"I have been involved in a lot of organisations over the years but at a personal level The Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation has been the most satisfying because I can see directly that it has helped many young people to flourish and have good lives. That is what is important and what catches my heart. The beauty of the Foundation is that it shows how a small group of people, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, can work together to achieve positive changes."
Fred Chaney played a central role in establishing the Foundation and currently serves as Vice President.
In 1994, Fred Chaney and Ron Edwards, both ex Parliamentarians but from different parties, established the Foundation in order to achieve Polly's goal of helping young Aboriginal people succeed in life. Over the last quarter of a century, the Foundation has empowered thousands of young Aboriginal people across Australia to pursue their aspirations and achieve their potential.
Fred has a long history of public service rooted in his commitment to social justice and his belief in the equal value of all people. As well as playing a central role in setting up the Foundation, he advocated for Aboriginal voting rights while at university, was part of establishing the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, served as Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and was the first co-chair of Reconciliation Australia.
Throughout his career, Fred always aimed to inspire others to work collaboratively, respectfully and ambitiously to overcome the barriers that inhibit Indigenous people's full cultural, economic and social participation in Australian society.
Fred was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1997 for his service to the Aboriginal community and in 2014 was named the Senior Australian of the Year for his contribution to indigenous reconciliation and human rights.
The Foundation began when Bob Hawke’s son Stephen visited me in 1994 while he was negotiating 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 (current President of the Foundation), 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 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 where 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, which remains a long-term partner to this day.
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 at school. Rio asked could we help achieve that. What we knew was that there were promising students who were currently failing, there were some parents who wanted more for their children, and there were employers who were looking for 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 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 that 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, and 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 kids for the better. That is what is important and what catches my heart.