Victoria’s First Aboriginal Senator, Lidia Thorpe, Speaks to Jacobin
On October 6, Lidia Thorpe was sworn in as the first Aboriginal woman to represent Victoria in Australia’s parliament. Thorpe spoke to Jacobin about a centuries-long struggle for justice.
- Interview by
- Denis Rogatyuk
Lidia Thorpe is a Gunnia-Gunditjmara woman, a lifelong fighter for First Nations people in Australia and a proud supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2017, Thorpe became the first Aboriginal woman elected to Victoria’s legislative assembly. Just three years later, in June 2020, she was preselected by the Greens to represent Victoria in Australia’s senate — once again, becoming the first Aboriginal woman to assume that role.
Thorpe was born in housing commission flats in Collingwood, Melbourne. She dropped out of high school early, survived domestic violence, and raised three kids as a single parent. More than anyone in parliament, Lidia Thorpe is justified when she says that “I’ve met hardship head-on, which enables me to meet my constituents at eye level and not from a position of power looking down.”
On October 6, Thorpe was sworn in. She wasted no time making good on her promise to shake things up when she entered the chamber defiantly, one fist raised, wearing a possum skin cloak and carrying a message stick bearing 441 marks — one for each First Nations person who has died in police custody since 1991.
In just under two months, Thorpe has shown the power that a radical voice in parliament can have. She has used her position to defend sacred trees — up to eight hundred years old — in Djab Wurrung country, in central Victoria, against the state government’s plans to destroy them to make room for a highway. Thorpe has also spoken out against the mass incarceration of indigenous people, pushed for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags to be flown in the senate, and advocated for a Green New Deal.
Lidia Thorpe is also at the forefront of a developing movement for Indigenous sovereignty, and has argued powerfully, including in Jacobin, for a treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. She has opposed tokenistic and unrepresentative facsimiles of a treaty designed to co-opt or neutralize the Aboriginal liberation movement.
Dennis Rogatyuk spoke to Lidia Thorpe about her views on these often complex issues, the inspiration she takes from international struggles, and the transformative politics she will fight for in the senate.
Let’s start with a bit about you. Could you tell us about your background?
I come from a strong line of matriarchs. All of my life, my mum, my grandmothers, and their grandmothers have fought for the rights of our people. So, fighting against injustice is something that became normal to me. And that’s what I continue to do — it’s my responsibility as a sovereign indigenous woman of this country.
But you know I never thought that I’d end up in politics. It’s not a career choice — it’s just something that happened, a continuation of the fight for justice for our people and for people who don’t have a voice. In this country, poor people, women, the land, and the water — they don’t have a voice either. So to be the first indigenous senator for Victoria is incredible. But it also shows how far behind Australia is in ensuring that indigenous voices are heard in the federal parliament.
You have advocated for indigenous sovereignty very effectively for a number of years now — and it’s become one of the most visible political issues in Australia. In particular, you’ve argued that a treaty must be a first step toward genuine reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Could you run us through your thinking on this?
Aboriginal people have never ceded our sovereignty. We’ve never ceded these lands or waters to the colonizing power. And we’ve been fighting for justice for almost two hundred and forty years. We’ve survived mass murder. We’ve survived massacres.
And today we are still trying to survive a more sophisticated approach, which still amounts to genocide and oppression. I’m talking about things like Aboriginal deaths in custody and the removal of children. We have twenty thousand children that are being taken from their families in this country right now — and that’s more than the stolen generation.
War was declared on our people two hundred and forty years ago, when the invaders and the colonizers came here. They’ve never ended that war. There’s never been a peace-making instrument that can bring us together. Constitutional recognition won’t do that. Changing the date of Australia Day won’t do that. Changing the flag won’t do that. We need a peace treaty that will bring people together and stop this regime that is oppressing our people and this country.
We are the only Commonwealth country in the world that doesn’t have a treaty with its first people. It’s 2020 — we have the solutions to the injustice that continues. It’s time, and we should be able to self-determine our own destiny, as the first people of these lands. We are the oldest continuing living culture on Earth, and we are only 3 percent of this population.
The instruction from the colonizers was to wipe us and our language out, to take our children, and to take our land. Their plan was to annihilate us, to get rid of us altogether. But they failed. We survived. We are still here and it’s a testimony to our resilience and our strength as indigenous people of these lands — and we’re not going to give up.
Our support is growing, as you can see with the Black Lives Matter rallies. Australia is waking up to these injustices. And the more people that acknowledge and accept the true history of this country, the more people will come with us, to fight for a treaty in this country.
