Recorded on Tuesday 28 May 2019 in the Hallstrom Theatre as part of the Australian Museum's Lunchtime Conversation Series.
One of the most charismatic and well-known Aboriginal political leaders of the twentieth century, Charles Perkins was born to Arrernte and Kalkadoon parents in the `old’ Alice Springs telegraph station. An elite soccer player and the first Aboriginal Australian to graduate from University, his fiery, uncompromising contribution to the Indigenous Rights movement is illuminated by Professor John Maynard, Chair of Aboriginal History at the University of Newcastle.
Sue Saxon: Good afternoon. My name is Sue Saxon, I'm a creative producer here at the Australian Museum, and I'd like to welcome you to the museum and acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
And welcome to our season pass holders and guests joining us today, to our second Lunchtime Conversation Series session, exploring Australians who've shaped our nation and who feature in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in our award-winning Westpac Long Gallery.
Last Tuesday Tom Keneally launched our second stimulating season with great brio. Over these next five weeks, including today of course, the series continues to explore the achievements of exemplary Australians across technology, medicine, art, architecture and human rights. And today, in recognition of National Reconciliation Week, we're delighted to welcome Professor John Maynard of Newcastle University to reflect on the life and legacy of one of Australia's most charismatic Aboriginal political leaders, Arrernte and Kalkadoon man Charles Perkins, AO, whose contribution is well expressed within National Reconciliation Week's theme, Grounded in Truth, Walk Together with Courage.
Professor John Maynard is joined in conversation by Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay, who was appointed to the director's role in April 2014, and is the first woman to hold that role in the AM's 190-year-old history. She has initiated an impressive transformation program, including enshrining free general admission for children into government policy, constructing new award-winning spaces including the Crystal Hall entry pavilion and Westpac Long Gallery, establishing the Australian Museum Centre for Citizen Science, which is part of the Australian Museum Research Institute, and who is now on the threshold of leading the new $57 million restoration which will be starting very soon.
So, as always, please save your questions till the end where there will be an opportunity for you all to ask pertinent questions of Professor John Maynard, and join me now in welcoming both Kim McKay and Professor John Maynard.
Kim McKay: Thank you so much, Sue, for that lovely introduction. And thank you to all of you for coming today for this wonderful Lunchtime Lecture Series at the Australian Museum focusing on those 100 Australians who've helped shape the nation. And I'm very pleased to say in that list, compared to usual lists that are created, I've said this before, there are more women on that list than you would normally see, and certainly more First Nations people on that list than you would normally see on any list.
I also want to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we're gathered on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to elders past, present and our young emerging leaders who work here at the museum, and extend that respect to other Indigenous people with us in the audience today. It's very important we do that at the Australian Museum, as many of you know, because we are the custodians of one of the most significant collections in the nation.
Now, I'm very excited about today, because not often do you get to reflect on a great Australian like Charles Perkins through the eyes of an eminent Indigenous historian like John Maynard. So I want to tell you a little bit about John's background, and then I'm going to invite him to join me in conversation, and then we can have some questions at the end.
So Professor John Maynard is a Worimi Aboriginal man from the Port Stephens region of New South Wales. He is currently Chair of Aboriginal History at the University of Newcastle—terrific place if you haven't been there—and director of the Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Study Centre. He has held several major positions and served on numerous prominent organisations and committees, including Deputy Chairperson of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Study (AIATSIS); the Executive Committee of the Australian Historical Association; NSW History Council, Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council; Australian Research Council College of Experts; the Deputy Chair of Humanities, National Indigenous Research and Knowledge Network; and a Fulbright Ambassador.
John was recipient of the Aboriginal History (ANU) Stanner Fellowship in '96; the New South Wales Premier's Indigenous History Fellow in 2003; Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in 2004; University of Newcastle Researcher of the Year in 2008 and 2012, and Australian National University Allan Martin History Lecturer in 2010. In 2014 he was elected a member of the prestigious Australian Social Sciences Academy.
So his work examining the rise of organised Aboriginal political activism during the 1920s in Australia has been recognised as ground-breaking, including the revelation that African-American influence and inspiration, particularly through Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, played a part in the rise of the early Aboriginal political movement, which challenged previous misconceptions that it was largely non-Indigenous Christian and humanitarian influence that drove Aboriginal political mobilisation.
A number of respected historians have recognised the importance of John's work. Professor Henry Reynolds said, 'Maynard has made a major contribution to Australian historiography. He has brought to life several major figures of the 1920s and has discovered much hitherto unknown material about Aboriginal politics. Interpretations can never be the same again. Mr Maynard has found this material by carrying out extensive research, often among sources not previously used. This is a major achievement.'
He's the author of several books, including Aboriginal Stars of the Turf, Fight for Liberty and Freedom, The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe, Aborigines and the Sport of Kings, True Light and Shade: An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett's Art, and Living with the Locals: Early Europeans' Experience of Indigenous Life.
