Australian Biography

Charles Perkins - full interview transcript

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The Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982: you were involved in helping to lead some of the demonstrations at those Games. Could you describe that period?

Yeah, it was during Malcolm Fraser was the Prime Minister, and he ... he thought I was going to go up there and be involved, and I said, 'You know ...' The word got back to him, I don't know whether I told him personally, but, you know, I was going up. I felt obliged to. The Aboriginal people were ringing me up and asking me to come up and sort of demanding I be there, so I said, 'Well I'll go up and participate in the demonstrations against the Commonwealth Games being held in Brisbane because of the Bjelke-Petersen Government which was very bad, very bad for everybody. And you know, it was sort of an appropriate occasion. We weren't going to cause any violence to anything, but that was on the occasion when, you know, a busload of Aborigines were going up with guns. And I thought, well, it's best if we get up there and have a peaceful demonstration than to have a violent, political confrontation where people could get killed. You know, a lot of people don't realise that, but that's one of the reasons why I went up, because I knew it was definitely going to happen. They were going to go up there with guns and blaze away. Blimey, that's really not what we want. So, we got up there, and there was a big group of us. Thousands, and quite a few white people too, wanted to back us, and they got in amongst us as well, and we all decided right, we'll march towards the, you know ... on the South Bank, and block off a few streets and have some speeches and all that sort of thing - fairly orthodox. And the police, you know, the Queensland police, in their usual authoritarian undemocratic way, says, 'Righto, you mob, you'll have to go down this street, and you turn right at the right corner, and you get out there, and you can go and have a meeting in the park'. And we all decided amongst themselves, 'Well, stuff them. We're not going to go that way. We're going straight the main street, and down the next main street to the right, and not only that, we'll have a meeting on the corner'. Well, they were all in the front, leading us, and then they all ... we were right behind them, we took the whole road. They said we've got to march on the footpath, and we said, 'No, we'll take the whole road'. So we took the whole road and the footpath. And so they ... they all got in very co-operative mood, when we we're sort of stopping all the traffic and diverting them coming towards us. Then they turned the corner to the right, but we just kept going. And of course, they realised when they were about twenty yards down that we weren't going to go with them, so they raced up and they tried to persuade us, and I said, 'No'. and some of the others were saying it too. 'No, we're going on here, and we'll stop at the corner up there, and you get to the corner, and clear that area for us'. So they did just that. So they were very helpful in the end. They had no option. And so we cleared that area. They cleared the area and we just ... we all got to the corner, and we said, 'Right, everybody down'. So we had a few speeches. Our next objective was blocking the bridge. Well, you know, you can imagine what the Government's doing this time, all having, you know, getting into a frenzy. And their little brains working overtime, so we all, you know - Mick Miller, Ray Robinson, Normie Johnson and a big mob from Sydney, Gary Foley, the whole lot of us - we all went there, and mainly Queensland Aborigines, and we all blocked the whole bridge. No traffic coming on or off, and we just took our time having speeches too. And so that was our ... there was nobody got hurt, then when it was finished, we all dispersed, but we made our point. And see, but they don't appreciate that. And it's democratic society, you should be able to do that. And I think you know that everybody took notice of that. But we all have been disappointed about some of the black nations not supporting us. You know, they don't mind coming here like these black basketballers, black tennis players or whatever. They come here, but they never say anything about us. Look at the black cricketers. They've been here for generations, coming here, never backed us, and ... any time that I can remember. Anyhow, on the Commonwealth Games, we ... Fraser was very upset about that, and you know, him and I had a good relationship. So when I got back to Canberra he called me up to his office, and him, Jeff Yian (?) and a couple of heavies, were all round the table. I forget who the Minister was at that time. Anyhow, he said, 'We want ... You disobeyed my instructions. You went up there and you helped to lead the demonstration. You shouldn't have done that'. And I said, 'I had no option'. I said, 'If I didn't go up there, you would ... people would have been killed. If myself and other Aboriginal leaders [didn't] go. We persuaded the busload not to come, and we said we'll have a peaceful demonstration, but a strong one'. I said, 'That's the way to go, mate. That's the way to do these things, you know. Nobody got hurt, and everybody's fine, and we've made our point'. 