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Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
Contribution of sport to Indigenous wellbeing and mentoring

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RYNNE, Dr Steven Bernard, Lecturer, University of Queensland


CHAIR: There are some people, Steven, who come and give evidence at committees and we know that it is a bit of an effort, but I have to say this is one of those ones where it is above and beyond the call of duty. For the record, I think you have just had an operation. You were bleeding downstairs, and you have come up.

Dr Rynne : It sounds a bit more dramatic than it really is.

CHAIR: I think you sound as if you have been at one of these Rugby League carnivals that QAIHC has been involved in. But we will start. For the record, thank you very much for being here.

Will you please make an opening statement, if you feel that you are able to do so. I notice that you had a fair bit of involvement with surfing and the like, so please let us know about that.

Dr Rynne : Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this very important hearing. I want to give a bit of background about the study and what I consider to be the major findings. I have research interests in Indigenous sport» participation. In particular I will talk about one study. The materials you have in front of you are related to that study.

It commenced in 2009. The first data collection happened in 2010. For all intents and purposes it wrapped up in 2011, but we have had ongoing work and interactions throughout 2012 as well. It is a longitudinal study over three to four years. It was a partnership between what was the Indigenous «Sport» Program at the Australian Sports Commission, the University of Queensland, the Laureus «Sport» for Good Foundation, which was the funding partner, and Surfing Australia. As you rightly point out, it was a surfing project.

Specifically we were looking at two key things. The first was about how surfing programs for Indigenous people function with a particular interest in sustainability and viability, as set out in guidelines by Beneforti; and Cunningham in 2002. The second was about the impact of these programs on the social networks of Indigenous people and how they may or may not be leveraged for benefit. That takes in the theoretical idea of social capital and how you can use networks to further your position.

The research project was focused on five existing surfing communities: one in Queensland, two in New South Wales, one in Victoria and one in South Australia. They were chosen because they had a variety of models of operation in terms of who ran them, how they were funded, when they ran, their location and how long they had been in existence. The research itself took into consideration more than 98 participants from a variety of categories, including surf participants, program providers and community members. It made use of a whole range of qualitative research methods, so things like face-to-face questionnaires, one-on-one and group interviews, photographs, video footage, participant observations, field notes and those sorts of things. The dataset had 17 sets of field notes, 32 interviews and focus groups, more than 600 photographs and more than 400 video clips. So it was on a fairly ambitious scale for what was really a fairly exploratory examination.

There were a whole range of findings. I am happy to discuss anything to do with the project, but the one thing I want to address in my opening address—

CHAIR: Just bring out the salient point or points.

Dr Rynne : The main finding was the capacity of certain programs to allow participants to connect with and learn from. The overall key finding was about connecting with and learning from. There were a few themes within that. Connecting with and learning from the ocean and the environment. These programs provided the opportunity for surf participants to make or remake connections with the environment, with their land, which was really important to a number of the communities that we were with.

Another key theme was about connection with and learning from program providers. Because of the historical dispossession and policy-led exclusion a lot of these communities do not have surfing knowledge. It was felt to be really important to connect the locals with that surfing knowledge. These programs were able to do that in a lot of cases.

Another theme was connecting with and learning from peers. Across a number of different sites the surf participants reported that they were often the only or one of only very few Aboriginal kids at the same school. For this reason the surfing programs were felt to be important in making connections with others and also in experiencing pride and confidence in their aboriginality. Surfing programs were able to do that.

The final theme was connecting with and learning from community members.

So events such as the surfing program had the potential to reinvigorate pride in culture. Forming connections with elders and also having the opportunity to check in with more vulnerable community members was found to be really important in the study.

This theme of forming connections closely aligns with this idea of surfing events as a reason to come together. They seem to be one of only a few places where Aboriginal people could come together for positive purposes.

In conclusion on that major finding, I will make some closing comments before we get to some questions. The positive effects of these programs took quite a while to come to light. So that really needs some consideration in terms of how programs are set up and also how they are funded.

CHAIR: The duration of them.

Dr Rynne : Of course, yes. It was more than just the «sport» . «Sport» was really important. Engagement and learning the skills in the «sport» was important but all of these programs had more holistic goals that they were trying to achieve, some with success and some without. «Sport» was not a cure-all, either. There were some positive things that «sport» could do, but it certainly was not a cure-all for the problems that some of the communities were experiencing.

