Inside the fortress

More than 40 years after Charles Perkins exposed racism in Walgett, the NSW town is trying to shed its image, Tony Koch reports

WALGETT is not a town that puts on a good welcome. Driving down the main street, one of the first things a visitor will notice is the security fences around the public buildings. Next, perhaps, the weldmesh that covers shop windows. Then there is the 2.5m steel fence surrounding the school, fortified by a hedge of thorny, brilliant pink bougainvillea. Most startling of all is the pub, the Oasis hotel -- known as the Alcatraz to locals -- encircled moat-like by a 3m steel barrier.
Suspicion that all is not well in this frontier town in northwestern NSW is confirmed when we arrive at our motel. When the proprietor hands over the keys, with an explanation that the smaller one is for the 2m-high gate should we need to get in or out between 8pm and 6am, I ask her what all the security is protecting. Her answer is indirect yet blunt. ``The local natives.'' When pushed to elaborate, she offers up: ``You'll be safe enough in here if the gates are locked.''
My colleague Lyndon Mechielsen and I are here to investigate how times have changed in the 40 years since the momentous 1967 referendum. At the time, Walgett was considered one of the most racist towns in the country. Its reputation reached a peak in 1965 when Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins and his Freedom Ride passed through town, stopping long enough to demonstrate outside the Walgett RSL, where even Aboriginal ex-servicemen were refused entry.
It was Perkins and his fellow activists from the University of Sydney -- black and white -- travelling on a hired bus to Walgett and the nearby town of Moree that generated much of the impetus for the referendum two years later.
Perkins had picked up the baton for change from three remarkable Australians -- former UN lawyer Jessie Street, civil rights activist Faith Bandler and Doug Nicholls, an Aboriginal pastor who was later to become South Australian governor -- who had launched a petition in 1957 at Sydney Town Hall calling for an end to constitutional discrimination against Aborigines.
Recalled Perkins in an interview 30 years later: ``The Freedom Ride made Australians realise that we've got a terrible situation in this country, let's do something about it. And they went for it by expressing their vote at the referendum in 1967; that was their contribution to it.
``What it did for us as Aboriginal people was made us realise, `Hey, listen, we don't have to put up with this any longer. This is all bullshit.' Secondary conditions, poor housing, lack of education, no employment prospects: we are not going to stand for it any longer.''
Although there is little argument the lot of Aborigines has improved in the ensuing 40 years, conditions in areas such as infant health, education, employment and housing are still considered some of the worst for indigenous peoples in the Western world.
Four decades on from this shift in white-black relations, we are curious to see how Walgett, population 2400, has changed. Is it still the face of racist Australia? Has it moved on? Has it made peace with its past?
Driving us around and explaining what's what and who's who is Leon Winters, a nurse who normally lives in Sydney, where he coaches an Aboriginal rugby league team in Redfern. At the moment he has returned to his home town to look after his ailing mother.
Winters, with the benefit of motivation born of a formal education, has seen something of the real world outside Walgett and despairs for his black brothers and sisters who haven't, or can't,, move out and move on.
``It doesn't matter what people tell you; there is a lot of racism here. Just look at that monstrosity,'' he says, pointing to the Oasis. ``No wonder tourists say: `Let's get out of here.' Why aren't the local organisations trying to do something about it?''
Winters takes us to the outskirts of town, where there are two distinct areas for Aborigines. ``Before 1967, when the referendum was held, most Aboriginal people lived here in little humpies. I was born over here and after '67 many started moving into town. In the '80s the government built new homes for Kooris here.''
The homes are a bit untidy and there are some with old cars in the back yard. However, as distinct from almost every Aboriginal community in Queensland or the Northern Territory, there is no damage to any of the houses. They are neat, freshly painted, and there is not a broken window pane to be seen or a wall covered with inane graffiti. Most have well-tended gardens, children are playing in the yards and drying clothes are flapping on the outside lines. It's a working-class suburban scene typical of any town or city in Australia.
Winters continues his Walgett story. ``After the referendum was passed and Aborigines became eligible for welfare, a lot of kids here took to wandering the streets, getting into trouble with the police. My view is that the welfare money was responsible for a lot of family break-ups here. People were getting the good things out of the new life like television and washing machines and so forth that capitalism can bring, but it took away family units who previously worked together.''
