Ernie Bridge dies but the fight for justice will go on
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Ernie Bridge died last Sunday afternoon, just weeks after launching a legal battle against the Western Australian Government and two of Australia’s richest individuals after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos.
Mr Bridge was the first Western Australian Aboriginal person to be elected to the West Australian Parliament as the member for the Kimberley between 1980 to 2001; first with the Labor Party and then as an Independent.
His death is a blow to many mesothelioma victims from the Wittenoom asbestos mines disaster. Hundreds have died and without justice. Mr Bridge, as a high profile figure, had the capacity and connections to pursue the consummate legal challenge against the State Government and the resource companies which mined Wittenoom blue asbestos.
Justice in the Courts for Mr Bridge and his family would have paved the way for the many others.
Former West Australian Premier and barrister, Peter Dowding said he hoped the legal case would still be pursued despite Mr Bridge’s death.
“If there is any justice then the case should proceed and compensation for Ernie Bridge and all the others who have suffered from asbestos should be granted,” Mr Dowding said.
Mr Bridge was born in Western Australia’s north at Halls Creek in 1936. He was a pastoralist, businessman and country singer before entering the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1980.
In 1986, he was elevated to Minister for Water Resources, the north-west and Aboriginal Affairs and became the first Aboriginal person in Australia to hold a ministerial portfolio (from 1986 to 1993).
Mr Bridge was suing the Shire of Ashburton, CSR Limited, Midalco, Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting and Angela Bennett’s Wright Prospecting. A fortnight ago, his lawyers lodged a writ in the WA Supreme Court seeking damages for exposure to asbestosis which is alleged to have led to him contracting malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis, pleural disease and respiratory degeneration.
Mr Bridge was exposed to asbestos fibres during ministerial visits to Wittenoom.
Mr Dowding said Mr Bridge had gone to asbestos affected areas such as Wittenoom, Roebourne and Port Samson in his role as a Minister in the late 1980s.
“The Point Samson school camp building had asbestos in it because it used to be used for storing the asbestos before it was shipped out,” Mr Dowding said.
Mr Bridge’s lawyer, Simon Millman said his firm had dealt with hundreds of cases for asbestos victims from the region. He claimed there were more cases to be filed on behalf of others and the number of people filing for compensation showed no sign of dropping off.
There are many Aboriginal people who worked and lived in the area now acknowledged as contaminated.
Wittenoom is now a ghost town, more than 1100kms north of Perth. It is the site of one of Australia’s worst industrial disasters. Mining began in the 1930s and by 1947 a company was built. By the 1950s Wittenoom was the Pilbara’s largest town. During the 1950s and 1960s Wittenoom was Australia’s only supplier of blue asbestos.
The town was shut down in 1966, partly because of the health concerns from the asbestos mining. The rock band Midnight Oil wrote the song Blue Sky Mine, which went to number one on all the Australian music charts and it was about the illnesses the workers contracted.
During the period of his ministerial work, Mr Bridge oversaw the closure of the asbestos mines at Wittenoom. The town was so contaminated it was effectively closed down or de-gazetted in 2008. The Government removed its status as a town and only eight residents remain there today having refused to leave.
Former West Australian Attorney-General Jim McGinty worked alongside Mr Bridge while they were in Parliament.
Mr McGinty said Mr Bridge was respected not only by the Labor Party but also by the Liberal Party.
“Everyone like him,” Mr McGinty said, adding Mr Bridge’s demeanour was a relaxed one, handling everyone and everything “in a very easy going, relaxed sort of way.”
“I remember one occasion when he got out his guitar and he sang a song in Parliament to make a particular point about the speech he was giving at the time.”
Mr McGinty described Mr Bridge as focused on improving the conditions of Aboriginal peoples in remote communities. At the age of 23 Mr Bridge was President of Halls Creek Shire, a community with myriad social problems and acute poverty.
“He went on and did a number of tremendously good things for Indigenous people in Western Australia,” Mr McGinty said.
Mr Bridge served as a Royal Commissioner in the inquiry of alleged abuses to Aboriginal peoples by police at Skull Creek during the 1970s. The inquiry would later find there was a culture of abuse and poor relations between police and Aboriginal peoples which effectively amounted to malpractice by the police.
