Charles Perkins was perhaps not only the most influential Aborigine of modern times, but also must be numbered among the outstanding Australians of the century.
Perkins, who has died in Sydney aged 64, was the product of a fractured childhood, and spent most of his life in the eye of controversy. This arose from the struggle for recognition, equal rights and equal treatment for his people. He conducted the campaign for his people with a searing wit, a sharp tongue and a keen appreciation of how to grab media attention.
So energetic was his pursuit of Aboriginal rights that many did not know that for over three decades he suffered poor health, and was tied to a dialysis machine for several years after his kidneys failed in 1970. He got a new lease of life with a transplant in 1972, though he could never again be entirely relaxed about his health.
Perkins understood shock value and he named discrimination when he saw it. He went to the heart of the Australian power system in seeking change, but never gave up the option of street protest. In 1995 he picketed Sydney radio station 2UE claiming announcers John Laws and Alan Jones had made racist comments. For five years a member of the National Indigenous Advisory Committee to Sydney’s Olympic organisers, he saw the Games as an opportunity to turn a global spotlight on indigenous disadvantage in Australia.
His unwavering commitment to the Aboriginal cause brought him acclaim and criticism. Perhaps it was his unrelenting enthusiasm that sometimes made more moderate indigenous activists cringe and outraged some whites. In a pre-Olympic BBC interview, he spoke of cars burning in the streets during the Sydney 2000 Games. He later retreated from this, but was criticised for going too far.
Perkins entered the Aboriginal political stage in the late 1960s, a time his biographer, the Canberra historian, Dr Peter Read, believes marked the beginning of two decades that were the high-water mark of 20th centrury Aboriginal progress, following the 1930s efforts of the Patten brothers, William Cooper and the post-World War II campaigns of Bert Groves, Doug Nicholls, Margaret (Lilardia) Tucker and others.
The Aboriginal rights movement didn't seem to have a clear campaign agenda at that time. But that ended with the advent of Perkins, who began to match rhetoric with action which swept aside the prevailing welfare mentality, with its non-confrontationist evolutionary approach, by showing that Aborigines no longer needed to endure discrimination. The watershed was the 1965 Freedom Ride which Perkins led as president of the Sydney University based Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA). This exposed and led to the breaking of both formal and informal segregation in a string of north-western NSW towns, of which among the most notorious were Moree, Walget and Wellington.
Before the lure of soccer brought him to Sydney from Adelaide in March 1961, Perkins had already emerged as a spokesman for the Aboriginal reform movement. But when he left Sydney in February 1965, Perkins was just a student leader. On his return, he was a national figure and the ‘'ride’ had succeeded beyond expectations. Of course, it was not a lone effort. Perkins had a strong support team in fellow students and SAFA committee members, among them Jim Spigelman, Ann Curthoys and Darce Cassidy, who was also a part-time ABC reporter. Perkins didn't always know what to do but he steadily took on a more prominent role, holding unwaveringly to passive resistance in the face of hostility and provocation.
This showed that what Martin Luther King called ‘creative tension’, induced through non-violent ‘force’, could produce results. Adhering to his activist role, he was to go on to carve out a career through which he came to know the life-styles of both ‘chandeliers on the hilltop’ and ‘shanties on the river bank’. He was to become the Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, with a budget of some $460 million, until forced to resign in 1988 in a cloud of rumour and innuendo, having fallen out dramatically with the then minister, Gerry Hand. Subject to a series of inquiries after allegations of mismanagement and implied corruption, and cleared by all of them, the man Aborigines once dubbed the ‘delicatessen kid’ because he preferred to sleep in motels and eat off a table rather than camp in the bush, went back to his home country, around Alice Springs, to rediscover his Aboriginal roots.
On his journey back, he explored the mystical world of Aboriginal law and was initiated into the Arrernte tribe, to which he belonged. He also became president of the Arrernte Council of Central Australia. At age 55, after almost three decades at the forefront of black politics, the Sydney University arts graduate and officer of the Order of Australia became a ‘wadi’ and also entitled to sit with the men when men's business was being talked about.
