That's the Spirit: Bill Kennedy - Walgett NSW
He’s been a shearer, a councillor, a deputy mayor and mentor, an administrator and an advocate, and in his 73 laps around the sun, Walgett’s Bill Kennedy has seen and helped make a few changes in and for his community. The proud Gamilaroi man lives by the mantra that if you want something done, it’s up to you to stand up and speak up. Bill talked to Jen Cowley about the importance of having a voice.
Bill: I was born and raised in Walgett, I’m a Gamilaroi man.
I’m currently the chairperson of the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, and I had 12 years in local government as a councillor on the Walgett Shire Council. I also served a term as deputy mayor. It was something that I never expected I would ever do. I grew up on Namoi Reserve and spent my early years working in the shearing sheds, so being part of local government wasn’t something that I ever thought I’d be doing.
Jen: What motivated you to put your hand up for council?
Bill: I went away from Walgett early in life and spent ten years around Sydney and Newcastle, and came back to Walgett in 1980 as the manager of what was then the Barwon Aboriginal Community (organisation). I did a bit of work with the NAC (National Aboriginal Conference) for a while and then ended up working with the Commonwealth government with what was then the Aboriginal Employment and Training Branch. In 1986, Commonwealth Education, Employment and Training amalgamated, and I spent 29 and a half years in that role.
In all that time, I saw a lot of changes.
While I was doing all that, I was talked into running for council.
Bill Kennedy, Walgett NSW
Jen: Was it good to have a voice in your community?
Bill: It was good, yes, but in some ways, it was very difficult. Back in those days, I was one of 12 councillors, and I was only one blackfella so you learned quickly to play the numbers game.
But it was during my time there that we got them to fly the Aboriginal flag on the council building for the first time, and that’s something I’m proud of.
I learned a lot of good stuff along the way, and I also felt a sense of responsibility to be a voice not only for the Aboriginal community but for the whole of Walgett, and I still do that. I still straddle both those worlds. Even today, people still say to me that I should consider running for council again, and I think that’s because I do talk to everyone in the community.
Unless people speak up, nothing happens. So that’s why I’m happy I stood up and had that time on council, because if you don’t stand up and speak up, nothing changes.
We’ve seen quite a few changes in Walgett, many of them for good.
Jen: What are some of the good changes you’ve seen?
Bill: I guess with the establishment, back in the earlier days, of the Aboriginal Legal and Medical Services, and the Lands Council – those things have given the community a voice, not just in Walgett but across the state. Along the way, I’ve seen all that come to fruition.
I feel proud to have been part of being part of that change and being part of giving Aboriginal people a voice. Back in the early days, there were the marches in Sydney and we were there and fortunate enough to be a part of that and to see those changes happen.
A lot of our mob don’t realise that stuff that went before, that these things, these representative bodies, weren’t always just there – people made sacrifices to get them established. Whilst we were a part of that, there are many others who made far greater sacrifices than we did, but it’s still good to know we had a part of seeing that stuff happen.
Bill Kennedy, Walgett NSW
Jen: What are some of the things you love about Walgett?
Bill: It’s home. No matter where I go, this is where country is. This is where my home is and always will be.
I guess I’m always proud of that, and of knowing that this is where all my mob is. It’s good to have such a long history and that sense of belonging to this country. I’m 73 now and my mum is still alive at 94. If I think I’ve seen a lot of changes, imagine what she’s seen in those 94 years!
Jen: What do you think people should know about Walgett that they may not otherwise know?
Bill: The history of Walgett is very diverse. Take, for instance, the shearing industry, which has changed so much over the years. I remember when I was a kid, there were 12 shearing contractors here in town and the shearing industry was huge.
There were a lot of shearers here that were part of the wide-comb dispute in the ‘80s, and all those changes that came from that.
It was a wild old time at the time, and there were quite a few blues here in the streets. The old Imperial (hotel) was the site of many a blue between the Kiwi shearers and the locals.
And while it was all to do with the wide comb issue, a lot of it was about conditions and wages and that sort of thing. A lot of those shearers fought hard for years and years for better conditions, and then you had all these blokes coming in and working weekends, longer hours and brushing aside all those conditions that (the local shearers) had fought years for.
Anyway, that’s all part of a fascinating history and a big part of Walgett’s history. People should know about that.
Jen: Do you miss those halcyon days of the shearing industry?
Bill: I do, but what I miss most is the opportunities for young fellas. There was always work around for young blokes. There was always a job. It didn’t matter that much about how educated you were or weren’t, there was always work. And the thing is that even if we weren’t working, we wouldn’t be wandering around the streets during the day.
I’d urge the young people of today to remember how hard previous generations worked for what we have today.
We’ve lost a generation of younger people, really.
There’s so much history that some of the younger people today don’t have any knowledge of.
Jen: Education is something that’s clearly close to your heart.
Bill: Education is always, or should be, a priority. It certainly was for me when I was growing up. We lived at Namoi Reserve and there was no public transport to get you to school, so we walked there in the mornings and we walked back in the afternoons. Sometimes, we’d take a short cut across the river, and swim the river home for lunch.
We were made to go to school every single day, rain, hail or shine – that’s just how it was in those days.
Walgett has had the reputation for being one of the places around as being the home of indigenous education, and that’s thanks to those early days.
Jen: And how important is sport as part of a community like Walgett?
Bill: We’ve had a lot of very good sportspeople come out of Walgett – like (National Rugby League players) Ricky Walford and William Kennedy, George Rose… so rugby league has always been big here. Rugby Union is also very strong here.
I was involved with league when I was in Sydney as well, not as a player but as part of a committee for Newtown Rugby League. From there, some of us were the founders of the NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout.
That’s been a massive thing for the game. Today, there are 64 men’s sides, as well as women’s and junior sides. There’s something like 130 or 140 teams when you put it all together. Now it’s one of the biggest sporting events ever. We never expected that, but that’s where it went.
If you think about all the women in sport today – across all kinds of sports – you think back, women in rugby league started that, and started with our knockouts.
At a small town level, sport is absolutely so important for communities, particularly for the young people.
I was involved with the Walgett sports club for many years, with bowls and golf in particular. I was president of both of those for some years. I’m a life member of the sporting club – spent a lot of time on committees there.
We’ve seen that as very important for the community, especially with the school and getting the kids involved in playing sports and giving them opportunities to try other different sports.
Sport also brings people together, no matter which part of the community they’re from. Sport is always competitive but it definitely brings people together.
Jen: What makes you proud to say you’re from Walgett?
Bill: It’s being a local, being part of it. This is where I belong, we’re all connected. Hopefully I’ll stick around for a bit longer yet – I have to, because my mother is still going at 94. I can’t beat her out of here (laughs)!
Jen: Are you comfortable in the future of Walgett as a community?
Bill: This town is used to getting knocked around a bit – with droughts and floods and other things – and we get through it. How well we come through this whole Covid-19 thing, that’s anyone’s guess, because we just don’t know where it’s going to take us or when it’s going to finish up. A lot of that depends on local small businesses, and how well they survive and whether people can continue to grow.
Drought has already meant we’ve lost people who have left town, and it remains to be seen as to whether they come back, but others might come and fill the void.
You can only hope. And this is a town that is used to adversity.
Jen: After 40,000 years, you’d like to think the history of Walgett will go on.
Bill: Oh, a lot of our mob will still be here (laughs)! The young ones move on a bit, but it takes more than a drought and a pandemic to move us.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Bill Kennedy, Walgett NSW