North Queensland Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston is nominated for the Australian of the Year honour on Thursday evening. Photo: Zak Simmonds
North Queensland Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston is nominated for the Australian of the Year honour on Thursday evening. Photo: Zak Simmonds

‘Don’t stand’: Huge anthem plea to Thurston

OUTSPOKEN former NRL player and indigenous activist Joe Williams has urged Johnathan Thurston to consider staying seated for the national anthem should the North Queensland Cowboys legend be honoured as Australian of the Year.

Thurston is in the running to become the first rugby league identity to win the prestigious award, to be announced in Canberra on Thursday night.

The 34-year-old was named Queenslander of the Year or his work both on and of the field, and using his rugby league profile to help the state's indigenous youth.

Thurston would become the fifth indigenous athlete to receive such recognition, following in the footsteps of Lionel Rose, Evonne Goolagong, Cathy Freeman and Adam Goodes.

However this year's occasion promises to be highly politically-charged, with debate raging over what Australia Day represents to the indigenous population, and calls growing louder for a change in date.

Two years ago Williams - who played 46 NRL games for South Sydney - was named Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year for his work in suicide prevention and education. However he sparked an outcry among local government officials when he refused to stand for the anthem.

Williams was asked to hand the award back but, despite the backlash, he wants Thurston to make a similar statement in Canberra this week.

"What JT does with that platform is the big thing. I'd like to see him not stand up for the anthem to start with," Williams told foxsports.com.au of Thurston's Australian of the Year nomination.

Johnathan Thurston and his Queensland Australian of the Year award. Photo: Steve Pohlner
Johnathan Thurston and his Queensland Australian of the Year award. Photo: Steve Pohlner

"I don't judge people, it's their choice, but that song was a song written by a Scotsman about England and it was written during the time of the White Australia Policy when it was legally OK to steal our children.

"It's a platform but it's what JT does with it. Aboriginal people will be proud of him, bloody oath they will be, but it's what JT does with that platform.

"I hope JT doesn't get it on tokenism. Let's make sure he gets it for the work he has been doing."

The Cowboys declined foxsports.com.au's request to interview Thurston but he told NRL.com there needed to be more discussion surrounding the date of Australia Day and the push to change it.

"I think Australians need to be educated on why they feel that way and know the actual history about our country," said Thurston.

"I think once people do know the history of our country and where our culture has been and where our culture has come from today, a lot of people would have a different view on it.

"Once we can have that chat and move forward and move forward as one nation and one country."

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Thurston is actively involved in promoting the benefits of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Photo: Darren England
Thurston is actively involved in promoting the benefits of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Photo: Darren England

Six months after Williams remained seated at Wagga's Australia Day celebrations, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did the same prior to an NFL game in the US. Kaepernick was protesting what he considered the oppression of African Americans and minorities in America.

Williams' book Defying The Enemy Within goes on sale on Tuesday and details his ongoing battle with suicidal ideation and reconnecting to Aboriginal culture. He believes there is another Australian of the Year nominee of indigenous heritage equally deserving of the honour.

"I'm not trying to take any of the gloss away from him (Thurston) at all because he does a fantastic job and he's an absolutely brilliant footy player," said Williams, who played for the Rabbitohs, Panthers and Bulldogs between 2004 and 2008.

"I just hope the powers at be aren't giving it to a black fella because they think it will keep us happy and keep us quiet.

"I'd like to see Dr Tracy Westerman win it, an Aboriginal psychologist from WA. She's on the ground helping heal Aboriginal people.

"She's an Aboriginal girl from the Pilbara, the highest suicide rate per capita in the world.

"The biggest killer of Aboriginal people in Australia is suicide. It's actively what I do and what she does on the ground.

"Rugby league doesn't heal people. She's on the ground helping people to heal."

If Thurston or Dr Westerman is recognised as our Australian of the Year it will be a source of great pride for Aboriginal people but, according to Williams, won't be a day his people can celebrate until the date is changed.

"There is so much trauma around that date," said Williams.

"The biggest way to start to heal the trauma is to change the date. The impact of trauma started on January 26.

"Trauma is the biggest killer of all of our people. When you look at people's behaviours, when you strip that back there is usually substance abuse, strip the substance back and it's usually a band-aid for trauma.

"We can't do anything about the guilt and what happened, but we can mend now together.

"We're not mending together by not changing."



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