Through Long’s walk, she says, the public is much more aware about racism and the knock-on effect has been significant. «It took one man to have the guts, the courage, the fortitude to say enough’s enough,» she says. «He had people like Kevin Sheedy in his corner, the Bombers – that’s what sport does, it has the power to change. Since then, you have basketball, cricket, rugby union following suit. When you think of the magnitude of Michael [doing that]…»
Her mum grew up on the Tiwi Islands with Long’s parents; they are members of the stolen generation. In her maiden speech to parliament in 2013, Peris declared herself «a descendant of the Gija people of the East Kimberley and the Yawuru people of the West Kimberley. I am also Iwatja from Western Arnhem Land through my father.»
From an early age, she dreamt big, turning a nightmare reality into a symbol of triumph over adversity. «As bad as what happened to my mum and my grandparents and whoever went before them, I draw inspiration from that. Yep, it was bad, but how good is it that we’ve survived it.»
She’s here in her capacity as an ambassador for Vicsport, in particular the newly created La Trobe University Peter Norman Inclusion Award. Norman was the white Australian athlete who famously expressed solidarity with black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith after they came first, second and third in the 200 metres at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The photograph of the three of them on the dais, Carlos and Smith with their arms raised in a Black Power salute, is one of the most iconic of the past 50 years.
The inaugural Vicsport award will recognise the clubs that are opening their doors to athletes of all abilities. «Peter Norman is a brilliant athlete whose record still stands 50 years on. He was a humanitarian, not just an athlete,» she says. «We’re asking for the wider community to be like Peter Norman.»
While the civil rights movement tends to be talked about as an American preoccupation, Peris argues we had our own here in Australia, with the 1967 referendum and the eradication of the White Australia Policy. She also contends that we tend to look overseas when seeking heroes when in fact we have our own. To her mind, Norman is one of them. His stance is one she wants all Australians to take.
The main deterrent to Aboriginal kids playing sport is racism; a massive 74 per cent have reported experiencing some kind of racial vilification. Peris works at the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services as an advisor across sport and recreation, Aboriginal health and wellbeing and participation.
According to Peris, playing sport is intuitive for all of us. «It’s a natural thing to do – to run, to climb, to jump. I think sometimes we need to get back to that childhood, that inner being. There are more opportunities to be equal in sport as opposed to other areas. Sport brings people together.»
She quotes the black American athlete Jesse Owens, who famously went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and won four gold medals. «He said for that 10 seconds in his life when he ran, he felt equal and free,» she says. «The inspiration that he has given, he’s paved the way for everyone else. Sport gives minority groups and people who’ve been oppressed the chance to be free, to be equal.»
Growing up in the Northern Territory, Peris was protected from the racism she would encounter later in life. «Darwin is a bit of a bubble,» she says. «It’s such a multicultural place, almost 40 per cent of the population is Aboriginal. You’re not really the minority.»
When she represented the Northern Territory in hockey, she was shocked to hear a competitor say ‘I’m not shaking that black bitch’s hand’. «Even then, I didn’t feel like I could elevate it anywhere. There was no pathway.»
These days racial vilification legislation provides some protection but it wasn’t introduced until much later, after incidents involving Nicky Winmar and Long. She credits the AFL with having done a lot of great work but says we need to remain vigilant.
«The administration needs to support it, otherwise you feel like it will fall on deaf ears. It can end your career. Look at Adam Goodes. If it can happen to us at the highest level, it can happen to little Johnny playing under-10 soccer.»
Competing for Australia at the World Athletics Championships, one of her teammates called her the «N» word. «Not once, not twice but three times. It wasn’t until we came back that I reported it.»
A reconciliation process ensued, whereby she sat down face to face with the athlete involved. Visibly emotional, he said he didn’t think it was offensive. It’s an age-old refrain and one she’s tired of hearing.
During her time in politics, Peris was constantly abused in emails, phone calls and on social media. «There’s a horrible community out there. When I would post talking about how proud I am of my culture and my people and our strength and resilience, people would say ‘Shut up you black so and so’.»
There were many sleepless nights, as she told Fairfax a few years ago. «I would wake up at two or three in the morning and my head would be down the toilet bowl, vomiting. It was an unpleasant, sickly feeling. It was hard.»
Three years after she was elected, Peris retired and moved to Melbourne, where she lives with her husband, Scott Appleton, and son Jack. She has two daughters, Destiny and Jessica — who, like Jack, are competitive athletes — and became a grandmother when she was 40.
«Even for my kids now, they have to walk the two worlds. They have to be educated in the western world but also be brave enough to accept this is what happened to their grandparents. You’ve got ancestral DNA going back 40,000 years.»
With this in mind she says celebrating Australia Day on January 26 is unacceptable. «You’ve got to call it for what it is. It was a day of arrival, of de-colonising. We had a colony, we had a system, we had a place…»
She’s conscious that you only know what you know in life. To those people telling Aboriginal people to get over it and move on, she challenges them to stand in an Aboriginal person’s shoes. «We can’t – that’s our Anzac Day, that’s our remembrance day for our fallen soldiers. Change freaks them out… [it’s the] same for people losing their minds over marriage equality. The sun still sets and rises.»
She believes the time is right for change, saying Australia is up for it, if only the government would show some vision. «We can’t move forward as a nation until we reconcile the past and part of reconciling the past is knowing what you’re reconciling.»
Likewise, she doesn’t want the constitution to be changed to acknowledge our first people. «I want this country to become a republic. Press restart. You’re trying to tell us how we should be recognised in your founding document when we’ve never been lost.»
Throughout her life, one constant for dealing with tough times has been to go back to country. She speaks of an attachment to the land that’s spiritual. «It’s a deeper connection, you’re walking in the footsteps of your ancestors. The calling back to country, that’s what it is. When you look after country, country looks after you.»
«I hope we can start to listen. Global warming is real,» she says. «Everyone needs to realise you can’t have this without looking after Mother Earth.»
The 2018 Victorian Sport Awards are held on February 20.
The bill, please
Mya Tiger, Esplanade Hotel
11 The Esplanade, St Kilda; 9534 0211
Midday-late, seven days
Kerrie is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald