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Why I cheer Adam Goodes

We should be proud that such a big man is one of us.

For me the best thing about being Senior Australian of the Year in 2014, was that it gave me the opportunity to spend some time with the Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes.

Until then I had only known him as a public figure, a distant and admired sportsman. He was for me one of the Aboriginal sportspeople who had played a significant role in advancing cause of the Aboriginal people. There are too many to list but for me Polly Farmer was an early, close-to-home example. Yvonne Goolagong​, Nicky Winmar​, Michael Long, Cathy Freeman, and Goodes are just some of the many who have encouraged me in my long search for reconciliation.

Adam Goodes with former senator Fred Chaney.
Adam Goodes with former senator Fred Chaney. Photo: Ben Rushton

That search began when, as a schoolboy in the 1950s, I realised that being Aboriginal usually meant being treated differently. I quickly learned that they lived in a legally segregated country where they were often denied basic civil and political rights. As a lawyer in the 1960s, I saw first hand legal and administrative discrimination.

My late father loved football. During my childhood I watched as his involvement with East Perth Football Club people such as the great Polly Farmer and "Square" Kilmurray won his support and engaged him with Aboriginal people.

I am not much of a sporting person. And I have my own attitude problems. Years ago one of my old friends jokingly told me he would not go to football with me because I barracked for the Aboriginal players of whatever team. That is a sporting failure on my part. But those sporting figures did inspire me as people who were succeeding against the odds. It is supposed to be Australian to support the underdog, and for most of my lifetime Aboriginal people could claim that status.

These Indigenous sporting stars have mattered to me. In the 1990s, at the request of Polly Farmer, ex-Labor MP Ron Edwards (a friend John Cunningham) and I established the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation. His simple objective and instruction to us was to help young Aboriginal people succeed. Now we have about 1000 students in 30 state schools. Of those student, about a third go to university, a third into trades and a third into jobs. So Polly's sporting inspiration has had practical outcomes.

The famous photograph of Nicky Winmar pointing to the dark skin on his chest hangs in my home office. It is a daily reminder to me of the importance standing up against racism.

I remember stopping on a remote road in the east Kimberleys, just in radio range, listening to Cathy Freeman's great Olympic victory. A bunch of young Aboriginal people pulled up in a four-wheel-drive and asked if we needed help; we shared the triumph of the day.

Aboriginal excellence in sport is inextricably linked in my mind to Australia's journey towards reconciliation, the acknowledgement of the continuing significance and place of the first Australians.

By the time I actually met Adam Goodes, on January 25, 2014, I was already a fan. In the previous year I had sent him supportive messages when he ran into some heavy weather on race issues. I already regarded him as important in the campaign against racial discrimination and his appointment as Australian of the Year as significant and appropriate.

From long experience I know how resistant most Australian audiences are to any suggestion that racism may play a part in the bad circumstances of too many Aboriginal people. The extraordinary service that Adam had done was to reopen public discussion on the issue. His approach was that if you come across racism, deal with it rather than ignore it. Have a conversation. It is an approach with which I agree.

As an old, white, Anglo-Celtic male who has led a relatively privileged life, I am the last person to know from direct personal experience what the experience of racism is like. But as I have been involved in Aboriginal and race issues over my lifetime, I have learned from others how incessant and debilitating it can be. And I loathe it. To destroy the sense of confidence and self-worth of any person is so clearly wrong.

As a child I learned the story of the mice trying to deal with the mortal danger of the cat. The moral of the story was that it was easy to find an answer, but who would take the risk belling​ the cat. I cheer Adam Goodes because he ran that risk, belling the cat of racism. People hate it. No one wants their lesser selves exposed. If Adam Goodes had a dollar for every time someone said "I'm not a racist but …" he would be richer than Gina Rinehart.

This is a great and good country - good for most of us. In the past half-century I have watched as we made a lot of progress. We have restored civil and political rights, we passed legislation against racial discrimination and, selectively, for land rights. We marched across bridges for reconciliation, committed ourselves to closing the gap and made hundreds of Reconciliation Action Plans. I am immensely proud of Australia taking these steps. But the really tricky task is to face up the fact that far too often we still harbour the sense of racial superiority that was reflected in the earliest legislative actions of the new Australian Commonwealth in 1901.

When Adam Goodes asserts his pride in his heritage, he cops racial abuse. When he steps outside the ideal of the compliant and and subservient black fellow, he cops it. We should be past that. We should admire his courage, think carefully when he reproaches us, celebrate his enormous talent, and be proud that such a big man is one of us.

I am proud of Adam Goodes and cheer him.

Fred Chaney is a former federal Liberal cabinet minister.

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