As Member of Parliament
November 29, 2017 — Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Willam and Yalukit Willam clans — two of 300 clans and 38 language groups in Victoria who have never ceded sovereignty. I stand before you today a proud Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman, living on Wurundjeri country. For an Aboriginal kid who grew up in public housing and left school at 14, taking my seat in this chamber is something I was told could never happen. Too many of our kids grow up believing this. Their lives are debated but not reflected in our political system. As long as those voices are missing from the heart of our democracy, we limit our children’s potential. They cannot be what they cannot see. This is why today matters. It is a moment 161 years in the making, and it does not only belong to me. I have been inundated with messages from Aboriginal people across the country. I speak today on behalf of them. I am honoured to be the first Aboriginal woman elected to the Victorian Parliament. We have sustained and protected this land for thousands of years, and now in Victoria we finally have a say in how our land is governed.
I am also proud to embark on this journey as a Greens MP, a party that shares my passion for social justice, protecting country and giving voice to those who would otherwise not have one. And I am honoured to represent Northcote, a diverse and compassionate community of vibrant multiculturalism, youthful innovation and a real sense of optimism. From the peak of Ruckers Hill all the way to the waterways that surround us on three sides — the Darebin and Merri creeks to the east and west and the mighty Birrarung flowing to the south — Northcote is a place of natural beauty, and I am so proud to call it home. I want to take this opportunity to say to every resident of Northcote, Thornbury, Alphington, Fairfield, Preston South and West Preston: whether you voted for me or not, I promise I will not let you down.
I also want to acknowledge that the road to this moment came about in tragic circumstances after the untimely passing of Fiona Richardson. I extend my heartfelt condolences to her family, friends and colleagues. As a survivor of domestic violence I am personally grateful to Fiona for the work she has done in increasing protections for women.
The possum skin cloak I wore when I walked into Parliament today was made for me by the Loddon Campaspe Indigenous family violence action group and the Centre for Non-Violence. It was hand sewn by a community who share my country and presented to me this week by Aunty Beryl, a Gunnai-Gunditjmara elder from the Victorian Aboriginal embassy.
I stand here on the shoulders of my ancestors. None of this would have been possible without the strong line of Aboriginal women before me. They taught me resilience, self-determination and the importance of standing up against injustice. My nan, Alma Previous HitThorpeNext Hit, who is here today, has worked her whole life for grassroots community change. Raised in Fitzroy, she left school at 12 to work in a shoe factory and support her family. Her mum, my great-grandmother Edna, came to the area after being forced off the Framlingham Aboriginal reserve near Warrnambool as part of the White Australia assimilation policy during the Great Depression. The house Nan grew up in was run-down and often had no electricity. Everyone had to do their bit. But she never looked for pity.
Self-determination was at the heart of everything she taught me. Her motto has always been ‘You get up and you have a go’, and she did. After the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people the right to vote she applied for a loan that helped her and my nan Edna set up the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. That service saved lives and helped hundreds of thousands of people across this country. To this day it continues to be a vital community hub.
Growing up, Nan’s house was a magnet for political discussion. I would listen to the tough conversations our elders had about how they could improve the lives of Aboriginal people. It was not just talk; my family’s activism started at home. Nan took in countless people and offered them a safe place to live – like Uncle Lou, a soldier who grew up on an Aboriginal mission where he contracted tuberculosis. If it was not for Nan, he would have had nowhere to go.
It was this upbringing that taught me community is everything. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and that is the life I have known. Growing up in a public housing estate I knew everyone. When mum was out working I would go downstairs to the homework club with the other kids and feel that sense of safety and belonging. Later in life as a young single mum, public housing gave my son and I stability and community. It helped shape the father he is today. From the Turkish neighbour who brought us homemade pizza to the elderly lollipop man who lived on the ground floor, people in public housing communities took care of each other. We cannot remove the only support and security these people have.
At Walker Street in Northcote, one of nine public housing sites across Melbourne being sold to developers, I recently met a family who came to Australia from Somalia. They were anxious that being forced from the community they love will make it harder for their young Muslim son to be accepted. One of the most important jobs in this Parliament is to look after the vulnerable in our community. We cannot marginalise these families. Everyone deserves a safe place to call home, and that is why we must do politics differently. The profits of developers cannot be put before people. Gambling companies must not be allowed to destroy our communities with pokie machines. The system is rigged against the little guy because of dodgy donations flowing into politics. It has to stop.
We need fairness and we need transparency. We need leaders who understand the importance of protecting country, have the guts to tackle climate change and will stand up to the mining companies poisoning our land. We need to protect our native forests from logging and create a great forest national park. As a young woman I led the protest to save the Nowa Nowa gorge from a pipeline that would have destroyed one of the most beautiful places in our state.
