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Bridge, Ernest Francis (Ernie) (1936–2013)

by Tom Stephens

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Ernie Bridge was a man with so very many varied and inspiring dimensions – loving husband, devoted father and grandfather, a great older brother for his own siblings; he was a loving son to loving parents; he was a reliable friend, a beaut boss, an awesome country music singer, a trusted colleague, and a much loved public figure. 

“Water’s a human right” was just one of his many battle cries, expressed often forcefully, to colleagues and government officers alike as situations demanded.  Ernie Bridge endlessly pursued solutions to the water needs of the many small regional towns and communities of Western Australia and beyond. However, this pursuit was only part of his story. 

As WA Labor’s Minister for Water Resources in the years between 1986 and 1993, the Hon Ernest Francis Bridge AM (b. 15 December 1936; d.31March 2013) distinguished himself as an activist minister, rolling out urgent water programs to meet the needs of the battlers in the WA bush. It’s understatement to say Ernie’s determination was not always matched by bureaucratic appetite – especially at Treasury. Ernie responded with all of his many powerful human skills to persuade and cajole, and most often won through. 

It was his natural human warmth, ready smile, endless self-confidence and steel-will that ensured Ernie got so many things done, leaving a lasting legacy not easily achieved; he was often so busy dealing with the present, the here and now, the hand life had dealt, paying just polite regard to what his critics might think; and yet across WA there are 180 plaques as testimony to some of his achievements from Bindi Bindi to Warmun and beyond. 

Ernie’s parents were East Kimberley station people; his father, Ernest Kimberley Bridge (b.1899 in Halls Creek) was part of a large family clan who first settled in this area towards the end of the 19th century with Ernie’s grandfather – Joseph Payne Bridge – having first come across the top of Australia to settle in on Mable Downs Station in the eastern Kimberley. In 1935 Ernest Snr married Sarah Parnell, who had come from the nearby Alice Downs Station; with that bond the young couple linked themselves and their children to the Gidja peoples of the East Kimberley. 

In the late summer of 1936, while Ernest and Sarah were living on their pastoral lease at Bungle Bungle, they welcomed the birth of Ernest Francis Bridge, the first of their seven children. 

As the first son of hardworking station people, it was not long before Ernie was up in the saddle himself, working alongside his father, absorbing all the horse and cattle handling skills imaginable. Extracting Ernie for schooling or anything much beyond practical station work proved near impossible; he fitted in just a few short months of schooling in Derby, but always found an excuse to get back home to the station where his mother Sarah persisted with basic lessons in reading and writing; Ernie’s copperplate signature was from this rudimentary bush education. Ernie’s prodigious energy meant he was always on the go; as a young boy of 4 rather than as an infant, he was christened by a visiting German Pallottine priest, to become the first entry in the Baptismal registry of the Catholic mission at Balgo, operating then from Rockhole, just out from Halls Creek. In later life Ernie recalled this ceremony as having many of the features famed in ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ballad “A Bush Christening”; for Ernie was a lad who would rarely sit still, not even for a priestly sprinkling with baptismal water. 

Again later in life, Ernie recalled that amongst his happiest of early memories was time spent proudly working alongside his father; at least initially this was on their station country north of Halls Creek, east of Turkey Creek, in the area now known as the Purnululu National Park, where endless numbers of the Gidja people proudly laid claim to having “grown him up”. However, while Ernie was still quite young, his parents purchased the pastoral lease around Rockhole and over time this spread developed into the family station holding of Koongie Park. 

On each of these pastoral leases Ernie learned the lessons of station life, breaking in horses, settling down stock, building yards, looking after the mills. His father saw to it that Ernie was thrust into early leadership roles. As a very young boy he was given the responsibility of leading teams of workers in all aspects of station work, moving trucks and plant, cutting timber for stock yards or homestead fires, and soon graduating to the task of boss drover to move the mobs of cattle up the stock route to the Wyndham meatworks. These early happy memories were also the stuff upon which he drew, not only as he later developed his own holding on the neighbouring Elvira, but as he took the practical skills and the capacity for effective leadership into every aspect of his later years. Along the way the young Ernie had memorable fun: regularly winning as a jockey in the local horse races, with his first win at the age of 15, going on to win the Halls Creek Cup in 1955; and back at the station or along the stock route developing skills with guitar and song as he rode, protectively, around the stock camps at night. 