'Oh, Bjelke Joe, he's going mad on the telephone to me'. I said, 'Well, stuff him, you know. He's only the Premier, you're the Prime Minister. You don't have to listen to him'. And Jeff Yian was, you know, saying, 'Well, I think it's all over now, you know. It's settled down', and all this. But the person who dobbed me in and said that I was up there, and doing this and that, and saying this and that, I think was Neville Bonner, which is a bit sad. But ... because, he said, 'I got it from a good source you said this, and you did this, and you did that'. I said, 'I know what your source is'. And so we had this discussion. He said, 'Well, I'm going to give you some options'. He said, 'You can't stay here. You gotta ... you gotta move on'. And I said, 'Well, what's your options?' So, they've all organised amongst themselves. They were going to get me out. They provided me with incentives, you know. One of them was overseas posting, go and study at a university overseas for as long as I liked, on the same salary. Or take a trip round the world, my wife and I. Visit officially a number of areas, and I thought, that all sounds very exciting. And I said, 'That's really nice of you all, and I appreciate it, but but I'm not going. I'm staying where I am, and I leave it to you to do what you have to do, but I done what I had to do. I got a clear conscience'. He said, 'That's it, is it?' I said, 'Yeah, that's it'. I said, 'Sorry mate, you've been a good bloke. You're not a bad Prime Minister. You're good at race relations, but', I said, 'You're wrong on this'. So I think Jeff Yian was on my side, but I'm not sure, but I can't remember who the two others were there at that time. One was a Minister. There was a Minister that time, and one was ... oh, anyhow, they were all heavies. There was about five of them against me, and I thought, Gee I'm outnumbered by some powerful brains here. Anyhow I said, 'No, I'm not going to go'. I said, 'You do what you have to do'. So I went back and then the Queen was in Australia the next day, or the day after, whenever. And so, he didn't want me to meet the Queen. So we phoned up to meet the Queen, and I, you know, phoned up and I spoke to the secretary. I said, 'I want to meet the Queen. I want to give her a petition on behalf of Aboriginal people for all the land they've taken from, you know ... they've taken from Aboriginal people, all the land rights and everything'. Well, he nearly collapsed. He said, 'Who are you?' and I said ... I told him, and so on. And he said ... and so he said, 'I'll have to talk to Her Majesty', and so he had a talk with Her Majesty, and so the word came back, 'Well look, why don't you give it to the ... sir ... an Australian bloke, her secretary, and ... give it to him?' I said, 'No, we're going to give it to the Queen. We don't want to give it to you. Who are you? You're not the Queen or anything. You're only the secretary. So we'll give it to the Queen'. And so they had another discussion. So there was ... then the Prime Minister's office got involved and, you know, said, 'Don't give it to the Queen'. I said, 'No, we'll give it to the Queen tonight, when we meet her at the ... in Kings' Hall, in the old Parliament House. I'll present her with a petition'. Well, that really set the cat amongst the pigeons, because it's unprecedented. They all shit themselves, the whole lot collectively. And so, there was a bit of other negotiation with it, and they said, 'Oh don't do that, don't give the petition to the Queen'. And I think from then on my phones were definitely bugged all around the place, and we're being watched by everybody all over the place, and so they rang up and said, 'Look, will you just give it to the secretary. The Queen will be happy then and she'll talk to you about it tonight, at the reception in Kings' Hall'. So we thought, 'All right, so long as she reads it'. We said, 'So long as she reads it', you know, 'And you don't just throw it aside.' And they said, 'No, she'll read it. She promised to read it, take note of it'. So we said, 'All right, we'll go and give it to her'. So the secretary was at Kirribilli House. Not Kirribilli House. What's the one in Canberra called?

