Looking through a black anger. The mellowing of Gary X

Author: Martin Flanagan
Date: 20th March 1993
          Publication: The Age
Section: Saturday Extra

He's a radical among Koori radicals, but a man who has mellowed with the years. Lately he's even led whites in protest. MARTIN FLANAGAN reports.

GARY FOLEY is at Melbourne University, waiting to speak. His audience, several hundred prospective students, are milling around stalls manned by the various university societies. ``Look at them," Foley says, ``the intelligentsia." He has a way of pronouncing each word individually to give it added effect.

A joint sits in his mouth in the way that cigars sit in the mouths of American generals in war movies. In the early '70s, when he and other activists tackled the social devastation in the Sydney Aboriginal community, they urged young men with drink problems to smoke nyarndi.

``Marijuana smokers, as a rule, don't go home and beat their wives, mate." His tone suggests that he is stating the obvious.

A theatre group passes by. One of them, pretending to be naughty, hides. The other chastises her, wagging a finger. ``F___ me," Foley says, shaking his head, ``and this is the master race." On the stage, an earnest young Aborigine from north Queensland is berating the crowd, his eyes bulging with indignation and belligerence. ``All the young blokes want to be Gary Foley," he says, grinning inwards. Only a few people listen.

At 42, Gary Foley is old by Aboriginal standards. He has heart troubles. He still walks with a light tread, but his close-cropped hair is flecked with grey. Two years ago, he started taking new directions, like drawing (a passable copy of a Van Gogh, done in crayon, is sticky-taped to his kitchen wall), learning the guitar (his style is classical), riding a pushbike. About the only subject Gary Foley won't speak on _ beyond saying it's a fact _ is mortality.

What remains constant in Foley's life is the velocity at which he projects himself. Called to the microphone, he says: ``It's always a pleasure to come and address the intelligentsia, the leadership of Australia tomorrow." He then insults the students' families and the institution into which they're enrolling. ``Your parents and others would have us believe that Aboriginal people don't deserve land rights. What would your parents know about the truth of Australian history? What would the history department of this university know about Australian history ..." They're listening now.

Foley says he should be teaching them history. Racism is evil, he says; sexism, too. He tells them about his hero, Malcolm X. Foley read Malcolm X's biography in 1968. The previous year's referendum had effectively closed the country's Aboriginal reserves (concentration camps, Foley calls them). Sydney's Koori population had ballooned from 5000 to 40,000. There were no jobs, housing was inadequate, the problems with police were beginning in earnest.

Foley was an apprentice air-conditioning draftsman. ``Just what was needed in black Australia at the time." One day, walking along Railway Place, he approached a white girl whom he had previously met at one of Charlie Perkins's Aboriginal Affairs dances and ``got lumbered by two smart-arse uniformed coppers". Foley was beaten until he admitted, falsely, that he'd had sex with the girl. ``I didn't even know her name." He was then made to watch while the girl was beaten by two policewomen for ``sleeping with a boong". The girl was a ward of the state.

Malcolm X changed Foley's life. Malcolm X had given black Americans pride. Foley has a photostat copy of his New South Wales police file from the period (obtained, he says, through ASIO, the Aboriginal Security Intelligence Organisation). Of him, it says: ``Author of several articles on Black Power and the Aboriginal Plight. He is known to be both militant and extremely radical." But Foley ceased being a black racist in 1974. Ultimately, Malcolm X was killed by black racists.

`WE'RE not saying, `F___ you, because you're white'," he tells the students. ``That's not what it's about. Australians have to re-educate themselves. We're not talking about racism as it was, but in the present as it lives in the hearts and the minds of the morons who administer the place ... These aren't issues which are restricted to the Kimberleys or confined to Redfern. They're issues which determine the sort of society you're going out into, the sort of world your kids are going to grow up in." He tells the students they can change the world if they want to. It is the least rhetorical of his utterances. He states it as a fact, then finishes with a novel appeal for their support in the forthcoming election: ``And if there's anyone here from Jaga Jaga, which is unlikely given that it's a working-class electorate _ vote for Gary Foley, not for f___ing Peter Staples." No politician has ever spoken to them like that before.

``Oratory," says Gerry Hand, the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, ``is one of Gary's gifts." Brian Derum, a former teacher at Northlands Secondary College, says Foley's first speech to the school's parents and students was electrifying. It ended with a quote from Che Guevera: ``A community united will never be divided." Northlands Secondary College, and the unique lead it seemed to offer in finding a solution to Australia's oldest and most tragic racial divide, will only attract more attention with the passage of time.

Foley's son, 15-year-old Bruce Nemarluk Malcolm X Foley, was a student at Northlands, having arrived in Victoria with a reputation for being New South Wales's leading truant. This made his schooling a matter of urgency.

The Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody found that, in virtually every case, the first point of contact with the criminal justice system occurred while the subject was at school. ``It's a cycle. Koori kids get trapped." The enemy is the inability of the system to cope with people who are inherently different or what Foley calls institutionalised racism.

Foley describes himself as an anarchist. ``Don't conform," he tells young kids. ``You don't have to become like them." By them, he means the bulk of society. What about Aboriginal society, I ask. What about ``them"? How do they view individualists? He grins. ``To you, I'm an individualist but, in terms of Koori society, I'm not. I'm not above the rules of my society." What are those rules? He waves away the question. ``Anthropologists have been spying on us for 200 years. Keep your callipers in the bag. We don't want any head measuring around here." Foley basically regards questions as interruptions. ``Do your homework before you come and talk to me," he snaps. Before we begin, he tells me to read Noam Chomsky's, `Manufacturing Consent'. Chomsky, an American Jewish intellectual, believes 20 per cent of the population control the other 80 per cent through the media. This conforms with Foley's view, both of the media and the gullibility of people in general. The only time that Australians have listened seriously to him was when he was a preacher on `A Country Practice'. His eyes glint with the irony of it. Foley would like to make a film about Koori life, about its comic absurdity.

