There are rumblings in the West. Rest assured these are not the usual issues Western Australians like to chirp on about, such as secession, iron ore prices or how the West Coast Eagles can win another AFL premiership. They have to do with a statue and where it should be located.
Well-regarded journalist John Townsend has written in The West Australian, WA’s only local hard copy newspaper, that the proposal to have Nicky Winmar’s statue at the sparkling new Optus Stadium in Perth is “flawed”. I have heard similar positions on 882 6PR, the wireless equivalent of The West Australian.
Townsend does concede that Winmar’s famous stance – struck in the round four game against Collingwood in 1993, and soon to be immortalised in bronze – “underlines the power of an individual to prompt change, recognises the vast Aboriginal impact in football and is a reminder of the need for action rather than rhetoric in the quest for genuine reconciliation”.
Yet despite the power of the moment captured by photographer Wayne Ludbey, who intuitively hung around to capture what became arguably the most famous football photo in history, the suggestion is that Winmar’s statue needs to be placed at Moorabbin – the home of St Kilda, the side he played for. This, I feel, is also flawed.
Townsend goes on to say that the more deserving footballers, also Noongars like Winmar, are Graham Farmer and Barry Cable. This is a good argument as both Farmer and Cable’s records are stellar, and they are champions by any measure. This is hard to argue with given the importance we in Australia put on sporting records, namely longevity and on-field success.
But the reason why Winmar’s stance is so powerful is simple: it has transcended the sport and the moment it was taken in. We are still talking about it today and in many respects it has nothing to do with football, St Kilda or Collingwood supporters.
Just as this year’s Sir Doug Nicholls round was generously given over to the legacy of Farmer, Winmar’s story will be told at some point during the prestigious themed round. The statue then is the latest iteration in the ongoing discussion that Winmar carried on from those other players. It is the legacy that is told via sport, in this instance AFL football, that helps us understand who we are. Where we have come from. Where we need to go.
Yet this resistance to the statue being placed at Optus Stadium is in direct opposition to Winmar’s original message. White Australia continues to ignore Indigenous Australians.
What needs to be understood is the deep connection to country that Aboriginal identity has. Country is identity. The culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is deeply rooted in the land and sea. It is why the stolen generations for many blackfellas still sting like blazes, and will for many years to come given the issue is still alive today. It’s why issues around native title and the treaty debates resonate with such power and are so hotly negotiated.
Winmar wanting to have the statue placed at Optus Stadium means something about his Noongar identity and has nothing to do with the amount of games played, premierships won or Sandover medals secured. That is why the statue being at Optus is a perfectly reasonable choice given the actions of Winmar on that day, when he spoke out against the abuse and redirected the conversation that Australia so desperately needed to have and is still, in many respects, having today.