COLLINS, Robert Lindsay (1946–2007)
Senator for Northern Territory, 1987–98 (Australian Labor Party)

Robert Lindsay (Bob) Collins, the first federal parliamentarian from the Northern Territory to hold ministerial office, was born in Newcastle, NSW, on 8 February 1946. His father, Robert James Collins, an illiterate merchant seaman and labourer, was nineteen when he married Fay Lindsay, an eighteen-year-old shop assistant, at Newcastle in January 1945. Bob was the eldest of five children, two girls and three boys. He later described his childhood: ‘at my place we used to have what we called the “Friday night special”: that was the working class father coming home pissed and wrecking the house and flogging the kids’.

Collins showed sufficient ability at primary school to enter Newcastle Boys’ High School, a selective school. He left both home and school at fifteen and ‘went bush’, to Wee Waa in north-western New South Wales, share-farming cotton. After a failed romance and the ruination of the cotton farm through drought, Collins, aged nineteen, decided to start afresh in the Northern Territory ‘because it was the farthest bloody place I could go without getting my feet wet’.

Collins’ first job in the Northern Territory was with the Department of Agriculture as an extension officer. He worked in the town of Katherine, 320 kilometres south-east of Darwin, for a year, then was based in Darwin for four years. In that time he travelled widely throughout the territory, and established links with isolated Aboriginal communities. His work focused on soil conservation, agronomy and buffalo research. In 1970 he set up a market garden near the Indigenous coastal community at Maningrida in Arnhem Land. From 1974 until his election to the NT Parliament in 1977, Collins was a technical officer with the Wildlife Research Division of the CSIRO.

During the year in which he was based in Katherine, Collins witnessed the systematic maltreatment of Aboriginal children by whites working on remote stations, involving physical violence and sexual abuse. This, Collins said, ‘politicised’ him. He became active in the Northern Territory ALP, and in 1977 was persuaded to contest the seat of Arnhem in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly for the ALP. Mounting an innovative and remarkably effective campaign focused strongly on the electorate’s Aboriginal voters, Collins won the seat from the sitting Country Liberal Party (CLP) member, Rupert Kentish, obtaining nearly sixty-four per cent of the primary vote.[1]

Collins’ first speech in the Assembly was an argument against uranium mining in the Northern Territory. He listed pollution and problems with waste disposal, radiation and industrial safety issues, disruption to indigenous people and to wildlife, and insufficient public debate, as reasons to condemn the Fraser Government’s policies on the mining and export of uranium. This was an issue that was to engage Collins throughout his parliamentary career, in the NT Assembly and in the Senate.

By 1982 Collins had undergone a fundamental change of attitude to uranium mining. He subsequently explained his change of mind, saying that over the years he had seen ‘a significant shift of opinion’ among those Aboriginals directly affected, and as the views of his constituents had ‘changed substantially … so have mine’. As a member of the ALP National Executive, Collins played a central part in softening the party’s anti-uranium policy. At a meeting of the National Executive in May 1982, Collins ‘stunned’ those present by saying of Jabiru:

It’s full of working class people who have their homes, their schools, their shops and other facilities and it’s all based on uranium mining. What I want to know is which one of you is prepared to go up there and tell these people they have to pack up and leave, that it’s all finished, that they have to close everything down and go onto the dole.

In early July 1982, at the ALP National Conference, Collins argued powerfully that if Labor was returned at the next election, repudiation of contracts for uranium would see a drying-up of overseas investment, resulting in an economic crisis which ‘will see another Labor government self-destruct’. The Conference carried a motion to modify existing policy to allow the honouring of existing contracts, and mining at Roxby Downs. According to Paul Kelly: ‘Collins cracked open the political shell in which the tough questions about the anti-uranium policy had been hidden’.[2]

In 1982 Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of the murder of her infant daughter Azaria, who had disappeared at Uluru in 1980. Collins had followed the case ‘word for word’ through its legal stages, always rejecting ‘so-called expert evidence’ that a dingo could not have taken Azaria. In November 1985 he addressed the NT Assembly for three hours, arguing that contradictory statements made by various experts about the quality of the forensic evidence in the case could only be resolved by a judicial inquiry, and he called for Chamberlain’s release on license. Chamberlain was released from gaol in 1986, and her conviction was quashed in 1988, after a royal commission reported significant new evidence, and found that there were ‘serious doubts’ as to her guilt. Collins named the freeing and vindication of Lindy Chamberlain as the most memorable achievement of his career, and Lindy Chamberlain believed that ‘Unsung, and behind the scenes, he [Collins] was the power responsible for my release from prison, and the establishment of the royal commission’.[3]

