In conversation

Banksia Gardens’ two patrons in conversation about Broadmeadows, justice and making a difference.

– written by Jonathan Chee

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It’s a quarter to one on a Wednesday afternoon in late June. I find myself greeting two Bobs, one Kumar, one Maguire, and ushering them into the CEO’s office at Banksia Gardens Community Services. The squeal of kids playing in the hall dies down as we close the door behind us.

If you ever tuned into Triple J on a Sunday evening for Sunday Night Safran, or attended rallies, vigils and protests over the years and seen a short, bespectacled priestly chap addressing the crowd – you’d be familiar with Father Bob. Unless you have paid a visit to the Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Court in the past thirty years, you’re less likely to be familiar with Bob Kumar.

The elder of the two Bobs – Father Bob – manoeuvres around the chairs, using his walking stick as something to poke fun at as much as a support. The younger Bob (Kumar), who is semi-retired but who has worked every day this week, moves with a gentleness that matches his old-world etiquette.

The two men have been the patrons of Banksia Gardens since the organisation received charity status in 2013. Bob Kumar’s involvement with Banksia Gardens predates his status as patron: as head of the Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Courts, Mr Kumar has used the Magistrates Court Fund to help support a number of programs at the centre – most notably in the Youth Department.

Kumar’s support of Banksia Gardens was initially “for very selfish reasons,” he says. “We wanted to reduce crime.” Kumar points out that at one stage during his three decade tenure, between 20-25% of the cases seen at the Broadmeadows court was from the Estate. “If you came here 20 years ago, you’d have graffiti, you’d have everything broken. You couldn’t even plant a tree here because people would destroy it.” Even the courts were vandalised, with their windows being broken on a monthly basis. When the culprits were eventually caught, Kumar decided against sentencing them to jail.

“I thought ‘no use putting them in jail: make them put something back into the community’. So I got them to do 200-300 hundred hours of community work. I even supervised some of them at Broadmeadows court, planting trees there on the weekend!” He credits Banksia Gardens as having a major influence in reducing the crime coming from residents of the Estate. “It went down to 2 or 3 percent! This is an outstanding facility for the young, the refugees, the new migrants…it’s just amazing.”

“That’s a better story than mine!” Father Bob interjects, leaning back in his chair.

As Father Bob recounts it, when CEO Gina Dougall approached him about being a patron, his response was “You’ve made a mistake, you’ve got the wrong Maguire.” Frank Maguire is a local Parliamentarian, and his brother Eddie is a media personality. Undeterred, Gina insisted that Father Bob was the right person.

“Why me?” Father Bob asked Gina. Her response, according to Father Bob, was because he had been “involved for thirty years working with the underclass.”

There is something decidedly similar about both men’s long commitment to justice, despite their different fields of endeavour. Bob Kumar talks about becoming the first non-white person to join the bench in Australia (in 1985), and how when he was given the opportunity to take charge of the Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Court, he “opened the court up to the community” by bringing work experience, creating roles for women and encouraging ethnic diversity.

Part of his determination and drive, he says, has been handed down through his family. His grandparents were indentured workers who were taken to Fiji in 1879 to work on the sugar plantations, never to return to India. They instilled a strong work ethic in their own children, which was in turn passed on to Bob. “I had to make sure to never lose the opportunity, to make sure that, having got the opportunity [to become head of the Broadmeadows Court] to make bloody good use of it.”

A memory comes to me of visiting the Magistrates’ Court in 2013, and while I was only there for part of a school tour, it was my first time in court and the experience had quite an impact on me. I tell the Bobs about this experience, and how, when I shared my Court visit with a young colleague who grew up in the area, his response was with a wry smile and a world-weary “you’ve lead a boring life, haven’t you!”

The Bobs laugh along with me, but then I share something that I found out about that particular colleague not long after our conversation. He had, in fact, been one of the people sentenced to community work, instead of jail, who had turned their lives around.

Bob Kumar straightens up in his chair. “I often say ‘But for the grace of god’. You get the wrong company, you get the wrong parents, and you can just go that way [to get in trouble with the law],” he says, before leaning back. “Jail for the judicial officer is the easiest sentence to impose. But if you’re creative, and they do the right thing, you can save somebody.”

“Build a heaven out of hell!” Father Bob chimes in. “Going to the court could be what some consider to be a hellish experience, but if they come out with a sense of hope…see?” He says, raising his brow. “That’s what I’ve learned over forty, fifty years: the braveness and resilience of people living in poverty.”

Bob Kumar looks over at Father Bob. “What you say is right, Father Bob. You’ve got an accused, nobody has said to that person ‘you are somebody, you’re an intelligent person, you can make a contribution’. What I tell them is you’ve got authority, you’ve got power…”

Our conversation meanders through other topics of justice, philosophy and retirement. Neither of these men are stopping their life’s work.
“I don’t understand retirement”, Father Bob says, as we talk about their continued involvement with Banksia Gardens. “What other reason would there be to wake up in the morning? Except to help make a difference?”

We wrap up the conversation, both men having to head off to other commitments. I walk Father Bob out to his own little Pope-mobile and watch on as he pulls out of the car park. Bob Kumar’s modest white Holden sedan is a couple of spots down. Bob Kumar thanks me for organising the meeting today, as if it is he who has had the privilege of listening to two wonderful people.

The perfect pair to be patrons of Banksia Gardens, and the sort of change you can get from two Bob – if you’re willing to make a difference.