Lawyer began fight against Indigenous custody deaths in 1987

Noel James Olive was born in Sydney on January 24, 1931, one of six children of May (nee Williams) and Jack Olive. Living back in the city after bush adventures, he became a wharfie. After returning from China, his jobs included ironworker at a foundry and builders’ labourer.

In the late 1970s, Australian university entrance was at its least expensive, before or since. Noel had done enough with brawn, he decided, and applied his brain to making up for lost time. Qualification in law at Macquarie University, begun in 1978, was completed in 1982. Strongly influenced by an Aboriginal activist, Pat O’Shane, with whom he lived for a period, he became involved with a “committee to defend black rights”. She went on to become Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate. Subsequently, Olive welcomed the chance to join a legal team for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

When the royal commission first came to Perth, the local people became somewhat excited. They could not stand idly by and so regularly gathered on Perth street corners armed with loudhailers. No surprise to find Olive standing alongside Aboriginal leaders, Michael Mansell, Lennie Culbong, and the Reverend Ben Taylor, all talking up the need for the commission, the need for public support and for co-operation.

It was extraordinary that such public agitation had to take place to bolster the commission’s arrival in the West Australian capital, given that the order for a legal inquiry had been at the national level of government. Yet it was as a result of the emotion generated on the issue of race, especially in the justice system and in the public domain.

Noel Olive leading a demonstration about Indigenous deaths in custody.

Noel Olive leading a demonstration about Indigenous deaths in custody.

The police and prison officers’ unions publicly opposed the royal commission holding hearings in Western Australia. They did not consider that their conduct should be subject to scrutiny when an Aboriginal had died in their custody. The number of deaths in the West was the highest of any state and there was a good deal of public concern as to the nature and circumstances of those deaths.

Consider the reaction of the people of the country town of Geraldton, 400 kilometres north of Perth, where a prison existed. A large crowd of Aboriginal people and whitefellas were together demanding an end to the persecutions by police and prison officers, demonstrated in 1989 in support of the commission. They wanted the legal investigation to commence. Where was the action to protect people in custody? They were fed up.

Olive’s work in WA included representing Aboriginal people appearing before the commission. His determined voice led him not only to Slim Parker but also to Peg Whittington, a commissioner for the deaths in custody watch committee with whom Olive did a thorough northern excursion to meet communities and understand priorities.

In 1992, Michael Olive stayed with his father in Perth, meeting Slim and hearing their views on major issues such as the Mabo decision on land rights. “On a drive from Perth to Tom Price, through stunning country,” he says, “Dad and I met visitors who, led by an Indigenous tour guide, were highly impressed by the Karijini Gorge area.”

Olive had three books to show for his immersion in the Pilbara: Karijini Mirlimirli: Aboriginal Histories from the Pilbara, as editor; Enough is Enough: A History of the Pilbara Mob, described by the publishers, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, as “an alarming look into the justice system that failed to treat Indigenous Australians as equals”; and Out with the Pilbara Mob.

Noel Olive

Noel Olive

His marriage in 1958, to Diana Hill, produced three children. It ended in divorce. After returning to a settled existence in the NSW coastal town of Umina, Olive’s intellectual life centred on the University of the Third Age, of which he became local president.

Olive was a “big ideas” man and was good at rallying others to the cause. Once he got an idea in his head, he’d see it through. He was also fun to be around and was quite the ladies man. In retirement, he organised a camping trip back to the Pilbara. Two had to drop out due to other commitments so he ended up taking three women with him: his then girlfriend, an ex, and the ex’s friend. It was 40 degrees heat, a disagreement erupted, the ex left for Sydney, and the two remaining women didn’t get along.

A postcard with a lone Kombi van on the front arrived at Sue Young and Chris Moe’s home a week or so later: “Sue and Chris, this is a big trip and all my defects are on show. The sun, the wind, the rain (water) all manage to hassle my life – but still I smile. This is just another of life’s journeys from which we learn ‘things’.″⁣ Noel had just turned 81.

In his later years, he became a keen painter, mainly of Pilbara scenes. He turned his garage into a gallery called – appropriately for one who had championed the cause of peace – The Olive Branch.

Noel Olive died on April 6. He is survived by his daughter Tessa, sons Michael and Peter and five grandchildren.

Stephanie Short

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