He's appeared on many television programs, done many radio interviews and also of course is a regular commentator in the media. Please welcome John Maynard.
John Maynard: Well first of all, Kim, thanks for this kind introduction. I'd also like to acknowledge the museum for their kind invitation to come and speak today on an important figure for us, certainly, in Charles Perkins. Where does Charles Perkins fit in the sense of…I think for us, we've been standing up and speaking out and opposing the invasion, occupation, dispossession, cultural destruction, assimilation, segregation from the get-go. And from when Cook first touched down there were Aboriginal men come down to the shore brandishing spears, and I think in no uncertain terms certainly told Cook to bugger off at that particular point in time. And two of those individuals were shot and wounded and went back into the bush.
So we have a long history of opposition. Certainly for me, and you mentioned my journey into academia, I left school at the age of 15. I don't have any fond memories of my school years. I started school in the '50s, and finished in the '60s. The day I turned 15 I was out the door. And there was nothing for me to connect with with the school curriculum in those years. The only mention of us was as a stone age people, or we were a dying race. Basically we were written out of history. There was no mention of my grandfather in the histories when I was at school, or other early Aboriginal activists. And as I said, we were taken out of that equation.
So the driver for me to even finish up at university was my father asking me to put together our family history and give recognition to my grandfather—who died, sadly, eight years before I was born, so I never got to meet this remarkable man—and put together a family history. And to cut the story short, I could talk all day on how I got to be where I was, but we're here to talk about Charles Perkins.
But anyway, I was kidnapped to do a diploma course at the age of 40 at the University of Newcastle. I then did a BA and a PhD and it's actually 12 books later, here I am sitting down on this panel. And it's been a remarkable journey, which is what I say to a lot of our mob, the younger ones today: look, get into this space, education is so critically important, and we can do it. And I think it's the next generation coming through with the big shift and change is going to come from us.
But going back to my grandfather and the connection with Charles Perkins. My grandfather's organisation, the AAPA, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, formed here in Sydney in 1924, and was active through to 1928. They held four annual conferences. They had a membership of over 600. The first conference was held at St David's Church hall in Surrey Hills. Over 200 Aboriginal people were in attendance at that conference. They held another conference later that year in Kempsey at the Kempsey showground. It was staged over three days and the Macleay Argus and the Macleay Chronicle newspapers marked that event by saying over 700 Aboriginal people attended that conference.
This is 14 years before the Day of Mourning. This is 14 years before that. And what was the platform they were talking about? Their manifesto was published widely across 1927. All towns in New South Wales in the newspapers, the state government, the federal government; it was published in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. What did they ask for? A national land rights agenda. They demanded enough land for each and every Aboriginal family in this country in 1927. They demanded the abolishment of the state-run protection boards, and to stop the practice of removing Aboriginal kids, which we know today as the Stolen Generation where thousands of Aboriginal kids were removed and institutionalised. They demanded citizenship, they demanded—and this is important in the context of the Uluru statement—they demanded that the commonwealth government take over Aboriginal affairs and under that commonwealth government on all Aboriginal councils sat. And that was 1927, 90 years before...well, basically the Uluru statement. But it's the same thing.
Charlie Perkins recounted the same things in 1967 in the lead-up to the referendum in 1967, Charlie actually set a national land rights agenda. And he importantly said, 'We need an Aboriginal body to sit under the commonwealth government.' So it is a continuation, and that's where Charlie Perkins fits and sits. And as I said, it's ongoing. If you look at my grandfather, you look at Charlie Perkins, you look at the Uluru statement, it's been continuous, the voice has been the same.
Kim McKay: And there's that commonality between the two because you just pointed out why education has made that difference to the role that you can play. But of course for Charlie Perkins it was the same, wasn't it.
John Maynard: Absolutely the same. Charlie came through the same…I mean I'm 20-odd, 30 years later after Charlie. Charlie was '40s and '50s in that school system. I'm '50s and '60s in that school system, but it was the same sort of thing. If you look at Charlie Perkins's school experiences, they were horrendous. He gained nothing from that. He left St Francis House as a teenager and was apprenticed as a fitter and turner.
Kim McKay: This was in Adelaide. So he'd left Alice Springs and gone to Adelaide.
John Maynard: Yep. His early life in Alice Springs was certainly at the Bungalow, the old Alice Springs Telegraph Station, which was basically a compound, and that was wired in, and that was mixed-race Aboriginal kids and adults who were in that compound, which included Charlie's mother, Hetty. And the interesting thing which struck Charlie, his grandmother was outside of that fence as a full Aboriginal woman, pressed up against that fence, and couldn't come into contact with her daughter, and she certainly couldn't give Charlie Perkins, her grandson, a hug in that compound, but she could look through the fence at him. So it was in some sense you've got to imagine like a jail sort of situation.
But Charlie's mother Hetty, there was an opportunity to send him down to Adelaide to St Francis House. She knew the old Father—Percy Smith I think it was—and he'd actually said to her, 'Would you like to send Charlie down for further educational opportunities?' And she saw the importance of that. There are a lot of those kids that went to St Francis House, there was no consent given, they were just removed from their families.
