• Wiradjuri man Joe Williams. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Joe Williams, the 2016 Wagga Citizen of the Year, on his decision to remain seated during the singing of the national anthem on Australia Day.
Joe Williams

29 Jan 2016 - 5:36 PM  UPDATED 29 Jan 2016 - 5:56 PM

We live, in 2016, in a country of unity, equality and freedom of speech. But is it really?

On Monday evening, I was honoured with the 2016 Australia Day Wagga Citizen of the Year award. The award was in acknowledgment of all the work I do in mental health, charity and suicide prevention.

During the proceedings, three talented young singers were announced as the joint-winners of a competition to sing Advance Australia Fair. Everyone in the venue was asked to stand as one for the singing of the national anthem. Like many times prior, my firm decision was to remain in my seat.

'Like many times prior, my firm decision was to remain in my seat.'

The anthem was sung by three angelic voices that rung out through the packed venue. It was a great rendition.

Later in the evening, I was named 2016 Wagga Wagga Citizen of the year. I stood with tremendous honour, traditional Indigenous paint splashed across my arms and face, and proudly walked to the stage to accept my award. I was nominated for the tireless work I do across the community with youth at risk, mental health and suicide prevention. Having attempted suicide myself in 2011, I was led to this great passion of saving lives from this evil disease.

In my acceptance speech, I paid respect to my ancestors, who fought the original war of invasion and lost many innocent lives. I thanked my parents for the tremendous guidance in my life and all that I do.

I went on to speak of the Stolen Generations and remarked that had my father been taken, it was quite possible that I would not be here doing the work in suicide prevention and saving countless lives - both Indigenous and non-Indigenous - through recovery and mental health education.

Finally I said that, as a community we are moving forward and my award is evidence of that.

'I toasted the sky with "my ancestors this is for you" in my traditional Wiradjuri language.'

I then dedicated my award to my four children and fiancée, Courtney. I toasted the sky with 'my ancestors this is for you' in my traditional Wiradjuri language.

I received a standing ovation as I walked from the stage with tears of honour and joy.


Watch Joe Williams' 2016 Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year acceptance speech. The award was presented by Mayor Rod Kendall and Regional Manager Beyond Bank Andrew Toole

Posted by City of Wagga Wagga on Monday, January 25, 2016


The following morning I received phone calls from local Wagga media outlets. They told me they had received several calls from community members who said they were disgusted that I didn't stand for the national anthem.

I commented that, as an Aboriginal man, I do not believe the current anthem represents this country's First Nations people. I firmly stand by that statement.

Being from a rural community which, for the most part, continues to have a minority of people stuck with the habits and opinions of a bigoted past and fuelled by racial tension, I have been the target of a significant backlash. This backlash doesn't hide behind subtleties; it speaks openly and makes blatantly racial comments.

The backlash has come from current Wagga Wagga city councillor Mr Paul Funnell. Mr Funnell has described my statement as "divisive" and "harmful" for relations between black and white in the community.

Hand back Citizen Of The Year award: Wagga Wagga councillor stands by comments to Indigenous leader Joe Williams
Former sports star Joe Williams was asked to hand back his Wagga Wagga Citizen Of The Year award after he refused to stand for the national anthem during the January 25 ceremony.

The Daily Advertiser reported the former deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer said "Australia Day was not the day for political statements".

My response is this: every year, January 26 is a political statement. Every single year, many Australians opt to celebrate being in a free country on the very grounds where my ancestors spilt blood and lost their lives, many lives. Every year, January 26 is a day when Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are divided. How can we celebrate together on a day when the rest of the country is dancing on the shallow graves of our past?

There have been many calls asking, "If you don't agree with the day, why did you turn up to accept the award?"

Great question, but I was nominated for the work I do to help people and indirectly save lives. This is something I do all year round, not just the one day. I was announced citizen of the year, not just the one day.

The question I ask when people talk about Reconciliation is, why, whenever Reconciliation is brought up, do we have to forget all the atrocities and mistreatment of our people and move on? When we reconcile, why does it have to be on the white man's terms?

Australia is a free country, yet once again, the Indigenous man is expected to be seen but not heard.

With my latest stand - or in this case sit - it has brought the racial bigotry to the surface once again and proven that we are still a very long way off true Reconciliation.

Australia is a free country, yet once again, the Indigenous man is expected to be seen but not heard.

Are people hurt because I didn't stand? Or are they hurt because I made a statement as an Aboriginal man and chose to exercise my rights in a free country.

Never will I sit on my hands, or remain silent when it comes to my people.

Joe Williams is a proud Wiradjuri man, former NRL player and a professional boxer. He is the founder of The Enemy Within and currently works as the Aboriginal Education Worker at Mater Dei Catholic College.