Recollections of the Starting of the Foundation
Conversations about the Foundation started in 1994 when Stephen Hawke and Polly Farmer got together about writing a book and doing something which would make a difference for Aboriginal people. Even though Polly had retired as a footballer at that stage, in my view as a footballer he was a God: I believe he was the best AFL footballer ever, not only because of his own ability, but because he changed the game with the use of handball and bringing teammates into the play. He was one of the first Aboriginal people to play football at this level and in the 300 or so games he played, he was pretty much always in the five best on ground players. I am a football fan, and I watched and followed Polly all through his career.
I hadn’t met Polly when Stephen approached Fred and I about getting something started. I think Fred being approached was more obvious than me, because he had been Minister for Indigenous Affairs and very actively involved in working with Aboriginal people, but in my case I was on the Labor Party side of things so that balanced it out. I had also been in Stephen’s father Bob Hawke’s Government so I’m sure he knew about my passion for these kinds of things.
At the time Stephen approached me I was working on talkback for 6PR and I immediately wanted to be involved. I thought here is a chance to do something, because the gift of life is for a limited time and this was one of those opportunities I knew I just had to grab. Through my political life I had seen the atmosphere in Australia change in relation to Aboriginal people, but one thing which stuck with me was the wonderful Sister Veronica Brady telling me that Australia would never be a mature country until we learned to live and make peace with our Indigenous partners.
The original concept with the Foundation was always going to be about education and sport. But the question was – how are we going to do it? So one of the first things we did was go off and try and find out where the gaps were. We thought we’d give a prize to an Aboriginal student graduating in the north, the mid west and the south west; maybe one boy and one girl. You know what, there weren’t any. So right then we knew what our job was; to try and get Indigenous kids on to year 12 and then into university.
There was a couple of ways of doing this. One was to grasp hold and shake it and the other was to draw the attention to other people – political people, business people – that this was urgent. I mean what does it tell us as a society that we did not have any of our young Indigenous people going on to university? It was terrible. I felt that as a community we had failed. At the time there were a lot of support agencies in place to help Aboriginal people, but it was obvious to us that it was not enough and more needed to be done.
Polly has always been a figurehead rather than hands on, but at the beginning Fred and I spoke about what might be important to him and he told us the following story about equal standards. He said, well it is like this: “When I lined up on the MCG to kick a goal, they didn’t pull the goal posts apart to make it easier to kick a goal; so if you want to see an Aboriginal person get to the MCG or to get a degree from university, the standards have to be the same for everyone – black and white.”
Having Polly as the figurehead was so important for the Foundation. From an historical point of view, football was the first area where white people have respected Aboriginal people. As Polly was not political, it was easy. We weren’t asking people to sign up to any issues about land rights, or native title or Aboriginal health, you simply said do you want to support the Polly Farmer Foundation, because he wants to do something for his people.
What it came down to was this: The Polly Farmer Foundation has been able to offer a pathway to people. We can trace a young woman or man, help them get a sense of where they belong and help them build their resolve by giving them strength and confidence to pursue their goals. Granted it is a small piece of the puzzle and sometimes the problems do seem overwhelming. But we keep saying to ourselves that doesn’t matter, if we can help one or two or 10 kids, then we’ve done something worth doing. We can’t do everything but we can do this.