No shame, much gain

Weekend Australian - 21st October 2000
Author: Stuart Rintoul

Nearly a decade ago, Stuart Rintoul tracked down the country's most contentious black activist as he embarked on a personal voyage of rediscovery. Charles Perkins's journey ended this week, but the legacy remains

CHARLIE Perkins was staring deeply into a waterhole at the old telegraph station at Alice Springs. He had played here as a boy, he said, and when he died this was where his ashes would be scattered. He peered through the station's window. ``That's where I was born, on that table,'' he said. ``I don't think they'll ever put a plaque here or anything.''

On his way home, two young white men yelled at him: ``Hey Perkins, you black c...'' Perkins followed them and then went to the police. He asked for an apology. He wanted the two of them to come into the Arrernte Council, where he was working, and stand in front of him and other Aboriginal people and apologise. The next day, two young white men in suits stood in front of him and did just that.

In was December 1991, hot summer days. Perkins, driven from his Canberra job as head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs by a swill of unfounded allegations of cronyism, patronage, nepotism, mismanagement and implied corruption, had returned to Alice Springs to reconnect to a culture that he had fought endless battles for, but never fully understood. At the age of 55, the most influential Aboriginal leader of his generation had been initiated as an Arrernte wadi, a man at the beginning of his journey.

``All my life, nothing has been easy,'' he said. ``I'll be glad when I'm dead, very pleased. My family, my wife, my kids and my friends ... that's all been good. But Australia is just one big hell of a sorrowful place for Aboriginal people.''

Now Charlie Perkins is dead and the tributes are flowing and the national landscape has changed. Gatjil Djerrkura compares him to Martin Luther King, Aden Ridgeway says he was the ``champion of champions'', Geoff Clark says he was ``a champion of our cause and a maker of champions'', and John Pilger and Michael Mansell compare him to Nelson Mandela.

History is folding him away into its embrace. Marcia Langton , foundation professor of indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, says Aboriginal people are obligated to Perkins for his ``courageous and invaluable contribution to improving the situation for indigenous people in Australia over the last 40 years''.

``He made our lives better and gave us pride,'' she says.

At Perkins's home in Sydney, Christine Williams, deputy chair of the Sydney Regional Council of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, who had known the activist since she was 11 years old, says: ``He ruffled and plucked some feathers, whatever had to be done. He was listened to because he said it with a heart and he meant what he said -- and he walked alongside his people, not above them.''

Perkins wasn't the first Aboriginal leader, but he was one of the most important. Even his critics in the firestorm of Aboriginal politics, who looked askance as Perkins's wealth grew in recent years with his connection to mining companies, acknowledge his role. Inspired by the civil rights freedom rides into America's deep south in the 1960s, he took the fight against prejudice into Australia's racist country towns, into universities, on to television, and into the bureaucracy.

His 20 years in Aboriginal Affairs was marked by a budget explosion from $8 million in 1968 to $1 billion in 1988, and a rise in the number of black organisations from a handful to 2000. In December last year, he came within an ace of becoming chairman of ATSIC, with an annual budget of just over $1 billion. Had John Hewson become prime minister, Perkins would have been invited to join a kitchen cabinet, but he never changed his mind on John Howard, describing him as a racist and a dog.

Perkins would say that strong language ``made the whites sit up and listen'', but anger and influence brought him many detractors who thought there was more volatility to Perkins than substance. Inevitably, in addition to all he achieved, he is being recalled now for his last inflammatory comment, in April this year, when he declared ``It's burn, baby, burn'' after the Howard Government denied the existence of the stolen generations.

Yesterday his old sparring partner Bruce Ruxton said: ``I thought some of the things he did were outrageous. He should have been charged with inciting a riot for what he said about the Olympic Games.''

But Perkins was also a dreamer. Twenty years ago, he said: ``We, the Aboriginal and islander people, can give this nation the fundamental element it lacks at the present time -- a soul.'' Forever writing his own epitaph, he said in 1982: ``I will die unashamed.''

Asked to whom he would compare Perkins in Australian history, historian Robin Prior yesterday thought of Jim Cairns: a pot-stirrer shaking up the way we think about ourselves. When the youth parliament convened in Sydney this week to focus on breaking the cycle of poverty, youth in conflict and cultural activism, most, but not all, of the indigenous delegates wore black armbands. Dameeli Coates, 24, says: ``He was one of those people who cleared the way to give us the space to create new ideas as young indigenous people.''

Now Perkins is going home, back into the arms of his people and the Yam Dreaming of his grandmother, whom he only ever saw through a wire fence. In that hot December of 1991, Perkins had sat smiling, talking about his return to the Dreaming, a painting on the wall behind him showing him with two birds on his shoulders -- a black crow whispering in one ear and a white cockatoo drawing blood from the other.

``It's just another world,'' he said. ``There's another world out there and I didn't really understand it, but I do now. It's the same as when my friend, who came from up Derby way, saw his first white man. He was about 18 and he saw the first white man he'd ever seen coming towards him on the first horse he'd ever seen. Imagine that. Everything changes straight away doesn't it ... you sit there at night, with the fires burning and maybe 200 people dancing: it was awe-inspiring ... you're going back 50,000 years in time. It writes new chapters in your brain.''

Stuart Rintoul, a senior writer on The Australian, is the author of The Wailing: A National Black Oral History (William Heinemann Australia, 1993).