Prof. Adam Shoemaker with Prof. Gary Foley - Part 1

Episode 28: Prof. Adam Shoemaker with Prof. Gary Foley - Part 1

Please join me on a journey through the last fifty years of Indigenous political history with the incomparable Professor Gary Foley.

Show notes

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners are advised that the following program contains the names of people who have passed away. Originally, we set out to record 30 minutes as we have typically done in this podcast series. The result? A two-part, hour-long and very rich discussion of Professor Foley's career, his influences and his achievements from the 1960s to the present day.

Gary's activism has always been revolutionary – from the Tent Embassy protests of the seventies through to the role he has played transforming the landscape of First Nations politics and history today.

Today I am delighted to share part one of the podcast, in which Gary talks about what really stoked the fire of his many campaigns for change.

Links mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 00:00:02 Oh, hello, colleagues. Today's a very special episode of the People of VU podcast here in Ani Bain in the Aboriginal History Archive. And I'm very excited to be together with actually someone who I describe as a living legend in many ways, but also a friend and a colleague here at Vu, Gary Foley. Gary, it's amazing to have the time together with you. Thank you for being here

Speaker 2 00:00:25 Afternoon

Speaker 1 00:00:27 And first of course, we want to acknowledge not only the year and the time and place, but the fact that we're recording here on the lenses of the war injury war run of the K Nation. And not just paying respects to ancestors and families, but anyone and anyone, wherever they might be, any First Nations people who might be listening to this podcast, you are what matters, and that's why we're doing it. And at Victoria University, we honestly do honor indigenous cultures and need to do more. And everything we do in every decision we make is underpinned by a commitment to protecting country. It's one of our top five themes in the whole university's plan. So it's not just a place of belonging, but a way of believing and country, as Gary knows, is here and now, and understanding of it is really pertinent to today's conversation. Okay, so Gary, you're a gum banger activist. You could say an actor, a historian, a curator, and of course here we are together in Ani Balik. But tell me this, what do you think you'd like to describe if you were still filling out a passport application and putting your occupation on it, what would you write?

Speaker 2 00:01:34 Revolutionary.

Speaker 1 00:01:36 That's great. And would you do with a capital R?

Speaker 2 00:01:41 Absolutely. I mean, in many ways I consider what I'm doing now, 50 years down the track, pretty much essentially the same sort of thing that I was doing when I was 17, 18, trying to educate the people, make, create a greater awareness in, in Australia of our mutual history, create a greater understanding of where we've been and where we need to go to. And I mean, when I was 18 and had a, had the fire in my belly, I was doing essentially the same thing as I do now. I was just doing it with, I was less well equipped back then when I was young and crazy. But in essence, it's the, the same message throughout. And there's a, there's a, an internal consistency in the stuff that I've always said, and I know that because in my archive here, I've got video footage and written stuff going back 50 years that clearly shows the consistency and what I've been saying, what I was saying then and what I'm saying now.

Speaker 1 00:03:20 And consistency is a pretty important thing in life, isn't it? To, you know, be able to see things through, you know, this fire in your belly. You said it was a sort of radical feeling. Where'd that come from, do you think?

Speaker 2 00:03:32 Well, I'm on the record extensively. Over the years of being very specific, it was firstly a good bashing that I got from two detectives from the Notorious 21 Division in Redfin back when I was 17. And not long after that, I, I met a guy by the name of Paul Co. And I talked to him about what had happened to me, and he handed me a book and he said, read this. It was the autobiography, Malcolm X. Then a couple of weeks later, co told me he was thinking of setting up a little discussion group amongst us, us some of us young people in Redfin, to discuss ways in which we might be able to counter the, the police harassment that was going on at the time. And thanks to the 21 Division, I didn't hesitate when co asked me if I wanted to join. So I became part of a small group of people who, who then said about edge educating ourselves first and foremost,

Speaker 1 00:04:54 And look what a, an important conversation in person Paul was. Right. And look, was that about the time that the first aboriginal legal services were being considered, or even beforehand?

