Earlier this year, Lidia Thorpe made history by being the first Aboriginal person elected to represent Victoria in the Senate. In this excerpt from her maiden speech to Parliament this month, Lidia shares the strength and adversity that guides her journey of truth-telling, healing and justice – and why she wants you to join her.
By Lidia Thorpe
I am a proud Djabwurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and I live on Wurundjeri Country. I stand before you today on the shoulders of my ancestors, who fought and died for our country. Their resistance, knowledge and strength over thousands of years has guided me to this moment and I carry their spirit with me in this chamber.
It’s an honour to be the first Aboriginal person elected to the Senate to represent Victoria. While it’s a great shame that it has taken this long, the timing couldn’t be more significant.
Outside these walls a global movement has taken to the streets to demand that black lives matter. An uprising of voices, united by the conviction that the colour of your skin should not limit your potential, your safety or your life expectancy.
That was not something society told me growing up. For an Aboriginal girl raised in poverty and public housing, who left school at 14, the idea that I could make it all the way to this nation’s Parliament was laughable. People like me were not meant to end up in places like this. Our voices were silenced and sidelined and written out of the story of our own country.
But I never gave up believing that better days were possible. I come from a long line of strong black women who taught me to stand up for what’s right and never let injustice and racism beat you down.
Fighting for change
I’ve been a human rights, climate, and forest activist. And in 2017, I was honoured to be the first Aboriginal woman elected to the Victorian Parliament.
I have fought my whole life for those without a voice. My promise to the people of Victoria is I will continue to fight for you. And I will never forget where I come from. I take my seat in this Chamber for every person who has been discarded, discounted or left behind. It’s time for your voices to be heard.
I come to this Parliament not as a career politician but as someone who’s done it tough and grown strong through the struggles. I’m a survivor of family and workplace violence. I was a single mum at 17. I’ve had to confront my own mental health issues and I know what it’s like to count every cent to put food on the table. Millions of people all over this country face similar challenges every day. They need a Parliament that prioritises their right to live with dignity.
Instead, they have been forgotten by a political class that sees poverty as a character flaw. It doesn’t have to be this way. Right now, we have a chance to build a country that works for everyone, not just the chosen few.
Standing at a crossroads
2020 will leave an enduring mark in the pages of history. This was a year that demanded we not turn our heads from the challenges that threaten our future.
The urgency of our climate emergency.
The growing economic inequality – exposed and exacerbated by a deadly global pandemic.
And the ongoing fight for racial justice.
For Australia to become a mature, self-assured nation, we must recognise the long history of violence inflicted upon this country’s First People and embark on a truth-telling journey to reconcile that past. These challenges are big, but so is the opportunity. This is our moment to grow as a nation, and we must be brave.
The devastating bushfires that ripped through this land were a wake-up call for those who deny we must act decisively to address the reality of a warming planet. We have watched in real time the full horror of the climate crisis and what happens when you stop caring for Country.
With governments of the world converging on Glasgow next November to lift their ambition on climate action, the denial, posturing and fidgeting that has gone on in this House for far too long must stop now. It’s time for leadership. We must put the future of our children, grandchildren and Country ahead of the short-term interests of the fossil fuel industry.
Here in Australia, we have seen Rio Tinto blow up the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara, blasting 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in an act of cultural and environmental vandalism, and we know they have more planned. In Western Victoria, ancient birthing trees are being destroyed. At this site, on Djab Wurrung country, Aboriginal women have given birth to an estimated 10,000 babies over many centuries. My ancestors’ blood runs through the soil that nourishes these trees. When we lose these sacred sites, we sever the deep spiritual ties that connect our culture and language to this land.
Caring for Country is at the heart of who we are as Aboriginal people. As custodians of this land for thousands of years, we understand that the health of the community is only as strong as the health of our environment.
We’re tired of watching governments and their agencies pay lip service to acknowledgement of Country while at the same time destroying the very land they claim to respect. When we don’t show genuine care for the Country that nurtures us, we all suffer. That’s why we can’t separate climate justice from First Peoples justice.
We can’t maintain the protection of our land if its traditional custodians are locked up, disenfranchised, and dying in numbers that represent an outrageous human rights abuse.
A call to action
To heal this land we must address the inequality and injustice faced by Aboriginal people. Black Lives Matter needs to be more than a trending hashtag. It must be a reckoning. A line in the sand. A call to action.
To those whose skin colour affords them greater safety and justice, it’s time to stop looking away from systemic racism and stand with us and say, ‘no more’. George Floyd’s death was that moment for many people.
