On January 25 former NRL star and Wiradjuri man Joe Williams proudly accepted the Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year award for his community work in mental health.
However, his decision not to stand during the national anthem has drawn the ire of local councillor Paul Funnell, who told a local newspaper that "he believes the Indigenous community leader should hand back his award."
'Stan said it - every time an Aboriginal person makes a statement they get mugged back into the shadows.'
It’s a stance he has backed up on Thursday in comments to NITV.
“I am genuine in that, if you disrespect the very nation and organisation that gives you that award you shouldn’t accept it, you should hand it back,” says Cr Funnell.
While the Wagga Wagga mayor has publicly backed Williams' decision, Cr Funnell says that other members of the City Council and the community have reached out to him in support.
“I know of four councillors that have contacted me and agree with me,” he says.
“I was very disappointed in our mayor and I sent him an email saying so, for falling behind Joe,” he says.
“He doesn’t speak for me as a councillor or anything else.”
Joe Williams says he has a right to make his views known.
“I’m someone who is extremely proud of who I am, and extremely honoured for this award because it recognises the community work that I do,” says the local Indigenous leader.
“But my stance and that statement was about the honour and recognition of the ancestors and the struggles of injustice with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for about 200 years.”
“People say that it was divisive and that I’m dividing the community, I’m not dividing the community. Aboriginal people all over our community mourn on that day, so by people going out and celebrating it they’re actually being divisive.”
WATCH JOE'S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
He says he will not be handing back the award and he wishes that the councillor had tried to speak with him.
“No I won’t hand it back because that takes away from the significant work that I’ve been doing in the community,” he says.
“To Paul Funnell- come and ask me why I didn’t stand. Then we can open a conversation about the injustice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
The Wiradjuri man has read some vitriolic comments online about his decision.
“There’s been a huge amount of backlash on the actual sites that print the article and so forth ... there was a comment from a lady who reached out to me two years ago to save her son from suicide. And the comment was that I’m a disrespectful guy.”
He says he has taken strength from other Indigenous leaders speaking out in the media, such as NITV journalist Stan Grant.
“Stan said it - every time an Aboriginal person makes a statement they get mugged back into the shadows,” he says.
“I don’t stand up for me, it’s for my children and their children and their children. I know that I’ll die with racism still in this country, but it’s for my children- I don’t want to see them face it.”
General Manager Alan Eldridge, and Mayor of the City of Wagga Wagga Councillor Rod Kendall, issued a joint statement this afternoon.
“The comments made by Councillor Paul Funnell are his own and do not reflect the views of the City of Wagga Wagga or its staff."
“The Australia Day Awards are determined by the Wagga Wagga Australia Day Committee, which is currently made up of community representatives, former award recipients and Council representatives.”