It was a long but rewarding journey for Perkins who was born on 16 June 1936 in the old Alice Springs telegraph station to an Aboriginal mother and a European father. Some have said he is not a member of the stolen generations because his mother, Hetti, allowed an Anglican Priest, Father Percy Smith, to take him at the age of 10 to an Anglican hostel for boys in Adelaide. However, Perkins maintained that he was a member of the stolen generations because, ‘It was an offer my mother couldn’t refuse’. In Adelaide he trained as a fitter and turner and worked at British Tube Mills. But his absorbing interest was sport. From the time he was introduced to it, soccer became an integral part of his life and remained a life-time love.
‘Soccer to me,’ he once said, ‘is one way of breaking down the barriers between national, racial and language difficulty.’ Thus, soccer was not only a gateway into Australia's rapidly developing multi-cultural society, but through it he was able to rise above taunts about race and colour, to which he was always sensitive, and be accepted for his skill and ability. He became a top South Australian representative and was judged one of the best players in Australia. For several years, between 1957 and 1959 he played in Britain for the Liverpool club of Everton, though he did not make the first division. He was on the verge of taking up a tempting offer from Manchester United when another, less lucrative but appealing, one from the Adelaide-based Croatia club enticed him back to Australia. Later, a move to Sydney, which led to him playing for the Pan-Hellenic Club and then Bankstown, gave him the financial base to help him matriculate and study for an arts degree at Sydney University. He soaked up education ‘like a dry sponge’ and, having majored in psychology and anthropology, in 1966 became the first Aboriginal male to get a university degree.
Crucial to his decision to obtain tertiary qualifications was the mentor/friend relationship he established with the late Reverend Ted Noffs who, along with Perkins believed that Radical, rather than evolutionary change from bottom to top was needed if progress was to be made in Aborigines winning full civil rights.
While education was important, another crucial event in Perkins' life, before the move to Sydney, was his marriage in September 1961 to Eileen Munchenberg, descendant of a German Lutheran family, whom he had met at a soccer dance. Her loyalty, love and unwavering support was a rock of stability throughout his adult life, and especially during and after the events of 1988. But the foundation laid by the Freedom Rides had still to be built upon. He grabbed the headlines again in August 1965 when he helped student demonstrators in ‘kidnapping’ Nancy Prasad, a seven-year-old Fijian-Indian, to prevent her being deported. Although the students' action did not result in Prasad being able to stay in Australia, it did effect a change in the admission of non-Europeans and was a step towards changing the country's racial outlook.
Then, from his base as manager of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, it was into the ‘'Equal rights for Aborigines’ campaign that culminated in the great post-war victory of the May 1967 referendum that say the Commonwealth win legislative power in Aboriginal affairs and Aborigines get the vote. Perkins was overseas for much of this, but he was soon being consulted by the Prime Minister of the day, Harold Holt, on what the Government's response should be. After further consultations, Holt set up the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, under Dr. H. C. (Nugget) Coombs, as the Commonwealth's chief advisory body on Aboriginal Affairs. Also established was an Office of Aboriginal Affairs, with diplomat Barrie Dexter as director, and to which in 1969 Perkins was appointed as senior research officer.
When a fully fledged Department of Aboriginal Affairs was created in 1973 with Dexter as Secretary Perkins was part of it, believing that the Aboriginal campaign could be advanced by working from within the system. That was why he had come to Canberra with such high hopes, but found his early years in the bureaucracy frustrating. Though he did eventually make his way to the top of the bureaucratic ladder, he was never the mute, traditional public servant. He remained the stirrer and agitator. He was the centre of a political storm in 1974 when he declared on a Perth TV program that the Liberal and Country Parties were the ‘biggest racist political parties in this country has ever seen’.
As this outburst followed an earlier clash with his minister, Labor's Senator Jim Cavanagh, over which he had already been warned, Barrie Dexter suspended Perkins, but on full pay. A few days after his suspension, Perkins became a hero when he confronted and helped disarm a gun-carrying Aboriginal, Bobby McLeod, who had been threatening two senior departmental officers, Frank Moy and Jeremy Long with a .38 pistol. Senator Cavanagh called his actions ‘courageous’ and the charges were dropped. By the end of the year, Perkins was in trouble again when he took a week's leave to demonstrate at the Aboriginal tent embassy outside old Parliament House because he felt the Aboriginal Affairs Department was blocking Aboriginal progress rather than facilitating it.
