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Question and answer session with Archie Roach and friends

Bill Johnson, Archie Roach, Michael Long and Stephen Munro, 22 January 2011

STEPHEN MUNRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for your attendance this evening. Joining me on the stage are two people who I don’t think need any introduction, legends of their respective fields in Australian sport - Michael Long you saw in the film and of course Archie Roach and also joining us is Bill Johnson, Louis’s father. [applause] it’s fair to say without Bill we wouldn’t have been able to put tonight on, so we appreciate we are indebted to Bill for that.

As you saw from the film the main actor there was Pete Postlethwaite, when we began this event we were hoping that Pete would be here. Sadly, as many of you would know, Pete passed away a few weeks ago. Obviously a very good friend of these people. Bill, did you want to say a few words on?

BILL JOHNSON: It’s very important, with your permission, that we do pay tribute to Pete’s involvement in this documentary and also the fact that he did - when was it you first came to Perth?

STEPHEN MUNRO: It was late last year.

BILL JOHNSON: He said would Pete be available? Stephen said would Pete be available to come over here and attend this gathering. Pete’s immediate reaction and this is a bloke who has already been through about six months of chemo, he just said try keep me away. I’ll be there. And then obviously the chemo from being what Pete thought was going to be the cure became only palliative, they were just trying to keep the pain. So Pete sad he’s still going to come, tell that mob over there I’ll be there. And then when he realised that he wasn’t going to make it, he said I’ll send a video and send a video over for you so that I can talk to the people in Canberra about this documentary and be there in spirit.

He spoke to me the day after Boxing Day. He actually told me, I’ve only got a day or two left so I just want to make sure everything went right at Christmas for you and I want to say good bye and tell the people in Canberra that I really wanted to be there. That was the measure of the man. He came over here and he was ashamed and embarrassed at his own lack of knowledge. Pete considered himself to be a man of letters and an educated man and a very widely read man, which he was, but he knew nothing about this story. We believe that the Australian government has done a bloody good job at keeping this story away from the people in the rest of the world. If people like Pete knew nothing about it, then how would you expect anybody to know about it? That’s why Pete wanted to tell this story, wanted to go on the journey with Archie so that everybody would know what the true facts are. Pete hated hypocrisy and he hated injustice and he saw both of them in great measure on this journey around this country, and that saddened him greatly. But as the movie finishes, it finishes on a very hopeful, very positive note. That’s the message that Pete took back with him and took to his grave. He was a decent man and a very loyal to his friends and a very, very close relationship with Archie. Archie is suffering greatly because of his death. So thank you very much. [applause]

STEPHEN MUNRO: Thanks Bill. We will take questions from the audience. There are microphones. This evening’s proceedings are being recorded so you will need to use the microphone if you do have a question. If you have a question perhaps if you let one of the stewards know and they will get the microphone to you. I believe you do have a question to start off with.

QUESTION: Has this documentary been released? I see it was 2007 that it was finished, has this documentary been released commercially or on TV or is it too confronting for the powers that be and for the Australian public?

BILL JOHNSON: We approached both the ABC and SBS with a view to screening the documentary. Both of them made very lame excuses why it couldn’t be shown. One of them said it was too long; the other one said it was too short. To answer your question: They didn’t have the guts to show it. Blackfellas are not supposed to take the piss out of prime ministers, and that’s what we’re doing, showing John Howard for what he was and what he still is. That’s why I think it was too confronting. They weren’t prepared to do it. But at the same time it’s been very widely shown throughout Australia and literally millions of your fellow Australians have seen this documentary.

QUESTION: I too am slightly embarrassed that in my 30s and growing up here in Canberra that we have not been taught our true history. I came from a generation that thought they were better educated than the last. Until going looking recently through university I felt like I’ve been enlightened with truth and I suppose as musicians and sports people you have an avenue to educate people. But for somebody like me that is not involved with health, politics, sport or music, how can we help break that silence that’s been created in our history?

STEPHEN MUNRO: Michael, do you have an answer for that? Obviously Michael was involved in the AFL. Probably when he started playing football, Michael, it was still probably common practice to racially abuse players on the field. By the time you finished your career, certainly in the AFL that seems to have been something that is unacceptable now. How did that come about? Do you see that reflected in the wider community?

MICHAEL LONG: I think football, I suppose because it’s such a widely watched sport, the influence it does have on the public who watch a great game, I suppose at that time with the racism there weren’t a lot of Indigenous people playing then. I suppose as a player enough was enough and you’ve gone through the earlier days of playing from a junior player playing at Essendon and then as an elder statesman of player with a belief it was time to make a stand, I suppose, never knowing what was going to happen or event out of that. But standing up for what you believe and where you come from, who you are and your history. It was very important. And for the next generation it didn’t matter what race you were, because there were Italians, there were Greeks, people of different races playing our great game. But it was acceptable. Thanks to the AFL they have not totally wiped it but it’s about the education process. There’s a rule in place now that it is unacceptable with the game. I suppose there are a lot of things supporting organisation. Obviously we did the long walk as well going out buying the DVD, but things in your own community that you can look at or support or get behind your local community groups. That’s the start.