Speaker 2 00:05:06 Well, that's how the process of creating those first legal services began. And it's also important to historically point out that those legal services were the first free shopfront legal aid centers in Australia. And I mean, you know, it, it began with a, a minuscule group of half educated, impoverished black fellas in Redfern young people. Our average age was about 18. We came together, looked at what was happening in other parts of the world to people in similar situations to us. And as luck would Abbot, those were really exciting times. You know, we were coming out of the first phase of decolonization in Africa in particular, but through a Asia and the Pacific as well. So there were many people in similar situations to us that we saw comparisons with. And then looking at those other situations, we sought to copy or sort of create ideas in the Australian context, drawing on examples from other places whereby we could do something about that which confronted us.

Speaker 2 00:06:41 And as a result, we created the first free shopfront legal aid center in Redfern within a matter of weeks. We were approached by the, the then matriarch of Redfin mum, she Smith, who summons us young radical blokes to a meeting. And when mum Shell said, jump in those days, if you were young and doesn't matter who you was, you jumped. And we went to the meeting, she said, you know, we've got terrible health problems in this community, you know, why can't we set up a medical service on similar lines to what you guys set up with a legal service? And we said, all right, let's have a meeting. We had a meeting attended by various people. Gordon Briscoe at the time was a field officer for the legal service. Mum Michelle was there at that first meeting. Fred Hollows turned up this crazy mountain climb and pipe smoking communist eye surgeon from the Prince of Wales Hospital.

Speaker 2 00:07:57 He turned up to the first meeting, and Mum Cheryl said, you know, we need EL service and we need this, and we need that. And she said, why can't we have that in Australia? And Fred told her all, you know, 56 reasons why it was impossible. And six weeks later we opened the first free shopfront health clinic for anyone in Australia. And in those early days, even though we called it the Aboriginal Medical Service, we, we never dis we didn't discriminate. You know, we, anyone who was sick, who came through our door and needed help got it, didn't matter who they were. And that was ultimately put an end to by when Goff Whitlam created the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Governments started funding us, and they made it a condition of grant, if we received money from one of the conditions of Grant, were we, that we only were only able to treat Aboriginal people, you know, so there are multitudes of contradictions in the long path Yeah. Towards victory.

Speaker 1 00:09:17 It's a really fascinating thing. And those two sort of just in the early seventies, right? And so many amazing things happening, but a LS first, how many months was it from beginning of Aboriginal legal service to then medical service? Was it the next year or was it within a the same year that it occurred?

Speaker 2 00:09:36 Well, the Redfin Medical Services just had, its 2021 was the 50th anniversary of the legal service. The medical service was last year. So they were set up in less than a year after the legal service, then pretty much at the same time. And these were ideas that we had lifted, adopted, and adapted to the Australian context. These were ideas that we'd stolen or looked at and knocked off the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. We, through the stuff that we were getting our hands on to read, I mean, we had a lot of, a lot more information than most people in Australia at the time about what was going on. And the more radical wings of the American Civil Rights Movement, in part through the large numbers of African-American soldiers who were coming through Sydney at the time on what they called r and r, resting recuperation from being, from being shot up in the jungles in Vietnam by Ho Chi Menini mates, a lot of these African-American soldiers coming into Sydney, bought with them some of the latest African American political literature outta what was going on in America.

Speaker 2 00:11:14 But more importantly, they bought firsthand accounts of what was going on in the ghettos back in America. And, you know, when these af well, a significant number, shall we say the American military coming into Sydney were African-Americans showing that the only poor people who who ended up fighting in Vietnam for the American military were poor people and black people. And you know, but these African American soldiers, like I said, once they hit Sydney, they looked around and said, where's the black community? There was no black community in Sydney except us. And so many gravitated towards us. And like I say, bought, they bought with them firsthand accounts, you know. And so we ended up better informed about what was going on. And at the time in, in those ghettos and anyone else in Australia,

Speaker 1 00:12:16 It's incredible, isn't it? That war that everybody, lots of people were pro protesting against. Something came out of it unexpected, which actually was a leading example in the world of, at the time, so, gosh, to be part of that in 71, 72, pretty special thing. And mom, she'll talk about people who are also legends. She, she just didn't brook any opposition, did she? She was one of those people who'd say, whoever it was, government, industry, whomever, stand down and listen.

