Australian MP's memorial shelved after abuse claims

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The Independent Online

Bob Collins was the first Australian cabinet minister from the Northern Territory. He campaigned for decades to improve the plight of Aborigines. He was married to an Aboriginal woman himself. But Mr Collins had a dark secret: he sexually abused young boys, allegedly.

Mr Collins died on Friday last week, apparently succumbing to the bowel cancer from which he had suffered for several years. Eulogies tof the former Labour politician filled the weekend papers, overshadowed by reminders of the scandal that had descended in 2004. Coincidentally, it seemed, Mr Collins was due to face court on Monday, after delays because of his poor health and a serious car accident.

Yesterday it emerged that he may have committed suicide. And his alleged victims began telling their stories. Ben Helwend told The Sydney Morning Herald that Mr Collins had repeatedly raped him in his parliamentary office in Canberra while watching pornographic videos. "I was just 12," he said. "I didn't know anything about sex, and I was scared not to do as Mr Collins asked me."

The Australian government, meanwhile, was frantically back-pedalling on its offer of a state memorial service for Mr Collins, who was a minister in the 1990s under the former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. The service had been planned for tomorrow in Darwin.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday that officials had contacted Mr Collins's family, suggesting that they keep it a private affair. "I can't make a judgement – nobody can," Mr Howard said. "The man is dead, and you will never know. But I do know that these allegations are awful and they are terrible and they are abhorrent."

Mr Collins, who was 61 when he died, entered politics in 1977 as a Northern Territory MP. As leader of the Labour opposition, he campaigned for a judicial inquiry to clear the name of Lindy Chamberlain, who had been convicted in 1982 of murdering her baby daughter, Azaria.

A plain-spoken giant of a man, he was elected to the Australian Senate, or upper house, in 1987, representing the Northern Territory. Three years later Mr Hawke elevated him to the cabinet.

It was in 1989, according to Mr Helwend, that Mr Collins, a family friend, offered to pay for him to travel to Canberra to learn about democracy. As a child in Darwin, Mr Helwend played with Mr Collins's children. He told The Herald: "Over a period in four days in Canberra, he penetrated me, masturbated me and had me perform oral sex."

Pornographic videos were playing in the background. At the time Mr Collins was a member of the Film Censorship Board.

Another of his alleged victims was Tom E Lewis, an Aboriginal actor who starred in the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, directed by Fred Schepisi and based on the novel by Thomas Keneally. Mr Lewis told The Bulletin magazine that he was 13 or 14 at the time. Mr Collins offered him "a job" for A$10 an hour, he said, took him home and dressed him in a sarong.

Mr Collins faced 21 charges dating back to the Seventies and relating to three boys. Four other boys, black and white, reportedly made allegations against him but declined to give statements. Mr Collins was also charged with having child pornography images on his computer.

The scandal emerged soon after he hit a tree in Kakadu National Park, in the Northern Territory, in 2004. Mr Collins, who sustained serious injuries, told police he had swerved to avoid a pig. According to The Bulletin, police believe it was a suicide attempt. The magazine reported that Mr Collins tried to take an overdose in hospital. As he was recovering from the crash, he found out he had cancer.

Mr Helwend said that he was disgusted by the obituaries. "They got it all wrong," he said. "He wasn't a hero. Whatever he achieved in politics was obscene when you compare it to what he did to me."

Collins and the dingo baby campaign

Lindy Chamberlain, whose cause was taken up by Bob Collins, claimed that a dingo took her baby. Mr Collins was among the few who believed her.

Mrs Chamberlain and her husband, Michael, had been camping by Uluru, then known as Ayers Rock, in 1980. They left their 10-week-old baby, Azaria, sleeping in a tent. When they returned, she was missing. The couple said they saw a dingo leaving the tent.

Mrs Chamberlain was found guilty of murder in 1982 and sentenced to life in prison. Her husband was given a suspended sentence.

In 1986, Azaria's matinee jacket was found close to dingo lairs. Mrs Chamberlain was released. In 1998 she and her husband were exonerated of all charges.

Public and media suspicion of the Chamberlains, who are Seventh-day Adventists, fuelled Australia's most notorious miscarriage of justice.