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Bob Collins, larger than life Labor minister


Eulogy delivered at funeral of Robert Lindsay Collins AO
St Mary's Cathedral, Darwin, 29 September 2007

2 Cor 9:8-11
Mt 6:23-7:5

We come to bid farewell to Robert Lindsay Collins, the proud Territorian, the larger than life Leader of the Opposition and Labor Minister, the loving father of Robbie, Libby and Daniel, the faithful spouse of Rosemary, and raucous friend of many of us gathered here today in St Mary's Cathedral Darwin.

This last week he has been judged by some media and his reputation is still on trial in the court of public opinion. Some people tell us they have been hurt irreparably by Bob. Their stories fill us with dread and dark despair. Many others have been helped, supported and loved by him – some through his life of dedicated public service and others in ways only they can know. None has been more helped by him than his own family to whom he has given all those things he never received or enjoyed himself as a child. We come to pray for Bob and for all who mourn his passing. We pray especially for Rosemary, Robbie, Libby and Daniel.

I have been his friend for 25 years – like many of you, in the best of times and in the worst of times, in sickness and in health, while he was in government and in Opposition. Like many Australians from all walks of life, I first got to know Bob over a meal in the Jade Garden where he held court, that upstairs Chinese restaurant off the Mall close to his office. We were last together in Adelaide after his radical cancer surgery, sharing the Eucharist, talking of family and the odd tit-bit of political gossip. He was hoping there was change in the air, but he couldn't yet smell the flowers of spring.

When Bob knew he was dying, he told Rosemary, "I don't want Frank Brennan wasting time or money coming up for my funeral." When Rosemary spoke with me on the morning of his death, faithfully transmitting that typically blunt Collins message, I replied, "Rosemary, he's dead. It's not his time. It's not his money." He never asked for a state funeral. It was not his way. He never asked for anything just for himself. Honouring his wishes, the family agreed to a more public memorial only at the urging of politicians and friends from both sides of the political fence. He never sought honours or wealth. He sought political office only to serve others. He never tried to "be the slave both of God and money" (Mt 6:24). Having occupied high public office, he always lived simply, sharing all he had. His one enduring perk of office was the Customs sniffer dog Benny which failed the drug detection test and soon thereafter became the Collins family pet. He took to heart Jesus' telling us "not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and what you are to wear."(Mt 6:25) He wasted little effort in life worrying about, "What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear?" (Mt 6:31) He did eat - lots; he didn't drink except the occasional champers at the Jade Garden or with Paul Everingham, and he was never clothed like Solomon. You took him as he was.

He set his heart on God's saving justice and in these last few years he was overwhelmed that "each day has enough trouble of its own".(Mt 6:34) In these last dreadful months, he found it very difficult to take in the beauty of the wild flowers which are growing in the field, there today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow.(Mt 6:30) He did worry about tomorrow. Now, as Rosemary says, he is at peace. For him, though for none of us, "tomorrow will take care of itself".(Mt 6:34)

God alone is our judge, and God alone is Bob's judge. This is not a day for judging Bob, his political opponents or his accusers. There have been plenty of splinters and logs in evidence these past days. Putting aside the splinters and logs, we come to the table of the Lord, all of us sinners and all of us praying, "Lord I am not worthy to receive you. Say but the word and I shall be healed." We pray healing for all who have spoken for and against Bob these days.

Gathered in this cathedral, I recall another liturgical celebration, far more joyous, when we gathered here with Fr Frank Flynn for the christening of Daniel. That day I had the sense that the circle was complete for Bob. His own dreadful childhood behind him, he was happily joined with Rosemary, hardly rousing at her at all, and delighting in the three children - their pride and joy, the embodiment of all Australia could be, the enfleshment of their love and dedication to each other across cultures. Only as I poured the waters of baptism did Bob break free from Rosemary's restraint and proclaim that his Benjamin was to be named Daniel Robert, and that is the name he proudly carries.

Twenty years ago, Bob made his maiden speech in the Senate in the lead up to the bicentenary. He had already spent a decade in public life in the Northern Territory, tirelessly visiting remote communities, passionately committed to the rule of law, legal aid and justice for the oppressed, marginalised and voiceless. He rose to his feet in Canberra and proclaimed his national agenda:

Whatever 1988 may or may not be, it is certainly the bicentenary of Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals living together in this country. In the past that was achieved by the lives and culture of the former being sacrificed out of hand for the convenience of the latter, a reality in much of Australia today. We all have our hopes for 1988. One of mine is that 1988 can be celebrated at least by an acceptance of that reality by all Australians, and some commitment that a future relationship can be based on true equality and mutual respect.

He meant every word of it, and he lived it, especially in his marriage to Rosemary. Many the times I was in Bob's ministerial office in Canberra while he attended to the urgent, ordinary calls about the latest doings on Bathurst Island or the demands of the home filled to overcrowding with extended family and kin needing a helping hand to make visits to Darwin manageable.

