Only 40 years ago on May 27, 1967, the people of Australia voted yes at a referendum to allow the Aboriginal population the right to vote. Four years later in St Peters in Sydney the first annual NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knock-Out Carnival was held and over the next 36 years this annual knock-out has grown into the one of the most important events on the Aboriginal calendar, an icon of civic responsibility and rugby league excellence.
The reason why this carnival is so important to the indigenous community is simple. Rugby league is one of the very few channels that Aboriginal people can travel to escape the cycle of welfare, poverty and discrimination in this country. In Australia we revere our league players and pay them well no matter what colour their skin. In this way, rugby league is the most powerful point of convergence between the black and white cultures in Australia.
The annual knock-out is often the only way for young unknown Aboriginal players to showcase their skills in front of National Rugby League and Australian Rugby Union scouts. Most of the national clubs send scouts to this carnival because the Aboriginal community breed the best league players in the world. The list of renowned international and national players who made their name playing in the annual carnival is very long and includes locals Milton Thaiday, Amos Roberts and national stars such as David Peachey, Cliff Lyons, Nathan Merritt, Dean Widders, Anthony Mundine and Andrew Walker, just to name a few.
Last month, last years winners of the prestigious event, the Merritt-Pattern Redfern Rugby League Football Club, held a meeting at Oakes Oval with John Bancroft, the Lismore City Council events manager, and the NSW Police where they outlined a proposal to host the carnival in Lismore it met with universal support.
So Ricky Lyons, Chris Binge and the rest of the delegation decided to put the complete package to Council. Here again it was met with overwhelming approval and the local indigenous community were over the moon. Here was a great chance for young local players who wouldnt normally be able to afford to travel to the carnival to show off their stuff. The buzz was palpable, the emails were flying and the kids were starting to boast that they would be playing in the big knock-out. Well that was until Lismores mayor Merv King took it upon himself, without the consent of council, to oppose the event in a letter read over the phone to Lyons last Friday.
The mayors unilateral act created a storm of protest and not just from the Aboriginal community. The biggest issue was that he hadnt consulted the organisers or his fellow councillors before trying to scuttle the carnival.
Many of the councillors were deeply disturbed, not only by the superficiality of the mayors complaints, but that he had acted well outside his mayoral responsibilities by sending the undermining letter. Consequently, Councillor Ros Irwin called an extraordinary meeting which was held on Tuesday night in chambers.
During the meeting, which was emotionally harrowing, the organisers answered all the concerns about accommodation, travel and security both at the event and outside it more than adequately. (For a thorough account see page 3). Despite the calm and professional approach of the organisers, the Council determined not to put on the carnival. That 7-5 vote against created an outpouring of disgust from the gallery who walked out en masse. Later, after everyone had left, Council rescinded the decision and determined to go into further workshops with the organisers.
But dont be fooled the powers that be arent necessarily ready to embrace this carnival just yet and they may still knock it back. But if they do kill off this carnival, it will be like letting off a nuclear weapon. And we will all be irradiated by the fall out.
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