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Speech: Tribute to Mr Arthur Beetson AO

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 7 Feb 2012

Adjournment speech, Tuesday 7 February 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:24): During this parliament's summer recess, on 1 December 2011, many of Rugby League's toughest players broke down and cried at the news of the sudden death of Arthur Beetson. Artie was born on 21 January 1945 in Roma, Queensland. At the age of 16, skinny enough to be known as 'Bones', he played his initial first-grade game for Roma Cities. Two years later he signed up with Redcliffe, Brisbane, where he won the club's player of the year award and the premiership.

In 1966 he moved to Sydney to join the Balmain Tigers. His offloading and attacking work-rate broke the mould for forwards. Arthur created star players around him. In 1971 he joined Eastern Suburbs. The charismatic and fair-minded captain led the Roosters to back-toback premierships in 1974, where he won the Clive Churchill medal, and in 1975 a famous 38-0 victory over St George—a victory that my family enjoyed immensely.

Although he won 18 caps for New South Wales, Artie pushed hard for the State of Origin, league's greatest idea of the modern era, as he had seen enough of Queenslanders beating Queenslanders. In 1980, in an inspiring performance in the inaugural State of Origin match, Artie set the tone for the 'mate-versus-mate, state-versus-state' concept by emphatically refuting suggestions that club mates might go easy on each other. Equally skilled as a coach, he directed Maroon origin wins in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1989. He was named coach of the year in 1987.

Artie represented Australia 47 times. These are extraordinary achievements by any measure, and they were duly recognised. He was inducted into the Australian Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2003 and named in the front row of the Team of the Century.

He became the seventh post-war immortal of the game. In 1987, Artie was awarded an Order of Australia in recognition of his services to the sport of Rugby League. He was coaching Easts that year, and they had a good season.

In 1973 in Toulouse, France, Artie became the first Indigenous player to captain Australia in any sport. Among Indigenous Australians, Beetson was a beacon: a hero in a time when there were few. He used to say, 'I'm a very proud Australian and a very proud Queenslander around State of Origin time; but most of all, I'm a very proud blackfella.'

Arthur came from a hard-working family on the banks of the river at Roma. His dad, Bill, used to supply trees for the local power station before they took the next step to coal. His mum, Marie, was taken away as an 11-year-old and used as a domestic: she was part of the stolen generation. Arthur's brother told him that, every time a stranger's car came to their house, their mum would hide the kids for fear of their being  stolen too. Marie always thought that their way out of disadvantage was getting a good education. She also told young Arthur, 'It doesn't matter what they call you, unless they call you late for breakfast.' Artie said, We always had to defend ourselves at some stage.' As a 16-year-old, he fought for the Darling Downs light heavyweight boxing championship, losing on points.

He copped racism on the field, but it did not worry him too much—he felt it said more about the racist than it did about him—although he was sent off 10 times in Sydney alone, often because he was reacting to taunts. He fell out with Rugby League officialdom towards the end. They overlooked their debt to him, which they still speak about and which they now appear to be atoning for. Though dubious rule changes and the Super League war tortured the game, Artie still thought it was the greatest game of all, and that never changed. John Quayle recently stated: 'I'm sorry, Arthur, you were right on many occasions. The desire to help so many kids in the country regions was a passion and we should have done more.'

As with his trademark offloads on the footy field, Arthur had mastered the beautiful act of giving. The modest Beetson was still mentoring Redfern camps only months before his death, and he was the Indigenous ambassador for Centrelink. He recently visited Darwin. In a single day, he spoke at the Child Protection Week launch, visited the juvenile detention centre, spoke to Catholic Care workers about men taking a stand against family violence and child abuse and then was guest speaker at the Northern Territory Rugby League awards night. Tipped to become a jockey as a weedy kid, both his and the horses' fortunes changed as Artie's idea of a balanced diet was a pie in each hand. His son Brad Beetson said that Arthur joked that he was going to get low calorie pies. The British parliament recently honoured Arthur by tabling a motion recognising his outstanding achievements, not just as a player for Hull Kingston Rovers in the 1960s, but for his great contributions to team building, sporting greatness and in recognition of the importance of his mentoring work with the Indigenous community.

Arthur Beetson died following a heart attack while riding his bike on the Gold Coast. He was 66. It is my honour to speak in the Senate to commemorate the remarkable life of Arthur Beetson. I extend my deepest sympathy to his family and friends. Tomorrow I will move a joint party motion from all sides of politics for Arthur's outstanding contributions to the nation's sporting and cultural ledger. Thank you, Arthur, for making rugby league such a great game. Your talent in sport and life was uplifting. It is very sad that you died so young.

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