PARLIAMENT, CANBERRA: I also rise to support the condolence motion for the late Mr Lionel Rose, and I would like to associate myself with some of the comments of the previous speakers, including Mr Hunt and Mr Broadbent, who I have just listened to here. I am sorry I did not get to hear some of the earlier speakers as well; I understand they also gave very moving and honourable tributes to this great man.
Lionel Rose, as we all know, passed away last Sunday. He was a world champion sportsman, he was an Indigenous superstar and he was a great Australian. Of course, he is remembered primarily today by most Australians for being the first world champion boxer for Australia, and he won that title way back in 1968 in Tokyo, coming up against the world bantamweight champion at the time, Masahiko Harada. Lionel was just 19 years old when he took that fight on. He was the underdog. Few thought he would be able to win that fight against the world champion, but history showed that he did; and, in doing so, he changed sporting history in Australia forever. He also made an incredible contribution more broadly than that.
Today, when we think about our Indigenous sporting superstars and other Indigenous role models, we have many. We of course have dozens of AFL footballers who dominate the football field. We have had people like Evonne Goolagong Cawley. We have had Cathy Freeman. We have had Nova Peris-Kneebone, Wendell Sailor and the like. We have had other outstanding Indigenous role models reach the peak of our community, including the member for Hasluck here, who is a fellow parliamentarian.
But back in 1968, when Lionel Rose became the world champion boxer, we did not have such circumstances. He was the first real Indigenous superstar and real Indigenous hero. Of course, he won this only a year after the referendum on Indigenous affairs. It was a unique time in Australian political history in regard to Indigenous issues, as the referendum was passed a year earlier with 90 per cent approval of the particular measure which gave the Commonwealth power to enact laws to the benefit of Indigenous people in Australia. His win came a year after that and, in doing so, gave Indigenous Australians, from what I have read, a huge confidence boost. As I mentioned, he became Australia’s first Indigenous superstar.
It is interesting to note, when we reflect on his victory at that time, that the history books say it was not just Indigenous Australians who were celebrating like crazy over this incredible victory; indeed, there were 100,000 everyday Australians on the streets of Melbourne who gave him a tickertape parade when he returned. In some respects it was a remarkable act of reconciliation, without it being called that at the time. All Australians probably thought, ‘We’re just proud of this guy, who’s a fantastic Aussie hero.’ I think that is worth reflecting on as well.
He inspired all of us at the time with his sporting prowess and certainly inspired Indigenous Australians. Sadly, his victory did not mark a turning point in addressing Indigenous social and economic disadvantage. Indeed, in part the opposite is the case when we look back at some of the great social decline in Indigenous communities, particularly remote Indigenous communities, that started in about the late sixties and early to mid-seventies. While we are reflecting upon Lionel Rose today we should also be thinking about the disadvantage which still exists in Indigenous communities. Through Lionel Rose’s memory we should commit to maintaining high on the political agenda of this parliament, the alleviation of disadvantage in indigenous communities.
Lionel Rose was not just a great sports star but also, as other people have noted in this chamber, a very principled man. The Australian, in its editorial yesterday, pointed out that “Rose took pride in refusing a lucrative offer to fight in apartheid-ridden South Africa in 1970, where he would have been classed as an honorary white”. Also, in 1996, he generously gave his world title belt to six-year-old Tjandamurra O’Shane, who was the victim of a racially charged attack in Cairns, in the hope that it would hasten the child’s recovery. All accounts are that he was a truly honourable man, a family man, a well-loved man and a principled man. We will remember Lionel Rose for all of that and more and we will remember him as an Australian hero.