Canberra Citizen of the Year
Robert Torquil Sobey
SOURCE: Platypus, June 2002, page 10.
In 1977 Bob Sobey was working as a carter in Lane Cove, Sydney, and his wife Margaret Ruth nee Young was a clerk, when he decided to become a police officer in Canberra.
The capital was then policed by the ACT Police Force, established in 1927. In October 1979 this force merged with the Commonwealth Police Force to form the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Within the AFP is ACT Policing, which carries on the role of the former ACT Police Force and retains the traditional ranks.
Bicycle theft was becoming a serious problem in Canberra, with reported thefts from January to August 1978 in excess of $50,000. Bob found himself on the bicycle squad, trying to match lost or stolen bicycles with their owners as well as prevent further thefts.
By 1985 Bob was a Senior Constable, and in August 1988 he was posted to Norfolk Island, one of Australia’s external territories whose community policing is provided by the AFP. It was here that he became aware of the power of informal accountability, especially as applied to policing. On Norfolk, he said, “if police did the wrong thing by someone, they had to face that person and his or her friends when they went to buy their meat at the butcher the next day”. This experience shaped his later work in Canberra on restorative justice, also called diversionary conferencing or ‘shaming’.
An experimental program was set up in Canberra in 1994 and evaluated in 1998. In the Reintegrative Shaming Experiment (RISE) police arranged meetings (conferences) between offenders and their victims where they were able to share their feelings and experiences in a controlled environment. They saw the effect of crime and came to understand more about each other, then reached an agreement on some form of compensation, perhaps a donation to a charity or voluntary work. Bob saw hundreds of the 1800 or so conferences and witnessed some dramatic results, noting that a lot of satisfaction is derived from this approach. The then ACT Attorney-General said it could become a permanent part of the ACT justice system as an alternative to court justice.
The AFP, through its Overseas Deployment Program (from 2004 the International Deployment Group) sends peacekeepers to serve with the United Nations or other agencies in troubled parts of the world. Since 1964 Australia has maintained a police peacekeeping presence in Cyprus, with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Bob volunteered for a six-month tour (August 1998 – February 1999) with the 57th contingent of police.
Other peacekeeping operations are of shorter duration. Bob served first with the police contingent to Haiti (October 1994 – March 1995), bringing home a toy helicopter and some valuable lessons on how to build relationships with the local population. The helicopter was made for Bob by some children he made friends with, later being part of an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial on the work of the peacekeepers.
On his next deployment, with the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) to oversee and organise the elections in 1999, Bob had a rule for his police that they must drive around with their car windows down, to minimise the barriers between them and the East Timorese.
Bob’s last deployment was to Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, in July 2003 with the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which included Australian and New Zealand police and defence forces. Now a Sergeant, Bob found the local people “so welcoming, I was made to feel like a part of the family. And I saw the fantastic work the school does for its students.'' But he also saw that the school was run down and lacking in facilities. ''I was able to get one computer for the school, but I felt there was so much more we could do to help.'' On his return to Canberra, Bob put a proposal to the ACT Scouts to assemble a team of volunteers to go to the Solomons and fix the school.
Bob has a special talent for working with young people. He was general manager of the Police Citizens Youth Club and implemented RecLink, which provides and promotes sport and art programs for disadvantaged young people. His 12 years as a Scout leader in Australia and overseas on deployments made him the obvious choice to establish and run the Police Scouts in 2001, a very successful crime prevention initiative that integrates diversionary conferencing with scouting and other confidence-building activities.
Young people with disabilities are a particular concern for Bob, partly because his daughter is blind as a result of childhood cancer. In the mid-1980s Margaret was a member of Parents With a Need, a support group for chronically ill children. Bob worked with the ACT Cancer Society, Camp Quality and Canteen and in 1997-1998 organised Crop-a-Cop (later Operation Bluey), raising over $250,000 for chronically ill children in the ACT region. He later managed a skills program for the ACT Disabled Sports Association, introducing Trail O, a form of orienteering designed so that both disabled and able-bodied people can participate. He has managed the ACT representative wheelchair basketball team in the country basketball league, and been involved with Sailability (sailing for the blind).
Among all the work and support for others, Bob did find some time for himself. The Canberra branch of the Mercedes Benz Club of Australia started in 1976; Bob was president by 1979 and for many years was also the editor of the newsletter, at least when he was in Australia. In the 1980s preparing the newsletter was a social event hosted by the Sobeys. The text was prepared on a Tandy computer, ads were created by cutting and pasting letters from other publications, photographs stuck on the pages and the whole lot copied on the household photocopier, then collated, bound and put in envelopes. A late night, but a lot of fun.
Bob retired in 2004 and stood unsuccessfully for the seat of Ginninderra in the ACT elections. Not that he lacked something to do in retirement. He had earlier in the year taken a group of 45 Lake Ginninderra Sea Scout Venturers to Honiara to rebuild the school there, and they enjoyed it so much they started the Lombok Project with Bob as project mentor. Every two years they undertake a community project on the island of Lombok, Indonesia: establishing a coral regeneration program, re-roofing village homes, creating fresh water supply through the re-roofing, installing water tanks, releasing fish, building composting toilets, conducting general cleaning and maintenance work or assisting in a local baby turtle release program. Cultural exchange is an important part of the social side of each trip.
Bob has been lucky in his choice of career and the opportunities it gave him to work with and for the community. Young people particularly, in Canberra and in the less fortunate countries of his deployments, have been lucky to have known him.
Awards and Distinctions
- 2001 ACT Policing certificate for successfully implementing the diversionary conferencing scheme, establishing the police scouts and promoting the Operation Bluey fund-raising project
- 2002 Canberra Citizen of the Year for his work with the Police Citizens Youth Club and his work with disabled and disadvantaged youth
- 2004 Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to youth through the Scouting movement and the Canberra Police and Citizens Youth Club
Peacekeeping in the Pacific, AFP, viewed 20 February 2016, http://www.afp.gov.au/~/media/afp/pdf/p/peacekeeping-in-the-pacific.pdf
Police in peacekeeping, viewed 20 February 2016, https://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/peacekeeping.asp#police
2002 It's no prank call Bob, you're our Citizen of the Year (B) Picture - KYM SMITH. Canberra Times , 13 March, https://global-factiva-com.rp.nla.gov.au/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=145594006514601121063984811137
2004 Scouts prepare for Solomons challenge, The Canberra Times, 5 April