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An interview with Gary Foley: history will judge Howard's reforms

By Sanjay Fernandes - posted Tuesday, 28 August 2007

A certain amount of historical appreciation is necessary when debating Indigenous issues, because such understanding is disappearing. Long-term stability in Indigenous communities is being compromised in favour of pragmatic and hasty policy, which result in nothing but superficial change.

Prime Minister John Howard’s “reforms” are all too familiar to a prominent and strident activist of years gone by: Gary Foley.

Foley believes, in perhaps a more militant and abrasive way than is necessary, that if an individual understands how their actions interact with history, the chance of effecting change is greater.


From setting up an Aboriginal Tent Embassy, to a legal service for Aborigines in Redfern, Foley’s activism has become comparatively co-operative with age. Teaching at the University of Melbourne, he has tutored nearly 600 students on the historical ignorance of White Australia.

Foley sees the profession of teaching as a necessary tool if Australians are to overcome their cultural inadequacies, but he remains convinced that universities, and the University of Melbourne in particular, are among “the most respectable [but] conservative organisations in the country”.

Both political and social institutions are arenas disliked by Foley and he can’t help but be suspicious of officials and authorities working in them: elected or unelected, Indigenous or non-Indigenous.

“Successive governments, in particular the Hawke and Keating governments, and the government of Whitlam, put a lot of effort into recruiting Aboriginal (sic) into the public service and training them into their way of thinking …”.

He speaks in specific reference to (but doesn’t mention directly) the director of the Cape York Institute, Noel Pearson, a man who played key roles in negotiating the Native Title Act in 1993, and was an advisor to ATSIC. Currently, he is the director of the Cape York Institute for Public Policy and Leadership.

“I don’t think about Noel Pearson”, says an unconcerned Foley.


In Pearson’s essay Layered Identities and Peace (PDF 65KB), his arguments seemingly most comparable to Foley’s (who would tend to disagree) are identified in the relationship between their “layers of identities”.

“Opponents and friends in any social conflict,” Pearson writes, “are marked according to some form of identity, whether political, cultural, religious, social or economic.

“And more layers of identity come to bear when we consider our wider geographic, political, social and sub-cultural affiliations.

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About the Author

Sanjay Vincent Fernandes is an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne studying political science and media and communications.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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