When Ernest Kimberley Bridge (Senior) died suddenly in 1962, he left a big hole in the family but also in the local community, including a vacant seat on the Halls Creek council. The young Ernie was persuaded to nominate for the vacancy and moved onto council and within just three years was elected as the shire president. This was a hotly contested move. The outgoing president was from the old-order “station establishment”, from bigger spreads further out from the Halls Creek township. Objections were laid; it was argued Ernie could not take up the Presidency because he was an Aboriginal and, they claimed, illegitimate. In those times communications between Halls Creek and the state capital were haphazard and required time and patience. Ernie’s enquiries with the Local Government Department and with the Registrar of Birth’s Deaths and Marriages eventually confirmed he was born in wedlock and, despite objection from the squattocracy, there was no bar to him retaining the shire presidency. Ernie became the first Aboriginal person to serve on a local council in WA and the youngest shire president when elected to that role in 1965, a position he held until his resignation in 1979. 

During Ernie’s 18 years on the Halls Creek council – much of the time with the help of his brother Benny, the Halls Creek baker – Ernie established a full suite of programs to assist the Halls Creek community grow into a peaceful and harmonious community. Two examples of his initiatives and reforms were the appointment of a town ranger, in Trooper Bedford, and the desegregation of the local cemetery so that from then on Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people could be buried together. However, there was much, much more – which even included having an ongoing local battle to secure for the town of Halls Creek the supply of good, clean healthy drinking water! 

While serving as Halls Creek shire president Ernie was appointed a foundation member of the WA Aboriginal Lands Trust; he served as an inaugural member of the Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Fund Commission and as a Royal Commissioner inquiring into controversial events at Skull Creek that highlighted problems with Aboriginal and police relations. Ernie served with pride and distinction in all these roles and took pleasure in seeing many of his recommendations implemented; including the first ever recruitment and training of Aboriginal people by the police department to serve as Aboriginal Police Liaison Officers. Ernie revisited this work many years later, modernising the initiative, by recruiting and training Aboriginal people to move into the Police Department, as regular police officers. 

In amongst all of this Ernie obtained his air pilot’s licence, proudly returning to Halls Creek in  his own Cessna that became his regular and preferred mode of fast transport for ferrying his children down across the Tanami to the Alice for boarding school and to get up and down the state for his various official commitments. Simultaneously he and wife Mavis successfully developed a wide range of local business and property interests, expanding out from their station holdings to own the local Road House, running the picture gardens – where Ernie was the projectionist and his wife Mavis was the ticket seller. They also took on the MacRobertson Miller Airlines Agency and developed a full range of other local Halls Creek business interests, including – at various times – a mixed business, a café and a butcher shop. 

