Joe Williams isn’t one to back down from a fight.
Boxing has played an intergral part in the former South Sydney Rabbitoh’s battle with depression. Lessons he then passes on as a mental health advocate and motivational speaker based in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. “Do I still have suicidal thoughts? Yeah, I do,” he explains. “Do I still battle the long days? Yeah, I do. “If you give up, you end up being knocked out, or beaten. Just like in the ring.” Last month, Mr Williams’ work saw him named Australia Day Citizen of the Year by Wagga Wagga City Council. But the proud Wiradjuri man used the ceremony to describe the heartache Indigenous people feel about Australia Day. Earlier in the day, he chose to remain seated during the national anthem; a move that’s angered many, including the mother of a former client. Related reading “I had a comment from a lady whose son I talked away from suicide two years ago, say I was disrespectful,” he said. “I didn’t try to divide the community, I merely raised awareness of how Aboriginal people feel. Do you think we’re not supposed to feel like this?” On one hand, Wagga City Councillor Paul Funnell understands the reasons behind Mr Williams’ decision. But he is still demanding the award be returned, calling his actions “disrespectful” and “divisive”. “If we’re going to move towards reconciliation and stop racism, if one side of the debate is not going to respect the other side for a simple thing as standing for the national anthem, we’re off to a bad start already,” he said.Williams still running for councilWell before the Australia Day ceremony, Mr Williams made no secret of his intention to run in Wagga Wagga’s upcoming council elections. Now in the face of so much criticism, he remains hopeful that goal can still be achieved. “I can be a voice for people on the ground,” he said. “I’ve heard so many comments of, ‘It’s the past, we can’t change it’. But we can change the future.” On the streets of Wagga Wagga many said they would welcome a ‘Williams-for-council’ campaign, adding they empathise with his decision not to stand for the anthem. “[My] initial reaction is, yeah, it was disrespectful,” one man said. “But after seeing what he had to say about it, I can sort of understand why he chose to do that.” “I think he’s standing for his own rights, or sitting down in this case,” another man said. “We all have different opinions, but we’re all entitled to them.” Local Wiradjuri elder, Dr Stan Grant, said Mr Williams’ mixture of respect and resolve would make him a successful councillor. “My advice to Joe, if I was gonna give him any advice, is don’t try to please everybody,” he said. “The anthem is not inclusive, so how can we respect something that doesn’t include us? “If Joe decides not to stand for the national anthem, that draws attention to the fact that we have a problem.” And, all differences aside, Councillor Funnell also wants Williams to run. “I think he would go extremely well,” he said. “I encourage him to continue his work and continue speaking up, because if he doesn’t, problems would just continue.” * Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.