Lidia Thorpe 'finds her voice', the first In­dige­nous woman to do so in Vic­to­rian par­lia­ment

The Guardian Australia - - Politics - Calla Wahlquist

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

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