Collins became identified, while in Northern Territory politics, as an advocate for the interests of the Territory’s Aboriginal community. His association with Aboriginal people had, he said, ‘made a permanent and fundamental change to my life and how I see things’. In 1969 he had married Rosemary Tipiloura, a Tiwi Islander, and he felt privileged to be associated with her family and people. When an electoral redistribution in 1983 prompted his move to the seat of Arafura, he fostered the election of Aboriginal Wesley Lanhupuy to the seat of Arnhem; again, when he vacated Arafura, he assisted another Aboriginal candidate, Stanley Tipiloura, to take his place.

In 1982 the Territory’s CLP government, headed by Paul Everingham, sought changes to the Commonwealth’s landmark Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, enhancing the role of the Northern Territory Government in land rights negotiations, and defining some restrictions of the conditions under which Aboriginal land claims could be made. In November 1982, Collins made, at short notice, a four-hour speech in which he discussed the history of Indigenous land claims in the Territory, dissected the government’s proposals, and put forward a detailed alternative plan. The speech exemplified what was described as his ‘incredible capacity to process information’ and to deliver it in a lucid and organised way, even under great pressure.

Collins was elected leader of the NT Parliamentary Labor Party on 2 November 1981. In 1983 he fought his only NT election as Labor leader, in a campaign dominated by the proposed handover of the title to Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) to the Aboriginal people. The trenchantly opposed Country Liberal government, campaigning with the slogan ‘Let’s Rock Canberra’, won nineteen of twenty-five seats.

Collins’ independent stance on issues such as the Chamberlain case and uranium mining, and his association with ‘land rights and issues affecting Aboriginal Territorians’ made it unlikely that he would be elected to government, and he ultimately lost the support of the NT Labor Party. In addition, he claimed that he was told at one time that ‘the Territory wasn’t ready for a black first lady’. He resigned as leader in August 1986, nominating for ALP preselection for the Senate, and in November 1986 won preselection for first place on Labor’s NT Senate ticket, ousting the Territory’s sitting Labor senator, Ted Robertson. Collins was elected to the Senate at the federal election held on 11 July 1987, and re-elected in 1990, 1993 and 1996.[4]

In his first speech in the Senate, delivered on 16 September 1987, Collins discussed the mutual ‘misconceptions and mistrust’ which characterised relations between the Territory and Canberra. Noting with some scepticism the pending celebrations for Australia’s bicentenary, Collins reminded the Senate that: ‘Thousands of Aboriginal Australians living on cattle stations, in fringe camps and in urban slums right round Australia will enter 1988 still living in the same squalor and deprivation of their forbears since they were dispossessed of their land 200 years ago and dying from it’. Collins continued to draw attention to poor living conditions for Indigenous people throughout his time in the Senate, discussing issues such as Aboriginal deaths in custody, health, and education, and the related issue of land rights. Believing that improvements would be made if Aborigines had ‘a real role … in making decisions about the administration of their own affairs’, Collins was an active member of the Select Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs, appointed in 1988 to report on the proposal to establish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). He accompanied the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gerry Hand in visiting Aboriginal communities prior to the drafting of the ATSIC Bill, and continued to listen to and convey requests and suggestions from the communities to the government. Collins was the parliamentary representative on the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies from 1987 until 1990.

During his first term as a senator Collins also spoke on a range of other subjects, notably industrial relations, aviation, and video censorship. He had an interest in parliamentary procedure, joining the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances during his first year in the Senate, and chairing it from 1987 to 1990. He was a member of the 1988 Select Committee on Legislation Procedures, whose recommendations for enhanced consideration by Senate committees of bills and proposed expenditure saw fruition in the early 1990s.[5]

Collins was a confident, humorous and often robust speaker, with a rapid delivery; he was usually well-prepared, frequently drawing upon his knowledge of aspects of Territory life, and his intellectual curiosity. Neal Blewett wrote of him: ‘Of portly girth and earthy disposition, Collins was surpassed only by the Prime Minister [Keating] in eloquence, extravagant imagery and vigorous profanity’.[6]

In April 1990 Collins became the first Territorian to hold a federal ministry when he was appointed Minister for Shipping, and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Northern Australia in the fourth Hawke Government. Collins took responsibility for the waterfront reform process begun in 1989. After difficult negotiations during 1991, he succeeded in securing enterprise agreements between stevedoring companies and unions covering all major Australian ports. As a result, there were significant reductions in workforce numbers, a marked decline in industrial disputes, and wharf coverage by eight unions under twenty-one different awards was reduced to three unions and one industry-wide award.[7]