Earlier in 2020, you published a piece with Jacobin, in the lead up to Australia Day — which is better known to Aboriginal people as Invasion Day. Many on the left argue that the date of Australia Day should be changed, while some others argue that the day should be abolished altogether. What’s your take on this issue?
Invasion Day is January 26. That’s what it obviously means to us. So when we see Australians partying and drinking and celebrating January 26, it’s as though they are dancing on our ancestors’ graves. It’s so hurtful. And to change the date of Australia Day is only kicking the can down the road — it’s not addressing what the day represents.
If we just change the date, it’s not going to change anything for us on the ground. We need to address what that day represents. We need to address what happened — the genocide and the massacres. Until we do that, we can’t think about changing the day. We can’t think about symbolic gestures that really don’t mean much at all to Aboriginal people of these lands.
Changing the date won’t change the oppressive behavior of the government or the systemic racism that we endure every day. I believe that if we are ever going to change the date, it would need to be the day that we make a treaty. Only when we truly mature as a nation and acknowledge what’s happened can we all move on together.
I’d like to ask more about a treaty with the First Nations in Australia. As you know, the Victorian government has taken steps toward negotiating a separate treaty with Victoria’s Aboriginal communities — but as I understand it, you have been quite critical of that, both in terms of its legitimacy and the process surrounding it. Could you explain a little more about your views on this one?
I’ve been part of those conversations for a number of years now. I was there at the beginning, when the Victorian government came to Aboriginal people asking if we wanted constitutional recognition. At a meeting between over a hundred Aboriginal people from across Victoria and the government, we unanimously voted down any form of constitutional recognition. We said we wanted a treaty first.
So the Victorian government went off and started this treaty process. They did it in a way that suited them, and they handpicked who they wanted around that table. They didn’t go with the thirty-eight nations that already exist in this state. We already have structures that allow those thirty-eight nations to decide who their representatives are — but the government chose not to go down that path.
Instead, the government chose to handpick [indigenous] corporations that they already deal with. So, when we went to a vote over the remainder of the seats, only 7 percent of Aboriginal Victoria participated. Ninety-three percent of Aboriginal people in the state did not vote.
How can you go forward with only 7 percent participation? That’s a real problem. You can’t respect the thirty-eight nations that have existed for thousands of years before colonization on that basis. If the government has a top-down, heavy-handed approach, then the process is illegitimate.
While they log our country and cut down eight hundred year-old trees, it’s pretty hard to think that the government is working in good faith. All we ask is that any treaty process in this country includes the right to representation. It needs to include the voices of all the clans and nations across this country. We won’t accept a colonized version of a treaty. It’s got to put the people first.
Similarly, many indigenous sovereignty advocates have argued that the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a step toward recognizing Australia’s First Nations, and have supported the push for an amendment to the constitution. Do you see this as a step forward?
The Uluru Statement has got some beautiful elements to it, particularly its commitment to truth-telling and a treaty. But in my view, we can’t rely on the colonizers’ constitution. And this is what I hear from grassroots Aboriginal people and activists right across this country.
The constitution was born in 1901 and it had no regard for Aboriginal people. It had no regard for women. And yet there’s a kind of urgency to the calls for Aboriginal people to be included in the Australian constitution. But I feel that this is a type of assimilation, that would redefine us as “Indigenous Australians.” It could also potentially negate a treaty process or prevent it from going further.
Instead, we should go back to calling for a treaty. We need to have those conversations, and we need to ensure that they are in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We also need to ensure that there is free prior informed consent, and we need the clans and nations across this country to decide what they want.
I can guarantee you now that there are thousands of Aboriginal people across the country that don’t agree with constitutional recognition. Also, elements of the Uluru statement concealed a hidden agenda — but it wasn’t hidden to grassroots people. A lot of other things contribute to the problems with the Uluru statement, in terms of how people were treated and excluded from those meetings.
We support the Uluru statement. But it’s important to get the sequence of events right. We want truth-telling first, then we want a treaty next. And finally, constitutional recognition can be part of a treaty negotiation. But before that, we need to end the war in this country. The only way that we can do that is to negotiate a treaty.
What do you think the indigenous sovereignty movement in Australia can learn from the struggles of First Nations peoples elsewhere? I’m thinking, in particular, of Māoris in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Native American peoples in North America, and the Aymara, Mapuche, and Quechua peoples — to name just a few — in South America.