In my book on Aboriginal soccer players I interviewed John Moriarty and Gordon Briscoe and Uncle Vince Copley down in South Australia who were in that home with Charlie Perkins, and their stories.
Kim McKay: Was that experience in Adelaide near a lot of other Aboriginal people's experiences at that time, being removed, put into education away from their families, where they would have found it extremely difficult.
John Maynard: Actually no, because educational opportunities for us were extremely rare and limited. Most of the places with missions and reserves you had someone giving education who had no educational background. There was very limited educational opportunities for us. So that house in South Australia was an exception, I guess, in many respects, to what was the norm. Many people point to that house and say because of the success of people like John Moriarty, Gordon Briscoe, Charlie Perkins, Vince Copley and a host of others, that this was an experiment that worked. But it doesn't look into the dozens and dozens of other kids who ran into problems through that institution or elsewhere in regards to institutionalisation.
Kim McKay: So there's Charlie Perkins' cohort. Aand this great love of soccer developed, which really set him on a path, didn't it, it was soccer that made the difference.
John Maynard: Absolutely. Soccer opened doors. Again, I come back to interviews with John Moriarty and Gordon Briscoe and others. They loved what is AFL now, it wasn't called AFL back then, and also rugby league was another game they had opportunities. Some of them were here in New South Wales before going down to… But the opportunities in both of those codes then weren't there. And Gordon Briscoe said to me, 'Look, we loved playing AFL but they wouldn't even let us use the same change rooms. So that game was cut off to us.' But soccer…John Moriarty said at that house they used to play from sun-up till sun-down. He said even under the light of the moon sometimes, with a tennis ball.
So from little kids, their control over the ball…they had never played in a real organised game, but their control over the ball in a small space was incredible. And one particular day, they were young teenagers, there an under-19 South Australian soccer team, representative soccer team; there was soccer grounds next door to St Francis House. And this under-19 team was training on that ground with their coaches and trainers. And all the Aboriginal kids were sitting on the fence watching this team train. And for whatever reason one of these handlers came over and said to one of the minders in the home, 'Look, if you want to get these kids into a team they can have a game against the rep team.' So they did.
They were barefoot. They beat the rep team 12-nil. An absolute annihilation. Wally McArthur was in that team, and Wally McArthur is recognised as one of this country's greatest ever athletes, who should have represented this country at both the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. He held the fastest under-14 time in the world. And Vince Copley and Gordon Briscoe said, 'In that game all we did was just knock the ball through and, bang, Wally just went straight through and scored.'
Kim McKay: So Charlie Perkins said, 'Aboriginal Affairs and soccer have been my passions. I could work out my problems through both of those things. Soccer because I could relate to all ethnic groups and migrants. It's where I got my relationships, where I got my fellowship, where I got my satisfaction and where I developed my lifestyle.' So it was this underpinning hero in his life.
John Maynard: It was. And again, coming back to that game, there were lots of representatives of South Australian clubs there, and you've got to understand, this is the influx of the migrant community after World War II. There were Hungarians, there were Poles, there were Jewish people, there were Portuguese people, there were Greek people, there were Italians, from all of these clubs who offered these kids, 'Come and join our club,' which Charlie Perkins did. He became South Australia's best player. He made a first grade team down there at the age of 15. He represented South Australia in the state championships. He was certainly a very, very good player.
Kim McKay: And then he ended up playing soccer in England.
John Maynard: He was offered a trial in England, and it was a big thing for an Aboriginal guy at that time, in his early 20s to undertake a trip, and he didn't have a lot of money, people put together and put him on a ship to England. He actually went I think it was through to Italy first. Then he had to get a train across to France, and his bags were stolen. So then he had to get to London, where he was met by the Everton soccer officials. So Everton in the Premier League today. And Charlie said that at that particular point, 'I don't know what I must have looked like, because the clothes I had on were the only clothes I had. I was unshaven.'
Anyway, they took him to Everton in Liverpool. It was not easy. To get up to the level of those full-time professionals at that point was going to take six weeks or more. So he was behind the eight ball. There was a tad excess of racism that he faced. And also the elite players, they didn't want to give him any leg-up, and he found it difficult. He finished up that he gave it away with Everton, and he finished up working on the docks in Liverpool. And he'd wander the streets wondering what am I going to do next.
Fortunately, Wally McArthur, his friend from the St Francis House, by this time, with his incredible talent as an athlete, the doors had been locked on representing his country. He'd finished up in England in the '50s. The 1950s, Wally McArthur was recognised as the greatest rugby league winger in the world, and he'd played for England against the rest of the world and scored four tries.