Bob always had a child-like delight in meeting new people and embracing new technology. Early one morning I was in his office before his first ministerial briefing of the day. It was when email was just starting. In his portfolio he was in regular contact with a high flying US scientist. The scientist emailed to Bob the drawing on his office wall in Texas – drawn by his five year old daughter. Bob printed it off and marvelled at the connections and possibilities of modern life. He relished the opportunity to share the simple joys of fatherhood with someone he had never met.

He was always one for the grand narrative. When in Canberra he often attended the early morning mass at St Christopher's Cathedral. One morning emerging from mass, there was Graham Richardson on the kerbside in his Commonwealth car, calling him over: "I knew where to find you. Get in. We need to talk." Bob said that his own ministerial vehicle was waiting around the corner. But Richo had already told Bob's driver to move on. Said Bob, "It was then that I realised that we really did need to talk."

He loved the mix of the personal and the political, and he idolised his heroes in the Labor Party. There was the oft-repeated story of the meeting with the Tiwi people in the community hall on Melville Island. He proudly accompanied Gough Whitlam among Rosemary's people. At the meeting Gough was asked his relationship with the Church. He replied, "You know those fine European cathedrals. I don't see myself so much as a pillar of the Church; rather one of those flying buttresses – outside, but supporting the structure and those within. A fellow traveller".

Bob's public life was dedicated to the Northern Territory described in his maiden speech as "my home – dare I say it – State of the Northern Territory". Though opposed to euthanasia for the best of Catholic and Aboriginal religious reasons, he would not broach Canberra's intrusion on the law making power of the Northern Territory legislature, proclaiming, "I would much prefer the Northern Territory to be governed by the worst of all possible administrations in the Northern Territory, which is precisely what we have, than the best of all possible administrations in Canberra. That is strongly my view." I should point out Clare that of course he was speaking of a previous Northern Territory Administration!

When he wanted to retire from his second parliamentary chamber, the public forum of his life, he was urged to stay on the Senate benches because as his then leader reminded him he was one of the last of the Labor members who had washed his hands in Solvol. Leaving parliament, he continued to contribute to Aboriginal policy both here in the Territory and in South Australia.

Rosemary, Robbie, Libby and Daniel: Bob has been to hell and back these last three years. You have stood by him with such love and commitment. There in the Adelaide hospital, he was so proud of you and so grateful. After I had given him a pair of rosary beads from Jerusalem, he asked you Rosemary to teach him the prayers, and he prayed constantly for each of you. Having given his all to build the family as pater familias he was truly humbled to receive your love so constantly at his bedside. Having given you his all, he never wanted to leave you with a mess, whether of his own making or of others. You are the unfinished business of his life, and your dignity and respect these days is the finest tribute to all that was most noble in him. His prayer for you today is expressed in our first reading from Corinthians: "God is perfectly able to enrich you with every grace, so that you always have enough for every conceivable need, and your resources overflow in all kinds of good work".(2 Cor 9:8)

Bob constantly espoused truth and justice for the relegated. May his sins, whatever they were, be forgiven and may his love, good works and public service be rewarded and acknowledged. May Bob who has died and we who live on "be rich enough in every way for every kind of generosity that makes people thank God for what we have done."(2 Cor 9:11) As we commit Bob's mortal remains to our Creator God, may we commit ourselves to relationships based on true equality and mutual respect. Let's dare to hope that tomorrow can take care of itself as we surrender Bob and ourselves to God's saving justice.



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Existing comments

I taught with Rosemary and taught Libby, My son went to school with Libby and I knew Robert and Daniel --very fine people all of them. I do not believe the allegations--May he rest in peace and all of his family be given the strength to stand with their head high. I have the greatest admoration for them all.

leonie cunningham | 30 September 2007  

I taught with Rosemary, My children went to shool with Bob and Rosemary's chidren -I have read his papers on Aboriginal education-a fine man. How could you believe these allegations.

leonie cunningham | 30 September 2007  

What a magnificent and loving tribute! How I would love to have Fr Brennan as friend and eulogiser.

Robyn King | 01 October 2007  

This eulogy for Bob Collins reminds us that we are all sinners and that we are all loved by God.

Jenny Close | 02 October 2007  

Wonderful, Fr Frank. Didn't know this man--am just responding to what I've read.
Haven't seen you in a long time, not since we first met at Joey's at that Aussies-for-the-Family conference in Sydney where you kept drawing huge crowds (like Fr Anthony Fisher). Am in America for almost 4 months for the first time in zonks. 50th high school reunion--haven't any of my classmates in person, 160 guys and gals, in all that time, except my best friend, Betsy and her husband,now a retired Lutheran minister. A time of amazing miracles. There's much in your eulogy that links directly with them. Ecumnical: Reconstructionist Jewry, blacks, Hispanics, you name it. Will be in touch when I'm back in Oz, perhaps via our mutual friend, Robert Manne. Best church yet me here: St Cassian's in Montclair, NJ: the wave of the future. God bless. Susan

Dr Susan Reibel Moore | 02 October 2007  

Thank you Father Frank Brennan for giving us the opportunity to share the life-story of this amazing man. Lived gospel values never fail to in spire especially when they come with such warmth and humanity.

Mary Sparke | 03 October 2007  

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