Speaker 2 00:12:43 Even, even the toughest detectives in the 21 division who just incidentally included young Roger Rogerson, even the toughest coppers in the 21 division would think twice about trying to speak badly towards Mum Michelle. She was a very formidable person. And even though she was, and remained till the day she died, a devout Catholic, she could swear like a trooper along with any 21 Division Copper. So, you know, mum Michelle was quite a character. And she even had this badge that somehow or other she'd managed to procure from the New South Wales Prison Department. It was a badge that gave her entry to any penal institution in the state of New South Wales. And those prison officers all always treated mum shell with enormous respect whenever she came unexpectedly paying a visit, Tom. So, you know, mum Shell was a, an extraordinary person to know. And she was, you know, she had that dyna dynamism that fired up others, you know, among the ones she fired up was Fred Hollows, you know, and, and if it hadn't been for Fred Hollow's assistance in those early days in creating that first shopfront medical service, I don't know whether we'd have got it open, because there were many obstacles in the path of creating something like that.

Speaker 2 00:14:31 But we overcame them all.

Speaker 1 00:14:33 Sounds like he had 57 successes and he got rid of those 56 obstacles. 'cause he, he helped you do it, you know, he really got stuck in

Speaker 2 00:14:41 That's right. And we, we had a, you know, by that time, the little gaggle of young, you know, smart Alex that began, you know, began in a quest to simply get the coppers off our back had grown to a, a little group that we eventually called the Redfin Black Caucus. It's been called other names by other people. It's been called the Redfin Black Power Movement, the Self-Determination Movement, the Land Rights Movement, all sorts of names. But essentially it came down to a, a, an initially a small collective in, in Redfin who later on linked up with a similar minded collective in Melbourne and a similar minded bunch in Brisbane led by Sammy Watson and Dennis Walker. And from that we ultimately built a national pan aboriginal movement, which is what gave the, that movement. Then over the next three or four years, such incredible momentum to the point where with the Aboriginal embassy, the culmination in 1972, we actually changed the course of Australian history in the sense that we bought, the embassy ultimately bought to an end, the official era of Assimil government, of policy, of assimilation.

Speaker 2 00:16:23 You know, the, the embassy ended that when Goff Whitlam Koman gave a talk there in February, 1972 at the embassy on the lawns in front of Parliament House, and he was up there making a big speech saying to the assemble crowd of Aboriginal activists, all your Abes, don't worry, all you need to do is vote labor at the federal election at the end of this year and everything will be sweet. Now, in the middle of that speech, he was challenged by Paul Co. And I've got a photo in my archive here of the very moment when Paul co challenged Goff Whitlam and Paul Co said to Whitlam, Mr. Whitlam, you know, and I know that your, your party, the Labor Party and the government across the road, your both your party's policies on Aborigines is assimilation. Co said it's been that way effectively since, you know, you've had a bipartisan policy of assimilation since Federation, effectively.

Speaker 2 00:17:30 And Mr. Whitlam, you know, as well as I do, that assimilation equals genocide for the simple reason that the desired end result of a policy of assimilation is that there be no aborigines. You know, so why should we vote for you, Mr. Whitlam and Whit Whitlam, instead of ignoring co took up CO's challenge and overnight changed the policy of the a LP from being assimilation for Aborigines to land rights for Aborigines. And that was his promise that he took to the 72 federal election. And in doing so, brought an end to the bipartisan policy of assimilation. And in effect, when he got in ended, the official federal government policy of assimilation, that is a significant moment in Australian history, more significant than anything that came outta the 67 referendum.

Speaker 1 00:18:35 Yeah. In real terms, you know, that's an, an action and a moment at a time. And somebody listened. It's interesting when you said mom, Cheryl, in relation to her speeches and Paul's in relation to his, they got things done. And when people listened, they acted on it. And that, you know, you can say now it's pretty hard to get politicians to act these days. Why do you think it was different then?

Speaker 2 00:18:59 I think it was a different moment in Australian history. I mean, the 67 referendum, the only thing it really, really did was show that there was an enormous reservoir of goodwill towards Aboriginal people, even if it was a, you know, fairly shallow thing. Nevertheless, there was a reservoir of goodwill. There were a lot of other things happening in, in Australian society at the time as well. The anti-war, anti-Vietnam war movement was a significant thing. There was a, a fairly radicalized student movement in Australia at the time. There was the, we saw the beginnings of both the women's and the gay movement emerging around the same, you know, and all these things were coinciding. And, and then in addition to that, ever since 1960 with the Sharpville massacre in South Africa that had generated a, a major international, well, first of all, revulsion, but then that translated into a, an international movement against racism or, or apartheid based around the issue of racism, you know?

