Recollections of the Starting of the Foundation
The Foundation began when Bob Hawke’s son Stephen visited me in 1994 while he was trying to negotiate with Graham “Polly” Farmer to write his biography. Polly had made it a condition of agreeing to write his biography that Steve set up a foundation to help young Aboriginal people, so in football terms Steve effectively handballed that obligation on to me.
My interest in Aboriginal rights and circumstances began at the University of Western Australia. In the University Liberal Club we did some work with fringe dwellers and we wrote the submission on Aboriginal voting rights which the Liberal Party of Western Australia then adopted as its submission to the House of Representatives Committee in 1961.
Later, as a lawyer, I started doing work for the occasional Aboriginal client on a pro bono basis until this was formalised by the Justice Committee of New Era Aboriginal fellowship under the chairmanship of Bob French which became the Aboriginal Legal Service.
I was very keen on politics from the age of 16 when I joined the Liberal Party and I went on to enter Federal politics some 16 years later. Through my life as a student, lawyer and then politician there was a golden thread which linked all the bits of my life together – Aboriginal people and Aboriginal Australia.
When Stephen approached me in 1994 I had just left Parliament. It was quite a tumultuous time with the Mabo decision coming along in 1992 and contention surrounding the Native Title Act. I was worried about States like Queensland and Western Australia which were campaigning heavily to abolish native title and there were huge anti-Aboriginal fear campaigns.
Ron Edwards joined me right from the start, and upon reflection our response to set up a Foundation was very modest in the face of what was going on at the time. Despite that, we were determined to find ways to do exactly what Graham Farmer wanted; to assist young Aboriginal people to succeed. We were very aware there were a lot of issues and problems.
The real question was what does a small foundation do? We were just a voluntary organisation, made up of a small number of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, which started by raising a small amount of money and handing out awards and small amounts of financial assistance. We found our present role thanks to John Cunningham’s relationship with Rio Tinto.
Rio believed that the future of work in the Pilbara lay in the skilled trades and was concerned that in the main it employed Aboriginal people in labouring jobs. To get into a trade children needed to finish years 11 or 12. They asked could we help achieve that? Rio funded research which identified a whole heap of issues which needed to be addressed. That included not being able to single out students in Aboriginal communities because Aboriginal people expect everyone to be treated the same. What we knew was that there were promising students who were currently failing, there were some parents who wanted more for their children and that employers wanted people with higher education. We thought they were sufficient ingredients for us to assist some young Aboriginal people to succeed.
We made some important early decisions. One was to be low key, to not draw attention to the kids, partly to protect them, but also to celebrate actual achievements rather than good intentions. There had also been a history of people making a big deal of things and then it all petering out; we were determined to make sure what we did really worked.
In my view education is the one thing which will enable Aboriginal people to have their proper place in Australia. There is no single silver bullet to solve all of the problems in Aboriginal education but we have demonstrated one way of making things better.
I have been involved in a lot of organisations over the years including the National Native Title Tribunal, Reconciliation Australia, Desert Knowledge Australia, but I can say that at a personal level this has been the most satisfying because I can see in a direct way that it has changed the life of some of the kids for the better. That is what is important and what catches my heart. The beauty of the Foundation is that it is an example of how a small group of people, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginals, can work together to pursue a worthwhile objective. Our contribution is tiny, but it is real and personal and direct. Australia needs many such contributions.