Death of a fatally flawed giant

Former Territory Labor Opposition Leader and Keating government Minister Bob Collins has died in Darwin at the age of 61. Whether from the bowel cancer he had suffered over the last couple of years or from some other cause is yet to be revealed.

I knew Bob Collins very well in the 1980s and early 90s, and had a high regard for his abilities as a political leader, although even for a politician he had a remarkable propensity to treat the truth as an infinitely flexible commodity. He was a towering figure in the decimated Territory ALP of those days, holding the party together sometimes almost single-handedly in the wake of successive crushing electoral defeats in the early 80s, and exercising a morale-boosting Keating-like parliamentary dominance over his numerically overwhelmingly powerful CLP opponents.

Later, after entering Federal Parliament as a Senator for the NT, having being rolled as local Opposition Leader by a somewhat unsavoury alliance between the Left and Centre Left with the connivance of a couple of members of his own Right faction, Collins became the first NT representative to achieve federal Cabinet rank as Minister for Transport and Communications in the Keating government. His record once achieving that high office, however, is rather more equivocal. The general opinion is that his stewardship of Australia’s conversion to the digital age was somewhere between mediocre and disastrous, as this article of uncertain provenance explains. In fairness, it may well be that Collins’ decisions were dictated by pressure from Keating, Richo and others to bend over backwards to avoid antagonising the Packer and Murdoch interests even at the risk of incoherent policy.

In retirement, Collins was commissioned by the NT CLP government in 1999 to inquire into and report on indigenous education. His report, titled Learning Lessons: An independent review of Indigenous education in the Northern Territory , continues in large part to guide the development of education in remote Territory communities.

Bob Collins’ advice and guidance were also undoubtedly significant factors in the unexpected victory of Clare Martin’s Labor team at the 2001 Territory election.

It’s impossible, however, to write an obituary of Bob Collins without acknowledging the elephant in the room: the sickening child sexual abuse charges he faced at his death. I have no knowledge of their truth or otherwise, although I can certainly make some fairly educated guesses. Do those events erase or negate a record of impressive achievements in public life? I guess it depends on the observer. I certainly know that I feel much sorrier for Bob’s family, especially his son Robbie, and for the Aboriginal men he allegedly abused as children back in Maningrida in the 1970s, than for Bob’s own tragically tarnished reputation. At least they will all now be spared the trauma of what would inevitably have been a series of very unsavoury criminal trials.

For me, Bob Collins’ character is succinctly illustrated by a dealing I had with him in the 1980s, when I acted as his legal adviser. Bob battled severe weight problems throughout his adult life. I’ve also occasionally engaged in a Battle of the Bulge myself, though to a much less extreme extent. Around 1988 I lost a lot of weight and got extremely fit. “How did you do it?” asked Bob. “I just can’t seem to lose any weight at all, what with travelling all the time and eating hotel and airline food, and Jenny Craig is a waste of time”. I told him that I’d found a range of pre-packaged frozen diet meals called Findus Lean Cuisine to be very effective. Bob said he’d try them. To encourage him, I bought 10 packs and dropped them off at his office. I saw his wife Rosemary a few days later and enquired how he’d gone with the Lean Cuisines. “Oh fine,” she replied. “He loved them. He ate all ten in a single sitting.”

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

I heard it on the radio half an hour ago and thought: I bet Ken will have an obituary up within the hour. Well done.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

Well done and well written.

Frank Valentine
Frank Valentine
14 years ago

A very measured obit. Thank you.

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Reaper
Reaper
14 years ago

The most disgraceful assortment of weasel words I’ve ever read. To say that you make no judgement on the truth or otherwise of allegations of child sexual assault, then say that your sympathies lie with the victims of the assault is self evidently an assessment that he was guilty. If you don’t know that he was guilty of the offence, then how can you be sympathetic to people who may have made false accusations. Collins may have been guilty, but if he wasn’t, he and his family weren’t saved from unsavoury proceedings, they were robbed of the opportunity to clear his name. If you can’t make a better contribution than your obituary, don’t make any contribution at all.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Thx Ken,

Not sure why you say that Stewart Fist’s article is of ‘uncertain provenance’. It’s author and it’s provenance are set out at the top of the article.

Dennis Cartledge
14 years ago

I used to laugh at all those oldies scrolling the death notices each day. As a bit of a nomad Ive never really been in touch with news of the demise of most Ive mixed with in my life except for bloody politicians.
Regardless of the various shading Im increasingly confronted by the passing of political characters; those Ive met and known, and those Ive only known at a distance.
Collins was in the latter group. Your summary reflects that appreciation for the player, warts and all. I appreciated it. Thanks.

Aussie
Aussie
14 years ago

Its impossible, however, to write an obituary of Bob Collins without acknowledging the elephant in the room: the sickening child sexual abuse charges he faced at his death. I have no knowledge of their truth or otherwise, although I can certainly make some fairly educated guesses. Do those events erase or negate a record of impressive achievements in public life? I guess it depends on the observer. I certainly know that I feel much sorrier for Bobs family, especially his son Robbie, and for the Aboriginal men he allegedly abused as children back in Maningrida in the 1970s, than for Bobs own tragically tarnished reputation. At least they will all now be spared the trauma of what would inevitably have been a series of very unsavoury criminal trials.

This is repugnant. It starts off okay, but then overtly concedes guilt with references to feeling ‘sorry’ for the ‘Aboriginal men he allegedly abused as children back in Maningrida in the 1970s.’

Why sorry, unless you imply there is something to be ‘sorry’ about!

Aussie
Aussie
14 years ago

This is interesting. Are you a Lawyer?

“I feel sorry for the alleged victims, because they would certainly have had their own characters and reputations dragged through the mud irrespective of whether their allegations were true or not.”

If their allegations were lies, which they might well be, why ought they not have their ‘own characters and reputations’ tested. That is the system. If you want to ellege, you better be prepared for the heat in the kitchen.

But, to give these allegations some sort, or any sort, of credibility, just because Collins died, is repugnant.

Aussie
Aussie
14 years ago

Sorry, Ken…..I just ‘googled.’ Yes, you are a Lawyer, I did not know.

So am I.

A real aussie
A real aussie
14 years ago

“Aussie said:
Sorry, Ken..I just googled. Yes, you are a Lawyer, I did not know.

So am I.”

Aussie is, in fact, a taxy driver. Not that there is anything wrong with that…

Aussie
Aussie
14 years ago

Yes, I did, Jacques. Yes, I am a retired Lawyer, and yes I own and operate Cabs in Queensland.

‘Civil comments,’ it will be.

Evil Pundit
14 years ago

The Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t make such fine distinctions between alleged criminal acts and proven guilt.

Bring Back CL's blog
Bring Back CL's blog
14 years ago

EP is alive and kicking

Jc
Jc
14 years ago

EP

Homer is now going to change his moniker to “EP is alive and kicking”