So Wally and his wife were living at Wigan. So Charlie went up and lived with them. And he was offered a game with Bishop Auckland, the best amateur team in England. So Charlie took to that. And given now, he was fit, and playing with this team, he really played exceptionally well. And Eileen Perkins actually gave me a copy of that letter from Manchester United, offering Charlie a trial. Everyone knows who Manchester United are. And that means…there it is up there. And Joe Armstrong, on the bottom of that letter, is recognised today as the greatest soccer scout in British football history. He discovered Bobby Charlton. He discovered Duncan Edwards, who was killed in the Munich air disaster. So this guy recognising Charlie and offering him to come along for a trial, he certainly had talent. He never took it up. He was homesick, and he was offered quite good money to come back and play with the Croatian team in Adelaide, which he did.
Kim McKay: Did he end up leading that team, the Croatian team in Adelaide?
John Maynard: He did later on, he won promotion to them to the first division. He won the Ampol Cup for them as captain-coach. And then it was at that point that he married Eileen Perkins and decided that…and I guess…a step back, one thing he recognised in England, he played at Oxford University, and it was at that moment in time, if you like, the lights came on for Charlie to think, 'I could do this. Why couldn't I go to university? Look at all these people wandering around a university. I could make some change back home if I had university qualifications.'
So when he got back to Adelaide…and then the discussion was, 'We should move to Sydney, and I'll enrol in a BA and get some university qualifications.' So they moved on and the family moved to Sydney.
Kim McKay: That mustn't have been easy, going to the University of Sydney in the 1960s as the first Aboriginal man going in there, and in the country [inaudible: technical problem] it wasn't easy [inaudible: technical problem].
John Maynard: It must have been…and again, I look back to myself, you've got to understand, Charlie Perkins would have went into that university environment with a lot of self-doubts. From educational disadvantage through his background in the past to enrol in university was an incredible act of courage, to step into the space. But he knew the importance of that. So he followed that through. And as I said, I found that, and I could think what Charlie felt.
When I enrolled first off in university, first two weeks in a diploma course, I thought, 'This is ridiculous, you're too old for this. You've got no money, you've got no bloody job.' I will say at that particular point in time I was renting a place, I'd just come out of a divorce and my place I was renting, I had a mattress on the floor and a wooden fruit box as a table. So to stay was difficult for me.
Going back to 1964, Charlie Perkins was the first. You have to think to yourself, man, he's a courageous man. But I think those…you've touched on that, I think of Charlie Perkins as two words: charismatic and courageous. I think staying at that university…Gary Williams was also another important Aboriginal man. Gary was in the university at the same time as Charlie, so they had each other I guess in that respect as well. So that was important.
Kim McKay: So '64 he goes in and then of course '65 he becomes president of the student association for Aborigines and he was one of the organisers and led the Freedom Riders in New South Wales, based on what was happening years earlier in the US.
John Maynard: Absolutely. I guess, again, when you think about Charlie Perkins you can say things are fate and that things are luck. But individuals are the…he was the man for the time. Charles Perkins was the right man at the right moment, at that very instant. Okay, you've got Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States, and you've got the impact of the Freedom Rides in the United States. The other big impact is television is beginning to impact into this country, and people for the first time are seeing in their lounge rooms the shocking things that are happening in the United States. And the Freedom Rides was one of those things. And an enormously divisive war in Vietnam.
All of these things are coming into people's lounge rooms. And it's important to recognise these non-Indigenous students jump on that bus and go through New South Wales. When you think of the places they went to, Moree, Walgett, Bowraville, Kempsey…and for the first time, the Australian media gets to see the living conditions and the way Aboriginal people are treated. You don't have to be in Mississippi or Alabama to see the racism, the prejudice, the oppression, the segregation.
Kim McKay: Was it in Walgett where the Aboriginal people weren't allowed to go to the swimming pool?
John Maynard: That was Moree. And Charlie got the kids into the pool. But again, I think the coverage was incredible. He was on Four Corners. The ABC, there was lots of interviews.
Kim McKay: His charisma…he was an incredibly handsome man. So his level of charisma helped him. And I guess the confidence he gained by going to America [inaudible: technical problem].
John Maynard: That's probably true. Again, he was an extremely courageous man. Uncle Vince Copley said to me in the interview I did with him quite some years ago, he said, 'Look, Charlie was the most courageous man I've ever known in the face of racism in my life.' And so he had that. He was prepared to stand up. And I think that's probably one of the most significant things, when you think of Charlie Perkins, is that he was prepared to stand up at a time when we weren't in that space. He gave the inspiration for us, the courage. You've mentioned Walgett and Moree. You see Aboriginal people when Charlie Perkins in old interviews and film footage speaking out in those locations with a whole mob of non-Indigenous people hurling abuse, throwing things. And Aboriginal people suddenly coming from the shadows and their voice beginning to rise up and be raised as well in concert. So it was Charlie Perkins' inspiration and courage that really gave that opportunity for us to say, 'We can do this. We can stand up. We can speak out as well. This guy is doing it.'
