MSC Parishes: Social Justice Sunday event, 21 September 2003

Collingwood Magpies: From racism to reconciliation

Michael Costigan

Three days ago, the former Governor-General, Sir William Deane, launched this year’s Social Justice Statement.  Issued in the name of the Australian Bishops, the Statement is titled “A Generous Heart in the Love of Christ: Challenging Racism in Australia Today”.

This is a very timely Statement.  Racism has raised its ugly head in Australia in the wake of recent events like the treatment of asylum seekers, and the terrible events in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 and in Bali last year.

I think it is appropriate for us all to examine our consciences on this matter.  We may be horrified to think that we are guilty of racism, but in subtle ways we may be.

For example, is the horror we experienced after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon matched by our own reaction to multiple deaths in parts of Africa or in Afghanistan or in Iraq?  Certainly the media coverage of what happened in Manhattan and Washington brought home to us the appalling nature of those events – and we have been denied equivalent coverage of other comparable events elsewhere.  So I’m not accusing anyone of racism but I am suggesting that an honest appraisal of our own attitudes may be appropriate – and I include myself in that.

May I offer you some thoughts on some of my own personal experiences of multiculturalism?

As a young man I studied for several years in Rome in the most multicultural seminary in the Church – the Pontifical Urban College for the Propagation of the Faith – popularly known from its Latin title at Propaganda College.  There I lived in close daily contact with other students from about fifty nations.  They came from many parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, as well as from Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Latin America, England and Ireland.  Visiting the College seventy or more years ago, the English writer G. K. Chesterton called it “the real League of Nations governed by the one law of charity”.  It was a marvellous experience to live in the College and to become aware of the essential equality of people of such different races, colours and backgrounds.

As a student in Rome, I had the opportunity to visit a number of Middle Eastern countries – Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Israel.  Those visits taught me something of the problems in that region.  They also taught me to appreciate something of the rich cultural heritage of the Islamic world.

Back in Australia after my overseas studies, I gradually became more aware of the situation of our own indigenous people.  I had grown up in Melbourne without ever having met an Aboriginal person.  That changed in later years with visits to places like Cunnamulla in Western Queensland (my wife’s home town), Palm Island and the Northern Territory.  In my present work I am involved in the Church’s efforts to promote reconciliation.

I also spent two years as Secretary of what was then called the Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW.  The Commission worked effectively to promote the ideal of multiculturalism in all sectors of the State Government.  It also helped newcomers to settle in this country through a comprehensive interpreting service.  The Commission also did its best to oppose any manifestations of racism in the community.

I am not claiming to be a model anti-racist.  Indeed, there is one aspect of my life which has sometimes made me uncomfortable.  I’m referring to football (of the Australian Rules brand) and to my life-long addiction to the Collingwood team.  Since Collingwood has come to symbolise some aspects of racism in sport in Australia, I will ask your indulgence while I summarise a story that goes back a decade or so.

I remember watching a game at Waverley Park around 1993 between Collingwood and St Kilda and being aghast at the racist remarks addressed by a group of young Collingwood supporters at three Aboriginal players in the St Kilda team.  It made me ashamed to be a Magpie supporter.  One of the St Kilda players, Nicky Winmar, later became the centre of one of the most celebrated events in the history of sport racism.  He had played a magnificent game on Collingwood’s home ground, helping St Kilda to a rare victory in that place.  He had also been subjected to racist abuse similar to what I had heard with such disgust at Waverley Park.  After the game he walked towards the Collingwood stand, lifted his jumper and pointed with pride to his dark skin.

Around that time, the Collingwood chairman made on of the most stupid and crass remarks ever to pass the lips of a sports administrator.  Black people were very welcome at Collingwood, provided they behaved like white people.

Later he realised how indefensible his words were and tried to make amends, but the damage had been done.  An Aboriginal leader in Darwin “pointed the bone” at Collingwood – and they performed dismally for several seasons, until he lifted the curse.

Other episodes occurred during the 1990 premiership, including a racist comment made by the Collingwood player Damien Monkorst to Essendon’s Aboriginal start, Michael Long.  One of the outcomes has been that players from every club have now come to understand that this sort of thing is simply not on.

To their credit, the Collingwood club has learned its lesson.  It has recruited a number of Aboriginal players in recent years including two who played in yesterday’s Preliminary Final – Richard Cole, a young Wurumungu man from Tennant Creek, and Leon Davis, a Nyunga man from the south of WA.  The Collingwood team has also twice visited Aboriginal communities and conducted football clinics in the Northern Territory and the Tiwi Islands, where they are enormously popular.  The visits were sponsored by ATSIC, the Pratt Foundation and the AFL.

I think the Collingwood story is a kind of parable about racism and conversion and reconciliation.  It is interesting that the Club colours are black and white.

Now the Bishops’ statement conveys a similar message.  It deplores the revival of racist attitudes to asylum seekers, immigrants, our Muslim brothers and sisters and members of the Jewish community.  It also criticises the continuing unjust treatment of our Indigenous people.

But the Statement also “presents positive and helpful advice based on the stories and actions of Jesus, who meets strangers, looks into their faces, engages them in conversation and reveals a God who loves all human beings”.

“It suggests steps that we, as individuals and members of our parishes, schools and local communities, can take to respond to the challenge” of Pope John Paul II: “How can the baptised claim to welcome Christ if they close the door to the foreigner who comes knocking?”

On multiculturalism, the statement says: “If multiculturalism implies that we should not only support immigrants as individuals but should also regard their culture as an enrichment, it simply states what ought to be obvious”.

Peace is the theme today.  Peace and Justice are intimately linked.  This Statement is an important contribution to a more just and peaceful Australia.  I recommend it most heartily to your careful attention.

- Dr Michael Costigan is Executive Officer, Bishops' Committee for Justice, Development and Peace


- received by CathNews 19/9/03