Kite Flying With Flags: Luke Foley Gives With One Hand, Middle Fingers With The Other


The NSW Opposition Leader appears to have lost the plot. Or possibly found it. Or swallowed it. Or been run over by it. Or, who really knows? Chris Graham weighs in on Luke Foley’s promise this morning to permanently fly the Aboriginal flag from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It must be a horrible thing to be the leader of a modern Labor Party, what with all the breathtaking hypocrisy you need to swallow in order to keep the party faithful happy, and to not attract too much attention from the Sydney shock jocks and the Daily Telegraph.

And yet this morning, I’m not really finding I have that much sympathy for NSW Labor leader Luke Foley, after he announced that if elected he would fly the Aboriginal flag permanently from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I’ll explain why in a minute, but I first should probably explain who Foley is, because many New Matilda readers have likely never heard of him.

Factionally, Foley is on the left of NSW Labor, a party responsible for such things as Mark Latham. So, you know, no small potatoes for a leftie to be in charge.

Luke Foley, NSW Labor, Labor left
NSW Labor leader Luke Foley. (IMAGE: Kate Ausburn, Flickr)

Foley came to the top job following the very public implosion of former Opposition Leader John Robertson, in December 2014. That was just three months out from the March 2015 election, so Foley had just a few months under his belt as leader before polling day.

Labor’s performance at that election was by no means a disaster – Foley regained a respectable 14 seats in the lower house. But in truth, he was coming off a very low base.

Labor had been reduced to just 20 seats out of a possible 93 at the 2011 election, and, most significantly, the 2015 election was in the shadow of a growing scandal in NSW politics driven by an ICAC investigation into dirty Liberal deals done dirt cheap. You might remember that from such tales as ‘Premier Barry O’Farrell lied about a bottle of wine’ and ‘the NSW Liberals lost more ministers in a few months than the Catholic Church did in a few centuries’.

Long story short, the Labor party could have run a stick of gum as leader, and still picked up seats.

Yet, three years later, inexplicably, Foley remains party leader. However, he will almost certainly never be NSW Premier. The state is currently led by Gladys Berejiklian, a strong leader with reasonably solid respect amongst voters.

The factional warriors in NSW Labor have been content to leave Foley at the top, for now, because there’s no real belief within the party that they have a realistic shot at government. At least not yet. When that all changes, then so will the leader because no-one catches and kills their own quite like the NSW Labor Party.

Even so, Foley does represent the party for now. And he’s doing it in a way that honours a series of very long Labor traditions – fence sitting, erratic policy laced with tokenistic gestures, and spectacular, world-class hypocrisy.

Over to this morning’s press release, where Foley announced his Sydney Harbour Bridge stunt.

“A government led by me will do this in order to recognise and celebrate every day the history and culture of the First Australians.

“The Aboriginal Flag is an officially proclaimed Australian flag and it will permanently fly alongside the National Flag and the State Flag at the top of Sydney’s most recognisable landmark.

“We should all be proud of 60 000 years of indigenous history here. Flying the Aboriginal Flag on the great arch that defines Sydney around the world is an appropriate expression of that pride.”

Wow, good on you Luke. You get it. #sarcasm

Let’s jump back a week, to Foley’s public statements on #changethedate – the growing movement supported by millions of Australians to find another date to celebrate our national day, one which, you know, doesn’t coincide with the anniversary of the theft, slaughter and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.

Foley told Sky News: “I don’t think the change the date debate is anywhere near the most important matter when it comes to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”

No. No, it’s not. And no-one ever said it was. It is, however, a pretty simple thing to utter words of public support for a gesture that would resolve an unsustainable and unbecoming practice which divides a nation. And it would have cost Foley precisely nothing to support it, because as a state-based politician he’s not in a position to change a federal holiday.

I think you can all see where this is heading. One week, Foley is saying the celebration of someone else’s slaughter and dispossession is not an important matter. A week later he’s suggesting flying a flag from a bridge to ‘honour’ their 60,000 years of custodianship. Or, by Foley’s logic (and his words) flying a flag must be ‘somewhere near the most important matter when it comes to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’.

It gets even more confusing when you consider that last week, while opposing changing the date of Australia Day, Foley also announced that if elected, he would begin negotiating a treaty with Aboriginal people in NSW.