With Cavanagh wanting to get rid of him and Dexter losing patience, Perkins was given a year's leave. He took advantage of this to complete his autobiography, A Bastard Like Me, on a Literature Board grant, was appointed general secretary of the National Aborigines Consultative Committee and went overseas to suggestions by Cavanagh that he was making an international tour to defame and denigrate Australia.
Despite such unorthodox outbursts and thanks to wise heads outside government but with inside contacts, it was recognised that the actions of Perkins and other activists was ‘only what had to be expected...’. His rise through the ranks then gathered momentum and he became a first assistant secretary of the department in 1978 and deputy Secretary in 1979 before resigning in 1980 to become chairman of the new Aboriginal Development Commission. However, his new eminence and increased responsibilities did not silence him. He attacked the RSL's attitude to South Africa, was scathing about the Lutheran Church, which he alleged was collecting $1 million from cattle sales off an Aboriginal pastoral lease, and described most trade unions as ‘pathetic and gutless’. He also clashed with his minister, Ian Wilson, in a dispute over whether he (Perkins) should lead land-rights marches at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games.
Despite his unpredictable, mercurial and emotional nature, Perkins was still seen as the key political player in the Aboriginal community. When Labor came back into office under Hawke in 1983 and with Clyde Holding's appointment as minister in 1984, Perkins became Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the highest ranking to have been achieved by an Aborigine. But the silence Perkins had vowed to keep was soon shattered when he described John Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, as a ‘largely irrelevant politician with an irrelevant political party’. Again, as the bicentennial year began, he was branded a racist after calling for curbs on Asian immigration. Then before the year was out, turmoil again and a clash with another minister, Gerry Hand, over the politicking surrounding the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission.
After being cleared of the allegations against him, he went to Sydney and set himself up as a consultant. Later, he retreated to Alice Springs, there to find renewal as he explored the depths of his Aboriginality. But he never severed his links with a range of sporting and cultural bodies, through which he was still able to have input into Aboriginal affairs. Although always a fierce critic of ATSIC, he joined it in 1993 and became deputy chairman, again pursuing his philosophy of fighting from the inside. He remained as deputy chairman until resigning unexpectedly in 1995 to become a consultant to the Australian Sports Commission, mentoring Aboriginal athletes. In 1999, he became the ATSIC commissioner for Sydney, but failed in a bid to become the organisation’s first elected chairman.
Despite the gains made by Aborigines since the 1960s, particularly in managing their own affairs, in land rights and then the Mabo native-title decision, for Perkins it had not gone far enough. And certainly by the late '80s there was evidence of government slowing the pace. Of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, where his career had run so hot and cold, he considered mistakes had been made a lot of things done better. However, it had done a lot of good things which balanced the bad. At the end of the day, he still regarded economic integration - work, jobs, training - as the key to Aboriginal success. In his view that was the way for Aborigines to get a slice of the action and get political and social power. He was always disappointed at the rate of progress in Aborigines obtaining equality and justice. After the Freedom Rides he thought it would take 10 years. But a true partnership between black and white, with both peoples sharing the fruits of a democratic society and their joint cultures, which Perkins felt would make it a ‘magic country’, seems to remain as elusive as ever. For all that, Perkins gave the fight his best shot and made a major contribution, both to the way Aborigines were perceived in Australian society and the general advancement of his people.
In 1993 he was named Aboriginal of the year and in 2000, Sydney University awarded him an honorary doctorate of law. Whether the way Perkins fought for the Aboriginal cause was the most effective is a matter for later judgment. But if anything sums up Perkins' chequered life, it is in the words of Bob Hawke who once said, ‘Charles Perkins sometimes found it difficult to observe the constraints usually imposed on permanent heads of departments because he had a burning passion for advancing the interests of his people’. It was a passion that burnt brightly throughout his life.
He is survived by his wife Eileen, two daughters, Hetti and Rachel, and a son, Adam.
Charles Nelson Perkins, born 16 June 1936; died 18 October 2000.
John Farquharson, 'Perkins, Charles Nelson (Charlie) (1936–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/perkins-charles-nelson-charlie-810/text811, accessed 23 February 2017.