There’s a lot we need to learn from one another. Treaties have been made and broken in other parts of the world. So, we need to work in solidarity with one another. We all have experienced the oppressive colonial violence and we’ve survived. Now, we need to work together to empower our people at the grassroots level and continue our uprising.
Our land is talking to us. Our mother is talking to us. Our water is talking to us. We know that with climate change, we’re heading down a really dangerous path. Our countries need the indigenous peoples of those lands to rise up now.
All of that is due to colonial violence and colonial oppression, which only believes in ripping the country up before selling it off, to create power and wealth. Indigenous people don’t work like that. Indigenous people work in harmony with their land, water, and their people and their animals, in a way that sustained ourselves and the land for thousands of generations.
So we need to come together now. COVID-19 has only exacerbated inequalities in all of our countries. Now, we need our allies — and we need white people across the world to stand with us and call out inequality and injustice, and start holding these governments to account. We need to keep up the pressure, because at the end of the day we have the numbers and the power. We need to activate that now, to change the system.
The struggles of the First Nations around the world have led to some important victories, particularly in South America. Today, the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia are not only dedicated to the original owners of the land, but define those countries as plurinational states and enshrine efforts to overcome centuries of colonialism. Do you think some of those examples could offer a model for a plurinational state in Australia?
Why not? These are the conversations that our people need to have. We have been shut down at every turn, and as a people we’ve been oppressed for so long. So I’d like my people to look at those models, to find ways that we can move forward. On the surface Australia looks so fine and dandy but scratch the surface and you see how Aboriginal people are treated in our own country. It’s hard to survive in this country as a black person.
So, we want to work with our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where they’ve managed to rise above that colonial oppression. We are already connected — but we need to widen that and build between First Nations and indigenous people around the world.
We are already rising up — and part of that is building connections with our brothers and sisters from all over the world. In Madrid last year [at the COP25 convention], we talked about that. I connected with indigenous brothers and sisters from around the world who are experiencing firsthand the effects of climate change.
Just being in that room and understanding our struggle was incredibly powerful. I heard stories about what their people — their women, particularly — are experiencing, and it’s exactly the same as what’s going on here. We need more of those opportunities.
One of the things that holds us back from that is the everyday struggle for survival. It’s so hard to get time to have those yarns. But I think we need to be more strategic, which means making time to strategize worldwide about how we’re going to kill off these oppressive, colonial regimes.
Turning back to Australian politics, the Greens have scored some impressive wins recently, especially in Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). In the former, the Greens doubled their representation, while in the latter, the Greens have formed a coalition government with Labor. And of course, left-wing Greens such as yourself and Adam Bandt have become more visible. Do you think this reflects a broader shift in the electorate?
Absolutely. As a black woman I don’t describe myself as left, right, or center. I am an indigenous woman and my values are about country, water, and people. If that makes me a leftie then so be it. But that’s just another label that the colonizers give you.
As part of the uprising I was talking about, people are becoming more aware of what the Greens are about. Yes, we’re still a very white, privileged party — we want to decolonize the Greens too, which means making space for black people like me. We’ve got a new senator-elect from Western Australia, an Aboriginal woman. So, there’ll be two black women in the Senate.
This is part of the reason why the Greens are growing in numbers and popularity. Following the Victorian local government elections, the party now has thirty-six councilors. There’s one council [The City of Yarra], with a Greens majority.
Even so, there are still many people who don’t understand the Greens. They tend to see us as privileged, white leftists. But I would encourage those people to take a deeper look into we stand for. It’s very much the same as what indigenous people stand for.
With regards to the Greens-Labor coalition in the ACT, we can hold Labor to account and help to make Labor better. I’ve negotiated with Labor in the Victorian Parliament and now in the federal parliament — even if Labor says we can’t work together, we know we can. It happens on the ground, and we can continue to make a difference by holding them accountable to the people.
As the new Greens senator for Victoria and a Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman, your entrance into parliament was a powerful statement on behalf of Aboriginal Australians. How was it received in Australia’s conservative-dominated parliament? And what’s your experience in parliament been like so far?
I didn’t expect the gesture to be so popular and get the media attention that it did. I only thought about raising my fist as I entered the night before — it wasn’t pre-planned.
I was frustrated to enter parliament and to be forced to swear allegiance to the colonizing Queen. I wasn’t comfortable with that. So, I felt a need to demonstrate my resistance and my people’s resistance. Raising my fist was also a way to acknowledge the Aboriginal people who have died in custody, at the hands of the system.
I didn’t expect to see a lot of backlash [from the conservatives]. But of course there was — they said that I’m in there to divide the nation, and that I only have one agenda, to represent the First Nations people of this country.