But why did it take the death of a black man on the other side of the world to wake up Australia, when our Indigenous people are the most incarcerated people on earth?
We must now ensure that history also remembers the names of those who died in similar circumstances, right here in Australia. John Pat, David Dungay, Ms Dhu, Joyce Clarke, Kumanjayi Walker, Veronica Nelson-Walker, Tanya Day and Raymond Noel Thomas, to name just a few.
441 Aboriginal people have died in custody since the Royal Commission in 1991. Not a single person has ever been held accountable.
These are not just statistics on a page for me.
Earlier this year, I went home to grieve with my mother and our community on Gunnai country in Gippsland. Four Aboriginal people had been lost to suicide in ten days. The oldest was in her late thirties. The youngest, a 15-year-old boy.
These tragedies reflect a profound sense of hopelessness felt by many First Nations people when they look to a future that holds little promise.
Three of those young people had connections to Lake Tyers – a community where generations earlier, my mother’s family were imprisoned as refugees in their own country.
It happened as part of the systematic slaughter of Aboriginal people across this nation. In Victoria alone, there were 67 massacres and more are still being uncovered.
They tried to wipe my people from the land. But they failed. We are still here. We are the oldest living culture in the world and our fight for survival is part of this nation’s story.
White Australia has a Black history
We cannot change the past. But we can build a better future. We must reckon with our history so we can heal and move forward as one country, united by truth and common purpose. I believe Australia is ready to come with us on this journey.
For the last two years I’ve led a dawn service on January 26 to mark a day of mourning, and honour all the Aboriginal men, women and children massacred upon invasion of our country, known as the Frontier Wars. The vast majority of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us have been non-Indigenous Australians, sharing our grief in a spirit of healing. Their numbers grow each year.
But to truly bring this country together, we must not only treat the symptoms of disadvantage, but the cause. We do this with a Treaty. A Treaty is a written agreement between sovereign nations, and Australia is the only Commonwealth country without one with its First People.
If we write it together, Treaty can be a blank canvas to reframe the story of who we want to be as a country. We can celebrate what unites us, protect the rights of First Nations people and acknowledge injustices, both past and present.
There can be no justice without peace. Treaty could bring that peace. It would end the suffering and heal the wounds. A genuine national Treaty would elevate Aboriginal voices and reframe us as a more caring society, where nobody is left behind.
A widening gap
It has often been said that the COVID-19 virus doesn’t discriminate, but we know now its impacts do. Young people, women, migrants, the elderly, public housing residents and casualised workers are bearing the greatest burden.
Through this crisis, we have seen that inequality is not just a social issue – it’s a major public health risk that eats away at the fabric of our society. Precarious work and insecure housing have fuelled this pandemic. When you have a low-paid, casualised workforce, inevitably people will be forced to make choices that have life and death consequences.
Staying home when you’re sick is not an option when that decision means your children go without food. Too many people are living hand-to-mouth, without job security or the dignity of a living wage.
Through this pandemic, we’ve seen governments find money to house the homeless, feed the hungry, support the unemployed, prop up childcare and boost mental health services. These solutions to social and economic disadvantage have always been there. Our political leaders have just chosen not to adopt them.
We deserve so much better. And we can be better.
From the ashes of this crisis we can rebuild in a way that addresses our overriding national challenges – justice for First Nations people, reducing inequality and addressing climate change. We can create a community where the collective good outweighs individual self-interest.
As we look to that future, I think of the lessons we can learn from the matriarchs in my family. My great grandmother Edna Brown arrived in Melbourne on the back of a truck in 1932, after being forced off the Framlingham Aboriginal reserve near Warrnambool as part of the White Australia assimilation policy during the Great Depression.
Back then, it was common for Aboriginal people to be buried as paupers in unmarked graves. Nan Edna wanted to offer the dignity in death that so many of our people were denied in life. She set up the Aboriginal Funeral Fund, supporting families to bury their loved ones.
After Nan Edna, her daughter, my Nan, Alma Thorpe, was one of the founders of the first Aboriginal Health Service in Victoria in 1973 – the year I was born. To this day that service is saving lives. That is kinship. It is self-determination, and strength through community.
And then there’s my Mum, Marjorie Thorpe – a co-commissioner for the ‘Bringing Them Home’ Stolen Generation inquiry, and member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, which inspired a quarter of a million people to walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000, in a powerful gesture of social solidarity.
This is where I come from.
We have an opportunity to build a stronger, more unified nation. I invite you all to come on this journey with me – a journey of truth-telling, healing and justice. Together, we can build a brighter future. And I’m here to fight for it.
Hero image: Auspic.