Professor Robert Somerville is a Martu Aboriginal man from northern Western Australia. He has had a long and successful career as an educator at all levels as well as a near lifelong commitment to and involvement in the Australian Air Force Cadets (AAFC). Professor Somerville commenced his career with the Department of Education in 1978 as a primary teacher. He worked as a principal and deputy principal in a number of schools before being promoted to Superintendent in 1990. He has been a district superintendent and district director leading the Kimberley, Goldfields, Swan and Joondalup Education Districts prior to being promoted to the position of Director of Aboriginal Education and Training in 2003, a position that he held for 10 years. He was until recently the Chief Executive Officer of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education where among many other things he was instrumental in supporting the development and running of the Army Indigenous Development Program (AIDP) – a program designed to ensure selected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women could successfully enter the Australian Army and other Commonwealth services. Professor Somerville was awarded the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2003, the Outstanding Aboriginal Educator in 1988 and the Cadet Forces Medal in 2004.
We are briefly profiling Professor Somerville’s remarkable career for this special edition of our newsletter as he exemplifies the great contribution that Indigenous Australians have made to serving country and the positive impact that service in the ADF can have on the lives of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians.
How did your experience growing up in remote Western Australia inform your views and motivations?
My Grandmother Yibbee owned a cattle station, called ‘Beyondie’ which is just below Jigalong where most of my community now live. While I grew up in Perth I spent every school holiday at Beyondie Station learning to ride, shoot and be a cattleman so I have always considered myself a ‘station’ kid. In fact, it was on the station that my love of flying had its genesis as I saw a small Cessna land on the sand flats near the station homestead as a six-year old and decided that I too was going to fly an aircraft.
My Grandmother and mother are both products of the stolen generation. The movie ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’, based on the novel by Doris Pilkington Garimara, is the story of my family. My grandmother Yibbie George walked along the fence back to Jigalong, some 10 years before the girls who were portrayed in the movie, all of whom were her nieces. My mum and all of her brothers and sisters were placed into Sisters Kate’s children’s home, consequently the government policy direction of the time which was to remove children from their parents is an inter-generational atrocity for my family. As a consequence, I remain somewhat sceptical when it comes to non-Aboriginals making key decisions about Aboriginal people and am passionate about Aboriginal people leading the change when it comes to our own affairs rather than being the ‘advisors’ where our ‘advice’ can be either taken or ignored by those in positions of power.
So I don’t know what affect being from a remote community has had on me but I do know that I always had a passion to succeed and to make a difference for Aboriginal people and of course a love of flying and for the ‘bush,’ particularly the Gascoyne-Murchison region of WA.
You were the first-ever Aboriginal person to be appointed Officer Commanding of a Wing in the RAAF’s cadet program, the Australian Air Force Cadets. Were you also once a cadet?
In 1969, aged 14, I joined the Australian Air Force Cadets (then called the Air Training Corps) in the Perth suburb of Belmont. As a young Aboriginal teen from a single parent family living in State-owned housing, joining the Air Training Corps was my first experience of being treated equally. In Cadets, I learned the real meaning of equity was that no matter how rich you were, and regardless of the colour of your skin or the language you spoke, you were judged solely on your achievements and character. This is one of the great values of the Australian Air Force Cadets, where everyone is treated equally and you advance on the basis of merit. Being treated as an equal, largely unique for Aboriginal people in those days, inspired and empowered me and gave me the confidence to progress both my professional career and also my flying. I always wanted to be a pilot and being a member of the Air Force Cadets I was surrounded by young people with the same passion.
When I turned 18 I wanted to remain in Uniform so consequently moved to the Air Force Reserve as an instructor with the Air Training Corps and since then have continued my affiliation with the Air Training Corps in its new form as the Australian Air Force Cadets. I now hold the rank of Wing Commander in the organisation.
I owe cadets a great deal, and am delighted to now be able to further encourage young Australians from all backgrounds to join an organisation that will firmly encourage them to achieve their dreams – while also having a really good time. It is most rewarding to be sitting in a Mess somewhere in the Country and having a former Cadet saying hello who is now a member of the ADF.