Aviation Support was added to his portfolio in May 1990, and with the advent of the Keating Government in December 1991, Collins became Minister for Shipping and Aviation, with a seat in Cabinet. In May 1990 the Hawke Government introduced the Airlines Agreement (Termination) Bill, ending the two-airline policy that had prevailed in Australia since 1942, and opening the way for new operators. Collins took the deregulation of the Australian airline industry a step further when in February 1992 he argued in Cabinet for the end of the separation of Australia’s domestic and international airlines, and the establishment of a single aviation market for Australia and New Zealand. Collins worked closely with Keating to achieve a takeover of Australian Airlines by Qantas announced in mid-1992, followed by the sale of 100 per cent of Qantas by a trade sale and a public float, with the government retaining special voting and veto rights. In August 1992, after difficult and protracted negotiations, Collins concluded a memorandum of understanding with his New Zealand counterpart, which set out the framework for a single Australia/New Zealand aviation market.[8]

After the resignation of Senator Graham Richardson from the ministry in May 1992, Collins replaced him as Minister for Transport and Communications. While in this ministry, Collins was severely criticised in Parliament and in the media for problems surrounding the awarding of subscription television (Pay TV) licences. The Broadcasting Services Bill, introduced into the Senate in June 1992, updated the regulatory framework for a ‘changing and growing’ Australian broadcasting industry. It included provision for ‘a competitive, more market-driven approach’ to the introduction of Pay TV, open, Collins said, to ‘whichever delivery mechanism suits … commercial needs’, including microwave delivery (MDS) and satellite services. In January 1993 a tender process for MDS licences was aborted at the last moment at the insistence of Paul Keating, when it was realised that the issue of MDS licences could pre-empt the introduction of satellite services, favoured by established media companies; this led to legal action by thwarted companies. In following months, defects in the tendering process for satellite licences were revealed. Collins had approved tender specifications that required a lodgement fee of only five hundred dollars and no provision for evidence by tenderers of financial capability or a business plan; the two successful bidders were unable to produce a required deposit, leading to a ‘cascading’ process where licences were offered in turn to companies which had made speculative bids but were unable to obtain funding. Collins and his department were the subject of examination first by former Commonwealth Ombudsman Dennis Pearce and then by a Senate Select Committee, which inquired into ‘the extent to which the Minister … discharged his ministerial responsibilities’ in the matter. Defending himself in the Senate against calls for his resignation, Collins conceded that there had been ‘a systems failure and I was part of that failure’. Pearce found that Collins had not been well or fully advised by his department but had not abrogated the principle of ministerial responsibility, and the Select Committee concurred with Pearce’s findings, although a minority report attributed the on-going fiasco’ to the Minister, and quoted Winston Churchill: ‘I did not know. I was not told. I should have asked’. [9]

Collins served as Minister for Primary Industries and Energy from December 1993. In addition to his portfolio obligations, he continued to speak frequently in the chamber on broadcasting and transport, and Aboriginal issues. While admitting that ATSIC was an ‘imperfect instrument’ he defended the Commission against criticism and amendment, and in the final hours of the long debate on the Native Title Bill 1993 on 20 and 21 December 1993, he answered many questions and comments on behalf of the government. Following the defeat of the Keating Government in the election of March 1996, Collins held shadow portfolios under Labor’s new leader Kim Beazley for Primary Industries, Northern Australia and Territories. He found himself leading Labor’s response in the Senate to the Coalition Government’s changes to ATSIC and Native Title legislation, and deploring changes ‘rolling back 25 years worth of hard-won improvement in the political status of indigenous people’.[10]

Collins gave up his shadow portfolios in August 1997, and resigned from the Senate on 30 March 1998, saying that he wanted to spend time with his family after years of long interstate flights. After his retirement Collins was an advisor for the Northern Territory Government, and completed a review of the delivery of education to Indigenous students in the Northern Territory, published as Learning Lessons in 1999. In 2001 he assisted Claire Martin’s election as the first Labor Party head of government in the Northern Territory. He served as chairman of the board of Kakadu Tourism Pty Ltd, an Indigenous owned business at Kakadu National Park, where he had long been involved in hospitality training schemes, and he was chair of the Kakadu Region Social Impact Study Implementation Team. During 2002–03, he was a member of a three-person panel appointed by the federal government to review the role and functions of ATSIC; the panel recommended a major restructure of ATSIC, foreshadowing its abolition in 2005. Collins was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 2004 for service to the Northern Territory ‘in the areas of transport, tourism and natural resource development, and to Indigenous people as an advocate for social justice, land and sea rights and access to improved educational opportunities’.