Kim McKay: He said at the time his sole reason for going to university was to improve the lives of Aboriginal people. And then he had no interest in going into politics. But of course the 1967 Referendum…so he had the Freedom Rides in '65 and the Referendum happens in '67, and it definitely shifted the social and political landscape here in Australia towards Aboriginal people at the time. So how did that combine to send him on his career path in Canberra and then on the greater national stage in activism?
John Maynard: Yeah, well it was certainly a launching pad. He was the national figure. There was so much exposure of him in that space. Whether he wanted it or not, he was going to be thrust into that space. So he did finish up a public servant.
Kim McKay: Well, in fact he was the first Aboriginal secretary of a department, wasn't he?
John Maynard: Well, absolutely, the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, then the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. And he was also in charge of the Foundation here in Sydney, which was doing a lot of stuff at community level prior to that. So he really stepped into that space and as I said, was certainly seen as an inspirational figure.
Kim McKay: Bob Hawke I think made the comment in 1988 that Charlie Perkins, for a secretary of a department was often more outspoken than you would normally find in a public servant at the time, but Bob said it was because he had a driving passion to improve the plight of his people.
John Maynard: Yes. And I think Charlie did run into problems in his time in the public service, because he was never going to remain silent on issues. He was expected to but he never did. And he kept on continuing to speak out. He was sacked by both the Liberal and the Labor governments at various times. And on two occasions took his family back to Alice Springs.
Kim McKay: Because he'd married, hadn't he, by this stage.
John Maynard: Yeah, he'd married before he'd left Adelaide with Eileen and had three kids.
Kim McKay: Three, that's right. And of course we know Hetti named after her grandmother, and has achieved great things…
John Maynard: That's right. As has Rachel, as a filmmaker. So they've done incredible things in that space.
Kim McKay: So how do you think, given that he was by now a controversial figure because he was so outspoken because he knew he had to be, there was no point lobbying behind the scenes in those days, you had to be out front and centre. What did that do to him? I know you only met him briefly once.
John Maynard: I ran into him at a Survival Day concert. I turned round and looked through the crowd and basically crashed into him. He smiled at me and winked, and then we moved aside. I often think, with the soccer book that I did, if only he'd have been still alive when I undertook that study, because he would have loved that book. And he would have loved me doing an interview with him. But no, I didn't have the opportunity to speak to him.
Kim McKay: But his front-and-centre passion and by being that outspoken, he alienated some people thought that.
John Maynard: He never lost that. He was going to ostracise people, have people for him and people against him, and that's the way he was. He was extremely up-front on his thoughts. I think towards the end of his life there was a degree of frustration and depression on where we were and hadn't moved forward, you know, in regards to things.
Kim McKay: He died far too young, at age 64 I think, of renal failure.
John Maynard: Yeah, well he'd suffered with kidney problems in his 20s. He'd had a kidney transplant in the early '70s which kept him alive.
Kim McKay: Wasn't he the longest survivor of a kidney transplant?
John Maynard: He was. And it was amazing that he had such a long career as a soccer player at a top level, when he was suffering with kidney problems. He played with the Greek backed club here in Sydney and they had some wonderful seasons in the early '60s with Charlie as captain-coach. So an amazing thing with his health, the problems that he had, that he was able to perform at that level.
Kim McKay: It's 30 years since he was probably at his height of his powers, if you like, as an advocate, and not a lot has…
John Maynard: I think I've reached the stage of where Charlie Perkins was; frustration, depression… In the last few days the coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald has been outstanding, I have to say.
Kim McKay: In Reconciliation Week, for a major city newspaper to decide to actually advocate around this is pretty extraordinary.
John Maynard: I just posted a thing on Facebook this morning. I'm staying at the Pullman Hotel just up the road, and I went down for breakfast and here's these sausages with a thing, 'In recognition of Reconciliation Week: chicken sausages with lemon myrtle.' I said, 'Man! Maybe things are changing in this country.'
Kim McKay: The lemon myrtle revolution!
John Maynard: And then I had someone else make a comment on my Facebook page. They'd just flown into Sydney on Qantas, who said, 'This is Reconciliation Week,' on the announcement before the plane is landing in Sydney. So I have to say, and I'm 65 at the end of the year, and I've seen some incredible changes coming through my time. There's no way I would have thought I could go to university in the late '60s or '70s, and we've got a centre at Newcastle with over 1,000 Indigenous students and 40 all-Aboriginal staff. That's an amazing transformation. UTS, University of Sydney, University of Western Sydney, UNSW—one of my sons was at UNSW with law—and these have been incredible changes that have happened. You've got to look back to people like my grandfather Fred Maynard, people like William Cooper, Bill Ferguson, Jack Patten, Pearly Gibbs, Charlie Perkins, Gary Foley, those sort of people.
Kim McKay: We didn't learn about them though, did we, when we were at school.
