House debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2022


Charles, Uncle Jack

5:10 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

Thanks very much, Deputy Speaker Sharkie, and can I say I think it's the first time I've spoken when you've been in the chair. I just want to acknowledge the historic nature of your appointment, Deputy Speaker.

It's both an honour and a real sorrow to say a few words about the wonderful Uncle Jack Charles. When he died on 13 September, we lost a trailblazer, a fearless truth-teller and a remarkable artist. We lost a beloved and respected elder, gifted actor, musician and potter. Above all, we lost a great Australian whose contribution to our country's culture will outlast us all. Uncle Jack was a true trailblazer for First Nations artists across our country. He spent his life dedicated to telling our diverse Australian stories and advocating for equality and respect.

I want to acknowledge three groups of people who'll be especially grieving at this time: First Nations people across our country, who knew Jack as 'King'; people who love drama on screen or on the stage; and a special acknowledgement to the people of Melbourne. Uncle Jack was always on the streets in Melbourne. He was well known and a well-loved presence in that city. As we try to come to terms with the idea of an Australia without his warm and generous presence, without that great shock of hair and those expressive eyes that danced with such light, I extend my deepest condolences to his family, friends and the wider First Nations community, who are grieving his loss.

He was an example of tenacity and strength. As a survivor of the stolen generations, Uncle Jack's creativity formed a platform to earnestly share his painful and personal truths. But the toughness of his life never succeeded in hardening his heart. Every time he opened that heart to us, he opened our eyes. Every time he shared himself and his story, he made the rest of us a little bigger and a little better. In the words of Wiradjuri actor Luke Carroll: 'He was so small in stature, but, once he opened his mouth and his voice came out, it could go across the Pacific.'

I'm so pleased that, in his later years, Uncle Jack received the recognition he deserved. He was acknowledged through multiple awards for his life of advocacy and, earlier this year, he was celebrated as the NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year, honouring his lifetime of activism and his arts contribution. Uncle Jack paved the way in so many ways for the next generation of emerging First Nations artists, and I know the impact of his inspiration will be felt for a very long time to come.

He created a window for us to witness the enduring pain amongst his community. He inspired many to persist with sharing their truths and finding strength through that truth. Uncle Jack often stated that his life was saved through theatre and the arts, but he gave so much back to them in return. As writer and actor Nakkiah Lui said: 'He lit up rooms; he lit up screens and stages.' Uncle Jack's light has gone out, but his glow remains. And what a source of illumination it is for all of us. May he rest in peace, and, as the Minister for Indigenous Australians said this morning, may he rest in power.

5:14 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this very sad motion of condolence for the legendary Uncle Jack Charles. He was a Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta man. He was born in Naarm, at the Royal Women's Hospital, on 5 September 1943, making him, as he said, a Melbournite.

Jack Charles was taken from his mother's arms. His mother lived on the Cummerangunja Mission on the Murray River, but, growing up, her existence was denied. At the age of two, Uncle Jack was placed in a Salvation Army home in Box Hill. At the home, where he was held until he was 13 years old, he was, as he put it, 'whitewashed'. He was regarded as, in his words, 'an item of interest' because he was the only First Nations person. He said the feelings of rejection and isolation were intense. He was told that he was an orphan and it was denied that he was an Aboriginal.

Uncle Jack Charles leaves no heirs, but he leaves us with his story. That's his legacy. Uncle Jack was a powerful storyteller, and his life is a powerful story of someone who was a warrior for his people. Uncle Jack was an elder, a lawman and an icon of Melbourne's inner north. He was an actor, a musician, a potter, a film star, a national treasure and an icon, and we have lost a legend. Uncle Jack was routinely seen—as the previous speaker noted—on the streets of my electorate of Melbourne. While drinking a latte at Friends of the Earth cafe on Smith Street in Collingwood, members of the community would approach him to thank him for his inspiration. He created deep impressions and lasting memories. He brought to life the story of this country, of his country, of his experiences of Collingwood and Fitzroy, and the experiences of First Nations peoples.

Uncle Jack bore the racism and embodied the resilience of his people. He was cheeky in the face of power—the power of the state—to deny his liberty, his culture and his existence. Uncle Jack was just one of the Stolen Generations. He was lied to, told that he was an orphan and that he wasn't Aboriginal, and that he should be glad for what white people had given him. He was incarcerated and abused. He was bashed and raped at the hands of the state, by men of the church, in institutions which claimed to protect him. He endured a state sanctioned effort to wipe out First Nations people.

Yet, despite these challenges, he radiated sunshine; he radiated joy. And he spoke with the deep tones which carried the voice of an ancient culture and people. He became, according to himself, a 'Robin Hood of the streets'—robbing the rich for the poor, feeding an addiction to deal with his trauma. Yet, by his life's end, he had become a giant, appearing on everything from the Archibald to Playschool to his own stage plays and international film. He became a leader for his people and an advocate for the imprisoned and the addicted. He was the subject of colonisation, and he became the object of adulation. We must cherish his memory and fight for his cause.

