Together with fellow ex-Parliamentarian Fred Chaney, Ron was instrumental in setting up the Foundation in order to realise Polly Farmer’s vision of supporting young Aboriginal people to pursue their ambitions.
During his career in politics, most notably as the Labor member for Stirling and as Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ron was passionate about improving the atmosphere in Australia in regards to Aboriginal people. This commitment to social equality, coupled with Ron’s huge admiration for AFL legend Polly Farmer, were the main drivers behind his decision to help establish a Foundation to support young Aboriginal people.
Ron has extensive board experience in the fisheries, the resources and the not-for-profit sectors, including appointments on the Pacific Area Working Group for the Marine Stewardship Council, the Not-for-Profit Sector Reform Council, and the Seafood Trade and Market Access Forum. He also serves on the boards of the Perth Mint, Landcare Australia, the Anglican Schools Commission, and the Potato Marketing Corporation.
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 Bob Hawke’s government (Stephen's father) 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. 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 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: “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. We simply asked: '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 support 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, but if we only help one or two or ten kids, then we’ve done something worth doing. We can’t do everything but we can do this.