Please tell us briefly about some of your favourite memories from your service.
Through cadets I have had many wonderful and life changing experiences. For example, I am a multi-engine instrument rated pilot outside of the Air Force, but cadets gave me the opportunity to parachute out of a perfectly serviceable aircraft, something I am pretty sure I would not have done otherwise. I have also been heavily involved in adventurous training activities and have been awarded the Adventure Training badge. It has been great helping cadets overcome their fears and challenge themselves through this work.
Perhaps the highlight so far was my time as the Officer Commanding of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Cadet program located at RAAF Base Pearce in WA. During my three-year tenure as Officer Commanding 7 Wing, I was able to lead a major reformation program that saw recruitment rise by nearly 100%, the acquisition and upgrading of resources, the restructure of funding and logistical processes. The overall improvements led the Wing to be awarded the Air Force Trophy in 2014 which was very satisfying.
I also have really enjoyed my friendships (all lifetime) that I have with both staff members of the Australian Air Force Cadets but also the permanent and reserve Air Force members all of whom are dedicated and very special people.
Until recently, you were the CEO of the Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education. What advice would you give to the next generation of Indigenous leaders?
I was the Chief Executive Officer of Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education from February 2015 until October 2017. Batchelor is Australia’s only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Tertiary and Research Institute. I had the privilege of leading and transforming this organisation into Australia’s preferred Tertiary provider for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, unlike other leaders, have a dual responsibility. One that obviously all leaders have which is to lead an organisation in a successful and sustainable manner but as a First Nations leader we also have a responsibility to both our own people and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander community as a whole. That is to represent and ensure that what we do continues to make a difference for our people. So I guess a really great example of the above was the Army Indigenous Development program at Batchelor which I strongly encouraged and worked closely with the Australian Army to support. Why, because it made an enormous difference to the lives of Aboriginal people and just as importantly supported an employer who was absolutely committed to increasing First nations involvement and representation in their organisation, the Australian Army.
We as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, whether we like the title or not, are role models and people in positions of power whose opinions and actions must contribute to the national dialogue. For me its fundamental, we have a role not only in just providing advice about the needs of our people BUT more importantly to be in a position to lead that change supported by competent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. I guess I am just a little ‘over’ the continued mistakes and confusing policy changes of Government when it comes to making a difference for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and believe that we as a people and especially those in a leadership position are better placed to be both making the decisions about what our communities and people need and then leading the changes necessary.
You are now managing the 18+ Transition Program for the Australian Air Force Cadets, please tell us a little about the program and its aims.
Defence has made the decision that Australian Defence Force Cadet members (ie Navy, Army and Air Force) will now ‘retire’ as a Cadet at the end of the year they turn 18. At the moment Cadets remain within the ADFC until the age of 20. This is an outcome of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse. My role along with a team of staff officers is now to support the Australian Air Force Cadets in establishing a range of protocols to support these 18 and 19 year-old Cadets transition successfully into the ADFC as an adult Officer or air person as well as review the plethora of policies and instructions that will need to be re-written to reflect the change which will take effect by 01 January 2019.
You hold an adjunct professorial position at Edith Cowan University’s Centre for Indigenous Research and Knowledges. What do you see as some of the most significant things for Australians and ADF members particularly to think about during Reconciliation Week?
The ADF has been and continues to be an organisation that has treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are members of the ADF with respect and dignity. A little known fact is that a large number of ADF personnel returning from WWII were instrumental in their support of the Aboriginal rights movements that eventually lead to the 1967 Referendum. Why, because these servicemen and women couldn’t understand why their Aboriginal mates who fought beside them were being treated so unequally when they returned.
So to members of the ADF during Reconciliation week my advice is to learn some more about Australia’s First people whose culture is intricately linked to the Country that each of you have sworn to protect. Aboriginal culture is as much your heritage, as an Australian, as it is ours as First Nations peoples. Take the time to talk with the Air Force, Army or Navy ‘Elder’ or just have a chat to one of your Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander colleagues about their background and culture.