Australian Football has always brought people together from different walks of life. If you’ve supported, or played for an Aussie Rules team, you’ll understand. I once played in a team with truckies, scientists, farmers, wine makers and policemen. There was a salesman, a preacher and a horse trainer as well. We were the Rutherglen Redlegs, where backgrounds and occupation counted for nothing, where there was a strong sense of belonging, acceptance and inclusiveness. In our team however, there was little cultural or ethnic diversity. Thirty five years later, Australian football is now a game open to any person, regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexuality. The evolution is not accidental.
For indigenous people, AFL has been a conduit to better life opportunities for the gifted, a source of fun for others and a vehicle for greater understanding and tolerance by Australians generally. Understanding the passion that indigenous kids have for footy, some schools demand attendance into senior years as a pre-requisite for their participation. While there is strong evidence that aboriginal people were the pioneers of Aussie Rules, for many years it was a white man’s game. Through the leadership of people like Kevin Sheedy, Maurice Rioli, Michael Long, and more recently Andrew McLeod, Michael O’Loughlin and Adam Goodes, that has changed. We now have 10% of senior AFL lists made up of indigenous people, although they make up less than 2% of the total population.
What about ethnic diversity? While AFL hasn’t been the game of choice for many immigrants brought up on soccer, for example, there have been many men from 47 different countries (going back no more than one generation) who have played Aussie Rules at the highest level. Andrew Embley from Burma, Peter Daicos from Macedonia, David Wojinski from Poland and Alex Jesaulenko from Austria, are just some examples.
In what can sometimes be a thankless role, Andrew Demetriou is the CEO of the AFL. He is a former North Melbourne player with Cyprian roots and takes a progressive stance on diversity. His address at a forum organised by the Diversity Council of Australia last year is excellent, including this extract…
“…and, most importantly, we want to be respectful….to embrace diversity and inclusion….to understand and value the differences in every person. I like to think of Australian football as a game for anyone and everyone….a game which is inclusive, accessible and affordable…a game that does not discriminate. That’s why we must continue to engage with indigenous and multicultural communities to provide pathways for them to participate in our game. Australian football has extraordinary power. Its greatest power is to bring people – regardless of their background or belief – together”
Good on you Andrew! The AFL is walking the talk with its multicultural program and indigenous programs (including ambassadors for life, indigenous academies and employment strategy and AFL kick start programs).
The stimulus for this blog was listening to the old master himself giving an address to the Royal Sydney Show Community lunch last week. Kevin Sheedy, apart from stressing that Greater Western Sydney will be successful on the field, said “it’s not all about footy…. it’s about the game of life”. He went on to tell the story of a Muslim boy who was given a trial game recently and had 150 mates turn up to watch him. He also shared the fact that there are people from 170 countries in his catchment area (33% of people in western Sydney were not born in Australia) and explained how he intends to embrace as many of them as he can. Kevin is a true pioneer in this area, just as he’s been in fostering indigenous inclusion at all levels of our game.
David Wright-Neville, a consultant to ASIO on terrorism, recently spoke at a lunch In Melbourne about managing a junior team. His team comprised Vietnamese Australians, Lebanese Australians and boys from many other ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including recently arrived Sudanese refugees. One of the boy’s grandfathers, the Imam of a large mosque in Melbourne, said that Australia’s capacity to embrace immigrants went a long way to diminishing feelings of ostracism and disenfranchisement – conditions we understand can be precursors to cells of rebellion. He emphasised the vital role that Australian Rules plays in supporting true multiculturalism and a sense of belonging.
These stories highlight some great Australian values – inclusiveness, mateship, originality, groundedness and optimism. Interestingly, these were the some of the values that we defined at the Australian Tourist Commission for Brand Australia in 2004 – values which still underpin the brand story and promotion of our country overseas. It’s what I would like to see Australia really become. It seems that Andrew Demetriou and the AFL do as well…perhaps more readily than some other Australian communities and individuals. AFL is, and will continue to be, a circuit breaker in fighting prejudice – by including all people in the love of our national game.
Did you know that well before white explorers and settlers in this Australia, the Chinese, often through traders from Sulawesi, were active traders with the residents of this country? They respected the owners of this vast land and treated them with respect, as Warren Mundine reminded Richard Fidler recently. More than 220 years after white men treated our country’s owners as savages, showing little respect or understanding, we don’t seem to have made a lot of progress….but there are some encouraging signs.
I’ve always held the view that decisions are easy if you have the right information. It could be argued that lack of information (and hence understanding) led to the attitudes of Arthur Phillip and subsequent boat people. One can only wonder how things might have been today with a different approach.
While it is impossible to generalise about the evolution of the attitudes of non-aboriginal Australians over the last two centuries, we have seen various combinations of aggression, intolerance, prejudice, dispossession, platitudes, tokenism and interference, there are some positive signs as awareness of issues grows more broadly in the community. In fact my colleague John Morse, author of A Shared Vision, calls it a quiet, dignified revolution.
One of the most significant enablers of this quiet revolution was the apology to the stolen generation in February 2008. It was no silver bullet to reconciliation and progress, but it did lift a heavy cloud. From the aboriginal perspective, it was highly symbolic and cathartic. From the perspective of the non-aboriginal residents of Australia, it seemed to give permission and legitimacy to engage in forward focussed dialogue with less guilt. Most Australians carry huge good will and hope for their aboriginal brothers and sisters – but don’t know how to interface and react.
The piecemeal, hand out mentality is not a solution to the many issues faced by aboriginal communities. Treatment of symptoms is always short term and as Tania Major argues, boosts the addiction to passive welfare. She argues persuasively against the “one size fits all” approach as seen in the NT intervention.
The GO Foundation
The approach of the GO Foundation is impressive. Formed by Sydney Swans legends Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin, who both feel a keen sense of responsibility to their people, GO Foundation zeroes in on root causes. The initial project in Dareton identified the reasons for domestic violence and alcoholism by talking with the people affected. Having then identified solutions – such as a workshop for men – help from the corporate sector has been enlisted with materials and construction. The Foundation allows corporate Australia and aboriginal people to engage and helps indigenous Australians set life goals.
We need to work with aboriginal communities on many levels of problem solving and opportunity building. In every case solutions need to be owned by the aboriginal people and based on understanding and respect. I see amazing opportunities for aboriginal people to be involved in mainstream economic and cultural activity, rather than on the periphery. While tourism and AFL football have played an important role in providing incentives for aboriginal children, there are new role models coming forward in contemporary culture, business, land management and trade – just as the Chinese appreciated centuries ago.