Lidia Thorpe 'finds her voice', the first Indigenous woman to do so in Victorian parliament
When Lidia Thorpe stands in the Victorian house of assembly on Wednesday to deliver her maiden speech to parliament, she will be the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman to do so in the building’s 161year history.
Watching from the public gallery will be her grandmother, Alma Thorpe, who helped found the Victorian Aboriginal health service in Fitzroy in 1973, the year Thorpe was born.
The health service became the centre of Aboriginal political life in Melbourne and a young Thorpe was in the thick of it.
The 44-year-old Greens MP, who won the previously safe Labor seat of Northcote with an 11% swing at a byelection this month, might be new to parliament, but her politics run deep.
Thorpe joined the Greens 12 months ago, after deciding that she had reached the limit of the influence she could bring from outside the political system.
The Gunnai Gunditjmara woman has been active in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations all her adult life, most recently as managing director of Indigenous business at The Clan Corporation and chair of the Victorian Naidoc committee.
“I wanted a voice,” she says. “I found that I was not going to get any further being a voice within my own community and decided that I
wanted to join the Greens and be heard at a higher level, I suppose, and have more of an influence with non-Aboriginal people outside of my community.”
It is a potentially problematic decision. Working within the system brings greater influence, but it also necessitates compromise, a tension that Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson have discussed at length. Pearson, for his part, says he chose the wrong path and that deciding not to run for parliament was his “greatest regret”.
Thorpe says she weighed it up for some time before deciding to run. A long-time Greens voter, she chose a party that would allow her to advocate for better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people without having to compromise her ideals, because “the values are so aligned to my own”.
“I think that I’ve chosen a party with integrity and one that is about standing up for people, so I don’t see that as a problem at all,” she says.
It’s a promise she will repeat in her maiden speech, telling parliament that first peoples must be at the centre of the decision-making process.
“We need a clan-based treaty to ensure self-determination is at the heart of our future,” it says. “We are not a problem to be fixed. We are the custodians of this land and the oldest living culture in the world.
“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. I will never sell you out.”
But the first compromise is already looming. The Australian Greens have been vocal in their support for the Uluru statement, a document that came out of the referendum council dialogues on constitutional recognition that culminated in a national convention at Uluru in May.
Thorpe was among seven delegates who walked out of the talks, telling NITV: “We as sovereign First Nations people reject constitutional recognition. We do not recognise occupying power or their sovereignty, because it serves to disempower, and takes away our voice.”
She equivocates when asked if she now supports the Uluru statement. The statement calls for a constitutionally enshrined representative Indigenous voice to parliament, a Makarrata commission to look at establishing treaties with various Australian governments, and a process of truth-telling and reconciliation.
Thorpe supports the Makarrata commission but indicates she doesn’t support a constitutionally enshrined voice, saying: “I think that we need a treaty first and part of a treaty we can negotiate constitutional recognition.
“I’d be very strong about a treaty commission. I’m going to be talking about what other areas of that statement that we would support. But at this stage … I think that the more Aboriginal people [who] have proper, respectful consultation around process and around what that means, then the more comfortable we can all be with the statement.”
Thorpe says it was bittersweet to succeed Fiona Richardson, the longserving Labor MP – and Victoria’s first minister for the prevention of family violence – whose death triggered the byelection. Richardson’s legacy includes the royal commission into family violence and the most comprehensive reform of the state’s family violence prevention policy in decades.
Thorpe is a survivor of domestic violence, and says she will aim to continue Richardson’s work. Her possum skin cloak was made by the Loddon Campaspe Indigenous Family Violence Action Group and Centre for Nonviolence.
She also plans to advocate for an increase in public housing in inner-city Melbourne. Thorpe lived in the towering council block at 253 Hoddle Street, Collingwood, as an 18-year-old with an infant son, and moved four times before finding stable accommodation.
“It was probably a seven- or eight-year period that it really helped me to get on my feet, find full-time work, get some training under my belt and further education, and be able to get some private rental and then eventually buy my own home,” she says.
“To have that opportunity for our vulnerable people in our community is so important. We need more housing stock, not to sell it off.”
Lidia Thorpe after being sworn in to Victoria’s legislative assembly on Tuesday. Photograph: James Ross/AAP