On road to change

Daily Telegraph - Monday, June 23, 2003

A group of activists carved the way to Aboriginal rights. JO ROGERS reports

In 1963 in Australia, Aborigines were not counted as part of the population, not entitled to welfare benefits and not even able to get a passport. They rarely graduated from high school, suffered frequent racism and were urged by white society to forget their indigenous culture and assimilate.

It was against this background that the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs was set up that year.

The fledgling organisation, led by young Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, quickly attracted a core group of workers who went on to become among the country's most outspoken Aboriginal advocates.

The foundation's staff and members were instrumental in the establishment and running of the first Aboriginal legal and medical services.

Members also kick-started the Aboriginal rights movement by lobbying for the successful 1967 referendum to count their race as citizens of Australia and helped set up the Aboriginal tent embassy, which brought their rights to the world's attention for the first time.

The foundation came about when Perkins and Methodist minister Ted Noffs were introduced to each other and discovered they shared a desire to help Aborigines.

They set up the group and bought a former morgue near Sydney's Central station as its headquarters.

The foundation initially focused on helping the steady stream of unemployed Aborigines leaving country towns and moving to the city.

Most Aborigines at that time could only get casual seasonal work picking fruit or vegetables or labouring on properties. When there was no work available, they were unable to get welfare benefits, so struggled to make ends meet.

Aborigines heading to the city were met at the train, given a simple meal such as toast, eggs and tea, and introduced to the foundation, which became Sydney's most popular black social club in the 1960s and '70s.

It held alcohol-free dances for children, talent quests and popular music concerts. Several high-profile entertainers, such as Col Joye, Don Lane and Johnny Ashcroft, performed at the club free. A small door charge helped pay for the meals the foundation handed out.

Later the organisation held debutante balls in Sydney Town Hall and sponsored young people from country towns to attend. These were aimed at boosting the morale of country Aborigines and proving to the white population that Aborigines were not vastly different.

Staff at the foundation also tried to provide a network of support for Aborigines, helping them find jobs, offering them a bed (even if only on the floor), supporting young women who fell pregnant, encouraging reckless youths to keep out of trouble, and speaking on their behalf in courts.

Finances were usually tight and workers had to raise their own wages as well as fund operating costs. Most donations went towards the upkeep and improvement of the group's headquarters.

Fundraising was generally done by door-knocking, though volunteers became accustomed to having doors slammed in their faces. Members also became guest speakers to community groups such as Rotary and Apex, and appealed to them for financial support.

The foundation established projects such as setting up emergency bedding, opening a cafe, sponsoring students to finish high school and setting up an early-childhood centre with a van that picked up the children from home.

The group also visited Aborigines in jail and hospital and handed out food and clothes.

Staff at the heart of the group's operations included Aboriginal rights campaigner Charles ``Chikka'' Dixon, political agitator Gary Foley , former boxing promoter Roy Carroll, referendum lobbyist Joyce Clague (nee Mercy) and Esther Carroll, who devoted her life to helping Aborigines.

As well as the day-to-day efforts of the foundation, staff and members also talked to each other about Aboriginal rights and what they could do to bring about change.

Many spoke from personal experience of racism. Foley felt he had been forced out of high school because the principal did not want an Aborigine to matriculate and Clague had been refused a passport to work overseas as a nurse.

Perkins and Dixon became role models to many of the youths socialising at the foundation, and spoke to them at length about the political standing of their people, often opening their homes to young Aborigines. The organisation unofficially became a springboard for a wide range of activities aimed at helping Aborigines, from providing mainstream services to organising confrontational rights protests.

The greatest political success achieved by members of the foundation was the six years of lobbying to bring about the successful 1967 referendum to allow Aborigines to be included in the census.

More than 92 per cent of voters agreed to the changes, meaning Aborigines officially became citizens of their own country and legislation could be passed to provide them with services and benefits.

Another notable result was the setting up of the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra in 1972, which sprang from a sense among Aborigines that they were aliens in their own country.

Other accomplishments of the foundation included the establishment of legal and medical centres run by Aborigines. Aboriginal control of support groups became an important issue for radical younger members.

One group, which included Foley, attempted to persuade white members of the foundation's board that the group should be run entirely by Aborigines.

Though Perkins was the early foundation figurehead, he left to work for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs after the referendum.

With Perkins in Canberra, the group was able to secure government funding for some of its activities.

Filmmaker Troy j. Russell, in his documentary The Foundation, suggests the Aboriginal political movement stemmed almost entirely from the behind-the-scenes work of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs.

* The Foundation will screen on SBS on Wednesday at 7.30pm as part of the Australia By Numbers series.
Edition: 1 - State
Section: Features
Page: 051