Christopher Pyne: Goodes Was Racially Vilified, And We Failed Him

Last weekend I viewed the Adam Goodes documentary on Channel 10. It is required viewing -- surprising, gripping, confronting.

In trying to explain the phenomenon of Goodes being routinely booed for the last three seasons of his 372-game playing career, Waleed Aly made a powerful contribution. Without quoting him directly, his message was that Australia is an incredibly tolerant country, but if a minority ‘steps out of its lane’ and even confronts the majority, Australia loses its collective mind.

What if this is true? I still can’t fathom why crowds of tens of thousands of my countrymen and women would boo Goodes after he, quite rightly, took exception to being called an “ape” by a 13-year-old girl in the crowd of a Sydney Swans vs Collingwood Magpies AFL game.

No-one is yet to proffer an authentic or convincing explanation.

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I’m an AFL follower. I’m South Australian after all. I’m an Ambassador for the Adelaide Football Club, the mighty Crows. But the administration of the Australian Football League seemed unable to grasp why this blight on the game occurred, or devise a strategy to counter it. Media commentators took the liberty to twist the story into an attack on Adam Goodes, even to the extent of accusing him of picking on the 13-year-old girl, when he had explicitly called for empathy and compassion in how she should be treated.

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Adam Goodes was no ordinary player (not that an ordinary player should suffer racial vilification). Goodes was a superstar. He was twice awarded the Brownlow Medal to recognise, in two seasons, that he was the best player in the AFL. It’s a rare achievement. He played in two Premierships. He played in 17 seasons. Four times he was an All Australian of the Year player. He played more games than any Indigenous player (nudging out the Crows’ Andrew Macleod). He was Australian of the Year in 2014.

The AFL seemed unable to grasp why this blight on the game occurred, or devise a strategy to counter it. (Image: Getty)

I would have thought, when he was racially vilified, not just the first time, but then a second time when the President of the Collingwood Football Club, Eddie Maguire, compounded the insult by effectively repeating it on Melbourne radio (for which he apologised), the AFL fans would have shown their solidarity with one of the game's heroes. But the opposite occurred.

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Watching the programme that replayed the archival footage, it was clear that the crowd was booing. It wasn’t a media beat-up. There was no exaggeration. A number of the media commentators at the time wanted to confront it and did. Others wanted it to go away and deflected with comments we in politics are trained for years to use, like, “let’s not focus on the racial vilification, let’s focus on Goodes' positive contribution”.

But how could that happen? Refusing to confront it simply compounded the problem.

I know Adam Goodes. He’s a very fine gentleman. I recommended that he be asked to join the judging panel for the Ethnic Business Award because of the quality of his character. Since his retirement he has pursued a low-key career in business and the not-for-profit sector and I met him several times as the Chairman of the Indigenous Defence Consortium. He is a great advocate for reconciliation.

I would have thought, when Goodes was racially vilified, AFL fans would have shown their solidarity with one of the game's heroes. (Image: Getty)

Have we learnt anything from this sorry saga? The AFL made a comprehensive apology in 2019. There is no doubt that the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Football League, Gillon McLachlan and the AFL hierarchy and member teams used this experience as a platform to reinforce what they had already started through the AFL Indigenous Round, regular welcome to country ceremonies at significant games and marking important days in the calendar like NAIDOC week.

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The role of indigenous players across the competition is now better recognised and supported in a way that it wasn’t 10 years ago. McLachlan showed real grace when he said after the retirement of Goodes that he wished he had acted sooner.

This episode reinforces to me that we have work to do in reconciling our history with the present. Yes, we have made great progress in reconciliation. All governments have practical policies to address Indigenous disadvantage.

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We are focussed on “Bridging the Gap” and while there have been successes in some areas like life expectancy and education, there has been little progress in others. But all those practical policies still need to be leavened with a true respect for each other as equal Australians -- no matter our background, gender, sexual preference, race, colour or creed.