John Maynard: Well that again, as I said, weren't in the history books. You go through the 1960s, there was no mention of the Day of Mourning. There was no mention of my grandfather. It wasn't till the '70s that we see a shift. And I think that was a global shift in the way history was constructed where grassroots history, women's history, black history, disadvantaged, gay history, and Indigenous history began to get prominence.
Kim McKay: So interesting, a Liberal government just appointed the first Indigenous minister for Indigenous Affairs. 2019.
John Maynard: Yeah, absolutely amazing. And I wish Ken Wyatt all the very best, and it will be interesting to see what happens because he supports an Indigenous voice in parliament, so it'll be interesting to see what happens with that now.
Kim McKay: Well, let's hope that the broader community embrace this and the changes that are [inaudible: technical problem].
John Maynard: It may be the time, and as I said, when both Labor and Liberal can come together to support this at this moment in time. So we'll just have to sit on the sidelines and see what transpires. But it might be. And that can be as a legacy to people like Charles Perkins, in that long Aboriginal fight for rights and justice in this country. And that's so that we all, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can finally join hands together and walk together to a future that we are all…that is just for all people in this country.
We must recognise still today the educational, the health, the housing, the employment disadvantages that are faced on a daily basis by Aboriginal people in this country. The incredible disadvantage and high incarceration rates that are suffered by Indigenous people in this country. These things have got to be looked at. Youth suicide. I've worked in our communities right across this country, urban, rural and remote, and I've seen some horrific things in my time. And you just shake your head and think, a country as prosperous as this and that our people are suffering across this continent, and something needs to be done.
Kim McKay: The other, week before last we were up at the Museums Conference in Alice Springs, and we took our entire First Nations team up to talk about some of the issues that a colonial institution like the Australian Museum faces in our transition. And we learned at that time that in Alice Springs in the juvenile justice system—and of course it had a huge spotlight shone upon it a few years back—all of the children incarcerated the week before last in the Northern Territory were Aboriginal children, every single one. Not a single white child…
John Maynard: Yeah, that's right. As I said, these are the stats that the country can't ignore.
Kim McKay: …it's our shame.
John Maynard: Absolutely.
Kim McKay: So with that I would like to open up to the floor for questions. I'm sure people have a lot of issues they'd like to raise with John.
Audience question 1: With Ken Wyatt's appointment, what advice do you think Charles would give to Ken, particularly given that he faced so much resistance in his role and was able to make limited progress because it wasn't just him, he had to deal with the world around him. What advice do you think he'd give to Ken?
John Maynard: 'Don't hold your tongue, Ken.' That would be the first thing that Charlie would say, and I think it'll be interesting to see how it runs with Ken Wyatt in that position. I have strong memories that I met him in Perth in the late '90s when I was working with Aboriginal Islander Health then, and my memories are that he was a decent guy. But it's no easy call being in that space, so he's going to cop criticism from both sides. That's the reality with what he does, but power to him…and again, as I said, I think this is probably the moment where both…the only way we're going to get anything done in this country is if both parties actually support something to be done. I think in this instance at this moment there is an opportunity, as the feeling in the last 48 hours, this might be the time. And it might be a time for someone to stand up and that's Ken Wyatt in this moment.
Audience question 2: Thank you for the conversation. What advice can you give to an old white man about how to help in this situation we have in Australia?
John Maynard: Again, don't hold your tongue. Speak up and support Aboriginal people. I think that's the feeling with non-Indigenous people, over a long period of time I've had a lot of non-Indigenous students say, 'We'd like to do something.' But they're sort of intimidated to go into the space. 'Aboriginal people won't want me there…' And they're too frightened to go into that space. Put your hand up and step forward.
You may be told what to do. The most important thing is having the capacity to listen and actually seek advice from Aboriginal people. As I said, I give that to students over a lot of years. Particularly when I was working with the humanities and health, with non-Indigenous young student doctors and nurses and stuff going to work in Aboriginal communities. I said our people do need support. And when you look at the big changes that have happened for us, the significant changes for us is when we've had non-Indigenous support. We've seen the importance of mobilising non-Indigenous support, and we've got it.
Charlie Perkins back in 1965 was on the bus with a whole bunch of white students from the University of Sydney who were brave enough, and they were copping a lot of wrath, those students. That bus was run off the road out near Moree. They were chased out of town. In 1966 the Gurindji walk-off at Wave Hill, again, there was incredible non-Indigenous support through the trade union and also the media for once was on our side and gave a lot of coverage to that particular moment.
The '67 referendum we know 92% of people in this country voted to support that census getting through, which recognised us in the census and wanted the commonwealth government to take over control of Aboriginal Affairs. The 1972 Tent Embassy, Gary Foley was there, there was a whole mob of white students from ANU there in support of the Tent Embassy. So these moments we've mobilised non-Indigenous support, we've made an impact. The Corroboree Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000. Half a million people walked across that bridge, including Cate Blanchett, and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman when they were together. They were all there to support us. I didn't go. There were a lot of Aboriginal people that didn't go in support of that bridge walk, because at that moment, certainly John Howard was trying to project that we were all happily reconciled in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, which was one thing Charlie had spoken out against. He got into strife, and that was only the year before he died, where he said, 'The streets will burn,' in regards to the Sydney Olympics. So Charlie was still pretty volatile in that space, and making a point to get it across. But as I said, the important thing is that non-Indigenous people coming up and standing up and joining us, walking with us, speaking out with us, is when we've made change.
