A great wrong has been done to both history and Gough Whitlam’s memory by the Fairfax press. Their splendid supplement on Wednesday to commemorate the passing of that great mover and shaker of a slothful Australia contained a section on the arts “ more than justified by Whitlam’s engagement with such matters as buying ‘Blue Poles‘, creating the Australia Council and Film Commission, attending all sorts and conditions of arts events and supporting the emerging Aboriginal art movement.

Of key importance to readers of this site, he initiated the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board. But Fairfax, in recognising this, managed to turn to the one person who might use an opportunity to have his say on such matters malignly “ Dr Gary Foley, activist turned academic. He managed to misremember events, which, as the Director of the Board later on, he had every opportunity to recall correctly. He was allowed to say: He appointed only whites to the Aboriginal Arts Board, and The Age’s Arts Editor made no attempt to check this claim.

I did on Google, and sent off the following letter for either a prominent correction, or for publication:
I’m perplexed that your writers from The Age could have allowed a fanciful Gary Foley to re-write history and claim that Gough Whitlam appointed only whites to the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1973. Your own archives for May 4 1973 make it quite clear that every member of the Board was Aboriginal, and indeed, many more were representative of tribal Australia than is the case today.
In the interests of accuracy and Whitlam’s reputation, I list them all with the qualifications published by the PM’s Office at the time:

  • The Board’s Chairman is the Aboriginal author and artist, Mr Dick Roughsey of Mornington Island. The members of the Board are:
  • Mr Raphael Apuatimi, skilled traditional dancer from Bathurst Island. Actively involved in dance groups in the Northern Territory.
  • Mr Albert Barunga, leading Aboriginal councillor at Mowanjum in Western Australia and member of many Aboriginal committees.
  • Mr Harold Blair, noted tenor engaged as a music teacher with the Victorian Education Department. Sponsor of the Harold Blair Holiday Scheme for Aboriginal children from outback areas.
  • Mr Ken Colbung, co-ordinator of Aboriginal Cultural Enterprise Society, Perth. Active in fostering the arts in the Aboriginal urban communities.
  • Mrs Kitty Dick, a leader in ceremonial life among the women of Weipa in north Queensland.
  • Mr Chicka Dixon, waterside worker of Sydney and manager of Aboriginal pop groups performing in Clubs. Central figure in Black Political Movement. Leader of Aboriginal delegation to China.
  • Mrs Ruby Hammond, Foundation member of the South Australian Aboriginal Art Co-operative and actively engaged in community development projects.
  • Mr Tim Leura, Jabaldjari Outstanding traditional artist of the Pintubi/Walbiri School at Papunya in Central Australia.
  • Mr Eric Koo’oila, authority on ceremonial life at Aurukun in Queensland. Guide to anthropologists Ursula McConnel and Donald Thomson.
  • Mr Albert Lennon, a leading member of the Pitjantjatjara group of north-west South Australia.
  • Mr Mick Miller, school teacher of Cairns. Member of Association for Cultural Education of Children of the Peninsula. Has great knowledge of north Queensland where he is well known.
  • Mr Wandjuk Marika, Tribal leader at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. Known for his deep understanding of traditional life.
  • Mrs Vi Stanton, part-Aboriginal deeply involved in giving encouragement in arts and craft activities to Northern Territory Aboriginal women. Vice-President of Northern Territory Aboriginal Development Foundation.
  • Mr Terrence Widders, Armidale Teachers College. Involved in country programme for the revival of interest in traditions. Trainee film maker.

My Fairfax newspaper the following day carried nothing of this, I forwarded my missive to their Editor-in-Chief, Darren Goodsir. For there had been a pathetic attempt online to make it appear that Foley’s reference to a Board that was all-white had in fact been a reference to white facilitators: This article previously included Gary Foley’s statement that Gough Whitlam “only appointed whites” to the Aborginal Arts Board prior to 1982. The board included (my italics) indigenous members from its inception in 1973. It was run by a white director, Robert Edwards, prior to Foley’s appointment to the role in 1982 “ or ’84, the correction wasn’t at all sure.

Why this should matter is beyond me when it is the standard paradigm of Indigenous arts organisations such as Aboriginal Art Centres, almost all of which have strong Aboriginal governance and varying degrees of white expertise at the administrative/art advisory level.

What does matter is Gough’s reputation “ which should be recognised for taking assimilation off the table and allowing Indigenous culture to flower. As one facilitator who was around at the time said to me: Imagine the art world before Gough “ it consisted of the Bush Church Aid Association in Bathurst Street (not Sydney’s most plush thoroughfare) hiding marvellous barks away in a back room if there was any sign of genitalia! He brought it out into the open and the funding he gave the Aboriginal Arts Board allowed all that we have today.

Goodsir responded promisingly:
The Herald takes very seriously its duty to make corrections, or clarifications, if our reporting demands that be the case. I will await further advice on this issue, but obviously act expeditiously.

But since then, nothing has happened to improve the shining hour. Many people’s treasured Whitlam supplement contains a calumny on the man.

See the article and correction as it appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, How Gough Whitlam Lived and Loved the Arts