In 1976 Ernie accepted ALP endorsement for the state seat of Kimberley. His first contest brought on a big stoush, this time with claims from some of the same opponents from his early local government days, now asserting – with breathtaking hypocrisy – that “Ernie was not Aboriginal; but an Afghan”. That was followed by the unleashing of an initially covert plan that was subsequently revealed during the proceedings of the Court of Disputed Returns. The plan aimed at thwarting the ambitions of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley to exercise the vote. Ernie’s key campaign supporters were endlessly harassed; including Mrs Jessie Burridge (Callaghan) in Kununurra, whose typewriter and gestetner printing machine, used for her home-produced community newsletter, was seized in a raid on her home and sent to Perth for lengthy “forensic” examination before she was charged with having not recorded her address on the newsletter! Sylvia Hurse and Helen Sheahan – two Kimberley business women who had set up and were running the Walkabout Stores enterprises in the region and were key campaign supporters of Ernie – were charged with hawking within a township, namely Fitzroy Crossing, without a permit from the Derby Shire; however, the prosecutor eventually couldn’t prove where the boundary of Fitzroy Crossing was nor that the girls had been within it! All of this only served to galvanise an already determined Aboriginal voting population who, together with their growing support base, delighted in Ernie’s belated election in February 1980 to the WA State Parliament, where he took up his seat at the same time as his friend, the future Premier Peter Dowding, who was elected for North Province. The pathway to this first election win for Ernie had been made very difficult by his political opponents. Ernie had good reason to frequently recall to mind that he had been warned, specifically during a phone call from none other than the State Premier, Sir Charles Court; after Ernie told the Premier that he was going to accept Labor endorsement, back came the reply: “politics can be very tough!” As Ernie often said later, he had no idea just how tough they were going to make it: for him and for his family and for his friends and supporters. 

The establishment’s reaction to Ernie’s election was, however, quite vicious, leading – among other things — to charges being laid and the arrest of some of the key people who had supported the Aboriginal people in securing and exercising their franchise: including Steven Hawke, Jennifer Gardiner, Les Verdon and Tom Stephens. These charges, for alleged breaches of the electoral act (most for the alleged offence of “persuading and inducing voters to apply for a postal vote”) were all eventually either dismissed by the courts or withdrawn by the prosecutors, however those charged had been variously hauled off to local police station lock-ups across the Kimberley – in Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek and Kununurra – and Stephens was taken to the Wyndham Prison! Meanwhile, at that same election of February 1980, people associated with and supported by the local Liberal party, had – on election eve – taken a 44 gallon drum of port wine, supplied by Hotel Kununurra, and delivered it to the Warmun Community at Turkey Creek in an attempt to get the voters too drunk to vote at that election. The perpetrators, including local bull catcher Steve Waddell, were caught in the act of distributing the wine around what were then just the rudimentary campsites at Turkey Creek; the Gidja people of what is now the Warmun Community were living without running water, in tents and shacks and old car bodies. However, this scurrilous plan was foiled; and every eligible resident voter at the Warmun Community proudly voted at that election that day and their votes were part of the large winning majority that elected their fellow country-man, Ernie Bridge, to the Parliament. Despite complaints being lodged with the police at the time there was inadequate follow-up, nor were any charges laid and the culprits and their accomplices went unpunished. Double standards were clearly well and truly on display in WA’s Kimberley region; there was no blindfold on justice; it was more like a large eye patch on just one eye – the right eye! 

Ernie’s election victory at that February 1980 election made him the first Aboriginal person elected to the WA State Parliament; he went on in 1986 to become the first Aboriginal person to serve in an Australian Cabinet. These were big achievements that Ernie took in his stride, making it just that little bit easier for those who came along behind.

Ernie served with distinction in the Burke Labor Government from 1986 as Minister for Water Resources, North-West and Aboriginal Affairs. In the WA Labor Government of Peter Dowding in 1988 Ernie took on the Agriculture and Small Business portfolios and then in 1989 in Carmen Lawrence’s Government he resumed the Water Resources, North-West and Aboriginal Affairs portfolios, holding these until Labor’s defeat at the 1993 WA State elections.

After 18 years in local government, followed by twenty-one years in state parliament, Ernie retired from politics in 2001, having served his last four years as an Independent Labor MP.

Meanwhile, Ernie had established the Watering Australia Foundation for promoting the piping of water from the Kimberley to serve the needs of Perth and the regional areas of WA in between, while taking up the promotion of large scale water schemes across northern Australia to meet the needs of a drying continent.

Ernie had also established the Unity of First People of Australia organisation, becoming Executive Director of this not-for-profit organisation that had two main objectives:  advancing programs to recruit, educate and train for employment Aboriginal people across Australia; and to promote healthy lifestyles amongst the Aboriginal community, especially in remote regions, with a particular focus on diabetes detection and strategies to help reduce the incidence of this deadly disease. It was largely for this post-parliamentary work that Ernie twice received Australian Honour awards, first with the OAM and then the AM. 

