Legend's Long march to PM's door

November 23, 2004

AS he sits on a grassy verge on the outskirts of Melbourne at the start of his long trek, Michael Long is asked why he is walking to Canberra to see John Howard.

"Why not?" the AFL legend replies. There is a touch of Forrest Gump about this, a kind of naivety that makes the question seem wrong. There is something of Vincent Lingiari and Rosa Parks about it too. It was Lingiari's decision to sit down on his land that resulted in land rights for the Gurindji people. It was Parks's decision not to give up her bus seat to a white man that galvanised America's civil rights revolution.

Long was recently told the story of Parks by Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson. On Sunday, after returning from another of the many funerals Aboriginal people attend, he started walking -- 658km from Melbourne to Canberra -- to see the Prime Minister.

"I'm not a political person, but I know right from wrong," he told The Australian.

"I played the game on the field, but I've got a responsibility to my people on the other side of the fence. Our hand is being forced. We are fighting for survival."

What does he want to tell Mr Howard? That Aboriginal people are dying before their time and living hopeless, lost lives.

He hopes to say: "We want to be a part of this country, Mr Howard." And he wants the Prime Minister to imagine what it is like to walk in the shoes of an Aborigine.

"We want to be on the same team, black and white, walking together," he said.

As a footballer, Long was dazzlingly elusive. The way he ran was compared with a frill-necked lizard. Unpredictable, gone before you knew it.

It was the way he began his long walk to Canberra.

He started on Sunday, "blackfella way", just gone, stepping out on to the road before anyone knew it. He started on the edge of Melbourne and got as far as Wallan, 30km away, where he was encouraged to stop while everyone caught up.

By last night, a support structure was being thrown up around him by an Aboriginal leadership sensing that something unexpected was occurring. Victorian Aboriginal leader Paul Briggs called it "an act of desperation, and it needs to be an act of desperation because Aboriginal people are in a desperate situation".

Permits were being approved yesterday and routes mapped out. In Sydney, NSW Aboriginal MP Linda Burney was organising permits on the NSW side of the border.

There was talk of Long being joined by people from as far away as Darwin. He is encouraging people to join him. "Walk a mile," Long said.

Four years ago, Long called Mr Howard "a cold-hearted prick" after the Prime Minister said the stolen generation was a myth. Both Long's parents were stolen as children.