Speaker 2 00:20:24 And so we were able to tap into that sort of international movement as well. And in doing so, you suddenly, you know, we as a group of people in Redfern suddenly realized or felt that we were part of something much bigger. We were much bigger than just some little bunch of nobodies in Redfern all of a sudden. And we were forming extraordinary alliances with people like the New South Wales Builders, laborers Federation, the Wharfies Union and New South Wales, the Seamens Union, some of these, and the, the then Communist Party of Australia, which was still going reasonably strong at that point. All of these things created a sense that, you know, you were started part of something bigger. And we were, and we, we showed that we were by the alliances we built and the things that we jointly achieved, you know. And

Speaker 1 00:21:29 Gary, were you, were you attracted by the Communist Party yourself?

Speaker 2 00:21:35 Not particularly. We were, we were very much focused on our own struggle for independence, political independence, economic independence, self-determination. That's been the essential point of the struggle since the first modern aboriginal modern day aboriginal political organization, the A A PA, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in New South Wales in the 1920s, of which my great-grandfather was the secretary of one of the most radical branches of that organization, the Berger Heads branch. So, you know, ever since the 1920s, ever since there's been organized modern day political resistance, the essential aim has always been the same. And that's trying to determine the most effective ways we can achieve, you know, political economic independence. That was an important issue in the late sixties and early seventies, because we were just coming out of almost 70 years of a system of apartheid in various parts of Australia. And you know, part of the evidence I tell my students of the extent to which aboriginal people had been deprived of the meaningful educational opportunities was, I say to 'em, look at when the first Aboriginal University graduates emerged in Australia.

Speaker 2 00:23:24 It was 1958 at Melbourne Uni, a Banja woman, Margaret Williams was the first indigenous graduate, then Charlie Perkins was the first man in 1965. Now look at, look at comparable situations in other countries in the United States. It's over a hundred years since the first African American graduate. It's over a hundred years since the first Native American graduated. It's a hundred years since the first Canadian native person graduated. It's over a hundred years since the first Maori person graduated in New Zealand, Australia lagged behind every other comparable country to the extent of a hundred years later before the first aboriginal indigenous graduates emerged. And that was because of a deliberate government policy to deprive indigenous people of educational opportunities. And I was, I was among the, I was part of the first generation of indigenous people in New South Wales who'd had, who was given a little bit of a chance at education.

Speaker 2 00:24:42 I got halfway through, well, I got almost all the way through my secondary education before I got expelled, you know, and my story was similar to many others in New South Wales in the, in the late 1960s. And by being expelled from high school, the, the worst part about that for me, I believe, was that it put me off education for 30 years. It wasn't for another 30 years until a certain academic at the University of Melbourne insulted me once by suggesting that I was somehow a lesser person because I didn't have that little bit of paper that they had. And I said to 'em, well, you know, I'll come and get you a little Mickey Mouse bit of paper. It mustn't be too hard. You've got one. And I did.

Speaker 1 00:25:37 That's right. Well, I You love a challenge, right? Indeed. Yeah. And I, I think that's a big pattern in what you described already, whether it's the challenge of being expelled or the challenge of people saying no, or the challenge of saying not here on this land for the Aboriginal Embassy. What a great concept. So look, lots of people have talked about whose idea it was. Whose idea was it?

Speaker 2 00:26:00 It was the group who met in Redfin the night of after Prime Minister McMahon Mady statement. There was an inner circle and an outer circle of the Redfin Black Caucus. And the people who met that night, I, I think included Kevin Gilbert, Michael Anderson was there, Tony Curry. Yeah, Tony Curry was the poet of the Black Power Movement. And it was Tony Curry, in fact, one of the four guys who traveled to Canberra that night. And they were driven to Canberra that night by Noel Hasard, who was the photographer for the Tribune, the Communist Party newspaper. And it was Noel Hasard who took those famous photographs of the guys. But Tony Curry, who as I said was the poet of the Black Power Movement, he was the one who came up with the name Aboriginal Embassy. He said, you know, the Prime Minister's statement has in effect deemed us aliens in our own land. If we're aliens in our own land, we'll have an embassy like all the other aliens, you know, only our embassy won't be a big flash mansion up in Moner or Narrabundah somewhere. Our embassy will reflect the reality of living conditions for aboriginal people, you know, throughout New South Wales in 1972. And it'll be a, an encampment at tents. Yeah, yeah.