Parallel to his world of public and community service, Ernie maintained a lifelong enthusiasm for country music; he loved to play his guitar and sing ballads that captured the images of the bush and the people and themes of cattle life, and country people. As well as enjoying happy times playing with friends like Rodney Rivers, he was never happier than when he played with his sons, Kim and Noel Bridge, with whom he travelled, even to play in places like Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, where he once performed at a huge showground, where the large crowd of locals was packed in, displaying themselves as Ernie’s enthusiastic and cheering fans. Country Music secured for Ernie a wide network of friends, and resulted as well in many photos and memorabilia that include, for instance, images of him sitting with legend Slim Dusty on the steps of the State Parliament, both with their guitars in hand. Ernie recorded various numbers that were, and still are, top hits amongst the people of regional Australia, especially Aboriginal Australia: songs like “Helicopter Ringer”, which was one such hit that emerged from the changing world of the stock camp where Ernie and Tom Stephens worked together on the Dunham run and in the Speewah Valley at Doon Doon Station in the late 1970s. Ernie and his two sons – Kim and Noel – took that song and others to a treasured live performance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville Tennessee. 

One-time, in the early 1980s, when he was being encouraged by a colleague to embark on what was perhaps an overly ambitious work trip around the back-blocks of the Pilbara and the Kimberley, Ernie deflected the entreaties for more and more days of tough political work in the bush in the hot sticky months of the wet season with the retort: “Do you know Tom, sometimes you make me think that the best thing about the bush is being able to sing about it…. while sitting in the cool and comfort of an air-conditioned office!” 

Of course it would be hard if not impossible to name a more authentic Australian country music singer than Ernie Bridge; he was Country; he embodied country! He objected strongly to wrong labels being applied to him: I don’t sing Country& Western! “I don’t sing that Yankee stuff, with its southern drawl! If I can’t sign Australian, then I won’t sing at all”! 

Ernie was a singer; but he was not just a man with a guitar and a song and dance routine; he was no mere wandering minstrel. Ernie Bridge was a man of substance. 

With all of this rich connection with the Bush, it is not surprising that Ernie Bridge was made a member of the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame in 1984. With good reason Ernie prided himself as being a good cattleman. With years and years of first-hand experience of stock, cattle and horses, and with lessons he had learned from a young age working alongside his father, and from other very experienced station people, Ernie was a good judge of cattle and was decisive in the drafting yards, making confident calls assessing which animal would head for trucking to the meatworks or be held and then put out into the paddock for breeding. 

In the later years of his working life, with stations and cattle work now behind him, Ernie showed the same confident judge of character when it came to his dealing with people – and he would very often and very humorously describe the characteristics of new acquaintances by drawing on the language of the cattle drafting yards in picking out people who could be clearly trusted or those who had to be dealt with more cautiously. Using his skills as a good judge of human character, Ernie always gathered around him teams of people whom he trusted with his support and friendship and on whom he bestowed the compliment of taking them into his confidence and entrusting to them the tasks and goals that he wanted pursued. 

Woven through Ernie’s life story is the theme of leadership; he was certainly born a leader; but he also was able to model himself on the leadership skills of his father and to spend a life-time honing those skills. He was a great recruiter of people to work with him on campaigns, and projects; his teams on the station, in business, in his various offices and organisations were filled with enthused, well selected people, of high calibre and great talent. They brought to Ernie their own many skills, complimentary to his own. Any skill which he felt he lacked he would seek out in others and put it to good use. These teams of extraordinary co-workers were people of substance and character, endlessly awe-inspiring: Phil Vincent; Brian Wyatt; Frank Chulung; Peter Alvin; David Berry; Sue Connor; Marion Kickett; Professor Michael Gracey; Paula Hickey; Kevin Lawton; Sylvia Hurse and Helen Sheahan; Jessie and Mike Callaghan; to name just a very few. Ernie never ceased to amaze his colleagues and co-workers with his disarming skill and charm, his good grace and humour, his warmth and his smile, all of which ensured that he that could settle a hostile crowd or calm an angry delegation, as he displayed a determination to listen, to understand and then to resolve the issues at hand. 