I have stood in front of bulldozers, and I will continue to stand up for our communities and our environment. There is a fire in my belly for justice, equality and protecting country. I will bring that to this Parliament. Nan always said politics was my destiny. I cannot separate my culture from my politics. When your people have fought for centuries to survive, it teaches you how to face up to those who hold power.
Being Aboriginal is not all I am, but it is the centre of who I am. My mother’s family lived their lives as refugees in their own country on Gunnai land in Gippsland. They were poisoned, shot and herded off cliffs in one of the most ruthless and systematic attempted genocides the world has ever seen. The survivors were rounded up onto Lake Tyers mission and imprisoned on rations. Decisions made in this very chamber took our language away, removed children from our families and forced us from our land. Those scars run deep for all Aboriginal people.
But despite the deep sense of loss, I grew up surrounded by people who refused to give in to hopelessness. Nan Alma taught me to stand up for our community and always stay true to myself: ‘Never forget where you come from. Never forget our people’. So I fought hard for my identity. At school, where my cousin and I were the only two black kids, I was picked on by students and teachers for being Aboriginal. It only made me more determined. I never felt for one moment that I could be beaten down. It does not matter where you come from or who you are, education should be accessible for everyone. Today we are joined by Aboriginal students from schools across the Northcote electorate and my daughter, who is going into year 12. I promise that I will fight for you to have the opportunities that I never had. And I look forward to seeing the school funding you have been promised delivered in full.
Although I left school early, I went to work straightaway. I have not stopped working since. Every job I have had, in health, housing, employment and land rights, has been about empowering those who have been denied opportunity. As Victorian NAIDOC chair, I was proud we delivered a calendar of inclusive events, including NAIDOC’s first-ever Pride Awards.
Bringing community together is at the core of who I am. I have always been a fighter, but it breaks my heart to think of all the Aboriginal people who have lost that will to survive. There is trauma passed down through generations and entrenched by society that does not see our humanity and treats us only as a problem to be fixed. Many of the kids I grew up with are gone, lost to drugs and alcohol, chronic illness and suicide. I have been to too many funerals for someone my age and I do not want my nine-year-old daughter to have to go through the same. Something has to change.
In Victoria in 2017 Aboriginal children are still being removed from families, our literacy rates are amongst the lowest in the state and our people are locked up at a rate 11 times higher than the general population. This is not because of fundamental flaws in their character but because of a system that has written them off. For some of the elders in our community it has led to a sense of profound despair. They see the extreme poverty, the forced closures of Aboriginal communities and skyrocketing suicide rates, and they ask, ‘Has anything really changed since our ancestors were wiped from this land?’.
Clinton Pryor, a young Aboriginal man, walked 6000 kilometres across the country out of a sense of desperation. He walked and gathered stories, many of them soul-destroying. It was a heavy burden for a young man, but he listened — and that is what politicians must do. Our First People must be at the centre of decision-making processes. We need a clan-based treaty to ensure self-determination is at the heart of our future. We are not a problem to be fixed. We are the custodians of this land and the oldest living culture in the world. We must be heard. For those who feel they are not being counted, for those who have lost the will to fight and for those who are no longer with us, I will be that voice. I will fight for you. You have my word, and I will never sell you out.
I extend this promise to all the people of Northcote. Whatever your heritage or cultural background, you are part of a community that I am so proud to call home. My commitment to you is to act with integrity. I will have the courage to put our community first, even when those decisions are tough. And I will respect and protect this land which we all share. Together we can walk forward to a more hopeful future for our kids and grandkids.
I am grateful to many people for getting me here today: firstly, to my ancestors, whose spirit of strength and guidance I feel with me every day of this journey; to my elders, my family and my friends; to the staunch black activists who paved the way for a kid from the commission flats to make it all the way to the Victorian Parliament; to the Greens, who had faith in me from the beginning; to my parliamentary colleagues, for their support; to my campaign team and my wonderful volunteers, I will never be able to thank you enough for you hard work, dedication and passion; and to my children and my grandchildren, I know the work I do has come at a cost to you.
I want to finish today with a story that sums up what this moment means. It is a story of a seven-year-old Aboriginal boy with autism called Eli from Penders Grove Primary School in Thornbury. After the by-election results came in, his mum sent me a video she had taken of his reaction when he found out I had won. It moved me to tears. ‘What do you think of that?’, she asked him. ‘Well,’ Eli said, ‘Aunty Previous HitLidia’sNext Document got the key that’s going to open the door to all Aboriginal people’.
I feel so very honoured to have been given that key. My job now is to keep the door open and to make sure it never closes again. Thank you.
Source: The Lifted Brow, No. 40, Dec. 2018, pp. 70-73. Nick Henderson Zine Collection.