A great Australian still campaigning at 81

A couple of decades ago our firm finally established an office in Perth. We had offices in every other State and Territory capital but not WA.

There were many reasons – couldn’t find the right partner, reluctant to work in a State notoriously suspicious of people from the ‘Eastern states’, long way away – but we finally did and celebrated with a function at the Kings Park reception centre.

I had prepared notes and got up in front of a large-ish audience, looked around and then spotted Fred Chaney who was a guest at the function.

I paused for a moment and then put aside my speech notes and said: “Many people have wondered why it took us so long to set up here in WA. Well, there were two reasons: first we waited until we found the right partner; and second, we weren’t sure how we would go in a State where people thought Fred Chaney was a dangerous left-winger – and that was just the view of the WA Labor Party”.

Fortunately, everyone, including Fred, laughed.

The event came to mind late last year when in Kings Park once again, this time as a tourist, I went into the gift shop and found a booklet which recorded a long interview with Chaney.

It was called Reconciliation Memoirs with Fred Chaney AO in conversation with Victoria Laurie and focussed on Chaney’s commitment to social justice, and his belief in the equal value of all people, and how it has driven a long and passionate career in advancing the reconciliation movement in Australia.

It captured his handover notes from sixty years in the Reconciliation movement in the context of the Voice campaign and Chaney’s role in Indigenous affairs over decades.

He was founding co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and an early advocate for Aboriginal voting rights. He established the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia and between 1978-80 was Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.  He was Deputy President of the National Native Title Tribunal; Chair of Desert Knowledge Australia and the Board of Central Desert Native Title services. He was also instrumental in establishing the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation, which supports Indigenous young people to reach their potential.

He left the Liberal Party in 1995 although he would probably suggest the Liberal Party left him. In an article in the SMH (4 May 2022) he wrote: “My concerns today are about Australian democracy. They relate to the lack of accountability in the government; the blatant pork-barrelling; the use of public money for party electoral advantage rather than the public interest; the pursuit of immediate political advantage rather than the long-term interests of the country; the daily focus on politics rather than good government; and the way the government is reactive rather than forward-looking.”

Since leaving he has supported two independent candidates in WA seats in Federal elections: Alan Rocher and his niece Kate Chaney. In the SMH he said about Kate Chaney “I admire Kate for her commitment to public interest, her seeking better approaches to issues including climate change, social welfare and Aboriginal employment, and her commitment to accountability. Australia needs members of parliament with those convictions and that resolve.”

Now, at 81 he is still in harness supporting the Voice Yes campaign.

Recently, joining with Special Envoy for Reconciliation Pat Dobson, he said (The Age 14 March 2023) at a Victorian Yes campaign event that the Liberal Party would trash its own legacy if it did not support the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to parliament and called for national unity on the issue.

Australian Tories – the old-fashioned type as opposed to the current sleek apparatchik  wannabees – would sometimes ape their British counterparts and dismiss people they looked down on as “not one of us.”

In terms of social position and background Fred Chaney would qualify as one of the ‘us’. But in terms of who he is and what he stands for he is sui generis. His social and political stances are a vivid reminder of both what’s wrong with today’s Liberal Party and how committed, principled, individuals can make a difference to society.