There were many tough times in Ernie’s term in parliamentary politics; including the time in the mid-1980s when Land Rights issues first came to fast-boil in WA. Ernie worked in support of Paul Seman’s Aboriginal Land Inquiry and then as a result was mercilessly pursued by an Upper House Select Committee for his efforts. When the Upper House rejected the WA Burke Labor Government’s Land Rights legislation, Ernie was set the task of finding an alternative, non-legislative or administrative way of delivering land security to Aboriginal groups; and it was in this context that Ernie and his team of Brian Wyatt and Phillip Vincent and others came up with the program that delivered the 99 year lease of land to Aboriginal people; those lands became the secure base from which so many groups were able to build and prosper. 

As Labor’s Agriculture Minister in Carmen Lawrence’s Labor Government in the early 1990s Ernie Bridge was instrumental in persuading the Government and the Premier of the day to step-out boldly in support of the farmers and communities of the Wheatbelt, who were in great need; they had been hit by dry, drought conditions and low wheat prices. Ernie not only secured for many of these wheatbelt towns innovative state government investment in their town drinking water supplies, he also persuaded the government to underwrite the wheat crop with a government guarantee. This decision was famously announced by the then Premier and her Agriculture Minister on the steps of Parliament House where they addressed a large gathering of wheat farmers and others, who – with that unexpected announcement – were able to break into loud cheers of appreciation for the work Ernie had done in persuading the government of the day to respond to their needs.  

Ernie Bridge was good at working with teams; but he also liked to test himself and his skills and his abilities; it was probably that streak in him that propelled him towards his declaration of independence from his Labor party colleagues. Without any rancour or angry scenes; with no dust up nor any great axe to grind, after he had worked the majority of his parliamentary years with the Australian Labor Party, Ernie decided he wanted to spend his final term as a Labor independent; basically he’d just had enough of caucus meetings and party discipline – a discipline which he had regularly well and truly tested along the way anyway. Ernie just wanted to try and see how he would go as an independent; and like almost everything he did in life, Ernie without much fuss, certainly with no histrionics, made a success of even this difficult task. The ALP decided not to pre-select a candidate to run in the Kimberley against Ernie Bridge, and as a result Ernie was successfully elected to the seat as a Labor Independent MLA and he served his final term in the State Parliament, completing a total of 21 years, the majority of which he spent as the Labor MP for Kimberley. Ernie’s two successors in the seat of Kimberley – both of whom are ALP MPs – have both been Aboriginal women: the first, Carol Martin, was the first Aboriginal woman elected to an Australian Parliament in 2001; the second, Josie Farrer, was also a Gidja person and, like Ernie, comes from Halls Creek where she served on the Halls Creek Council and was the Shire President for seven years, following in the footsteps of Ernie Bridge on a pathway to the State Parliament, passing through gateways and doors which he was the first Aboriginal person to successfully open and which they have successfully kept open.

Drawing on the images and language of his days working with horses and cattle, Ernie prized and valued "the steady hand on the reigns"; he did not like an approach to life or work or politics that was jerky, hesitant, on-again-off-again, or simply poll-driven; Ernie was not one to be buffeted by the winds and breezes of daily life nor by that which was presented as being "public opinion". Ernie was a conviction politician; he was driven by values, goals, dreams; he not only understood his own core values, but he could mine the best values, the higher values, the common call to human decency in others. Ernie had an instinct of what it meant to apply that ultimate Australian test: "Fair go, mate"! 

