The Billumum Noongar man from Western Australia was removed from his mother as a baby and placed at St. Joseph's Orphanag in Subiaco. He was later moved at the age of 2 to Castledare Junior Orphanage and then on to Clontarf Boys' Town where he completed his schooling.
"I was brought up in three different institutions… I was just moved, not knowing where my family were living, I didn't understand my heritage or culture. Those 17 years I was just locked away,” he told the ABC.
"But I wanted to be good citizen of the community and do best by people who were in the same category I had been in and I'm talking about thousands across Australia."
Returning to education he studied social work at the WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin University). While there he won a scholarship to the University of Utah which enabled him to visit Native American reservations and see the social programs that were being carried out there.
Robert started his career as an Aboriginal Health worker with the Community and Child Health Services in 1973. He has continued to work in health through his involvement with the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service; helping to establish healthcare, dental and rehabilitation clinics in Western Australia.
A firm believer in the ability of housing policy to help Indigenous Australia develop a stake in the local community he introducing the ‘Aboriginal Home Ownership Scheme’ which gave assistance to 6000 Aboriginal households to purchase their first home.
After his experiences at Clontarf Boystown as a child, Robert was instrumental in setting up Clontarf Aboriginal College as Australia’s first Indigenous school in 2000.
Robert has also been involved in politics, becoming the first Aboriginal person elected to local government as a Councillor and Deputy Mayor for the City of Gosnells in Perth. His decision to resign from the Liberal Party of Australia came as a result of John Howard’s refusal to apologise for the government’s involvement in the Stolen Generations policy.
In 2000, Robert told his story as a member of the Stolen Generations as part of the ‘Bringing Them Home’ oral history project.
He was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his services to Housing, Health, Education and Employment in 2001.
An Australian of the Year finalist in 2006, he has also been awarded Western Australian of the Year and the NAIDOC Outstanding Achievement Award in 2015. He was given an honorary doctorate from Warnborough College (Ireland) in 2013 for his social work and fifty year contribution to Aboriginal affairs.
Robert is currently working as the Chair of the Australia Day Council WA, is an Executive Member of the West Australian Aboriginal Advisory Council, and a Foundation Member, President and Chair of the Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service.
Robert’s genuine passion and dedication to Indigenous affairs and the broader community has seen him become a role model for many.