It was quite a life—a true king, a warrior and a storyteller of the highest order. He was incredibly funny and deeply serious. He resonated like a voice from the other side of time. He demanded that we understand the history of the warriors of the First Nations and that we understand how they fought and will continue to fight for justice, for truth and a say. At 15, he met Don Bradman. Years later, he would play the role of Eddie Gilbert on the ABC, the First Nations fast bowler who twice bowled Bradman out for a duck. He had numerous incredible stories which he would share on street corners—like surviving Pentridge, a run-in with Chopper Read, or finding out the identity of his father in 2021.

It was in 1970 that Uncle Jack Charles first found the theatre. He described it as a true love, being able to, in his words, be born again. By 1971, he would co-found Australia's first First Nations theatre company. He named it Nindethana, meaning 'a place for corroboree' or 'ours'. Uncle Jack would feature in film and TV and on stage, but it was not until later in his life that he really found his voice. As he put it in the film Bastardy about his life, jail and white powders cost him many roles. He treated the pain of his upbringing with heroin and funded his addiction with burglaries. He described them as 'rent collecting' from the land which he owned. Many of the mansions which he collected rent from sit within the Kulin nation and sit upon his ancestral country, in a land which has never been ceded.

He described the challenges of being a gay First Nations man in the 1950s and 1960s. He said:

In those days, you had to keep it dark because it was illegal.

He went on to say:.

I remember the days when the police were going around to the tea rooms or the public toilets as cadets to be blooded up, blood up and bash the poofs … Thankfully, they did it at night and I'm dark, so they never saw me.

Jack underwent metamorphosis to become, as he put it, 'an old reprobate'. He beat his addictions. He trained as an elder and started visiting with First Nations people in prisons. In his words, he went 'from a rogue and a vagabond to a person of note and a role model', as he told the National Portrait Gallery when his iconic image was submitted to the prize. By 2016, he would be Victorian Senior of the Year. Most recently, he was named Elder of the Year by NAIDOC.

As I mentioned, staggeringly, it was not until 2021 that Jack truly discovered who his father was or who his ancestors were. Uncle Jack's ancestors came from Tasmania, where his five times great-grandfather Mannalargenna was a leader of the Pairrebeenne/Trawlwoolway clan. His ancestor was conned into convincing those of his people who hadn't been killed or married into white society to move to a death camp on Flinders Island. We all need to know these histories and we all need to know who we are and where we come from. As Uncle Jack said:

It is never too late to learn who you are.

Uncle Jack's life shows us why we need a treaty. He told Senator Lidia Thorpe a treaty would mean 'we could be treated seriously'. I know that Uncle Jack's passing means a lot for Senator Thorpe, who he counted as a friend. Uncle Jack's life shows us why we need truth. First Nations people have suffered and lost so much. The least we can do is listen. There have been thousands of massacres since colonisation. There have been thousands of stories like Uncle Jack's childhood. We cannot heal and move forward until we take the time to listen. Uncle Jack's story shows us why First Nations deserve truth telling in this country. For too long, First Nations people have had their children stolen and their country ruined and have been denied the most basic rights by the Crown, by the Commonwealth, by the states and by the citizens of Australia. We have been uniquely and unapologetically racist towards the people who've inhabited this land since time immemorial. We have not paid the rent. Treaty, according to Uncle Jack, means First Nations people can be treated seriously. In his words, 'We can seek an audience as leaders in our own right and our dreaming, our desires, can be realised. We need a treaty to have a voice in parliament.' He said, 'If you want to move on, you have to be honest with yourself.'

My condolences and deepest respects to his community, to the people of my area who loved him so deeply, to the theatre community of Melbourne, to all who had the pleasure of his company or the company of his stagecraft, and to all the young people he mentored and those he inspired. We extend our sorrow at your loss. As his family said:

We are so proud of everything he has achieved in his remarkable life … may he be greeted by his Ancestors on his return home.

Vale, Uncle Jack, vale.

5:24 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a real honour to be able to stand here today and make a very modest contribution. I want to acknowledge the words earlier of the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Minister for the Arts and the member for Melbourne and thank them for their heartfelt and insightful comments.

I wanted to have the opportunity to say thank you. I am so thrilled to have been able to live a life where someone like Uncle Jack Charles was able to be an influencer. That has different meanings for many today. He was truly one of the most remarkable storytellers this country has ever known. His story—which was so beautifully articulated by the member for Melbourne just now—of trauma and struggle and survival, and, importantly, his determination to ensure that the truth was known, was the most extraordinary and generous gift to all of us in this nation. The life that he led for so long was unimaginable. No child should experience the pain, trauma and abuse that he experienced as a child. And yet we know there are still shocking episodes in out-of-home care that continue to occur here in Australia, which should remind us all of our obligation to ensure it stops.