Ernie was a great story teller, with an infectious sense of humour; he had a turn of phrase and a laugh that could take hold of an audience, leaving people in fits of laughter with tears running down their cheeks at the stories he told; and not only their cheeks; for Ernie could always see the funny side of life and could laugh at himself and often when he laughed he would cry with laughter as well. 

Ernie also could help an audience understand and feel the pain of others; to really sense the agony and the loss that others were experiencing; he could deliver a eulogy where an assembled congregation would be in complete silence other than for the sound of their splashing tears ….such was the case when he spoke in Fitzroy Crossing not so many years ago at the funeral of his long-time friend and supporter, Peter Ross; the father of Joe and Mary. 

Ernie was blessed with many attributes, including – very noticeably – endless energy; he had real get-up-and-go and greatly admired that characteristic in others. Ernie was famed for arriving at the homes of family and friends right on dawn, arriving unannounced but never unexpected, calling people to get up from their bed or swag or whatever for a cup of tea and a yarn and a chat, ensuring that they could get an early start for their various joint pursuits – either the mustering of votes or cattle, or organizing some country music gig! Or just to get on the road again. Ernie set for himself and others high standards, full of well-founded optimism and sensible expectation. It was perhaps from Ernie’s early success as a young jockey in Halls Creek that he developed a life-long love of the races; he loved the horses; he loved the trots; and he enjoyed studying the racing guides and placing a bet or two. He had that common, widely shared human enthusiasm for the excitement of a race and the pleasure of a gamble. In amongst his parliamentary and cabinet papers would often be stashed the racing pages and the form guides and he could be found, either on the many long flights or during the long sittings of parliament or caucus or even cabinet, studying the racing forms and drawing great pleasure and enjoyment, as an ordinary bloke enjoying this sport of kings by placing the odd bet.

Ernie Bridge had had tough and highly contentious entries into public life, both at local government level in Halls Creek and then also marking his entry into the WA State Parliament; he faced unjust criticism and unfair obstacles; but he did not take these personally; he did not hold grudges nor bitterness; he did not stoop; but he also did not forget what had happened nor did he let these memories cause him to falter on his own life's journey of generous service for others. If anything, his personal history and his clear memory of injustice and, indeed, personal experience of injustice, drove him on. 

Ernie Bridge is a man who lived a life that leaves a lasting legacy: it is a legacy on display in his loving family; amongst his inspired friends and colleagues; but is also on display across WA, most especially in the regional and remote parts of the state, especially amongst Aboriginal people, amongst the families and communities of this most precious part of the Australian tapestry and story. Ernie Bridge showed what could be done in so many different areas of life: not just by talking about it; not just by singing about it; but by the ultimately more rewarding pathway: Ernie just got in and he did it! 

Ernie Bridge’s life is a life well lived. In WA we have our share of local heroes from our relatively short period of recorded history; Ernie Bridge is amongst those heroes. There is a strong case for more permanently memorialising his life and legacy. In part that has been done by a very impressive State Funeral, which was very fitting, and well deserved, a moving tribute to his life and legacy; very impressive amongst the order of service was the water and smoking ceremonies conducted by the women and elders from the Warmun Community at Turkey Creek, who were amongst the many Kimberley people who made the long trip down to Perth to attend and participate in the State Funeral. 

Ernie’s life spread across a huge canvas made from these many threads. The most secure part of the picture, however, was the warmth of Ernie’s extensive network of his friends and, more importantly, the mutual love and care of his close family. Ernie’s beloved wife Mavis (née Granger) predeceased him in 2009; their four children (Beverley, Kimberley, Noel, and Cheryl) and the grandchildren are part of a large Bridge clan, including Ernie’s brothers and sisters, active in communities across WA and more widely.

* This was originally published, in shorter form, in The West Australian newspaper, April 2013

Original Publication

  • West Australian, April 2013

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tom Stephens, 'Bridge, Ernest Francis (Ernie) (1936–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/bridge-ernest-francis-ernie-16400/text28361, accessed 21 November 2017.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012