Speaker 1 00:27:38 You know, amazing, isn't it? No, no. Red Hill Parliament Hill, you know, this kind of thing.

Speaker 2 00:27:43 And the other extraordinary thing about that night when the guys went down to Canberra, when they set up their little beach umbrella, when the coppers turned up. 'cause the expectation was when they left Redfin that night, the expectation was that they'd go there, they'd set up a little protest, they'd get some photographs that they hoped would be in the paper the next day. So when the Prime Minister woke up and he'd choke on his cornflake, seeing these bunch of black fellas protesting on the front lawn and Parliament house. And the next thing that was supposed to happen when the coppers come along, they were gonna get arrested. And the expectation was they'd be arrested. They'd spend the night in the cells and the crew had come down from Redfin the next day and bail 'em out. The only thing was when the coppers arrived, they informed the boys that there seemed to be no law preventing you from camping on the lawns, a parliament house.

Speaker 2 00:28:50 The only catch was that you had to have only 11 structures. They called them 11 tenths. 'cause if you put 12 tenths there, the police said they could deem you a camping area and they'd come and move you. And so the boys had accidentally discovered a loophole in Canberra law. And so as long as they only had 11 tenths there, there was nothing the coppers could do. There was nothing the government could do, nothing anybody could do unless the government changed the law. And six months later they did change the law because it had become such a terrible embarrassment to the government. They had no choice.

Speaker 1 00:29:34 But such a, such a brilliant thing. And so drawing together, you know, come some of the threads interesting that the Communist Party newspaper and photographer played a role, given what we talked about before, interesting too. That it was a completely new idea that nobody had even checked, could you? You just did it, you know, which is even better. And also the poetry, you know, pick that up when you talked about, 'cause of course when you think of Dennis and his mother, you know, auntie Cath or Uru, you know, poetry was powerful in lots of protests too. Well,

Speaker 2 00:30:04 That's right. Even Bruce McGinnis fancied himself as a bit of a poet, and hopefully I'm gonna publish some of his writings and poetry as part of one of the projects that will come outta my archive project. But just going back to what you said about the Communist Party newspaper, in fact, if you look at that period there from about 1968 through to 72, some of the, the best reporting of indigenous actions and anything indigenous was being done by Dennis Freeney, who at the time was the editor of Tribune and, and wrote a lot of really fantastic stuff. And he was a pretty extraordinary guy in himself. You know, you have a read of his autobiography, A Map of Days. I think it's one of the more extraordinary stories that come outta that period, you know, and, and it's people like Freeney and numerous others. Bobby Pringle and Joey Owens and the Builders Laborers Federation and, and many, many other non-indigenous supporters, you know, and the student move Ris Bergman and a lot of the Andy Apartheid crew, Peter McGregor and people like that. They were exciting times. And, and some of the early day Sydney, well, you know, Sydney push and the, some of the early Sydney feminists like Wendy Bacon and Liz Fellon, others were all great mates. And, and until Liz died, still was. And in we Wendy's case still is, you know, and, and we were all sort of political activists outta the same sort crucible at the time. You know, that was roasting away there

Speaker 1 00:32:12 Incredible times. It's, you know, people talk about the sixties, but really seventies in Australia was different, you know what I mean? Like, that's almost where it all

Speaker 2 00:32:19 Happened. I mean the Yeah, the seventies were, yeah, the sixties in Australia. That's

Speaker 1 00:32:23 What I mean. Yeah. Yeah.

Speaker 1 00:32:26 Colleagues, you've just heard part one of an incredible discussion I was privileged to have with Professor Gary Foley. As you know, these Podcasts are usually around the 25 to 30 minute mark. But our conversation was incredible. It flowed early in the evening. In fact, we had to end our recording so that Gary could ride his bicycle home safely before dark. It was truly wonderful. The second part will be released in coming weeks when Gary and I talk more about the people who influenced him and those who shaped him and indeed the nation. Until then, I hope you enjoyed listening to this very significant oral history, which Gary has so kindly shared with all of us. Thank you, Gary.

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