Even though I suppose I come from a football background using my profile, I saw something that really needed to be done at a time when, I think, ATSIC was being abolished. I felt there was no voice in our country or we weren’t a part of the agenda or where was the vision for Aboriginal people in the future because we are the eldest culture. We are one of the oldest cultures in the world. The day when we were just asking the Prime Minister where was the love for Aboriginal people? If it wasn’t for this guy at the end here, Bill, bringing people like Archie Roach and Pete and Pat Dodson together, this message and obviously what has happened, the tragedy in Bill’s life and the family and also losing a great mate like Pete, it wouldn’t have been but for this man on the end because of his passion and drive to see justice happen. I take my hat off to Bill Johnson as the most passionate man that I know. [applause]

STEPHEN MUNRO: Thanks for that, Michael.

QUESTION: I was one of those people who walked into Canberra with you, Michael, when was it 2004 when you came?

MICHAEL LONG: Yes.

QUESTION: There was such a feeling of excitement and hope at that time and of course at the end of this film too with the bridge walk there’s a feeling of optimism there at the end of the film and the name of the film too there’s a lot of hope in that. I wonder where the next wave of hope is going to come from knew. I know we’re not going to giver hope but there’s the Northern Territory intervention and all the things that have been happening since then. I don’t want to despair but sometimes that’s the way I feel. I just wondered if perhaps Michael or Archie could respond.

ARCHIE ROACH: The great thing about doing this film and being a part of this documentary with Michael, Pat and Pete was that we released - and also with a friend of ours Shane Howard – some children’s books. Most of the children away go forechildren and education especially for littlies when they are young enough but old enough to educate them now about things past injustices and things that still happen today like the Northern Territory intervention. We really have to realise that this is something we need to educate not just older children but to start educating the children as to the truth about this country so they can go on and hopefully grow up to be maybe great leaders of this country that will take us into a brighter future, a brand new day. That’s where I see it happening. There’s hope that I have in the young ones. All the children of Australia. [applause]

QUESTION: I pick up on the question a lady on the other side of the audience raised a moment ago when she spoke of times in our experience, in our recent past where there was optimism and hope. She raised the question of where might the next waive come from? There is a growing people’s movement right across Australia from Sydney to Perth, from Gippsland to Arnhem Land, a growing people’s movement that has the aim and objective of inviting all Australians, all people of good will, to assemble at one place and at that place publicly hold a national act of recognition, not a national act of reconciliation, a national act of recognition of the first Australians - the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this country. The main, without going into a long story, the main parts of that act of recognition will be to publicly disown the violent entry, the forced entry, to name it as unacceptable to us with the advantage of hindsight and by that means publicly overturn it. The second element of that act of recognition will be to take the declaration spoken over the land declaring it terra nullius and publicly disown that declaration, name it as unacceptable to us now with the advantage of hindsight and by that means reverse it. My question is to the panel: do you, do we feel that this act of recognition could be a step that would help us all - that this act of recognition could be a step that could help and be of value to all Australians but especially to the first Australians of this great country? [applause]

BILL JOHNSON: I just agree and fully endorse what you are saying, yes, I would like to see that.

STEPHEN MUNRO: I might ask you a question about the media’s role - we have talked about education but I know at the time of death Louis’s death there was a lot of hostility within the media in Western Australia. What are your reflections on that? Have there been changes in the media? What sort of job are they doing at the moment?

BILL JOHNSON: At the time of Louis’s death there was a shock jock […] and he used the Indigenous youth juvenile justice issues to instigate the type of behaviour that led to Louis’s death. Quite frankly I don’t believe that that attitude has changed. I think the media has a great deal to answer for, not only in our personal case but also in the way that Indigenous people are portrayed in this country. It’s a very negative portrayal. They always look for the disaster stories, the negative stories and are never prepared to chase down and find the good stories. They will support something like the intervention into the Northern Territory. The intervention in the Northern Territory was a land grab - everybody knows that. There are minerals in Arnhem Land, there are minerals around the gulf and that’s what the Federal Government wanted. They wanted to get control of blackfella country again in the Northern Territory through the Liberal government at the time gave them unprecedented access to Native title and, as Pat says, that has now been drawn back again. We made a mistake, blackfellas have got too much country up there, let’s get it back, we need the minerals, we need to ship them out to China. The media support that attitude, particularly the Australian. Its coverage of the Northern Territory intervention was an absolute and utter disgrace - the dirty digger Murdoch. [applause]

QUESTION: We’ve had the apology from the Labor Party in government. We’ve also had them ignore and allow it to continue the intervention which remains there. How do we gee them up to actually do what they said? We had the words. Now we need some action. How do we get them to do what they talk about?

