Koori History Newspaper Archive

Fight's not yet gone out

Canberra Times (Australia) - Thursday, August 24, 2006

'Y OU ARE our heroes,'' she said. ''You were the people we looked up to and looked for inspiration. You were the ones who showed us it could be done. There's no one like you now.'' In important ways she, Jenny Coe, was right. The ''you'' she was talking to were of a remarkable group of once young Aboriginal leaders who emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mainly in Sydney, who helped propel Aboriginal affairs on to the front pages of Australian newspapers and towards the top of the national policy agenda. They created, for good if also some ill, many of the institutions of Aboriginal communities and development of the next 20 years. They are 60-plus now.

But somewhere, she was saying, it all went wrong. There were few young leaders emerging today - and none with the stature, the vision or the optimism of the generation before. She spat out some names whom she plainly thought not leaders at all.

By the mid-1980s, the impetus, the oomph and the optimism had been ground down and things stood still, or went backwards, she said. The need for new energy was why she had worked to organise this reunion, if only to inspire new people from a celebration of the contribution of those who had done so much to get things going.

Gary Foley , one of those being celebrated, rather carried on the mordant theme. In the mid-1960s, he had thought that the liberation of Aboriginal people would be a drawn-out process which might take several generations. By the mid-1970s, he said, he had come to believe it might happen in his lifetime. Now he knew that he would be dead before there was any substantial progress: the question was whether he, or we, could say we had helped along the way.

The occasion was a reunion of people involved in one way or another with the Aboriginal Embassy protest of 1972. It had originally been planned for July, on National Aborigines Day, but had been postponed because an original participant at the embassy, Tony Koori, died. Among the old buggers present were Gary Williams, Gary Foley , Paul Coe, Lyall Munro, Naomi Mayers, Sol Bellair, Bobby McLeod and Alanna Doolan. Throw in other survivors who were not there, such as Chicka Dixon, Gordon Briscoe, and Dennis Walker and make a prayer for some who have died, such as Charles Perkins, John Newfong, miscellaneous McGuinesses, Ambrose Golden-Brown, Kath Walker, Mick Miller, Clarrie Grogan and Bob Maza, and one has a who's who of people who brought on the revolution in thinking in Aboriginal affairs, which began from about 1965.

There were, of course, others, such as Vincent Lingiari, who led the celebrated walk-off from Wave Hill in August 1966, the 40th anniversary of which occurred at our gathering. But the mileage they got - very important as it was - was built from the new wave of energy coming into Aboriginal affairs from the enthusiasms of this new generation of Aboriginal baby boomers. I was one of a small number of non- Aborigines privileged to be invited. On the night, I got sentimental enough to embrace people from whom I have been estranged for many years.

Aboriginal protest did not begin in the 1960s. It had been going on for decades. There were protests in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s. But many of the vanguard of those years were very restrained and dignified, concerned that pushing too far, too quickly, might alienate potential support. Something similar had happened with the black rights push in the United States until the late 1950s.

But this new generation was impatient and not afraid to confront and to embarrass. The original Aboriginal Embassy was a strong case in point. Just as importantly, they had new ideas, and were open to international experiences in civil rights, black pride self-help, and, later, concepts of indigenous rights and sovereignty, which gave the impetus for developments for a long period. That period saw the establishment of the pioneering Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Legal Service and a number of other organisations, which allied Aboriginal control and energy with the technical skills of friendly white professionals, and which were well established even before they (fatally in my opinion) took their first cent of government money. Just as significant were a host of more community focused groups working on education, child care, aged care, business skills and the revival of culture - again, initially without much, or anything, in the way of formal government support, and often in the teeth of formidable government opposition.

There was the charismatic Naomi Mayers, for more than 30 years the organising genius behind the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, the first of more than 100 Aboriginal medical services around Australia. By now she must be one of the longest-serving chief executives of a frontline operation in Australia, but does not figure in Who's Who and has yet to achieve the sort of proper public recognition routinely given to people who are, by comparison with her, well paid, and undeserving. Whenever I see the letters AC after the names of High Court judges, and I think of the trifling amounts of money, energy or time they have personally devoted to the public good, and mentally compare it with what Naomi does every day, I want to be sick. Many of the new ideas were inspired. As indeed, was the original idea of the Embassy, which not only put to the Australian people, but to the world, that Aborigines were alien in their own land. It was even better when politicians and other legions of the comfortable and the ignorant played almost to script to deplore the unsightliness of the ''black's camp'' at the ''front door of Australia'', and, in due course, sent in the police to remove the excrescence.

Their reaction did more to embarrass Australia and Australians before the world than a million books, reports and documentaries.

Some new ideas went bad, not least when good ideas got adopted and subsidised by government. One or two people were disgraced. One was Paul Coe, a founding father of the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service who went on to become a barrister and was ultimately involved in scandal because of the way he organised his remuneration. I'm critical myself. His little venalities probably put him at risk of getting into the list of the top 1000 Australians, mostly lawyers, to profit from Commonwealth consultancies, fees or incomes from Aboriginal affairs over the past 30 years. There would be no other Aborigines to make as much money from the ''industry'' - though not a few non-Aborigines who made it to the High Court, a fact which speaks for itself.

To be fair to the High Court, on whom, perhaps I am being a bit hard, there are a number of its judges who have never taken a dollar from, or done a thing for, Aborigines.

I'm not Aboriginal, and much of my identification with this generation is accidental, intellectual, if also somewhat emotional because some became close friends.

Like them, I have agonised over the right directions and have come to think that some of the old directions - about which we were once so confident - have been proven wrong. Despite instinctive distrust of politicians, we still have some hope in new policies, and even in the zeal of new politicians, and some of the new leaders. But it is much harder now to have the optimism and the faith, and the hope, of 35 years ago. Or the confidence that we might die knowing that things are different now, in part because of things that we did.

Jack Waterford