Was pretty excited recently to learn that Wiradjuri man Joe Williams had won the Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year award, but was also instantly worried for him. I knew that Joe would use this opportunity to talk about what he believes in, and that a lot people would not be happy to hear it.
I know all too well that Australia hasn’t moved very far from when, in 1968, a white Australian Olympian, Peter Norman, spoke out in solidarity for his fellow medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the infamous black power salute from atop the Olympic podium. Norman spoke out in support of their actions and criticised Australia’s mistreatment of Aboriginal people and the White Australia Policy. Suffice it to say that it effectively ended his career, and made a lot of racist white people very unhappy.
Many of us understand that Australia hasn’t really moved anywhere since then in terms of community wider attitudes and responses to people calling out racism, and one only has to look at the booing of Adam Goodes’ last year to see it.
So even though I was very happy for Joe, I also braced myself for the inevitable.
The inevitable came in the form of a politically ambitious Paul Funnell, who took the opportunity to score some cheap points, appear in national media, and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Unsurprisingly, he asked Joe to give his award back. He hypocritically accused Joe of being ‘divisive’, and the news stories basically wrote themselves from there.
What Cr Funnell fails to understand is that people like Joe do not create the ‘divide’ that exists in Australia, they just acknowledge it. If people like Joe don’t acknowledge it and try to fight against it they are not being ‘inclusive’ they are perpetuating the divides that have existed since long before any of us where born.
‘Divisive’ is one of these interesting terms, where all too often people who acknowledge a problem are accused of creating it. Joe didn’t create the racism that exists in Australia. He didn’t create the ignorance, the animosity, or the disparities that exist, he was born into it just like the rest of us. What sets Joe and many others apart from the sort of person Cr Funnell wants him to be is that he refuses to stay silent and accept it.
If Councillor Paul Funnell wanted to know why Joe Williams refused to stand for the national anthem he only has to have a look in the mirror. That, or, you know, actually ask Joe.
Instead he accused Joe of being ‘divisive’ for not standing for the national anthem, and for highlighting the obvious realities of ongoing racism.
How can we hope to bridge this divide by simply being ignoring it?
How can we hope to create a nation we can all be proud of if we ignore the things in this country which make us ashamed of it?
Australia is so much more than White Australia, more than just a British outpost, and it is time we had a good conversation about that fact.
When gallant Cook from Albion sail’d,
To trace wide oceans o’er,
True British courage bore him on,
Till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised Old England’s flag,
The standard of the brave;
With all her faults we love her still,
“Brittannia rules the wave!”
In joyful strains then let us sing
“Advance Australia fair!”
That’s the second verse of the national anthem that Joe Williams refused to stand for. Many people think that the second verse is the one where it talks about ‘boundless plains to share, but that is actually the third verse. The second verse, like the fourth and fifth verses are usually left out, and for good reason. The fifth verse sounds like it was written by a drunken racist looking to pick a fight:
Should foreign foe e’er sight our coast,
Or dare a foot to land,
We’ll rouse to arms like sires of yore
To guard our native strand;
Brittannia then shall surely know,
Beyond wide ocean’s roll,
Her sons in fair Australia’s land
Still keep a British soul.
In joyful strains then let us sing
“Advance Australia fair!”
This is part of Australia’s history, just like the fact that the national anthem prior to 1984 was God Save the Queen. So is the fact that the past 200 odd years have been defined by the ideals of racism, and that those ideals have never been challenged in the way they need to be to remove them from the national psyche. Many people would just prefer we stay silent about it, and pretend that it has gone away. They feel comfort in the knowledge that when the elephant in the room goes wild it is not them that it tramples. We on the other side of that divide cannot afford to be silent and simply wait to be trampled by it.
These divisions are a part of our past, and our present, and I don’t see how it is being divisive to acknowledge this, and to question whether or not it should be a part of our future.
When it comes to attitudes to Indigenous affairs there is no viewpoint that will not be split by the existing divide.
We have people, some of whom are elected officials, who would happily see Aboriginal identity and cultures completely disappear. Who want to continue remove all rights for Indigenous peoples, destroy sacred sites, and continue to do nothing about the devastating Indigenous suicide rates that Joe has dedicated himself to raising awareness about.
The only way that Joe’s actions can be made to be inclusive is to do exactly what the Mayor of Wagga Wagga did, and that is to ask people to consider why Joe felt he had to do what he did. To make the effort to understand, and commit ourselves to working together and furthering that understanding. We may never all agree on these complex issues, but when we dismiss them we make any hope of unity, or even basic respect and understanding, impossible.
Ignorance and animosity are the exact opposite of being inclusive and yet this what Cr Funnell has done by accusing Joe Williams of being divisive and pointlessly asking for Joe to give his award back. The irony of a white person who has done absolutely nothing asking for what an Aboriginal person has earned through his own efforts is also not to be ignored.
Inflaming the divisions that already exist might be a great way to get some national media attention and score some cheap votes, but it is no way to build a unified community.
That will only come about when the actions of people like Joe Williams are recognised and understood for what they are; an appeal to our better natures, an opportunity to think about the state of affairs of our nation. An opportunity to ask ourselves some difficult questions; the answers to which are the only hope we have to build any sense of ‘unity’.
I’ll let Joe have the final words in this article:
“The work I do in my community with suicide prevention, which is why I won that Citizen of the Year award, is with anyone and everyone. I am out there everyday trying my best to make this country of ours a better place and I will never feel bad for fighting for what I believe in and doing what I think is right. I’m not perfect and I don’t try to be but I try to be a better person everyday, and I invite anyone who wants Australia to be better to work with me, and that includes people like Paul Funnell.”
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