STEPHEN MUNRO: Michael, would you like to respond to that?

MICHAEL LONG: I suppose Mum and Dad were part of the stolen generation. When you look at it, that was just a small part of the apology and the damage and I suppose the kids being molested and uncles. It goes back further. No doubt it’s taken a long time for the government to do that. Obviously for Aboriginal people are proud of that moment. I do still think that the men, women and children that were taken away still need to be no doubt there has got to be some sort of payment for the sorrow, and hurt that grandmothers and mothers that died from a broken heart because their children were taken away. But it’s things like this that bring people together to go back into your workplaces and be passionate what you are talking about with the apology and what needs to happen with that. Sometimes it’s not about government; it’s about what you do in your own community, how vocal and how passionate you are to make a difference. People power is just as powerful. There are different organisations here within your own state that you can really support and get behind. That’s where I think a community is just as strong as anything. You only have to see that with the floods in Queensland, people power. [applause]

QUESTION: First and foremost, I would like to congratulate you on showing this film and for the participation of our wonderful Aboriginal people. What came through to me was the lack of respect for our people. What I’m looking for in my lifetime is that my children and my grandchildren will be respected when they say, ‘I’m proud to be an Australian Aboriginal.’ [applause]

STEPHEN MUNRO: Any responses to that?

BILL JOHNSON: I totally agree with the sentiments voiced.

STEPHEN MUNRO: We should add that obviously Pat Dodson was a major part of the film. He was unable to be here tonight unfortunately because of a death in his family. However, he has written some words that he has asked Michael to read. We might finish tonight’s proceedings with words from Pat Dodson read by Michael Long.

MICHAEL LONG: Sometimes Pat has some long words. I don’t know why he has given it to me. It goes with the name, I think. I will have a crack at it anyway - sorry Pat.

When a nation’s pride and self-absorption with its affluence and natural gift blind it to the truth of its past and allows for the ongoing denial of its forlorn vision for the future, it often requires the humblest of the of its citizens in the saddest circumstances to cast a light on the cancer that prevents it from achieving its full potential.

When the senseless and callous murder of this young man whose story is told here at the National Museum today occurred, none of us could have comprehended how his story and the circumstances of his life would shine a light through the clink in the entrance to the dark cave of this nation’s historical denial. It was a light that would begin to expose the racism and exclusion that remains the lot of Indigenous Australians since 26 January 1788.

But the young Arrernte’s man story was just that: a sad and painful story of loss, denial and exclusion. In his short life on this earth, he brought many great joys to his family and there remain the gifts of love and sharing that are for his family to treasure. But it is this story of his loss and dispossession as an Aboriginal Australian that he has entrusted to the story teller and the poet whose journey we will visit again in this exhibition that is his gift of hope and warning to the people of Australia. A journey whose message was ignored at a peril. A wiser choice of messengers the young man could not have contrived. They were two strangers who met through their shared friendship with a warrior for justice - Bill Johnson, the young Arrermte man’s father.

Archie Roach is our national poet and a minstrel whose ability to place beauty in the nation’s bleakest corners, while exposing our conscious to the reality of our most blatant denials of justice and truth has placed him among our nation’s treasures. The second was a working-class boy from the north of England, Pete Postlethwaite who had sought to understand his world through the prism of the theatre and film. He was a man that was trained as a teacher and the skill of the teacher remained with him, even though the classroom was never his domain.

Together they set out upon a journey to understand how a nation so embowed could yet remain indifferent to the plight of its first inhabitants. There began a journey of strangers who became firm friends and offered us all an opportunity to confront the truth of our past and to make something better of our future. It was a journey at the time so confronting that both of them were often filled with great despair but once embarked upon the option of turning back was not a possibility because they both understood the man that the young man from Alice Springs had placed upon them. Our mate from Shropshire has now returned to his place of ray. He gave to us all the best of himself without stint and for that alone we must always be grateful.

But like the stories that they told, the songs that they sung and the gifts of spirit that they gave remain with us as candles in the dark place reminding us always of something better that lies within us all. Please let me congratulate and thank the National Museum for continuing to tell the difficult national stories and for all of us to understand that telling the story in its complexity is simply a starting point.

The task is to take the lessons from narrative and turn this to substantive national action to address the truth of our past and be able to say that the price that the young man at the heart of the story paid was not without purpose. Listen with your hearts and act with courage to achieve that - something better of which we in this country I believe are so capable of achieving.

Pat Dodson.

[applause]

STEPHEN MUNRO: Thanks for that, Michael. I think it’s been a privilege for us and I ask you all to join me in thanking once again our guests: Michael Long, Archie Roach and Bill Johnson. [applause]

Date published: 3 March 2011