By HARRY CLARKE | COMMENT
THE magnificent North Queensland rugby league player, Johnathan Thurston, has a knack for knowing what to say and when to say it.
He uses the megaphone he wields as a national community leader and sporting hero to powerful effect, and does so only when it seems most appropriate.
There’s no doubt his words immediately after the 2015 NRL grand final, when Thurston slotted that winning field goal, helped in some way to make Townsville’s dream of getting a new football stadium become a reality.
“The fans deserve a new stadium. One right in the city. That’s what we deserve,” JT said with the premiership trophy in hand.
He’s now immortalised in bronze outside Townsville’s shiny new sporting arena.
The following year, after Queensland won the first State of Origin game in a nail biter, Thurston was giving a standard post-match interview when he suddenly turned to face the camera.
Looking down the barrel as if to talk directly to viewers at home, he said “I just want to say a quick hello to the Aurukun State School”.
“There’s obviously been a lot of trouble up there, so to all the students there, I just want you to believe in yourselves and keep turning up to school.”
At the time there’d been some unfortunate incidents of violence at Aurukun State School, amid wider community unrest in the remote Cape York community.
As an Aboriginal role model, Thurston obviously recognised an opportunity to lend some words of encouragement to those who looked up to him most.
You wouldn’t call JT an outspoken individual, unless perhaps you were an unfit front rower who was becoming flat footed only 5 minutes into a Cowboys season opener.
It’s rare that he’d wade into anything political, other than the politics of rugby league.
But last week I thought the four-time Dally M medalist, respectfully, brought some good sense and perspective to a politically and emotionally charged controversy.
From what the television broadcast showed, four Indigenous players in the Australian Kangaroos team had chosen not to sing Advance Australia Fair ahead of their game against Samoa.
They were clearly making a statement, as opposed to this being one of those situations you sometimes see where an athlete appears to simply be standing tall, steely-eyed and silent during the national anthem as they soak up the moment and focus on the task ahead.
That same weekend, of course, Australian voters had chosen overwhelmingly to reject at a referendum the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
And when our Aboriginal rugby league representatives expressed their disappointment by staying silent during the anthem, the predictable criticism came and the news headlines were written.
Calls for those players to be benched were led by a veteran sports commentator and a former Kangaroos captain, and the usual trolls on Facebook and Twitter followed.
“If you don’t want to sing it, you can’t be picked, no matter who the player is,” said broadcaster Peter Peters.
“If you don’t to want sing the anthem then don’t play for the Kangaroos,” said ex Australian skipper Max Krillich.
Some Country Caller followers will remember my column last year arguing that Advance Australia Fair is a boring song and that it should be replaced with the far more melodic and emotive I Am Australian.
Until that happens, I’m happy to sing along with the one we have.
But I won’t take issue with anyone who choses not to.
However justified people felt in their decision to vote No, and however well intentioned they believed they were in doing so, the reality is some Aboriginal people took the Voice’s overwhelming rejection as an insult.
The anger by some at the referendum outcome was clear in the Caller‘s report last week from Hopevale and Cooktown on Cape York.
Freedom of speech and expression applies to all Australians, whether or not they’re wearing green and gold.
Those Indigenous players, who’ve worked hard for the honour of representing their country, wanted to express their disappointment that an opportunity for their heritage to be recognised in our constitution was rejected.
Enter, Johnathan Thurston.
“I’m not exactly sure which players didn’t sing the anthem this time, but that’s their belief and their personal decision,” he said.
“Just like the nation voted on the referendum, they are allowed to do their thing as well.
“While you might not like it, that’s their decision.”
Hear hear, Thursto.