Australia Council asked me to prove I'm Aboriginal

"I don't want a temporary visa from the Australia Council proclaiming I'm an Aboriginal."

Actor Jack Charles says he expects 'to be treated honourably and with respect'
(Timelines Photography)

Andrew Taylor Sydney Morning Herald
22 November 2012

Jack Charles's indigenous background is hardly a secret.

His mother was a Bunnerong woman, his father a Wiradjuri man, Charles was born in Melbourne in 1943 and is one of Australia's most renowned Aboriginal actors.

He was involved in setting up Australia's first indigenous theatre group, Nindethana, at The Pram Factory in Melbourne in 1971, and most recently performed in the 2012 Sydney Festival production I am Eora, about Sydney's Aboriginal community .

And then there is the colour of his skin.

"Yes, I obviously look like an Aboriginal," he said.

Yet that is not enough for the federal government's arts funding body, the Australia Council, which has demanded Mr Charles prove his Aboriginality before it will consider his application for a grant to write a book.

But Mr Charles said he should not have to prove what is blindingly obvious.

"I don't want a temporary visa from the Australia Council proclaiming I'm an Aboriginal," he said.

"I expect to be treated honourably and with respect.

"I have received money in the past but nobody has ever asked me if I'm Aboriginal. This is the only time."

The Australia Council's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board has required indigenous applicants to prove their identity since 1997 by providing a letter confirming their indigenous identity from a senior member of the community or registered indigenous organisation.

"The policy is not intended to cause offence," said the board's executive director, Lydia Miller.

"Rather, it is in place to ensure that this dedicated funding supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists."

Ms Miller said there were no exceptions to the rule: "The ATSIA Board has not made exceptions to this policy because it is not appropriate for a government agency to undertake the function of determining a person's cultural identity."

But Mr Charles said the policy was flawed, pointing out that many indigenous people, especially members of the Stolen Generation, found it difficult to find information about their background.

He said many other Aboriginal artists and performers had been "rudely abused by this policy".

Mr Charles said he was seeking funding to write a coffee table book with Amiel Courtin-Wilson, who directed the 2008 documentary Bastardy, which documented Mr Charles's life as a drug addict, burglar and actor.

The book would chart his life as an actor as well as a role model for his community.

"I can laugh at it now but really mate, it's taken the wind out of my sails," Mr Charles said.

"I find it very hard to even walk into the Sydney Theatre Company and engage with rehearsals.

Mr Charles is in Sydney rehearsing for the STC's production of The Secret River, part of the Sydney Festival 2013. But he said he could not continue with the show, or Belvoir St Theatre's Coranderrk, which is scheduled to open in December next year, if the Australia Council continued to insist he prove his Aboriginal identity.

"I'm not going to perform for them if I have to prove I'm a bloody Aboriginal," Charles said.

"I feel very unwelcome here in Sydney."

"I can't because my performance would be less than genuine," he added.

Actor Jack Charles says he expects 'to be treated honourably and with respect'.