Well suck it up, sunshine! The conservatives also need to be held accountable for the way they spread misinformation. They need to understand and acknowledge the true history of this country — and that’s all I’m about. And if that feels uncomfortable to you, if that forces you to look at yourself in the mirror and ask what kind of person you are, I think you can grow from that.
I see the good in people — even in right-wing racists. They must have a good heart in there somewhere, if they could just open that heart and see where we’re coming from, and how hurtful colonization is to the First Nations of these lands. If they can do that, maybe they’ll come along with us one day on this journey. I still hold hope for that. No one is born racist.
It seems as though your election to the senate echoes the election of leftists elsewhere, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Ilhan Omar in the United States. What do you hope to push for in Australia’s parliament, and do you take inspiration from their successes?
I am a very big fan of AOC. I watch her speeches and I am just in awe. I say to myself, “If only I was that smart, if only I could speak like that.” I didn’t have the education; I left school at fourteen and I’ve been playing catch up ever since.
I’m so inspired by her strength, her resilience, her presence, her agency, and her articulation of the struggle — and how she calls people out. I love that. I’m learning from her more than anything. So, when people tell me that I could be the AOC of Australia, I think “No way! She’s just too amazing.”
But we can support each other in solidarity. After all, it’s not easy speaking up as a black woman. You saw recently the racism and the sexism that I received in my first month in parliament. That’s not new to us — we experience that all our lives. Even as black children, we experienced that.
Calling that out and having a yarn with one another helps keep us strong. And that’s what keeps me strong — seeing other black, indigenous, or POC women calling the system out for what it is.
I’d also like to ask a little more about the Greens. As you know, it’s been a difficult year, not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the economic crisis. And on top of that, the climate crisis hasn’t gone away.
The Greens have been very effective this year — some would argue that they are becoming the leading opposition party. Could you tell us a little more about the solutions the Greens are advocating for — for example, a Green New Deal?
The Green New Deal is a way forward that this country needs to take seriously. At the same time as we’ve produced record carbon emissions, this country has become more unequal. The Green New Deal is about tackling the climate crisis that we have right now. And it’s also about addressing inequality by creating sustainable industries and employment options, so that people can transition out of fossil fuel industries that contribute to the climate crisis.
We need to transition out of coal and out of logging. My grandfather worked and died in coal-fired power stations, because those were the only jobs available at the time. The dirtiest coal-fired powered station in Australia is on my own country, Gunnai country. So, I know a lot of people who work in those power stations and who rely on them for their livelihood.
We need to create pathways and solutions for those workers to transition into more sustainable industries, so that they don’t lose a dollar out of their pay packet. Coal is dying around the country, and around the world in fact. So, we need to make sure they can transition into sustainable jobs that will last much longer.
That’s how the Green New Deal addresses the inequality that so many people in this country face every day, and not just black fellas. We’ve got a homelessness crisis and a housing crisis on our hands, so it’s also about building more public housing for our most vulnerable people. I grew up in public housing, so I know what that can do for somebody.
Having a home allows you to then get a job and it creates safety for your children. Those public supports allowed me to get a head start in life, and eventually get a job and become self-sustainable and economically independent, as a single mother.
I’d like to finish the interview by returning to the international stage. In the United States, Trump has been defeated at the polls. In Bolivia, a left-wing indigenous party — Movement Toward Socialism — has reclaimed the government, ending over a year of authoritarian rule. And finally the people of Chile have voted overwhelmingly to discard the Pinochet-era constitution and initiate a process of drafting a new one.
How do you feel about these struggles around the world? Do you believe they can inspire radical change here in Australia?
Absolutely. There’s an uprising that connects indigenous people around the world because we are so intrinsically connected to our country, water, people, and animals. And we are the solution. We are the solution to climate change. We’re the custodians of these lands; we can heal our lands and heal each other. There is a higher power that’s saying to indigenous people all around the world — it’s our time.
The colonizers have got this wrong for so long. They’ve destroyed so many indigenous societies around the world and disrupted our connection with our lands. Now, it’s time to rise up and fix that. It’s time to rise up and bring the rest of the world with us and say — “Come with us, we have the solutions. We want you to connect with our country the same way as we do because that will heal you too.”
We’ve got to move away from colonial oppression, rise up, and connect more with our land, water, and people. Do what’s right by our land. Our mother land is calling all of us now and she is angry. You can see that the cyclones — they call them natural disasters — but that’s our mother calling us, crying out for us to come to her and heal her. We need to do that as a human race. We have a responsibility to do that.