Foley was in `Backroads', one of the great Australian movies. Made in 1976 for $25,000 and directed by Phil Noyce, the film is about two thieves (Foley and Bill Hunter) whose paths briefly cross outside a toilet block in a NSW country town around dawn. In an understanding born of an instant, they decide to steal the car of a man who ambles past them into the lavatory.

Thereafter their fates are intertwined. Some of the exchanges between Hunter and Foley are classic, not that Foley can remember them. ``The script was no good. We threw it away and made it up as we went along." Foley doesn't call what he does on screen acting. ``It's just an extension of what I do." `Backroads' ends in a shoot-out with the police. One of the Aboriginal actors, Foley claims, has since died in police custody.

The film went to Cannes. After bludgeoning a $2000 grant from a government arts body, Foley went too and found that the festival had 12 Aboriginal films and only one Aboriginal _ himself. After two weeks of being what he calls the token Jacky Jacky, he went to Berlin where the film attracted the interest of cinematic heavyweights such as Rainer Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. Through them, Foley met the West German green Petra Kelly. Shortly afterwards, a press conference in Bonn condemned uranium mining on Aboriginal land.

``Gary," Gerry Hand says, with considerable understatement, ``has the ability to attract attention to his causes." During the Northlands saga, he took a busload of kids to Scotch College, ostensibly to enrol them. ``I rang the headmaster to let him know we were coming. He very kindly arranged to have a barrier put across the gate, which was the perfect image for the television cameras when they arrived. At the time, we were having trouble getting the mainstream media involved. I said, `I'll show you how to get these bastards in. Arrange a stunt for them'." That was the choice, Foley claims, that black radicals made in the early '70s. ``If Australians ever want to look back in an intelligent, intellectual way _ which means about one per cent might _ they'll realise that if we hadn't cottoned on to that method of getting our message across, we would have had to have used the sort of methods employed by people in other parts of the world. I refer specifically to the Palestinians." He still doesn't renounce the use of violence in certain circumstances. Who does, he asks. The first night he met Fred Hollows, they were skimming home in Fred's Alfa Romeo when the man who was later to become Australian of the Year skidded to a halt, threw open his boot, pulled out a chainsaw and dropped a billboard advertising cigarette smoking.

SOME say the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was Foley's greatest stunt.

Eventually, the McMahon Liberal Government pulled it down, thereby raising Aboriginal Affairs _ for the first time _ to the status of a national issue. Foley is credited with having had, at different times, a similarly spectacular impact on health, arts, Aboriginal legal aid.

The satirist John Clarke saw `Basically Black', a television satire involving Foley when he first came to Australia from New Zealand. ``It was as good as anything I've seen since, bar none. It had the cheek of Old Nick. It was not only extremely funny, it was brilliantly incisive." Koori artist Lin Onus rates Foley ``with Gough Whitlam as one of the people who dragged Australia kicking and screaming into the 20th Century".

Foley is most proud of having helped design the Aboriginal flag. And yet, and yet ... ``Deep down in me, I don't know if I think emblems are ultimately a good thing. There may come a day when it has to be subverted." Life, Foley says, is a contradiction.

Being an Aboriginal anarchist, he acknowledges, is as much a contradiction as being an Aboriginal millionaire. And while he rails against the ``exquisite hypocrisy" of Australian society, he admits he likes Australian people. ``Ordinary Australians have got a basic decency. Once they're exposed to the truth, they respond. If I didn't believe that, I would've shot myself, or someone else, years ago." Even those who admire Foley tend to speak about him with distant voices. Lin Onus described him as mercurial. On his weekly radio show on 3CR, in the persona of the Cosmic Avenger, he pours scorn on Aboriginal public servants, calling them ``rotten little traitors" and ``native police". Foley says black activists either die or get bought off. He insists on showing me his tax return for 1991-92: net income $18,424. The message is that he is poor, alive and active.

``Gary alienates people because he's uncompromising," says Suzie Brown, who lives with him. ``He holds the line. Someone has to." Suzie Brown is not a Koori. Nor is the homeless girl whom they have temporarily taken in. The older Foley gets, the more he is struck by the parallels between racism and sexism. ``It's no good being an anti- racist and going home and beating your wife." His own relationships with women, he admits, have always been difficult. ``I'm a cantankerous, obnoxious bastard to live with, but I think my last three partners would concede I'm spectacularly better than I used to be." He attributes the improvement, in good part, to giving up drink. ``Like most grog artists, I didn't realise what a maniac it turns you into." Suzie Brown says relinquishing alcohol has significantly altered Foley's personality. ``He's safer to go out with, less abusive." Then there has been the responsibility of Bruce Nemarluk Malcolm X Foley.

Views of Gary Foley vary dramatically, but if his ego is epic, as his opponents allege, so is his story; he has, it seems, a place in the history of his people. Ironically, Foley now has a second claim to fame, one which not even he could have envisaged. Northlands, it will one day be noted, was the first time a sustained political action on behalf of a predominantly white group was inspired and engineered by a Koori.