Where is the love? Michael Long walks the talk for Voice

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For the second time in 19 years, Michael Long is about to arrive in Canberra after walking from Melbourne.

And the champion former Essendon player has a simple message for Australians ahead of the referendum on October 14: “Where is the love for my people?”

Michael Long (centre) re-enacts his long walk from Melbourne to Canberra in support of the Voice to parliament. Long was joined by former MPs and athletes Pat Farmer and Nova Peris.Credit: Justin McManus

Long is most famous for his electric performances on the field, from the 1993 AFL grand final where he tore Carlton apart to his bone-crunching hit on Melbourne’s Troy Simmonds in the 2000 grand final.

But off the field, too, he has stood up for Indigenous Australians, famously calling out Collingwood’s Damian Monkhorst in 1995 for racially abusing him, and leading a protest walk to Canberra in 2004 when then-prime minister John Howard abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Monkhorst has since expressed regret for his actions as a younger man and he and Long have reconciled, with the former Collingwood ruckman taking part in Long’s annual walk to the MCG.

While hopes of a successful Yes vote in the referendum are fading, Long’s walk to Canberra – he’s 54 and isn’t doing it all on foot this time as his banged-up knees won’t allow it – has taken him to the small towns and spaces that populate the 660-kilometre highway from Melbourne. On Thursday, Long will arrive in the nation’s capital.

When this masthead joined him for part of the walk, through Glenrowan, Wangaratta, Chiltern and on to Albury-Wodonga, he was accompanied by Olympic gold medallist and former Labor senator Nova Peris, two of the original walkers from 2004, Declan O’Toole and Peter Maher, and a host of others.

Time and again, in school halls and at footy ovals, Long would come back to the same point: Australia has to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and the Voice to parliament will help do that.

“The real focus is closing the gap. All those things like life expectancy to housing. I mean, we were talking about that stuff 20 years ago and it’s still applicable today,” he says.

“I don’t want to be talking about closing the gap in another 20 years or 30 years. Let’s do something about it, you know, and part of that is being able to advocate on issues that affect Indigenous people. We haven’t got it right yet. It’s unbelievable that in 2023 we haven’t got this right.

Long and walkers at the Glenrowan Primary School.Credit: Justin McManus

“We can’t do symbolic any more. It’s got to be action … symbolic stuff – we did that 19 years ago, we did that every year with reconciliation, that’s important. But there’s something bigger that needs to be done. And that’s that practical action. No more talking. No more discussions.”

On the footy field, Long was at his best in small spaces. He had an uncanny awareness of his surroundings that allowed him to bring teammates into the game while avoiding his opponents. He let his feet and hands do the talking.

In Wangaratta’s Apex Park, alongside Peris and ultramarathon runner and former Liberal MP Pat Farmer – who is running more than 14,000 kilometres around Australia to support the Voice – a crowd of 200 or so people assembled.

Long has never been a natural public speaker or performer, and he chooses his words carefully.

AFL legend Michael Long during an event to welcome him to the ACT, in Canberra on Wednesday 13 September 2023Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

So under cloudy skies and surrounded by grey gum trees, Farmer, who has been running about 80 kilometres a day since April, speaks to the crowd first about why Australians should vote Yes.

“Usually, the people that say ‘I’m after some more detail’ are the people that already know the detail,” he says.

“Let me turn that [referendum] question on its head. If you listen to the No campaigners, the question says this: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should not be recognised in our Constitution and should not have a Voice to government on issues that involve them … I haven’t found one person when I posed that question in a negative term that could possibly agree with it.”

While Farmer seeks to persuade, Peris thunders.

Locals and supporters walking through Wodonga.Credit: Justin McManus

“When all these people are saying, the naysayers, we don’t want race in the Constitution – it is already there. So we were counted back then [after the 1967 referendum]. Now we’re asking to be seen and heard … going forward half a century. And the Constitution, the founding document, the birth certificate of this country, doesn’t have the first born on it.”

“Our DNA is on this continent. This continent didn’t come up from the ocean in 1788 and say, ‘Hello, no man’s land!’”

And Long? The crowd has to lean in when he finally begins to speak.

“We can fly to the moon. We can do amazing things, invent amazing things. But we can’t fix what’s in the back of our nation. It’s time. It can’t happen in another 20 years,” he says.

“Where has the love gone?”

He calls on King Charles to be a leader, as his mother, Elizabeth, was for so many decades, and publicly back the Voice.

The next morning, as we chat, I ask Long if he is serious about flying to London to petition the King.

Of course, comes the quick grin and reply.

But first, he has to get to Canberra. And he will need a passport, too.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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