First published on 31 Aug 2012. Updated on 12 Sep 2012.
“This is the last outpost of civilisation in mainland Australia,” Gary Foley says from the centre of an Arabica buzz. Charged by caffeine and a conviction that there is nowhere to live but here – “If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t live in this country” – Foley, 62, is the picture of grudging town pride.
Where else does the highly literate shit-stirring coffee-snob live but in Melbourne? Like so many of us, the activist, historian and thinker came here because he felt he had no choice. Except, he really didn’t have much of a choice. Back in the day, a young Koori man couldn’t get a ride in any other town.
Gary Foley remembers the day he knew he would move far away from the Gumbainggir country of Northern NSW. “Why do I endure these miserable Melbourne winters?” On a Saturday just over 40 years ago, he flagged a cab down in Richmond. “It stopped,” he said. “That had never happened in Sydney.”
“Melbourne was then and it remains the least racist town,” he says. “Of course, this is Australia and that’s not saying very fucking much.”
Since that taxi ride in 1970, Foley has been busy. Dauntingly busy. He made Backroads; one of those eerie, 1970s Australian road films with Bill Hunter and Phillip Noyce. He co-founded the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House in the last months of the McMahon government.
It was in Sydney’s Redfern he first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and took the ideals of Black Power into that suburb where he helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Service. Back in Melbourne’s north, he worked to found what would become the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. He’s been an Australia Council bigwig, a museum official; consultant to the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody and these days, he’s a Victoria University lecturer who specialises in telling “those young, earnest faces looking up at me to lose their idealism early.”
Foley’s résumé, which includes a stint in the role of a priest in a Land Rights-themed storyline on primetime soap A Country Practice, is humbling. On paper, he comes across as an Upright Aboriginal Activist. That’s one reading; his personal archive offers another.
He shows me his old pamphlet advertising “Buy a Boong a Beer Week” in Fitzroy. While church groups were taking in the blackfellas for National Aborigines Week, Foley was taking the piss. “Book your black now!” says his volatile Ransom-Note script. “There’s only a few left so don’t miss out!”
Punk was a natural fit for Foley and he received a call from Joe Strummer in 1982. He toured as a speaker with the Clash, received indelible cred for his trouble and went on to feature in the uniquely terrible, must-see 1986 Melbourne punk film Dogs in Space with Michael Hutchence. He played the sort of guy who’d pass pamphlets of questionable taste 'round Fitzroy.
Now, Foley is a pushbike rider; a Melbourne University PhD; a funny prick and a bloke who will talk with erudition about Occupy, Pussy Riot, tomato plants (apparently, it helps if they are read classical Marxism) and his refusal to “celebrate”.
“I have never celebrated in my life,” he says. “I have never in my entire life been to a NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) ball. Some aspire to middle class oblivion. Some are content to have a token gesture thrown their way. I will not celebrate.”
And another thing.
“What about this 'Welcome to Country' shit?" he says. "Wheel me in as a 'traditional owner' and pat me on the head and ask me to perform with a meek little blessing. Fuck off. I don’t want to appease anybody’s conscience."
Dr Foley is not now nor has he ever been in the business of appeasing.
Gary Foley’s writing can be found in print in Tracker Magazine and online.
1950 Born of Gumbainggir descent; Grafton, northern NSW
1960s Get consciousness raised
1969 ASIO File opened
1970 Visits Melbourne; successfully hails first cab September 12
1972 Upturns Australian history on the lawns of Parliament House January 26 when he founds the much-cherished, much-loathed, much-debated Aboriginal Tent Embassy
1976 Stars in bizarre road-heist movie Backroads directed by Philip Noyce
1982 Receives a call from Joe Strummer and accepts an invitation to tour with the Clash
1983 Accepts position as Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council
1986 Plays beside Michael Hutchence in Melbourne punk film Dogs in Space
1990 Plays a priest on Australian prime-time soap, A Country Practice
1992 Begins a long and ultimately successful campaign to reopen Northland Secondary College, a progressive Preston public school
1998 Back to school; Melbourne Uni
2001 Senior Curator at Museum Victoria
2012 PhD, History, Melbourne University