Why I don't feel at home at Parliament - Lidia Thorpe


Lidia Thorpe - Speech in Parliament: I rise to grieve for all Victorians and Australians who believe Aboriginal culture should be respected and embedded in Parliament. With treaty in our hearts and minds, I hope all members will agree that the spirit of the times demands increasing respect and acknowledgement of Aboriginal culture and history. It is also time to address historical injustices and wrongs. It is critical that this flows through every aspect of society, particularly Parliament, which holds itself up as a place of honour and leadership.

However, as an Aboriginal person I do not feel at home at Parliament. The buildings, the artworks, the gardens and almost all of the practices are a monument to British colonial practices and history. There is a gaping hole in the cultural fabric of Parliament. This place not only fails to show proper cultural respect or take pride in Aboriginal culture; Aboriginal cultural is almost completely absent.

Yes, there are a few token paintings and an acknowledgement of country, but as I become more familiar with Parliament I become more aware of just how much our state’s Aboriginal history, which predates this building and Parliament by tens of thousands of years, has been hidden and not shown due respect. I recognise that the Parliament of Victoria was established at a time when respect for the first peoples of this country was very, very low, but there have been many years between then and now, many opportunities to improve things and many ministers for Aboriginal affairs, and little has changed.

With legislation to advance the treaty process passing Parliament, now is the time to set this right. I have written to the Speaker and the President to request that they establish an Aboriginal cultural advisory group to make recommendations to Parliament on changes that can be made to ensure the Parliament and electorate offices reflect Aboriginal history and culture, as well as that of colonial history. This advisory group should include representatives of the traditional owners of the land on which Parliament sits, the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung nations, as well as some representatives of other areas to reflect the land on which the electorate offices sit. This should be an ongoing body that can provide cultural advice when it is required.

As the only Aboriginal person in this Parliament I already have cultural fatigue with people coming to me to ask about cultural practice. While I very much welcome their interest and concern, I need to share the load. I ask that the Speaker and the President act immediately on this recommendation so that change can get underway before the caretaker period.

I have started to make changes myself, but there is only so much I can do alone. Four sitting weeks ago I and my fellow Greens MPs began standing during the acknowledgement of country at the opening of the parliamentary sitting week. I was very pleased to see for the first time yesterday all members join in this mark of respect.

The Greens took the opportunity during the treaty bill debate to name most of the hundreds of clans and First Nations of Victoria in the chamber for the first time in the history of the Parliament of Victoria, which began in 1856. Until that point only a handful of clans and nations had ever been mentioned. I also spoke words in my Gunditjmara language, which was the first time a Victorian MP has spoken an Aboriginal language in the Victorian Parliament in 162 years.

If you look at similar countries with a British colonial history, you will note that recognition of the first peoples and their languages is far more embedded in the practices of Parliament. In New Zealand, for example, Maori became an official language of Parliament in 1985 but was spoken in the chamber with translators from 1868 when the first Maori MPs were elected. Clearly we have a long way to go before Victorian Aboriginal clans and languages are well known amongst our leaders and references to them are commonplace rather than token. I hope all MPs will make more of an effort to get to know the traditional owners in their electorates and become familiar with their languages and culture.

While I do not want to pre-empt the recommendations of the advisory body that I hope will be established, there are a number of areas that, as an Aboriginal person, I would like to see changed. I will outline these now. The first thing I believe should happen is that a cultural assessment of the practices, buildings and grounds of Parliament should occur to identify opportunities to incorporate Aboriginal culture. For example, the grounds could include an official space for holding smoking ceremonies. I note today’s opening of the new building is an example of an occasion which should have had a welcome ceremony.

I also believe there should be a proactive policy to include more Aboriginal artworks in the building and that a permanent, dedicated space that outlines Aboriginal culture and history should be created within the building. I ask that the advisory group consider a process to recognise the 38 Aboriginal languages of Victoria as official languages of the Victorian Parliament.

Next I request that cultural awareness training be included as part of the induction of every MP, electorate officer and parliamentary staff member. We have training in workplace behaviour, occupational health and safety, security awareness, cyber security and resilience but not in cultural awareness. While we have a more in-depth training program, cultural awareness is not offered as part of that either. I would suggest this kind of training should be core, as an important part of understanding the cultural context in which we live and showing respect for the first peoples of Victoria.

Currently there is no plaque or sign on the outside of Parliament House or any electorate office to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land. This has become a common mark of respect, so it is disappointing that Parliament and our electorate offices are lagging behind on this. I note that a number of local councils, such as my own local council, the City of Darebin, have prominent plaques by the entrances to all council buildings and even large signage recognising the traditional owners outside their main council buildings. So I ask for rules regarding the frontage of electorate offices and Parliament House to ensure plaques or signage are put up as acknowledgment of and respect for the traditional owners. These signs must acknowledge the specific traditional owners of that particular site if they are known.

I also ask that the culture around 26 January be changed. This day is a day of mourning for Aboriginal people. It marks the invasion of this country and the beginning of massacres, the frontier wars and my people being removed from their land, stripped of their honour and culture and forced to live in prison camps. The calls for this to be an official day of mourning began in 1932, when William Cooper and other Aboriginal leaders made protest, demanding their rights to be full citizens of this country and to be treated with equality. It is time that we finally honoured their calls. I ask that a policy or protocol be introduced that the Aboriginal flag be flown at half-mast at Parliament House on 26 January in recognition of Aboriginal people’s view that it is a day of mourning. I believe this happened last year at Queensland’s Parliament House despite this not being official protocol. It is time it was officially done here in Victoria.

Arrangements must also be made to change the expectation that staff will take a public holiday on 26 January. My staff all worked on that day as they do not believe it is a day of celebration but were questioned by parliamentary staff about these arrangements when time sheets were submitted.

Finally, I ask that electorate offices be provided with more Aboriginal flags. While we have an abundance of Victorian flags and little interest in them, we have an abundance of demand for Aboriginal flags but have had only a few to give. Please ensure electorate offices are provided with an adequate supply of Aboriginal flags as a standing policy.

The list I have just outlined is not comprehensive. It is a starting point for action. I hope that making these changes will help encourage more Aboriginal people to want to stand for Parliament, work at Parliament or feel welcome to visit. Parliament must be a reflection of the people, including our social values and expectations. Changes in this place are not only material; they are symbolic. It is time that the Parliament of Victoria reflected the true and full history of this state and showed respect to the diversity of cultures in modern Australia.