Yarralumla ...

Yarralumla. And so we said ... That's where he was lodged at the time, so ... as was the Queen, and so -- I presume -- and so John Newfong (?) and myself wrote out the petition, and all the words and everything like that, and we drove to Yarralumla and we gave it to him, and he was a really nice fellow, and everything like that, and we said to him, 'Now don't you let us down. You give that to the Queen. We don't want [just] you to read it. That's very nice, and you're a good bloke and everything, but it's got to go a bit further than you'. He said, 'I will give you my solemn word the Queen will read this, and will respond'. We said, 'That's it then. Okay. We won't give the petition tonight, we'll behave ourselves'. And so, my wife and I got ready, and we went to the function that night. Parliament House, in the Kings' Hall. And, you know, 7.30 or 7.00 to be there. And Prince Phillip was with her. And you know, the usual thing, they lay the red carpet round the hall, and you've got to stand on the edge. Well, all the eager beavers ran to get their position so they could sort of shake hands with the Queen or be acknowledged on the edge, right around. Well ... and I said to my wife, 'We'll just sit over in the corner, and bugger them, you know. We've seen her before, at some other place, and she's ... we're not got no argument with her personally. And we've made our point anyhow'. But they all thought I had the petition. And they thought that I didn't give it to them, you know ... didn't give it to that bloke, and that we're going to do something silly. And we sat right in the corner away from her, and all the others were looking. They're all waiting for me to make me move, you know. They thought I was going to jump the barriers and break through the crowd and grab the Queen and race off with her, or something silly, because they're all watching me, you know - all the admirals and the public servants and the security agents, and I kept saying to them, 'Look, I'm not going to do anything. I'm just going to sit here', and it was really funny, and my wife said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. Just sit there and be quiet, and we'll let it happen, then we'll go home', you know ... and so they can't say I didn't play me part and turn up -- no lack of courtesy. The next minute a bloke comes up and he says to me, 'Excuse me', he said, 'Would you come this way, I'd like to ...'. I said, 'No, mate', I said, 'You're right'. I said, 'I'm happy here'. I said, 'I'll just sit here'. 'No', he says, 'Excuse me, would you please follow me'. And I said to me wife, I said, 'Well, who's this bloke?' and he was insistent, and I knew he [was] speaking with some authority, but you know how them English are, sometimes. They're sometimes ... they sort of speak in that low courteous voice. But most Australians say, 'Listen, will you bloody well come over here', but, you know, he's sort of 'Would you please follow me?' So I thought, 'Golly, this is serious'. So I said, 'Oh, come on. Let's go with him then, and we'll see where he was taking us. Probably just going to lead us out the door'. And so he led us around. And all ... Everybody's watching us, you know, looking over their shoulders, all the ones who were crowded on the carpet and we were led right around. We went right around the other side, and 'Excuse me, excuse me. Could you please stand there'. It was the Queen's personal assistant. She must ... she told him to come and get me to stand there and in that place. And who was behind me? It was Bob Hawke and Bill Hayden, yet to be the Governor General, and yet to be the Prime Minister. And Hayden and Hawke are saying, 'Hey, you're crowding us out, mate. You're in front of us'. I said, 'Listen, mate, it's not me', I said, 'It's that bloke over there. He told me to come and stand here, and this is where we're were going to stand'. And Hawkie and Hayden were sort of growlers because I was crowding them out. They had their little precious square foot of red carpet they were standing on the edge of, and I ... They plonked me right in front of them. And the next minute, the Queen comes around, stops, and who should be behind her, but big Malcolm. Well Malcolm was looking at me as though he wished I'd fall through a big hole in the ground. You know, his eyes were just riveting, and he waited for me to pull out a petition and everything. And I ... and the Queen come and said, 'Mm, Mr Perkins?' I said, 'Yes'. I never bowed, because I don't believe in that stuff. And I said, 'Eileen, don't you curtsy or nothing', I said, 'Just treat her just the same as everybody else', you know, and we did. We treated her with respect. I said, 'Yeah, good to see Your Majesty. Good to see you in Australia, and I'd like to, as an Aboriginal person, welcome you to this country'. And I said, 'You'll find no problem from us. We'll treat you decently'. 'Oh', she said, 'Thank you very much for that'. And of course, Fraser's going, [SHAKES HEAD] you know, and others around him are all screwing up their fingers, wishing to throttle me, I would presume. And then I said to her, 'I'll tell you what, you know, it's ... I was going to give you a petition, but I'm not going to give you that tonight, but I'll tell you what it's about. But I gave it to your right hand man, that Sir Something or Other, and he was a nice fellow, and he took it and he said that you're going to read it, is that right?' She said, 'Yes, I've given my word. I'll read that petition'. And I said, 'Well, that's good. That's all I wanted to know, and I won't embarrass you or nothing, but I'll tell you what I'll do. The Aboriginal people asked me to give you a present from us, not from the Australian Government, from us Aboriginal people', and it came off my walls by the way. It was a boomerang and a shield I took, because we couldn't find it in time, and I said, 'But it's a boomerang and some shield and things like that, we think are very important. It's got Aboriginal markings on them', but I said, 'We'll give it you, but please, would you not put it down back in your shed, down the back, you know, where people like yourself get a lot of important things, and you put it down the sheds, or back rooms, and so on. Can you hang it in an important place in Buckingham Palace?' I said, 'That's why we'll give it to you'. She said, 'I'll do that'. I said, 'Yeah, if you do that, then you can have them'. She said, 'All right'. So she ... and I said, 'Well now, I got nothing more to say. I've got no petition and that. That's all I want to say, and welcome to Australia again. Nice to see you'. And you know, 'Come again any time you like'. So, of course, the other lads were waiting out their says, so we moved aside, and then she went on, you know, and I just waited until the right time, and Eileen and I just sneaked out and then went home.

[end of interview]