Federal Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, who also opposes #changethedate
Federal Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, who also opposes #changethedate

I’ll let that sink in for a minute… in the space of a week, Luke Foley has dismissed change the date, then announced plans for a treaty and decorating a bridge. Paging Dr Jeckyl. Is Mr Hyde in the building?

In the wake of Foley’s stunning announcement, I went looking on the NSW Labor website for details of this courageous policy. You know, the policy position papers which outline the detail of this momentous and historic shift. I’m pretty good at internet research, and NSW Labor’s webpage is appropriately simple, but all I could find on the campaign page were links to marriage equality, stopping the M4 toll, saving TAFE and halting hospital privatisations.

This, along with the flip-flopping on a national holiday versus a flag on a bridge, suggests to me that Luke Foley is not really serious about Aboriginal issues, that he’s coming up with policies based on internal party polling, and that it’s all designed to guide Our Dear Leader through a media minefield, also known as policy by press release and public kite-flying. I’m not convinced it benefits anyone, except Luke Foley and Labor. And even that’s debatable.

My views on this might seem a little uncharitable. After all, the guy has just said there’ll be a treaty on the table if he’s elected. That’s no small offer, but it’s a pretty big stunt, and that’s precisely what I believe it is: a stunt. I happen to think that matters as important as treaty require a little more serious thought and planning.

We also shouldn’t forget that we’ve been here before with Labor. Bob Hawke promised a treaty, never delivered. Cried when he hung the Barunga Statement in Parliament and lamented his inaction in office.

Federal Labor promised to move Australia Day to a more inclusive date in 2007. In office, Kevin Rudd promised to do no such thing. Then delivered the National Apology, while child removal rates around the nation increased exponentially, including under the NT intervention, which Labor supported in Opposition, and then extended by a decade in office.

So when Labor says they’re going to do things to advantage Aboriginal people, I just fundamentally don’t believe them, but my cynicism is the least of our problems.

I think everyone should be deeply suspicious about a treaty process announced out of nowhere in order to avoid difficult questions about a national holiday. I think everyone should also be deeply cautious about trying to thrash out an historic and important agreement between parties, while one of them negotiates from a position of extreme disadvantage, figuratively and literally.

new matilda, kevin rudd, paris climate talks, cop 21
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He delivered a National Apology while leading legislation which helped remove Aboriginal children at record levels. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell, New Matilda).

And I think everyone should be deeply suspicious of an aspiring Labor premier with a use-by-date and a stalking horse (in the form of his own party) who appears to be hunting sporadic headlines.

What I think most Australians want – certainly what I want – is for people like Luke Foley to slow down, and think before they stunt.

Throughout history, even in Australia, there open up windows of opportunity, moments in time, where genuine progress can be made on important social issues that have vexed a nation, in this case for more than two centuries.

Over the last few years, there has undoubtedly been a significant shift in Australian sentiment towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There is increasing goodwill in spite of the bleating and divisive strategies of media like The Daily Telegraph, commentators like Latham, and politicians like Tony Abbott. Put simply, the tide is turning – many Australians no longer swallow the Aboriginal scare campaigns that politicians and pundits use to divide.

But capturing that goodwill cannot come from piecemeal politics. We cannot give with one hand, and middle-finger with the other.

Progress needs to be guided by a mature discussion, and any negotiation with Aboriginal people needs to be done from a position of relative equality. That means supporting the Aboriginal leadership structures that already exist. It means stopping the obscene child removal rates, and reducing drastically the incarceration rates. It means many other things, but above all else it means approaching the whole issue slowly and methodically, without hunting headlines designed to test public and media moods.

It means thinking about a ‘complete package’. In 2007, Noel Pearson talked about the need for one big ‘national settlement’ (while he supported the NT intervention, notably). Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull are not as erratic as Foley, they’re even less courageous, so a national process seems improbable at this stage. But that doesn’t change the fact that leaders are elected to provide long-term vision, regardless of whether they’re state or federal based. The first leader of a major political party – state or federal – to realize that has a better shot at winning office than any before him or her.

Put simply, non-Aboriginal Australians have tired of this debate. They want the ‘Aboriginal question’ resolved, once and for all. They want genuine leadership, not trinkets and fluff. They want reasonable discussion and comprehensive solutions.

The sooner we find a leader in any of the major parties that understands this ridiculously simple concept – in other words the sooner we stop fiddling around the edges and confront the reality of our dark past, the depth of our present hypocrisy, and the potential of a shared, respectful future – the better off we’ll all be.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.