in the far North Coast town of Billinudgel, near Mullumbimby,
he was the grandson of a Vanuatu sugar-cutting slave and an
Aboriginal woman from the Noonuccal people of Stradbroke Island.
One of nine children, he knew poverty, hunger and a widespread
culture of alcoholism as he grew to manhood. He told an interviewer
in 1978: "Drunkenness was our only refuge. But when you
emerged from the haze of drunkenness, there was always the
harsh reality of racism to face."
He left school early, he said, and "I
couldn't even get a job as a bank teller, attitudes being
what they were then."
Bellear joined the navy. He learned mechanical
engineering and clearance diving, and loved his time at sea.
He became a champion rugby player for the navy. Tall and lean,
he was an outstanding and talented centre. In the navy he
met his wife and life partner Kaye Williams, the daughter
of a Ballarat trade unionist. At the time, she was going out
with one of Bellear's shipmates and was in the process of
moving house from Bondi to Kings Cross. Bellear helped her
move - in every sense of the word.
Within six weeks the couple had fallen in
love and married. They became inseparable and a devastating
combination. Kaye saw in Bellear the qualities of a natural
leader: a man of charm, conviction, humanity, common sense,
humour and ambition.
Bellear became the first Aborigine to rise
to the level of petty officer in the navy. By the time he
left in 1968, he was a qualified diver, bricklayer, furnace
lagger, and fitter and turner. He gained jobs at the Clyde
oil refinery and elsewhere on the strength of his trade skills.
He was already a man on the march.
But this was also the time in Sydney of rising
Aboriginal consciousness about civil rights. The use of the
hated Summary Offences Act on Aboriginal people in Redfern
became a kind of police sport. Bellear watched with horror
as friends suffered not for being criminal but for being black.
The overt racism of the police actions every Friday and Saturday
night appalled him.
The former attorney-general who welcomed
Bellear to the bench, Jeff Shaw, said at the time: "It
was easy for police to arrest Aboriginal people. They had
a formula. It was the trifecta, 'unseemly words', 'resist
arrest' and 'assault police'. Seeing this injustice repeated
week after week hit hard, and there was no way that Bob Bellear
was going to sit back and watch it happening."
One evening in 1972, Kaye and Bellear were
sitting in the Clifton Hotel, Redfern, when the paddy wagons
dragged away another clutch of local blacks. Together they
decided he would study law.
Bellear went to Sydney Technical College
to finish his high school studies, getting his HSC in 1973.
The next year he joined the University of NSW law school.
He gained his degree in 1978 and was admitted to the bar the
next year. In less than 10 years from taking that decision
at the Clifton Hotel, he had become a barrister.
Bellear founded the Aboriginal Housing Company
in Redfern in 1972, was a director of the Aboriginal Medical
Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service through most of the
1970s, and was a director and chairman of Tranby College.
He was a key South Sydney community activist and a close adviser
to the remarkable Father Ted Kennedy of St Vincent's Church,
Redfern. He was also on myriad Labor committees advising on
In the 1980s there was no stopping this man
of quiet determination, affable humour and unaffected friendliness.
He represented Aboriginal people (and whites) in a wide range
of courts. The main emphasis of his practice, however, was
criminal trials, instructed by the Aboriginal Legal Service,
Legal Aid Commission or private practitioners. He was constantly
working on the side of the poor. He also successfully represented
traditional owners in three important land claims, and was
appointed as counsel assisting to the Royal Commission into
Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987.
Meanwhile, he was a committee member of the
Redfern All Blacks rugby league club and patron of the Moree
Boomerang Football Club.
In 1990 he won the University of NSW Alumni
Award and in 1993 Macquarie University awarded him an honorary
doctor of laws in recognition of his services to law, the
community and the Aboriginal people. By then he had been appointed
public defender in NSW and could be found at the Matthew Talbot
Hostel dispensing free legal advice to the homeless in his
In 1996, he became the first Aborigine to
be appointed a judge. From the benches of District Courts
around NSW, Bellear worked for eight years bringing fair and
compassionate justice to those before him.
He also worked without stint for young Aboriginal
people thinking of studying law. He was a mentor to young
black lawyers and law students, and encouraged Aboriginal
high school students to join him in his court. He opened the
court to national indigenous legal studies students from Tranby.
He was a strong supporter of the construction union, and was
patron of the Construction Industry Drug and Alcohol Foundation.
He had a special place in his heart for his
son Malu, who died young. At his appointment as a judge in
1996, Bellear said: "My son Malu, for all his short life,
loved me unconditionally and taught me the value of compassion
and courage. He will be with me for the entire journey both
on and off the bench."
When Bellear's son, Kali, had a boy last
year, he was named Tanna Jamarra Bellear - Tanna for his grandfather's
ancestral Vanuatu home and Jamarra for kangaroo (the same
meaning as Malu). And when Bellear died in his bed, wearing
a Che Guevara T-shirt, Kaye's last words were to invite him
to rejoin his beloved Malu.
Bellear has been a role model for his people,
a source of enormous pride and joy to his family, especially
his wife, and a beacon of hope in dark times for all those
who believe in Aboriginal rights and justice. He wore his
extraordinary achievements with great humility. A great friend,
an easy mate, he never lost his ordinary touch. He will remain
strong in the hearts of all he touched.
He is survived by Kaye, his children, Joanne
and Kali, and four grandchildren.