHAUGE (Marrickville - Deputy Premier, Minister for Health, and Minister for
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Aboriginal Affairs) [2.17 p.m.]: It is with great sadness that I pay tribute to a remarkable woman and a dear friend, Shirley Smith. Yesterday New South Wales and Australia lost a wonderful person, Mum Shirl. On behalf of the New South Wales Government I express my deepest condolences to all those who were close to and were inspired by Mum Shirl, who spent her life caring for others. Shirley Colleen Perry was raised on Earimbe mission in Cowra under the Aboriginal Protection Board. She suffered from epilepsy when she was young and was prevented from attending school. But that did not stop Mum Shirl from speaking her mind, and she leaves behind a great legacy.

Mum Shirl really set the agenda years ago. She took on the system when Aboriginal people had no rights. Many people remember Mum Shirl. Three things in particular about her are remembered by many of those to whom I have spoken. First, the fact that she adopted countless children. Time and again she would appear on behalf of minors in the Children’s Court and time and again the courts would place children in her care. Second, she had an extraordinary compassion for alcoholics. Mum Shirl lifted up hundreds of alcoholics who had not eaten for days and provided them with meals. Third, she incessantly visited many hundreds of prisoners in gaols, all of whom looked forward to her visit.

Mum Shirl’s enormous compassion and her endless generosity towards all people in need were without equal. She worked tirelessly to ensure that Aboriginal people in Redfern and around New South Wales got a fair go. She helped to found the Aboriginal medical service and the Aboriginal legal service in New South Wales. I first met Mum Shirl in 1977 when I started working for the Aboriginal medical service in Redfern. I was truly amazed as everyone was on meeting Mum Shirl for the first time by her energy, drive and commitment to the betterment of all people in need - not just Aboriginal people but all people in need. I must admit that at times I was intimidated by Mum Shirl, as were, I am sure, thousands of bureaucrats who will never forget her for having taken them on for hiding behind bureaucratic gobbledegook to get a better deal for individuals.

Mum Shirl will never be forgotten for her tireless work for justice for Aboriginal people. In her life she received many accolades. In 1975 she received an MBE, in 1985 she was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia, in 1990 she was named Aborigine of the Year by the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee, and a few months ago the National Trust acknowledged her as one of Australia’s living national treasures. I am informed by the Minister for Mineral Resources, and Minister for Fisheries that in 1988 he launched a firefighting tugboat named after Mum Shirl. That tugboat is still firefighting around Sydney Harbour. But the awards had little meaning for Mum Shirl compared with the reward she got from helping people in need. As she said herself, "My reward comes when I help a person in gaol or a young unmarried mother, a young girl who’s been raped, or someone who has nowhere to sleep." Mum Shirl will be remembered by many people. She has left a great legacy. She was a great Australian.

Mr HAZZARD (Wakehurst) [2.21 p.m.]: The coalition supports the words of the Deputy Premier, Minister for Health, and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in recognising the passing of a great Australian. Colleen Shirley Perry was born on a mission station at a time when many Aboriginal people lived on mission stations; that was their expected lot in life. She died a hero among her people and among the broader Australian community. Mum Shirl referred in her autobiography to the incredible life she lived. She talked about where she was born, the relationships she had with her parents - who were drovers - and, in particular, the relationship she had with her grandfather. She dedicated her story to her grandfather. From her autobiography I shall quote briefly her dedication to her grandfather:
      My Grandfather used to tell me, "Colleen, first you’ve got to love yourself, and then you can spread it around". I’ve tried to live by that all my life. I’ve had a lot of problems, many of which cannot be put into this book, but I’ve also had a lot of love heaped on me.
      My Grandfather, who was a simple man, also used to tell me that man threw down wheat seeds. Then God sent just enough rain and sun and wind for it to grow. God gave man the ability to harvest it and when it got crushed up, the Aboriginal people could make bread or damper.
      He said that, because of this, just the simple act of eating or sharing our bread meant that we were taking part in a miracle.
      Every day is part of a miracle and I have found that to be the truth, all my life.

Mum Shirl was a miracle. I had the great pleasure of meeting Mum Shirl many years ago. When one met her one could not help but be moved by her commitment and dedication to Aboriginal people. She had an aura about her; a strength. As the Deputy Premier said, she had a great capacity to intimidate even the best of Ministers and bureaucrats. She regarded such an approach as necessary to improve the lot of Aboriginal people.

Mum Shirl was considered a saint by the people of Redfern and by many others who lived
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much further afield. There would be very few people in New South Wales who have not heard of Mum Shirl and her amazing and wonderful work. She was a controversial figure. Her relationship with Aboriginal organisations was not always smooth. Nevertheless she always placed the welfare of her people, those less fortunate than herself, ahead of everything else - sheltering homeless families and children, saving families from eviction and fighting the Government and authorities to make a better world for Aboriginal people. The Opposition strongly supports the sentiments expressed by the Minister in his statement and commits itself to continuing the work started by Mum Shirl.