In April 2004, Collins was appointed by the South Australian government to coordinate strategies to address the problems created by substance abuse in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Collins made a preliminary report within two weeks, but was unable to continue when, while driving in Kakadu National Park on 19 June, his Land Cruiser left the road and hit a tree, and he sustained serious injuries. Within days, it was reported in the press that he was being investigated by the police over a number of sexual assaults on children, and the possession of pornography. While still being treated for his injuries, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer.[11]

In January 2005 Collins was charged with possession of child pornography, and twenty-one child sex offences in the Northern Territory dating back to the 1970s. In 2006, he was charged with sexually assaulting a boy in Canberra in 1989. Court hearings were regularly adjourned because of his medical condition, and in September 2006 Collins issued a public statement stating that he would ‘strenuously fight to clear his name’. On 21 September 2007, three days before he was due to face a committal hearing, he died at his home in the Darwin suburb of Larrakeyah. Collins was a practising Catholic, and a private funeral attended by hundreds took place at St Mary’s Cathedral, Darwin, on 29 September.

In February 2008, the NT coroner stated that Collins had intentionally taken an overdose of prescription drugs mixed with alcohol, ‘following upon a background of three years of significant medical difficulties and in the face of upcoming court cases’. The coroner also ‘looked closely’ at the circumstances of Collins’ 2004 car accident, in light of suggestions that this was a suicide attempt, but was unable to make a determination.

In the days after Collins’ death, stories were published in the press exposing in detail the damaging accusations against him. Other responses pointed out that he had not had a trial, and recalled his achievements during long years of service to the Northern Territory.[12]

Geoffrey Browne

[1] Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 22 Feb. 1998, p. 2; Time (Syd.), 20 July 1992, pp. 60–1, NT News (Darwin), 3 April 1990, p. 2; SMH, 9 Aug. 1997, p. 41; CPD, 18 Dec. 1989, p. 4709; Weekend Australian Magazine, 31 Oct. 1992, pp. 14–20.

[2] NTPD, 23 Sept. 1977, pp. 97–107, 14 Sept. 1978, pp. 146–7, 12 June 1984, pp. 550–4; CPD, 20 April 1988, pp. 1778–82, 30 May 1988, pp. 3149–51; Paul Kelly, The Hawke Ascendancy, A&R, North Ryde, NSW, 1984, pp. 156–70; Ashley Lavelle, ‘Conflicts of loyalty: the Australian Labor Party and uranium policy, 1976–82’, Labour History, No. 102, May 212, pp. 177–96.

[3] NTPD, 21 Nov. 1985, pp. 2062–103; Time (Syd.) 20 July 1992, pp. 60–61; CPD, 30 March 1998, pp. 1578–9; Australian (Syd.), 22 Sept. 2007, p. 3.

[4] Weekend Australian Magazine, 31 Oct. 1992, pp. 14–20; Rosemary Tipiloura in Susan Mitchell, Public Lives, Private Passions, Simon and Schuster, Roseville, NSW, 1994, pp. 190–211; NTPD, 17 Nov. 1982, pp. 3168–83, 24 Nov. 1982, pp. 3378–431; CPD (R), 18 March 2008, p. 2160; Peter Loveday and Dean Jaensch, (eds), A Landslide Election: The NT 1983, ANU North Australia Research Unit, Darwin, 1983; Weekend Australian, 22/23 Sept. 2007, pp. 6–7; NTPD, 19 Aug. 1986, pp. 296–300; Australian (Syd.), 20 Aug. 1986, p. 5; Age (Melb.) 23 Aug 2001, p. 15.

[5] CPD, 16 Sept. 1987, pp.163–68, 27 April 1988, pp. 92–4, 30 Aug. 1989, pp. 108–11, 9 Nov. 1988, pp. 2311–4, 4 May 1989, pp. 1824–7.

[6] Neal Blewett, A Cabinet Diary, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 1999, p. 18; Weekend Australian Magazine, 31 Oct. 1992, pp. 14–20.

