Sharlene Leroy-Dyer: 'For a people's movement to empower community'

Sharlene Leroy-Dyer at a rally in Newcastle last year.

Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, a descendant of the Guringai, Gadigal, Wiradjuri and Dharug peoples of NSW and National Councillor in the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), has been preselected for the Socialist Alliance's NSW Senate ticket for the next federal election. The ticket is headed by militant Aboriginal activist and writer Ken Canning. Peter Boyle interviewed Leroy-Dyer for Green Left Weekly.

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What motivated you to throw your hat into the ring for Socialist Alliance's NSW Senate ticket?

I believe that none of the existing political parties can adequately represent the people of this country. We need socialist intervention in government so the voices of community, workplaces and activists can be heard.

I am excited that Uncle Ken Canning is running as Socialist Alliance's lead candidate. Uncle Ken has been an Aboriginal activist for as long as I can remember; I look up to him as an Elder and leader.

From an Aboriginal perspective, what has the change from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull in the leadership of the federal coalition government meant?

The change in leadership meant we went from a self-appointed “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs” — who set back Aboriginal affairs decades — to a multi-millionaire who for the most part has been silent on Aboriginal affairs. I don't see the change in leadership having any impact on Aboriginal issues. Policy comes from the party, not from a single person.

The recent Closing The Gap Report showed little progress and even some falling back in the gaps in social conditions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Why do you think there was not a bigger outcry in the media?

Apart from a few left wing newspapers, the coverage in mainstream media was quite appalling. But then I am not surprised. Mainstream media coverage on Aboriginal issues is questionable.

The coverage is mostly negative; never anything positive. As for the Closing the Gap coverage, the media played up the fact that Turnbull spoke in Ngunnawal language, but seems to gloss over the fact that “closing the gap” is not working; targets are not being met. It left me wondering if anyone really cares that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still die on average 10 to 15 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians.

In particular, there were setbacks in Aboriginal employment. What are the main reasons for this?

In employment, the latest Closing the Gap Report shows that the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous peoples has widened. This is totally unacceptable.

Policies and programs on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment have failed because they are, at most, short-term fixes by successive governments. The policies are entrenched in "whiteness" and do not adequately address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and economic issues and do not contribute to self-determination.

In 2014, the federal government announced a “new approach to engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to achieve real results” in employment.

The Indigenous Advancement Strategy consolidated the many different Aboriginal policies and programs that are delivered by the government. One objective has a particular focus on getting Aboriginal Australians into work, fostering Aboriginal businesses and ensuring Aboriginal people receive economic and social benefits from the effective management of their lands and native title rights. This policy has failed. Why? Because it is based on the principles of neoliberalism, individualism and unfettered economic growth.

Most labour market programs have an Anglo-centric focus as opposed to Aboriginal-centric and are “flawed by a whiteness view”. Policies constructed from a Western mindset do not adequately represent or understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities or culture.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is holistic and does not fall into the types of programs that are available. For policies and programs to work they need to have input from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Aboriginal women are also facing rising rates of forced removal of their children. What is your response to this?

People think that the Stolen Generations ended in the 1970s. Well, they are wrong. Despite the apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being taken today than ever before. Almost 16,000 Aboriginal kids are in “out of home care” on any given night. More than half of these children have not been placed back with their Aboriginal family, despite the “Aboriginal placement principle” being mandated by law in every state and territory.

The rates are alarming and appalling. Even having an Aboriginal woman as minister for Family and Community Services (FACS) is NSW did not stem the forced removal of children. We need action to stop this.

I was giving a lecture on Stolen Generations the other day and one young woman told me that FACS had forcibly removed her children, she had been removed from her parents and her mother had been removed from her parents. Three generations in one family is totally unacceptable. This young Aboriginal woman is going to university so she can get a social work degree, get her kids back and prove to the government that she is a fit mother.

The state of child removal in this country is disgraceful. Why should Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have to prove they are fit to be parents? This onus is not put on non-Indigenous peoples. I fully support Grandmothers Against Removal and the extremely important work they do in our community. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be in control of services relating to child welfare if we are ever going to break the cycle of forced removals.

The Socialist Alliance campaign calls for a people's movement. What are the prospects of involving and empowering the most disenfranchised parts of the community?

A people's movement has the potential to empower our community, to break free from the tyranny of the current political parties and to break the cycle of multinational corporations controlling politics in this country. Capitalism is not the way forward, socialism is.

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