Djab Wurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara Senator Lidia Thorpe: 'I'll be continuing to fight for justice'

July 13, 2023
Djab Wurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara Senator Lidia Thorpe addressing the Ecosocialism 2023 conference. Photo: Isaac Nellist

Djab Wurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and independent Senator Lidia Thorpe spoke alongside Gunditjmara man Joel Shackleton, an organiser with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, about the fight for justice at Ecosocialism 2023. Thorpe has represented Victoria in the federal parliament since 2020. Below is an abridged version of her comments.

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We all are on stolen land: there’s been no Treaty in this country with its first people so this land will always be stolen until we end the war on First Nations people and have a peace treaty.

We’re only one of a few Commonwealth countries that does not have a treaty with its first people. I’d like to acknowledge all of our Warriors of the Frontier Wars who died fighting for this country: they died fighting for this country.

They weren’t ANZACS; they were the warriors of the Frontier Wars that held the line against the ships that arrived with their diseases and guns, who buried our children and stuffed our children with mouths with dirt to suffocate them.

That’s the first war ever declared on this country: against this country’s first people. It’s a war this country refuses to acknowledge.

I pay respects to the Wurundjeri, to the survivors of Wurundjeri and the other 38 Nations in Victoria, who only have 11 seats around the Treaty assembly table. We’ve got a long way to go.

There have been 23,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children stolen from their mothers and we don't want a powerless advisory board.

We need to get our land back; get every kid out of the prison system; no more Black deaths in custody; no more destruction of land, water, air, sky, totems. Don’t you think I’d be saying “Yes” if this powerless body had a say in any of those things?

Do you think the parliament is going to let this group of hand-picked people sway them? We can’t even sway Labor to get away from coal. We can’t sway Labor to implement the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

They decide to announce that they implemented one of those [Black Deaths in Custody] recommendations: Counting the body bags that come out of the prison system. That’s what they agreed to. Out of every recommendation, they chose counting body bags. How is that going to stop deaths in custody?

Black deaths in custody

When I walked into parliament, I walked in with a message stick, with 462 deaths in custodies marked on it.

Now, we have over 540 in the time I’ve been in the Senate. No one cares about deaths in custody. No one cares about the young fellas telling their brothers where the hanging points are in the cells.

Hanging points is one of the recommendations that they’re meant to remove. Labor doesn’t want to know about that. Labor doesn’t want to know about not having Medicare in prisons, so our people are dying of preventable diseases and deaths. That’s another recommendation [of the royal commission].

They don’t want to know about the recommendations on Stolen Generations.

We celebrate “Sorry Day” every year and incarceration rates of our children being taken away from their mothers has skyrocketed.

How can we say “yes” to no power for First Nations people? If we have power, you will have a future.

I have the dirtiest coal fired power station on my country in the Latrobe Valley. And who are the poorest, sickest people around that coal fire power station? Gunai people, my people.

Having a powerless Voice is not going to change that.

What will change that is a Treaty where we have equal power and equal say. It is our country: we haven’t ceded sovereignty and we will never cede our sovereignty.

We have to go to a referendum at a time that this country is divided and racist.

Yes, I can say “racist” because I’ve lived with it all my life. Now I’m seeing our people being demonised as part of the racist No campaign.

But there is a progressive No. We don’t believe in hand-picked Yes people. The Sovereign Blak Movement are the ones that have been on the front line. All the hand-picked black fellas you see, not one of them have been on the front line.

It’s easier to go with what the government says [but] it’s assimilation. It’s putting us into a constitution that is only very new, 1901, compared to the oldest constitution on the planet, our constitution.

Why would we go into an Australian colonial constitutional document that has no regard for black fellas, but also had no regard for women when it was established?

The Constitution comes from racism and patriarchy. It comes from setting up white systems that cause harm, particularly to vulnerable people and particularly to those who are not white. White Australia policy was one of the first policies they brought in. What’s changed for Aboriginal people?

Uluru Statement from the Heart

This so-called Voice has shut out grassroots voices right across this country. We tried to raise this at the Uluru dialogue and we were shut down. I was threatened with tribal punishment because I wanted to talk about Treaty.

There were about 30 of us, not seven or five that the media said. And those people were from all over this country. Poor black fellas couldn’t get there: it was invite only in the middle of nowhere. Beautiful country, but it was all part of shutting out the grassroots activists that have been on the front line all of their lives.

They’re not the ones saying “Yes”; they’re the ones that are continuing the fight for justice.

We are the minority in our own country; we were once the majority and through the colonial system wiping out the blacks now we’re only 3%. What hope have we got against 97% of this country who thinks we’re going to take something away from them?

We want to self-determine our own destiny. We want to become economically independent. We don’t want welfare. We want a Treaty that will enable us to decide our own destiny.

We’re being controlled by government every minute of our lives. Labor is stalling on implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, something I introduced in my private Senator’s bill in March 2022.

They don’t want to know about that, about deaths in custody, about Treaty, about child removal, about fracking the Beetaloo, about gassing the Western districts and firing off sounds in the ocean that will instantly kill wildlife.

I won’t be campaigning for “No”, but I will be speaking freely about what is a way forward for this country. We are long overdue for a Treaty.

Everyone knows the [Yothu Yindi] Treaty song; everyone's probably danced to it. Everyone understands a little bit about what it could do for us as a nation. But we have to have ambition.

Labor had the opportunity, with [Bob] Hawke wanting Treaty, [Paul] Keating wanting Treaty but their own party stopped them because, at the end of the day, we are bound by the crown.

The Blak Sovereign Movement is alive and well, right across this country. We don’t want to be assimilated into the colonial document that has oppressed us for 200 years. We want something better and we want something that will create real change in this country rather than being tokenistic.

[Check out Lidia Thorpe’s website here.]

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