We will stay a heavy marginalised minority unless we win that middle ground. I think during the '70s and '80s we'd won it, but it was certainly taken away from the '90s onwards. We're in the process now, we need to win it back.
Kim McKay: Not that we can…[inaudible: technical problem]…supposedly 80% of us are in support of reconciliation. So what's your sense of that, how far off is it?
John Maynard: Well, again, I hope they're not the same ones that did the polls on the election. But no, I think there is a sentiment and feeling out there, and as I said, I think when you read what the Sydney Morning Herald is projecting in the last few days, I think this is potentially a moment where we can all come together and support something like this in a big way.
Audience question 3: Hi, I'm a child of the '80s. We were doing Australian history then, a bit of a nod to Aboriginal history, it was a bit…looking back it was like…this is for the whole country, so we didn't really learn anything really, except a very broad…they would say at least it was something. I grew up in a pretty 'I'm not racist but…' household. My friends and I, I don't think were. I didn't have children, so I just assumed that in the education system that the kids were learning more about the traditional owner history, certainly a lot more than I did. A few of my friends had kids and they said, 'Oh yes, they are.' I never really went into it until I became a tour guide, and I just did a tour then in the Rocks with little kids. I'm pretty horrified to learn that they're really not…I spent a year in Kununurra where I thought they'd at least have some history of their own now because it's a huge traditional owner…they're not being taught anything. They'd never heard of Charles Perkins, they'd never heard of the Freedom Rides, Wave Hill, anything. And this is two years ago, so I'm really horrified. Surely that's something that we all as a society should be advocating for, not only for Aboriginal kids, but we all learn about this thing…how do we do that though? We just don't shut up, we keep talking I suppose.
John Maynard: Keep talking. There is stuff in school curriculum these days, certainly as opposed to when I came through. There was nothing. But still there is a long way to go. I look at the kids…I've got five kids and the changes from them through the '80s even…my two youngest ones are still at high school, and you know, the celebrations of Reconciliation Week or NAIDOC, and for the pride that my kids have shown from when they were little and getting up and speaking and seeing the flag go up. That wasn't there then. We've got Aboriginal liaison officers in schools and stuff like that. That wasn't there then. So these are changes, but I agree. We do need a strong focus on Australian history and an overview of what's taught and how it's taught.
Kim McKay: It's interesting though, just even information about Aboriginal social history in Australia, here at the Australian Museum and the gallery next to us, the Bayala Nura Gallery, it's the only place in Sydney for tourists where they can read about the history of Aboriginal people and their struggle for social justice, read about the Freedom Rides and so forth. I've watched tourists come in here—British, American, Chinese tourists—and they'll stand in there for two hours and they'll read every word, because that's what people who come to Australia want to know about. They want to know about our First Nations people. They want to know their history, they want to know their struggles. That's what makes Australia different.
John Maynard: Absolutely. We are the richest cultural treasure this country possesses. And what we are offering is, for the country to embrace, 65,000 years of cultural connection and knowledge. The longest memory known to humankind is here. Nowhere else. One thing I will say with the gallery, you need to put something in about my grandfather and the 1920s people. I'll be involved in providing some material. It needs to be brought up to date.
Audience question 4: I'm not sure if you watched last night's Q&A but in some ways it was rather depressing, where the politicians on both sides were saying they would like to do something about Aboriginal recognition. I guess Labor were saying they'd like to see it in this term; the Liberals were unwilling to commit. And I think there was a lot of frustration on the panel. And that's really when the rubber does hit the road, when there's formal recognition. How can people assist and get this moving, because it looks like it's always just being put off and off and off.
John Maynard: Yeah. Again, talk about frustration for us as Aboriginal people, we've been carrying frustration for 230-odd years, so we've got used to it. I didn't see the show last night, I have to say. But again, as I said earlier, potentially now is the moment. As I said, they both have to come together in a bipartisan way, to make significant change in this country. And there's no need to jump either one way or the other and say you're just going to oppose; you've got to join forces and say, 'Let's make this happen.'
So we as a people, everybody's got to voice out and say, 'We support this.' And again, the numbers appear to be there on the polls, if we can believe them, that 80% of people in this country want that moment to happen right now. And we've got to keep on speaking out and making our voices heard so that the politicians can hear us.
Audience member: You say 80% of people are feeling enthusiastic and positive, but that certainly wasn't the message the politicians were giving last night. They were very 'slowly, slowly' and I could see Marcia Langton was getting very frustrated.
