Story and Picture by Alistair Gray
Dr Collin Dillon, an extraordinary Australian, a man of courage, solid values and high integrity, is recognised as Queensland’s Senior Australian of the year.
In life, you meet many people, but few stand out as extraordinary. I was honoured to meet Colin Dillon and knew instantly that he was unique.
Standing before me was a gentle man with a warm and welcoming smile, who shaped history as a change-maker and a role model, not only for First Nations people but for all Australians.
Col broke through the racial divide and became Australia’s first indigenous Police officer, at a time when aboriginal people were not even considered citizens, going on to shake to the core and to expose corruption of the worst kind within the Queensland Police Force. A man of selfless courage, thanks to the strong values and ethics embedded in him by his father. Col knew the difference between right and wrong, enabling him to withstand some incredible pressures, leading a life of distinction and service in our community.
Col is a respected elder of the Kombumerri peoples and the Yugambeh nation, encompassing the Gold Coast and environs. Born in 1944 at the Nambour Hospital, he was one of eleven children, growing up in Caloundra and left school at the age of 15. Col’s father had served during the war in the Solomon Islands and found it very difficult procuring work upon his return. Life was tough in post-war Australia with rationing and job scarcity. Eventually his father acquired work at a sawmill in Beerwah until gaining employment as a barman in Shelly Beach at the Hotel Caloundra.
Col reflected on his father with great love and respect. His father was instrumental in embedding great values in his son through personal example, storytelling and careful father / son mentoring. Col’s father was good friends with the local Police sergeant and remarked to Col, ‘You want to grow up and be just like him’. Planting this seed gave Col a direction and purpose which would become his life in the Queensland Police Force. The values instilled in him by his father would prove to be invaluable and Col’s rock and guide throughout his career path.
At 15, Col was too young to join the Police Force, so he tried his hand as an apprentice carpenter only to discover it was not for him. In his spare time he volunteered for the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade, passing his first aid exams with high distinctions. A skill and experience which would prove to be beneficial as a Police Officer.
Col moved to Ipswich to work with the Post Office walking everyday past the local Police Station. One day, an elderly Police sergeant invited him to join the Police. “In those days you only had to be able to write a sentence to be accepted”, Col explained. Col passed the spelling test, signing the application form which required two references to be successful. One of Col’s references was local member of parliament at the time, Sir Frank Nickland, Premier 1957 - 1968. The other from his local priest. Sir Frank had no hesitation in supporting Col’s application. He wished him well and told him he would be watching his career with great interest.
After a long wait Col’s application was finally accepted and he commenced training at the Petrie Terrace Police Depot. The training proved rigorous and often resulted in Col being in trouble with the drill sergeant for having two left feet. However, he continued to work hard, facing every challenge thrown his way, with many of the other recruits unable to handle the pressure and left. Sadly racism was rife, and as a result, many of the instructors worked Col extra hard. He became despondent and thought about ‘giving up’ several times. Despite these feelings and thoughts, he persisted and eventually his hard work and commitment proved fruitful, with a few unexpected encouraging words from one drill sergeant, giving him the determination needed to make it across the finishing line.
The ‘passing out parade’ was one of Col’s proudest days, sharing this special moment with his dad and his grandfather who travelled to witness the ceremony. As is tradition, the new Constables waited in line to be inspected by the Premier. Unfortunately, Premier Sir Frank Nickland was called away and another Minister filled in for him. As he made his way along the inspection line he stopped in front of Col to apologise on behalf of the Premier, who wished he could have been there personally to pass on his congratulations and wish him well in his future career. It was 1965, and unknown to Col at the time, he was to be sworn in as Australia’s first indigenous Police officer. Incredible as it may sound, it was two years before indigenous Australians were considered citizens and able to be counted in the census, and ten years before the ratification of the Racial Discrimination Act.
So, Col embarked on his career of distinction, finishing 36 years later as Inspector of Police, with the Australian Police Medal, commendations and enormous community respect.
Col tells the story of moving to the Licensing Branch (The Vice Squad), where he arrested SP Bookmakers. Unbeknownst to him at the time, they were a protected species! He was approached by a fellow Officer, who offered to slip $400 every month into his pocket if he ‘looked the other way’. At the time, this was a significant amount of money. For Col this screamed against every moral fibre and value his father had instilled in him. He declined to get involved, putting himself at significant personal risk. A transfer to the Communication Branch followed a few days later.
In 1987, Col made his mark on history, when Bill Gunn, Acting Premier, called a Commission of Enquiry into ‘Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct’. Tony Fitzgerald, QC, headed the enquiry which became known as the ‘Fitzgerald Enquiry’. In the early days, the investigation struggled to get traction as the unspoken rule of ‘no dobbing’ within the Police family held fast. Tony FItzgerald’s call for honest Policemen to come forward proved fruitless. Col considered this dilemma long and hard and despite great personal risk came forward to reveal all he knew. The initial two-month enquiry went on to last over two years. With Col’s evidence many corrupt Police were convicted and charged, including Police Commissioner, Sir Terence Lewis and four Ministers. The impact was significant, paving the way for many reforms in policing.
At 77, Col today leads a much quieter life serving as a community member of the Parole Board of Queensland. He was honoured to become a Member of the Order of Australia in 2013 for his services to the indigenous community and has also received an honorary doctorate from the Queensland University of Technology.
Personally, it was a pleasure and a thrill for me to meet Colin Dillon and to share in some of the memories of this great Australian.
You can discover more of his incredible story in his book the ‘Code of Silence’ available from Amazon or your local library. I highly recommend this inspirational read.
Dr Collin Dillon AM APM – Australia’s first indigenous Police officer