Philip Barker

When the Commonwealth Games open in the Gold Coast next April, reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Australia will be the buzz word. The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Corporation (GOLDOC) have a Reconciliation Action Plan aimed at offering opportunities to first nation Australians.

“If we can now include indigenous Australians instead of excluding them as we have done in the past then we should do it,” said Ted Williams, the Yugambeh elder who spoke at the launch of the Queen’s Baton relay in March.

“They are committed to find ways to including indigenous Australians. Reconciliation is absolutely right, they are not just ticking boxes. Australia wonderful though it is does have a dark past.”

The last time the Commonwealth Games were in held in Queensland was back in 1982 when Brisbane was the host city.

City authorities had embarked on a charm offensive towards visitors and even promoted their attractions with a jaunty promotional song Shine on Brisbane. 

The reality was very different for many. The statutes in force at the time included an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act.

It was the last of its kind in Australia and provided for vast camps where indigenous peoples lived and worked. Many critics likened these to the Apartheid inspired townships in South Africa. A policy of re-locating children from Aboriginal families had been widespread. In time, they would come to be known as the “Stolen Generation”

For the indigenous groups, the 1982 Commonwealth Games seemed a heaven sent opportunity to bring their cause before a wider public.

In response, Queensland State Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen took a hard line. Shortly before the Games, he declared a state of emergency to counter Aboriginal protests. Police were given wide ranging powers of arrest. Petersen had been a critic of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and was accused of double standards.

Charles Perkins, chairman of the Federal Aboriginal Development Commission described Petersen’s government as a “Fascist regime” as protest groups threatened the most dramatic protests this state has ever seen.

For his part, Petersen told the State Assembly that the demonstrations were part of a long term Soviet plot to take over Australia. “The question is not about land rights, it is about the defence and security of the nation,’’ he said.

Perkins predicted that the planned protests would “stop the Games”.

Sprinter Rick Mitchell carrying the Australian flag at the Brisbane 1982 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
Sprinter Rick Mitchell carrying the Australian flag at the Brisbane 1982 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

Contact was made with New Zealand Maori groups to join the protests and a group was said to be flying to Africa to enlist support for a Games boycott. Organisers even invited leading South African anti-Apartheid activist Dennis Brutus, who was by then living in the USA.

A tented village was established in the city’s Musgrave Park. Arrests were made each day. The raising and the processing of bail became a daily ritual. Protests were planned close to the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium (QE2) the main arena for Athletics at the Games. At one stage, it even emerged that the Governor General’s daughter Ann Stephen was amongst those who had been arrested.

“She has as much right as anyone else’s daughter to do and think as she feels appropriate,” said her father Sir Ninian Stephen as he prepared to welcome the Queen.

It was claimed some 20,000 Aboriginal and first nation peoples would participate in marches to be held before the Games opened.

In order to march, a police permit was needed and these were not readily given. Eventually, the necessary paperwork was only granted after urgent talks involving the police and Steve Mam, the Queensland Chairman of the National Aboriginal Council.

Another group, the Foundation for Aboriginal and Island Research Action, announced a march without a permit. Its executive officer Bob Weatherall claimed the Nigerian High Commissioner had threatened a boycott of the Games themselves, in the event of any police violence against Aboriginal marchers.

“People think that Aborigines shouldn’t interfere with something like the Commonwealth Games. I say that “It is about time we let the world know what is going on here”,” said leading activist Gary Foley as protesters carried placards calling to “Stop the Games” and, in reference to the Queensland State Premier, “Shame on You Joh” and “No Games in Racist State”.

The Games were opened by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, but many advocated further protest when the Queen arrived in Brisbane to close them a week later. “Please Lady, Go home,” said Perkins as he called on the Royal family to dissociate themselves from the Games.

There were demonstrations when the Queen arrived in Darwin. As she embarked on a walkabout in Brisbane itself, a sit down protest took place elsewhere in the city. The Governor General’s daughter was arrested for the second time in four days.

Protesters even managed to infiltrate the QE2. They had obtained tickets for the athletics and  during about a dozen were able to enter the stadium and unfurl a banner, just as the television cameras focussed on Australian favourite Raelene Boyle who was about to race. Some members of the group wore tee shirts bearing the message “Land Rights Now”.

The Queen was to have witnessed a traditional dance when she visited the Athletes’ Village. Unfortunately this phase of her programme was cancelled. The Queen was present when a troupe of some 100 dancers drawn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in full ceremonial dress did perform at the Commonwealth Games Gala.

When the Queen spoke the traditional closing words at the Games, most regarded them as a tremendous success in sporting terms.

Although the official history of the 1982 Commonwealth Games runs to 287 pages, there is little mention of the protests of indigenous culture. The now familiar red black and gold banner had been prominent in those demonstrations, but it became even more so in 1994 at the Commonwealth Games held in Victoria.

Cathy Freeman famously carried the Aboriginal flag with her alongside the Australian flag during her lap of honour at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney ©Getty Images
Cathy Freeman famously carried the Aboriginal flag with her alongside the Australian flag during her lap of honour at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney ©Getty Images

Cathy Freeman unfurled the flag in celebration of her 400 metre victory. It now became widely known by a global audience.

Back in Australia, a day of national apology had been introduced. The symbolic red rock at Uluru, previous known as Ayers Rock was designated a UNESCO World heritage site in the run up to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

At Uluru, the first Australian runner to carry the Olympic flame was Nova Peris, hockey gold medallist and athlete. During those Games, the Aboriginal flag flew above the civic buildings of Sydney. At the closing ceremony, Yothu Yindi and Christine Anu both performed.

Aboriginal culture was acknowledged when the Commonwealth Games returned to Australia a fourth time for Melbourne, but there were many who believed that still not enough had been done, despite the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993.

The Stolenwealth Games campaign was launched. They unfurled a huge banner across the Yarra River and set up a protest area called “Camp Sovereignty” at Kings Domain. At the end of the Games, activists claimed “victory having attained our goals”.

Later, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke of “a blemished chapter in our nation’s history” as he called for a future which “acknowledges all Australians”.

When the Gold Coast was awarded the Games, a Government initiated policy was set up to “have a specific focus on enabling indigenous arts and cultural businesses to benefit from the Games”.  First nations peoples have been encouraged to seek employment with the GOLDOC. Even the mascot’s name, Borobi, is an indigenous word meaning Koala.

In 2012, the Queensland State Library hosted an exhibition on the State of Emergency. It was a move which seemed to reflect an acceptance of the past.

As a symbol of indigenous involvement in 2018, Patricia O’Connor and Ted Williams, elders of the Yugambeh people, attended the launch of the Queen’s Baton Relay from Buckingham Palace. They delivered an invitation to the athletes of the Commonwealth and many might feel that “our Commonwealth has many first nations people and as traditional custodians of the Yugambeh land on which the next Games will be held, we extend an invitation to all other first nation peoples of the Commonwealth to join us in a 21st Century style celebration of the Commonwealth Games”.

“We look forward to welcoming people from all over the Commonwealth to Yugambeh Land in April 2018,” they added. “These Games will afford a wonderful celebration of sport in tandem with a celebration of all of the wonderfully diverse cultures that reside within our Commonwealth for both the enjoyment and betterment of all. Excitement is high as we await your arrival.”