On paper, it would seem unlikely that a kid that grew up on a housing commission estate, left school at 14 and who has a deep rooted disdain for pomp and ceremony would go on to become the first Aboriginal Victorian to become a member of the state’s Parliament.
Societal norms, racial and social stereotypes do little to encourage you to move beyond your station in life. These pressures try to force you to conform.
But then again, Gunnai-Gunditjamara woman Lidia Thorpe has never been one for conformity. “I was born into politics, know nothing else. Growing up at a time family were politically active for our people to have a say in the 60s and 70s and setting up organisations to have a voice and to have a presence is the beginnings of my life” Thorpe tells me on the line from her electoral office in Northcote.
“Doing what I do now is no different to what I’ve always done only my voice has been elevated and is in a space where it’s been silenced for too long.”
Lidia Thorpe MP has been an activist her entire life, whether it was resigning from Centerlink after the ‘welfare to work’ policy was introduced or standing in front of bulldozers to save the Nowa Nowa gorge, the now Member for Northcote has always put her money where her mouth is.
At 44 and after a lifetime of activism, she now finds herself at the centre of power and decision making after a massive 11 per cent swing to the Greens in the Northcote by-election in November 2017.
She sits in a chamber of Parliament where laws have been designed to eradicate Aboriginal people and our culture; it is the most unique of positions, “I think that I’m fortunate, even though I had to give up even a part of who I am to participate in this environment, I am still in a position where I can raise these issues and go out to the media and to say it to the world and not as an activist but as an elected member.”
Whether she likes it or not, she is now a historical figure in the state’s history, an eminence that doesn’t rest well, “I struggle with that because I am still grassroots and will always be that and it actually makes me, and look I’ve had many of these conversations, it doesn’t feel comfortable with me that politicians are put up on these pedestals and made out to be these grand amazing people that are above everyone else.
“I really struggle with that. I was at the prison yesterday, spent most of my day there, and the men were calling me miss. And I said, hey I’m not miss, I’m Lidia. And they just said, you know, but you’re a politician. No I’m a black woman first and foremost and my name is Lydia and I’m Gunnai-Gunditjamara and that’s my connection to you brother and I’m no better than you.”
In her Inaugural Speech to Parliament, Thorpe succinctly exposed the juxtaposition of being the first Aboriginal woman to sit in the House, “decisions that were 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.”
What’s it like sitting in that chamber, knowing that history and the damage that’s been done in the name of the Parliament?
“I do feel it deeply. I feel that pain. I do feel that weight.”
In a moment of reflection, Thorpe adds, “and particularly during the treaty process, you have a whole chamber vote down your sovereignty that was . . . . I just looked at my colleagues and just said wow. Wow. It was just like my heart sunk so low when all we wanted was our sovereignty to be acknowledged as part of a treaty process and they couldn’t do that.
These people have no idea. They absolutely have no idea what this means and the damage that they’ve done, and continue to do, and I have to stay there. And I need more black fellows to think about running to get in there and have a voice.”
Her position in Parliament is also an opportunity for Thorpe to educate fellow Parliamentarians and the institution itself, she says, “it’s putting them on notice as well, you know when parliamentary services send me an email and it says can you confirm that your staff actually worked on Australia Day, because no one works on that day.
And I send them back an email to say that my staff actually work on Invasion Day. So there’s all those little things that kind of happen. You’re subtly educating those fellows that they’ve never had to deal with before.”
— Lidia Thorpe (@LidiaThorpeMP) June 7, 2018
It is Thorpe’s grassroots activism that drives her approach to Victorian treaty negotiations. As history would have it, her ascent into Parliament has coincided with a once in a lifetime opportunity to enact some semblance of restorative justice. As the sole Aboriginal voice in Parliament, Thorpe has been a vocal critic of the process to date.
“It really didn’t go out to grass roots communities and have thorough conversations. They sent a private accounting firm out to communities to run meetings that very few people turned up to, and there was obviously an agenda that was already set, and that’s how the conversations were had by the very few people that attended. So I think that’s been evident throughout.”
True to her grassroots approach, Thorpe’s main criticism of the treaty process goes to representation and in particular the make-up of the yet to be established Aboriginal Representative Body, “I’d like to see it representative of the 38 language groups. 38 language groups in Victoria is not something that’s contested it’s very, very well known. The rep body that they are going to put forward has 30 representatives.”
Thorpe wants to ensure there is an even playing field for each traditional language group adding, “there are no rules around whether they could be 30 from Gunnai and ten from Gunditjamara, there nothing stopping one mob from dominating the rep body.
If you clearly define that it has to be a representative from each of the languages groups, no one is going to have any backlash on that, it’s a pretty fair way to look at it. And what the feedback has been so far is that’s too many, that’s unworkable but if you look at the upper house of the state parliament there are 40 people in that house.
Now they don’t always agree, obviously they don’t agree, but we’re not looking for a rep body that always agrees, I hope that everyone has different views.”
Although a critic, Thorpe and the Greens eventually supported the Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Bill, “we were able to strengthen the legislation through negotiation.”
During the height of negotiations, Thorpe welcomed the recently formed, Clans Elders Council to Parliament House, it was not only an act of cultural respect, it was also smart politics which ensure an ongoing role for the council in the treaty process, “they should oversee the cultural integrity and the ethics of this process and ensure that lore from an Aboriginal perspective is abided by. The lore of our land and the lore of our waterways and our songlines that they aren’t broken. And that anything that compromises that, that they can step in and say well no, you fellows, you got that wrong. And that’s been supported.”
Let’s get this done right. Elders from all across VIC gather at Parliament today in an historical event to self-determine a #Treaty that best represents their peoples. Clans & Elders are the heart of Aboriginal culture & need to be heard. I am so proud to help make this happen. pic.twitter.com/TUhO776gSi
— Lidia Thorpe (@LidiaThorpeMP) May 13, 2018
What has been evident in my conversations with the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner, Jill Gallagherand Lidia is that there is still a long way to go. Perhaps the most fundamental of questions is still yet to be addressed, treaty or treaties?
Thorpe has a definite view, “I think that it should be treaties in a way that, I think that local government should be involved. And I think that local government should facilitate treaties locally and that we have common themes that come out, like principles that come out of each treaty/treaties that says okay, well, we want logging to stop on our country.”
Of course in the grand scheme of the legislation before Parliament, treaty is but one of a range of issues Thorpe must consider, but at the end of the day she applies a very simple yet powerful criteria to any piece of legislation she considers, can she sleep at night knowing she’s done the best she can in clear conscience and has she done justice to her ancestors, those that came before her.
“It’s not the human kind that are walking around that I’m worried about, it’s our old people and we have an obligation to protect this country and maintain our survival as a race of people.”
Her ancestors would be proud of Lidia Thorpe MP, and so should we.