[7] CPD, 6 March 1991, pp. 1333–8, 13 March 1991, pp. 1756–63, 14 March 1991, pp. 1998–2007; Australian (Syd.), 4 Sept. 1991, p. 5, 9 Oct 1991, p. 4; Weekend Australian, 26/7 Oct. 1991, p. 4; Bureau of Transport and Communication Economics, Review of the Waterfront Industry Reform Program, AGPS, Canberra, 1995.

[8] CPD (R), 16 May 1990, pp. 650–2, CPD, 1 June 1990, pp. 1695–7, 23 Aug 1990, pp. 2052–7; Blewett, p. 35; CPD, 18 Aug. 1992, p. 7, 7 Dec. 1992, pp. 4271–9; Transcript, Prime Minister’s Press Conference, 2 June 1992; John Gunn, Contested Skies, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1999, pp. 485–97; SMH, supplement, 27 Feb. 1992, p. 5; Jeffrey Goh, The Single Aviation Market of Australia and New Zealand, Cavendish Publishing Ltd, London, 2001, pp. 48–51.

[9] Mark Westfield, The Gatekeepers, Pluto Press, Annandale, 2000; CPD, 4 June 1992, pp. 3599–608, 5 May 1993, pp. 131–40, 148–70, 19 May 1993, pp. 843–5, 20 May 1993, pp. 937–9; Australian (Syd.), 9 Feb. 1993, p. 48; Senate Select Committee On Matters Arising From Pay Television Tendering Processes, First Report, Canberra, Sept. 1993; Parliamentary Library, ‘Pay Television’, Background Paper No. 22, 1994.

[10] CPD, 19 May 1993, pp. 867–9, 16 Dec. 1993, pp. 5396–8, 20/21 Dec. 1993, 27 June 1996, pp. 2396–401, 4 Dec. 1997, pp. 10415–18, 25 June 1996, pp. 2147–50.

[11] Age (News Extra) (Melb.), 28 March 1998, p. 9; N.T. Dept. of Education, Learning Lessons, Darwin, N.T., 1999; Bob Collins, ‘Kakadu Region Social Impact Study Community Report’, Darwin, NT, 2000; Review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, In the Hands of the Regions, A New ATSIC, Canberra, 2003; NTLA, Select Committee on Substance Abuse in the Community, Transcript of Proceedings, 16 Aug. 2002, pp. 1–27; Age (Melb.), 23 April 2004, p. 13; Terry Plane, ‘Big man for a huge job’, The Adelaide Review, May 2004, p. 10; Robert Lawson, ‘The Tragedy of the Pitjantjata Lands’, paper presented to the Bennelong Society Conference, Syd., 4 Sept. 2004.

[12] SMH, 3 July 2004, p. 37; Daily Telegraph, (Syd.), 25 Jan. 2005, p. 4; CT, 16 Sept. 2006, pp. 1–2, 9 March 2007, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 19 Sept. 2006, p. 6; NT News (Darwin), 19 Sept. 2006, pp. 1, 3, 29 May 2007, p. 5; Age (Melb.), 22 Sept. 2007, p. 12; Weekend Australian, 22/23 Sept. 2007, pp. 6–7; SMH, 26 Sept. 2007, p. 1; The Bulletin (Syd.), 2 Oct. 2007, pp. 19–23; Australian (Syd.), 25 Sept. 2007, p. 14, 1 Oct. 2007, p. 7; Frank Brennan, ‘Eulogy … Robert Lindsay Collins … 29 Sept. 2007; SMH, 14 Feb 2008, p. 12.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 143-148.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NT, 1987–98 (ALP)

Minister for Shipping, 1990

Minister for Shipping and Aviation Support, 1990–91

Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Northern Australia, 1990–92

Minister for Shipping and Aviation, 1991–92

Minister for Transport and Communications, 1992–93

Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, 1993–96

Northern Territory Parliament

MLA, Arnhem, 1977–83; Arafura, 1983–87

Senate Committee Service

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1987–90

Estimates Committee C, 1987–90; B, 1989

Joint Select Committee on Video Material, 1987–88

Standing Committee on Infrastructure, 1987

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1987–90

Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, 1987–88

Select Committee on Legislation Procedures, 1988

Select Committee on the Administration of Aboriginal Affairs, 1988–89

Standing Committee on the Environment, Recreation and the Arts, 1988–90

Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, 1988–90

Joint Select Committee on Migration Regulations, 1989–90

Select Committee on Certain Aspects of
the Airline Pilots’ Dispute, 1989–90

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, 1996–97

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, 1996–97

Select Committee on the Victorian Casino Inquiry, 1996

Committee of Privileges, 1997–98

House Committee, 1997–98

Joint Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, 1997–98