He is frustrated and angered at what he sees as the legacy of welfare dependency among Aboriginal families in Walgett, saying it took away ``the rights of fathers to set the example and be head of the family in the traditional way'' because in too many cases the father was unemployed, welfare dependent and not able to set any proud example.
George Rose, 82, famously taken into the bar of the Walgett RSL by Perkins and refused service despite being a former soldier, agrees: ``The referendum brought welfare for Aboriginal people and that was a bad thing. I worked all my life, 25 years as a shearer and 25 years running the Aboriginal Legal Service, and giving people money encourages them not to work.'' At age 10, Rose was taken by police from his Aboriginal parents and sent to a mission at Kempsie. He moved to Walgett in 1949.
``Racism is still here in this town, alive and going well,'' he says. ``Charlie Perkins did a good job, he opened the gates. But, really, nobody benefited other than the white people. The referendum itself was a joke, allowing Aboriginal people to become citizens in their own country; a f---ing joke. And now we have John Howard as the Prime Minister. All we wanted off him was an apology, to say: `I'm sorry', but he wouldn't do that.''
Rose, who was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 1997 (``that is one of the nice memories''), and another Walgett octagenarian, Harry Hall, also 82, were warriors-in-arms in 1965, fighting to expose the town's racism. Today, the pair have issues and do not speak, and the Aboriginal population gently debates whose contribution was the greater. Hall, who organised the Walgett section of the Freedom Ride for Perkins, certainly differs from Rose in his view of the 1967 referendum, insisting racial equality now exists in the town.
``There is no question that it has made a huge difference. We couldn't get into the pub or the RSL, but all those places are now open to everybody. We achieved a lot and we don't want to stir it all up again now. A lot of us had a rough time after Charlie left.
``Everybody in this district knows what I done. It is still in the minds of people that I was the one that caused the trouble for the town by bringing Charlie here.''
Although Hall does concede that ``racism does still exist here with some of the old die-hard whites'', he says ``they are pretty well-known'' in the community. ``Aboriginal people don't walk around blind, we see it.'' But Walgett is making genuine efforts to shed the reputation of being a redneck, racist town that has stuck since Perkins turned the spotlight on it 40 years ago.
Wendy Spencer is the non-indigenous project manager of Dharriwaa Elders Group, an organisation of Aboriginal elders whose aim is to provide guidance for their young people to ensure integration but also to encourage them to maintain their cultural beliefs and history.
``We organise youth camps where elders also attend and speak to the young people, encouraging them to improve their lives,'' Spencer says. ``We take away groups of 20 high school students to a property and stay in shearers' quarters, and teachers, health workers and the elders hold workshops, visit culturally important sites and the young people learn about their own history, the environment and the importance of education.''
However, according to Winters, what Walgett lacks is ``real leadership in our people''.
``A lot of money has been spent on Aboriginal programs in this town but people just did not have the skills to run those types of organisations under the old ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission],'' he says. ``The same as happened in a lot of communities, nepotism ensured the right people did not get the jobs that were available.
``We are not being educated about the good things about exercising voting rights. We should use those powers to get elected to hospital boards and local councils, but our people do not understand the system despite it being in since the '60s.''
BY 9am the main town centre is typically busy, with dozens of young mums with toddlers or babies in strollers busily going about their shopping now the older children are at school, and farmers in their four-wheel-drive utes are loading up with various pieces of equipment and machinery to get back to work.
This is grain and cotton country, both of which are big money earners if only the season would break. It is so dry on the main road approaches to Walgett that there is even a noticeable absence of road-kill. Drought has meant that the normally present wildlife such as emus, kangaroos and feral pigs have moved to greener or wetter pastures somewhere to the east or they have died in the dry.
In our three days in the town we witness no problems in black-white relations, certainly no threats or even a hint of violence. Abe Weatherall, 73, a proud Aborigine and retired farm labourer who never smoked or drank alcohol in his life, perhaps sums it up best.
``I was one who walked around with Charles and we went where we should not have been, to the pub and the RSL and the swimming baths,'' Weatherall recalls. ``It wasn't really too bad when it was going on but after they left [Perkins and the protesters] there was a backlash against us Kooris who were involved.
``But things changed as far as us Aboriginal people were concerned. We are not hassled and kicked around like we were in those times.''