CHAIR: Surfing has not always been associated with Indigenous people. Rugby League and AFL are very popular sports amongst Indigenous people. Thirty-five per cent of the Australian Rugby League team is Indigenous; 21 per cent in the State of Origin and 12 per cent of the NRL are Indigenous, while 2½ per cent of the Australian population are Indigenous. Surfing is not something that we necessarily associate with Indigenous people. How can we increase participation? It is not a «sport» that requires an expensive tennis court or big stadiums. It is an easy «sport» for people to participate in. It is like swimming. You just need a board that you can use. How can we do it?

Mr PERRETT: And you can surf till you drop.

CHAIR: Exactly. It is not a high impact «sport» . It is not like Rugby League, for example.

Dr Rynne : Those factors formed one of the reasons we chose surfing. While it is still dominated by males it is equally acceptable for males and females to do it. You can do it as a participation thing. You can just do it on weekends—no worries—but if you want to do a competition there are competition pathways as well. There was also, for us, a nice connection between the spirituality associated with surfing and in surfing cultures—that gets spoken about a fair bit—and the connection with earth and sea that was really important for a lot of the saltwater people who were directing and involved in helping us do a data analysis in our study. So that was really important but one of the major barriers to being involved in surfing was access to the beach. Transport is a huge issue at a lot of sites that we were at. We had sites that were fairly urban, we had sites that were quite remote and we had sites that were regional. Even at a site like Stradbroke Island—just off the coast here—the majority of the Indigenous community, as well as the school which the surfing program is run out of, is on the Dunwich side, which is the flat water side. It is a 20 minute drive just to get to the surf, so transport was a key issue in this.

Mr PERRETT: In Queensland we have this thing called the Great Barrier Reef, which tends to interfere with our surfing. A significant proportion of the Indigenous population of Queensland has the Great Barrier Reef shielding them from good surf. Is that going to stop this roll-out north of Bundaberg?

Dr Rynne : I would not think so. Surfing Australia certainly would not think so. My personal position is that everyone should have access to a variety of sports. Surfing is not going to be the solution to «sport issues, but Surfing Australia would say that we have other disciplines like stand-up paddle boards and things like those, which people can use when there is no surf. That did happen on a number of occasions in the sites we visited. The surf was not up so they had to figure out other things to do, which was when walks along the shoreline, beach activities or traditional games might have come into play. So it was not just surfing as an activity; there was a whole range of other things that went on around it that allowed them to be successful.

Mr PERRETT: If they were water activities you could do this on the Condamine. You could do them on other types of water—other than the coast.

Dr Rynne : Yes. It was up to the program providers how they typically operated. So the Stradbroke Island one actually started on the lake. They started doing sailing and then went to some canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding and eventually into surfing.

Having equipment for surfing is still an issue—access to boards, and in the colder climates down in South Australia access to wetsuits and places to store those things, is always a consideration. It is not as if it is a no cost activity.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. We will have a good read of that. You mentioned before the spirituality in the land. In our last inquiry that Mr Perrett and I were really involved in, in regard to language learning in Indigenous communities—our land our language—people kept on saying land, culture and language are all interwoven and symbolism as well. Can you comment on the role of Indigenous culture in surfing? How can we use that in a way to get Indigenous people, young and old, in a lifestyle which is clearly going to benefit them?

Dr Rynne : The surf programs—the exception being the Victorian one—were largely surf programs that had Indigenous participants. The connections in them with spirituality or native language or all those kinds of things were limited or clumsy. The Victorian one, which is run out of the Wathaurong Aboriginal Cooperative, was run by Indigenous people who had partnered with Surfing Victoria to gain surfing qualifications and ran the programs independently of any other group. It was one where spirituality and connectedness happened very naturally as part of the program. I guess the answer is moving programs so that they are run not just with but by communities as well.

Mr PERRETT: That is a great way to finish your evidence.

CHAIR: To be being run by communities—that is fantastic. Thank you. We will send a copy of the transcript of your evidence to you. Please make any changes if there are any errors. If there is anything else you want to add to your submission apart from what you have done here today, just send it to us as well. Thank you very much for making such an effort to get here.