Sharon Firebrace: a history of struggle

Sharon Firebrace

Aboriginal woman and single mother, Sharon Firebrace, has fought her way through poverty and racism to make a life for herself and her 19-year-old son.

But Firebrace isn’t one to be dragged down by social disadvantage.

The Socialist Alliance is proud to have Firebrace run as a Senate candidate in Victoria. While campaigning with SA, she also runs the Aboriginal Genocide Centre, which she founded. She convened the New Way Aboriginal Summit in July and organised a recent Rock Against Racism concert.

Firebrace, a Yorta Yorta woman, was part of the Stolen Generations and grew up in a country orphanage in the 1960s. Her teachers did not have the skills or will to control the rampant racism: she was called “Blacky” and “Abo” by other children, and fought girls and boys to prove herself equal.

Her physical prowess paid off: she made the World of Sport Australian volleyball team and the Victorian netball team. Mainstream team sport led Firebrace to value skill, achievement and teamwork. She was awarded in 1967 for being in two state teams in one year.

This confidence helped her break down barriers and enter the University of Melbourne; a domain even today inaccessible for many Aboriginal people.

Firebrace’s lifelong commitment to the rights of Aboriginal people was forged while she was a student in the early 1970s. The Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra gave her an understanding of the importance and means of fighting back and overcoming second-class citizenship.

Not everyone was supportive. Firebrace faced racial stereotyping and resentment from some of her peers and teachers during her study of arts, and again when she studied education in 1994-95.

One lecturer gave her a bare pass despite highly commending her work throughout the year, thus blocking her entry into higher studies. Firebrace unsuccessfully appealed to have her mark upgraded.

In every chapter of her life, Firebrace has come to the fore as a leader of her people. While a member of the ALP in country Victoria, she ran a group for Aboriginal Labor Party members.

She has been at the forefront of the struggle for Aboriginal rights, a leader of her extended family network and has achieved many academic and professional successes in the past few decades.

Over 1984-85, Firebrace ran three businesses: a consultancy firm, a cafe deli and catering service. In 1993-94, she was named Victorian and National Aboriginal Businesswoman of the Year.

She is a former CEO of the Aboriginal Advancement League and in 2003 was CEO of the Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Corporation.

Firebrace maintains that racism is still a big issue for Aboriginal people. In 2007, she suffered 44 counts of racial violence while teaching at a private secondary school in eastern Victoria. Some senior teachers encouraged racial hatred among students to pressure Firebrace out of her job.

She was nicknamed the “Black Gorilla” and had her car spattered with blood. Firebrace finally quit after a student tried to stab her with a pair of scissors.

She moved to Melbourne and joined the Socialist Alliance and the political fight against racism.

Firebrace has strongly condemned the Northern Territory intervention, and income management that is a part of it, as a racist apartheid policy supported by the Liberal and Labor parties. She believes it is designed to disempower Aboriginal people, drive them off their lands and deny them equal rights.

She points to evidence of collusion between the government and media in bringing about the intervention. the “youth worker” who, the year before the intervention was announced, claimed on ABC TV’s Lateline program that a paedophile ring was operating in Mutitjulu, was in fact an official from the department of then-Coalition Aboriginal affairs minister Mal Brough, and had never been a youth worker.

The alleged paedophile rings were what the Coalition government used to justify the NT intervention.

Income management has stripped Aboriginal people of their right to manage their own finances. It stigmatises holders of the Basics Card.

Aboriginal people and their supporters have shamed the government into restoring the Racial Discrimination Act, suspended to allow the intervention to become law. But Aboriginal people are still forced to work almost full-time Centrelink benefits, half of which are “quarantined” onto the Basics Card. In effect this means Aboriginal workers in the NT are working for less than $4 an hour.

Firebrace and the Socialist Alliance have condemned and campaigned against the intervention since its introduction. Her election campaign will highlight the need for real jobs and dignity for Aboriginal people and an end to all the policies of the intervention. Refugee rights are also a key part of her campaign: after Gillard’s refugee policy announcement in July, Firebrace warned that refugee bashing was going to be an ugly aspect of both big parties’ election campaigns.