Kevin and Linda Coombs at the 2016 Rio Games Australian Paralympic Team Launch.
Kevin and Linda Coombs at the 2016 Rio Games Australian Paralympic Team Launch.

The unwavering voice of Kevin Coombs

WHEN a journalist described indigenous paraplegic Kevin Coombs's childhood accident as fortunate, the initial reaction was a fiery slapdown, but then he started to look back.

The Wotjobaluk elder's voice for indigenous recognition wouldn't have been sought out.

"The late Charlie Perkins wanted a disabled bloke who could talk a bit," Uncle Kevin said. "He said, 'I understand there is a bloke in Melbourne by the name of Kevin Coombs; I want him'. This was when he was secretary of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra."

Uncle Kevin was appointed in 1981 as the Aboriginal representative on a committee for the International Year of Disabled Persons.

There were 14 people on the committee, all representing different groups. As a result of that working group Uncle Kevin said: "I wanted to get the message through to Aboriginal people what they were entitled to, including grants (under the disability scheme).''

Speaking to the then minister for health in Victoria, Bill Borthwick, Uncle Kevin also articulated the need for Aboriginal people to be involved in decision-making around the wellbeing of the Aboriginal communities.

Mr Borthwick subsequently opened the door for Uncle Kevin to move from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to the Department of Health.

"I was there for 21 years," he said. "My job was to get hospitals, where there was a lot of Aboriginal people coming in, to have a liaison person working there. We started off with eight for the whole of Victoria."

 

Kevin Coombs during the Opening Ceremony for the 1960 Paralympic Games.
Kevin Coombs during the Opening Ceremony for the 1960 Paralympic Games.

 

For his family

He might not have been in the Pink Pussycat pub in Melbourne that night more than 50 years ago when he saw and fell in love at first sight with his wife, Linda.

They had two daughters - one is a magistrate and the other a vocal advocate for a Victorian Treaty.

The First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria held its first meeting last December. The assembly will decide, alongside the Victorian Government, the ground rules for the treaty negotiations.

"I support it," Uncle Kevin said. "It's not about me, it's for our kids and grandkids.

"I would like to see a treaty here in Victoria. I would like to see being recognised by the federal government in the Constitution."

Will anything change?

As to a change at the federal level within his lifetime and actionable outcomes from Closing the Gap, Uncle Kevin doesn't think anything will happen unless there is a "radical PM".

 

The Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt (AM) announced on February 6 that the Government "is committed to recognising indigenous Australians in the Constitution and will hold a referendum should a consensus be reached, and should it be likely to succeed". Previously he had signalled wanting a national vote by mid-2021.

Only a few days later, on February 12, at the tabling to Parliament of the 12th Closing the Gap Report, Prime Minister Scott Morrison signalled his unwillingness to lock in a specific time commitment, saying: "I am not going to allow any timetables to prevent the successful achievement of this result.''

So, where does that leave indigenous Australians?

On May 26, 2017, The Uluru Statement from the Heart was made. Turning to the Federal Government, it stated: "We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.''

While the conversation continues at the federal level, alongside Victoria, which is recognised as the leader in the charge forward to reconciliation, Queensland and the Northern Territory are pressing ahead on their journey towards reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

As for the other states, there appear to be mixed commitments to turning the conversation around state-based treaties into action.

"One treaty for the state?" Uncle Kevin said. "It won't change me, but it will be good for my grandkids and great-grandkids."

 

Kevin Coombs OAM
Kevin Coombs OAM

 

Sporting chance

At 18 the wheelchair basketball athlete headed to Rome to compete in his first Paralympic Games.

Uncle Kevin was representing Australia, but had to travel on an honorary British passport.

"We weren't recognised as we didn't get our rights until 1967; it's not that long ago."

It was not until 1973 that Gough Whitlam's Labor government actively assumed responsibility for Aboriginal affairs.

Uncle Kevin remembers missing the 1964 Games as he was "chasing women" at the time, but then went on to compete for Australia in the 1968, 1972, 1980 and 1984 Paralympic Games, the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand in 1974 and at two world championships.

Hopeful future

The body is weary, but the mind is sharp.

At age 79, Uncle Kevin hasn't quite retired. He's left behind his 17-year role as an elder with the Koori courts, but he remains on the Melbourne University Murumbarak Committee, which supports Aboriginal students, the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health committee, and at the Broadmeadows TAFE where he brings a voice of reason and understanding as an elder, watching over the indigenous students.

"You get to see kids go through and come out successful," he said.

Changing the way older non-indigenous Australians see the First Peoples is something Uncle Kevin thinks can be achieved through knowledge.

As Mr Morrison said in his Closing the Gap speech to Parliament in February: "We must see the gap we wish to close not from our viewpoints, but from the viewpoint of indigenous Australians before we can hope to close it and make a real difference.''

Uncle Kevin believes that by sitting down and talking to Aboriginal people, seniors can help to lead a change in the Closing the Gap conversation in Australia.

"Talking is a wonderful thing," he enthused. "You get to know people better."


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