“It was not always easy for Ernie. He was a Royal Commissioner into what was really a dark episode in Western Australia’s history and that was the treatment of Aboriginal people at Skull Creek by the police,” Mr McGinty said.
“I think that Royal Commission led to a significant change in the way in which policing of Aboriginal people was conducted across the length and breadth of the country.”
Professor Colleen Hayward, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Equity and Indigenous) and Head of Kurongkul Katijin Centre for Indigenous Australian Education and Research at Perth’s Edith Cowan University, said she was saddened to learn Mr Bridge passed away.
“I have known Ernie for too many years to count and have admired and respected him throughout that entire period,” Professor Hayward told the National Indigenous Times.
“He was a champion of and for Aboriginal people throughout Western Australia and nationwide.
“He showed us what was possible through his ground-breaking personal achievements but more than that, he was selfless and caring, remaining focused on what he could do for others long after someone lesser would have retired to quiet contemplation.
“He was a family man and he was a friend. He will be truly missed.”
The first, and only, Aboriginal person elected to the Federal House of Representatives, Ken Wyatt sent his condolences to the Bridge family and told the National Indigenous Times: “Australia has lost a great Aboriginal leader and a man of integrity who made a difference to so many.”
“I will miss my friend and mentor who I enjoyed yarning with about so many things that were important in our lives.”
Former WA Premier Dowding said Ernie Bridge was not a shrinking violet.
“He was a great bloke and West Australian and a very good Aboriginal leader,” Mr Dowding said.
“Ernie had done an enormous amount for the Kimberley.”
Mr Dowding, a barrister, said that he hoped the Court proceedings launched by Mr Bridge would proceed in the name of justice.
“Ernie’s court case is something that applies to hundreds if not thousands of people in the north,” he said.
“Those people were exposed to this dreadful material called blue asbestos at a time when Hancock and the company knew of the poisonous nature of this material.
“They just kept mining it and shipping it out.”
Hundreds have since died from mesothelioma and asbestosis.
National Congress director and Lateral Love co-founder, Brian Butler also sent his condolences to the Bridge family.
“Western Australia and the whole of Australia for that matter should be ashamed that Ernie Bridge was not supported in his initiative to bring water down from the top end of Western Australia to the southern parts of Western Australia,” Mr Butler said.
“Yet another Aboriginal initiative where mainstream Australia is too ignorant to see the long term benefits.”
Entertainer and a WA Indigenous person of the Year Mark Bin Bakar wrote on a Kimberley-based website Mr Bridge was one of the Kimberley’s most successful persons “who achieved some great heights within Western Australia.”
“From the local Shire of Hall Creek councillor from 1962 to 1979 through to State Minister, he became the first Indigenous politician anywhere in Australia to serve in a ministerial portfolio,” Mr Bin Bakar said.
“However prior to his political life, he was involved in family business and became a successful small businessman in his own right.
“He was well known as the singing politician. He had been a Country and Music performer. He toured with his own band featuring his two sons Kim and Noel Bridge and also at times with the late and great Barry Thornton, lead guitarist for Slim Dusty.”
In 1992 he added to his many awards the WA Country Music Award for best original song. In 1995 he was made an inductee of the Australian Country Music Foundation, having his hand print set in concrete in the Country Music Hands of Fame in Tamworth.
“In 1997, he established Unity of First People of Australia, a non-profit organisation which assists Aboriginal people in Western Australia with employment within the law and order, health and education industries.”
The South West Land and Sea Council’s Gail Beck said Mr Bridge was “a gentleman with a vision who worked tirelessly to improve the disparity across all sectors between black and white in Western Australia personally and professionally.
“He also led the way for other Western Australian Aboriginal people to follow him in creating change through the vehicle of politics and advocacy,” Ms Beck said.
Mr Bridge once said, “I feel that I am first a human being and that I connect with everyone. But if someone asks me if I am Aboriginal then of course my answer is yes.”
On the Monday morning after his passing Mr Bridge’s daughter Cheryl posted on Facebook, “I have been blessed to have the most beautiful mum and dad in the world and have made it possible for me, my daughters and family to have the most amazing life.”
“I have so enjoyed living with you the past three years and caring for you the past 12 months through this illness. It has been the most enriching experience.”