John Maynard: I didn't see the show. I wished I had. I can understand why Marcia was getting frustrated in that space, understandably so. We all get frustrated. And again, I've spoken about all those statistics we face in this country. This is a chance to make significant change and actually move us forward and make an impact onto some of these horrific statistics that impact onto Aboriginal lives. And again, let's move the country forward together.
Audience question 5: Thanks for your chat. Just in terms of the last question. There's a terrific website called the Australian Parliament. It probably won't be up to date at the moment, but if anyone wants to lobby for the cause we're talking about, you can get all of your senators and House of Reps people's phone numbers and emails, into their offices. And just promote the idea that reconciliation must be a higher priority in amongst everything else.
Could you comment a bit more, if we have the time, on early Australian Aboriginal political history, and finish with your understanding of identifying and authorising the younger generation of Aboriginal people who may speak on behalf of Aboriginal people.
John Maynard: Yeah, look, the driver for me is my grandfather. And certainly again, like Charles Perkins, a very courageous man who 90-odd years ago stood up and formed the first, united, all-Aboriginal political organisation in this country. And as I said earlier, they held four annual conferences and their platform was a national land rights agenda. It was to abolish the Protection Boards, and that an all-Aboriginal Board had to sit under the commonwealth government to protect a distinct Aboriginal cultural identity. Self-determination, that first conference in Sydney in 1925 they were front page news. And the big banner headline was 'Aborigines Demand Self-Determination.' This is 50 years before the Whitlam Labor government are credited with putting up self-determination for Aboriginal people.
My grandfather's organisations were basically hounded out of existence in 1928, for the police acting for the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board. You've got to understand that the Protection Board in New South Wales, then the chair of the Protection Board was actually the New South Wales police commissioner. And for being very outspoken, Aboriginal activists were certainly copping the attention of the police in those particular times.
My grandfather's organisation had encouraged Aboriginal people, particularly on the north coast, to vote. People believe we couldn't vote. In state elections we could, and my grandfather's organisation encouraged Aboriginal people to vote in state elections in 1927. And they made a big difference to some of those north coast electorates. And there were some very unhappy state politicians at that particular point in time because they lost their positions through that election where there were large numbers of Aboriginal people who suddenly turned up to vote and made a difference.
There was a heightened police attention on my grandfather at that particular point in time. In 1927, an interview with him in a newspaper said, 'I've been warned on many occasions that the doors of Long Bay jail are opening for me.' Basically saying unless you shut up. They were driven underground into an underground movement. They were still meeting in my grandparents' kitchen. Sid Ridgeway, Tom Lacey, Dick Johnson, Jane Duren—a lot of these early members that history completely has missed—they were still meeting as an underground movement through the '30s.
My father, who lived till 86 and was a top jockey, I might add, he was one of the focuses of another one of my books, the history of Aboriginal jockeys. My father said to me that in the late '30s he was picked up with another Aboriginal kid at Lakemba and taken to Canterbury police station where he was terrorised. Him and the other little Aboriginal kid, they were five or six years of age. Terrorised. He said, 'It was the most horrific experience of my life in that police station on that day.' He said, 'I did not realise what that was about then.' And to take that into context, my father as a jockey rode from 1948 to 1994. And I've seen him on life support and in intensive care units for a couple of weeks at a time through race falls. But he said that moment in that police station was the most frightening moment of his life.
And again, he never realised, he said, till later, the message was quite clear, to get through to the old man: we can pick up your kids any time we like, so you shut up. He didn't. My grandfather supposedly had an accident. He was a wharf labourer. He had an accident on the docks in Sydney where one leg was broken in six places. He was in and out of hospital for nearly 12 months; sugar diabetes, gangrene set in, they took his legs and he was basically silenced, and then he passed away.
So those are the experiences that we went through. And I think the message for young Aboriginal people—and again, which is the message from Charles Perkins—we have to keep speaking out, we have to keep standing up, and we want support from people like you guys to stand with us. And we had that in the past, as I've mentioned: non-Indigenous support has been instrumental to us in making change. And it is certainly still the case today.
Kim McKay: Professor John Maynard, that's a brilliant way to end, because in this Reconciliation Week your comment about writing to our politicians is well heard. Maybe if all of us just did that today, sent off a couple of emails to people.
John Maynard: I second that.
Kim McKay: So on behalf of us all, John, thank you so much for shining a light on Charles Perkins, but also a light on your own family history as well, and thank you for all you do…[inaudible: technical problem].
John Maynard: Thanks for having me. Thanks, guys, for coming along.
2019 Lunchtime Conversation Series: Australians Shaping the Nation.
Australia has been shaped by the remarkable work of many individuals whose achievements have resonated beyond our shores. In this second season of the Australian Museum Lunchtime Conversation Series, drawing on the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in the Westpac Long Gallery, a stellar selection of distinguished Australians share insights into the inspiration behind their groundbreaking contributions, which have helped define the nation across science, politics, sport and the arts.
Lunchtime Conversation Series: Australians Shaping the Nation is available as a series of six lectures.