Uncle Jack had an amazing life journey full of courage and self-discovery that eventually led to an understanding of a whole other identity that he had been denied as a child. He was, without doubt, a very, very proud First Nations man. He spoke so openly about his addictions, his experiences with homelessness and crime, his convictions and his experiences with incarceration. He was always more than all of that adversity that he faced. He was profoundly shaped by his experiences and dedicated his life to his own truth. A few people have already commented that he felt he had been saved by the arts, and I totally understand what he meant. He wasn't a trained actor, but he graced our screens and our stage in a way that many actors who've spent most of their life at NIDA would have been envious of. He was such a strong advocate for Aboriginal people, establishing the first Indigenous theatre in Australia. What an extraordinary legacy. I just marvel in the generosity of this man. He was so giving of himself and he has left such a profound legacy for millions of Australians and those abroad to enjoy.

Uncle Jack channelled his own experiences through his career in the arts. He was our nation's most remarkable storyteller. He became a mentor to many and is fondly known as the grandfather of the Indigenous theatre. He defined an era of Aboriginal storytellers through his natural talent and passion for the theatre, and used his gift of storytelling to make change and blaze a trail for young Indigenous actors. He described himself as 'once a lost boy, now found'. That was his comment upon learning of his father's identity, just in the last year.

In 2009, uncle Jack was awarded the prestigious Tudawali Award, honouring his lifetime contribution to Indigenous media. He was the recipient of the Green Room Lifetime Achievement Award 2014, was named Victorian Senior Australian of the Year 2016, won the Ochre Award in 2019 and most recently was awarded NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year 2022. But no amount of awards or recognition could repay the generosity of Uncle Jack Charles. His deep voice and his cheeky and disarming humour are something that we are all left with as the most beautiful and remarkable gifts. He will live on in the hearts and the screens and the memories and the great recordings of his life journeys and the beautiful songs that he has sung over the years. And I couldn't agree more with the Minister for Indigenous Australians: if you haven't had an opportunity to watch both—we recently lost both Uncle Archie Roach and Uncle Jack Charles in such quick succession of each other, but their songs together are a gift for all of us to enjoy evermore.

A great man loved by many, an incredible sense of humour, cheekiness and graciousness, who will be admired for all time. Before his passing, Uncle Jack's family sent him off to country. There was a smoking ceremony at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and he will be honoured with a state funeral next month. May he, indeed, rest in power. He will be sorely missed by his community, by the entire Australian arts community, by everybody who was indeed touched by his life. He got to meet a lot of people living on those streets in Melbourne, of course, but he has impacted literally the lives of millions of Australians, many of whom he would never have met face-to-face. But that is his legacy, and for that I am, and Australia is, deeply indebted. Vale, Uncle Jack Charles.

5:32 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak about the passing and the life of Uncle Jack Charles. Firstly, as my colleague Linda Burney, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, did earlier this morning, I too would like to acknowledge Uncle Jack's family, who has given us permission to use his name, and I send my sincerest condolences and sympathies to his family during this time.

Uncle Jack Charles was a proud Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Taungurung man, with strong connections to the community of Macnamara. He was a survivor of the stolen generations. As an infant he was forcibly removed from his mother by authorities. He endured homelessness, imprisonment and a cycle of addiction for much of his life, but Uncle Jack turned it into something remarkable, and he turned it into an inspiration for others.

There's a great film on Netflix called The Art of Incarceration, and in the opening of this film you'll hear Uncle Jack. This film is about turning the lives of First Nations people around and turning the lives of those incarcerated around. It was facilitated and created by an organisation in my electorate called the Torch, which engages with First Nations people and helps them create some of the most magnificent art you could ever lay your eyes on, and all of the proceeds of the Torch go into rehabilitation and to rebuilding lives. And, naturally, Uncle Jack was the perfect fit for a film and a story about turning lives around and about bringing people from incarceration into a better life and a better future. Uncle Jack used that earthy, deep voice that could easily move past the superficial conversations that usually run our day-to-day lives. Uncle Jack's soulful voice was able to touch something far deeper and to touch a deeper part of ourselves that made us think, made us feel and made us act, and that was extraordinary.

In 1971 Uncle Jack co-founded Australia's first Indigenous theatre group, Nindethana, at Melbourne's Pram Factory, and he was known as the grandfather of black theatre. Although his life was marred by injustice, trauma and hardship, Uncle Jack remained endlessly generous and a relentless voice and relentless advocate for the underdog.

Perhaps something that is spoken of a little less is that Uncle Jack was an out and proud gay man, and one of the last public events Uncle Jack attended was a Wear It Purple Day at the Victorian Pride Centre in the heart of my electorate, in St Kilda. This was organised by Koorie Pride Victoria, one of the permanent tenants of the Pride Centre, and Switchboard Victoria, another outstanding local organisation. Both support LGBTQI+ people in need. The CEO of Koorie Pride, Allison Toby, told us how important it was for queer Aboriginal people to have such a strong role model. Uncle Jack encouraged people to be themselves and to be proud of who they are. At this event, Uncle Jack Charles reminded everyone of the power you can find in telling your own story.

And Uncle Jack told stories. He told stories to change hearts and to change minds. He used his voice—his remarkable voice. Rest in power, Uncle Jack. To all his family: Australia grieves alongside you.

Federation Chamber adjourned at 17:37