Alf Bamblett was a respected leader who helped shape many of the key Aboriginal organisations in Victoria. He engaged with the highest levels of government to influence policy and was committed to Aboriginal affairs, particularly in relation to education, justice and human services.
Alf had a strong grounding in his Aboriginality. His mother was of the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang people; his father a Wiradjuri man. The seventh of 14 children, Alf was born in 1944 and grew up on an Aboriginal reserve on the outskirts of Leeton, New South Wales. He completed form three at Shepparton High School — a significant feat at the time.
In his youth, Alf worked a variety of jobs: as a fruit picker; plasterer; in factories and sawmills. He was a boxer for a time, and toured Tasmania, before finally settling in Melbourne. Alf quickly found a place for himself among the Aboriginal community in Fitzroy.
In the 1960s and '70s, there were demonstrations for land rights and many Aboriginal-run organisations formed, born of an ideology long held by community leaders that Aboriginal people should control their own affairs. Alf's experience while working as a training officer for the Commonwealth Employment Service galvanised his resolve to fight for his people, the 'fringe-dwellers'. Visiting Indigenous communities across Victoria, he was confronted and angered by the poverty and unsanitary conditions in which so many Aboriginal people, including children, were forced to live.
Alf formed a band called the Stray Blacks. They came together out of a need for venues where Aboriginal people could socialise and combat discrimination. Working with community groups and the labour movement, he would help improve relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people through organisations such as the Aboriginal Rights Solidarity Group and Justice for Indigenous Australians.
Alf was involved in the early days of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. He joined the newly formed Victorian Aboriginal Education Association (VAEAI) in 1976 and remained committed to Indigenous education. He worked to establish Aboriginal education units at TAFEs and universities across Victoria, including the Institute of Koorie Education at Deakin University, on the board of which he served. His efforts in this area were acknowledged with an Honorary Doctorate from Deakin University in 2004.
In 1984, Alf, along with others, started the Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association Ltd (VACSAL) which has a state-wide mandate to assist and advise the direction of government for Aboriginal programming and service delivery. In its early days, VACSAL played a key role in the establishment of many of the Aboriginal community-controlled organisations that exist today. Alf's drive for developing new and emerging leaders led to the development of VACSAL's community leadership program. It has produced over 40 graduates and won several state and national training awards.
Alf was seen as a mediator between community and government. His role as a go-to man for progressing and addressing challenges was formally recognised when he was elected to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) as Victorian Commissioner from 1991 to 1995.
While Commissioner, Alf helped prepare a response to the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. He played an integral role in negotiating the funding for programs to address the Commission's 339 recommendations. In doing so he became the first Aboriginal man from Victoria to present to the Federal Cabinet.
The Victorian Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee was subsequently established in 1998, which Alf continues to chair. Alf has been instrumental in the drafting and implementation of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement; a partnership between government and the community to improve justice outcomes for Aboriginal people. His decade of service was recognised with an award from the Aboriginal Justice Forum. In 1999, Alf represented Australia at the United Nations World's Working Group on Indigenous people in Geneva.
Alf was named Victorian Aboriginal of the Year by NAIDOC in 1994 and received a Certificate of Appreciation during International Year of Volunteers in 2001. In 2007, he received the Distinguished Pro Bono Service Award from the Victorian Law Foundation for outstanding contributions to Indigenous Rights.
Following in the footsteps of many great Aboriginal leaders, Alf was the elected President of the Aborigines Advancement League for over a decade.
Alf challenged injustice and remained true to his values of education and self-determination for Aboriginal people. He was grounded in the pride he had for his people and his identity. For more than 40 years, he worked to empower Indigenous Australians and tear down the barriers that impede them.
Reviewed 29 September 2019