Draped in a possum-skin cloak Senator Lidia Thorpe entered her first day in the Australian Federal parliament last September with her right fist raised in a Black Power salute. In her left hand, she carried a stick engraved with 441 stripes representing the number of Indigenous people to die in custody since a landmark Royal Commission in 1991.
Thorpe tells Al Jazeera she raised her fist “as a sign of resistance and as a sign of our struggle and in solidarity with Black people across the world”. She also described the responsibility as “carrying the voice of my people into a place which denied our rights for so long” and confirmed her intent: “I’m not saying anything different to what the people on the ground are calling for.”
While not the first Indigenous senator in parliament Thorpe is perhaps the most outspoken, and certainly the most controversial, even stating last year that she did not identify as Australian. She is not your average politician. A grassroots campaigner and activist, she is a descendant of the Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung peoples and a granddaughter of the revered Indigenous matriarch Alma Thorpe.
In 2017, she was the first Indigenous person elected to parliament in the state of Victoria, a seat she ultimately lost a year later. The 48-year-old is no stranger to tough times. Having grown up 0n Melbourne’s council estates, she had her first child at age 17, became a victim of domestic violence and in 2013 was declared bankrupt.
She is now a mother to three children and a grandmother twice over, and a federal senator for the left-wing Greens party. Thorpe tells Al Jazeera that while her time in state politics was useful, entering the federal arena meant she could start conversations “on a national level”.
Yet the task before her might seem insurmountable. Indigenous Australians suffer from vast inequalities in health, education, poverty and employment. While accounting for less than three percent of the nation’s population, they also make up 27 percent of the prison inmates.
These inequalities mean that Indigenous Australians on average die up to 17 years younger than non-Indigenous people. The numbers are reported annually under a policy called Closing the Gap, yet the statistics have barely changed in the 12 years since the initiative was implemented.
Last year Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the failure of successive governments to address the ongoing racial divide a “national shame”. In response, Thorpe told Al Jazeera that the annual Closing the Gap report “isn’t taken as seriously as it should be”. “I want to be working a lot harder and faster to reduce those numbers,” she said. “We’re running out of time.”
“We know what it’s like to hear all the fanfare about announcements in Black lives but we never actually see the action. I want to go into [parliament] with action, not talk.” Thorpe says at the heart of the debate between Black and white Australia is the unresolved issue of a treaty.
While historically the British had negotiated treaties with Indigenous peoples in colonies such as Canada and New Zealand, in Australia, the land was declared “terra nullius”, a Latin term for “nobody’s land”. As such, no treaties were formed with the more than 500 different Indigenous nations who had lived on the continent for more than 60,000 years.
While the legal fiction of terra nullius was finally overturned in a 1992 High Court decision, a national treaty process has never been instigated. Thorpe says that it is “imperative we get down to the grassroots level” with each individual Indigenous nation and “start a conversation so they can determine their own destiny”.
While some treaty processes have been implemented at a state level, Thorpe says these are just a token if the vast inequalities remain unchanged and Indigenous cultural sites continue to be destroyed. “You can’t frack our country and talk treaty,” she said.
“You can’t extinguish Native Title to build the Adani coal mine and talk treaty. And you certainly can’t destroy sacred birthing trees in Victoria and log our country to the point of totems becoming extinct and still want to talk treaty.” The Adani Mining’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland state has been controversial, drawing criticism from environmentalists and Indigenous leaders, who denounced the project’s impact on groundwater as well as the Great Barrier Reef.
“There’s no good faith in any of those discussions – how can we trust these people when it comes time to negotiate?” Thorpe said that a treaty should take precedence over initiatives such as the recent Uluru Statement which calls for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament by way of an advisory committee.
She says that the Uluru Statement did not consult adequately with Indigenous people and instead relied on “hand-picked” leaders. However, Dani Larkin, an Indigenous Bundjalung woman and legal academic with the University of New South Wales, has a different view.
She said that a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous advisory committee would, in fact, allow treaty negotiations to have political legitimacy. “[The Uluru Statement] was recognising if we are going to now look at treaty, if we establish this body first, we will have all the resources, we will have the political empowerment, the standing and we’ll have things safeguarded in the constitution.”
Larkin also said that the idea for such a committee – termed “a voice to parliament” – was borne out of community frustration with the inequality gaps such as the high incarceration rates. “These were the types of issues that [Indigenous people] reflected on and asked: ‘What would change that’? Because that’s an immediate need to be addressed,” she said.
“And what they came to was – this is all going to require law and policy reform. It’s going to require us actually having a say on how laws and policies are either reformed or created that will directly or indirectly impact us.” While Larkin agrees with Thorpe that “we need a treaty”, she is adamant that such a parliamentary voice would legally protect any negotiations, which is vital given the history of poor relations between Indigenous communities and the government.
“I don’t want to see my mob – or any mob in Australia – further traumatised or disempowered by these really important processes that could bring us so much success and healing as a people,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that some people within political leadership that have a huge following behind them disregard the legal technical expertise that one needs to acquire to properly guide their mob and their constituents that follow them.”
While presenting views that are likely to be polemical within the Indigenous political and legal community, Thorpe raises far greater ire from some non-Indigenous people. Thorpe told Al Jazeera that she regularly receives racist and violently threatening messages, some of which needed to be referred to the police for investigation.
She also described being bullied and racially vilified her whole life and said while she should not get used to it, she has. “I don’t hide it. I call it out. And I gain strength from the people around me – my family, my friends, my community.”
She told Al Jazeera that while some people are abusive – especially via social media – she will engage with those people, even at times turning people’s views around.“The more we can educate people out there, the better off we are going to be. If anything, it gives me more strength. I’ve been taught by that older generation and I wasn’t to pass that on to the next generation so we can continue to grow our movement.”
And with thousands of people now attending the annual January 26 Invasion Day rallies – a contemporary version of an Indigenous protest that began in 1938 – it would seem that movement is set to grow even further. “It’s where I need to be,” she said about her role in Australian federal politics. “I’m very confident in my skin to be in that place and continue to call [the government] out because it is a very white, colonial place and they are not used to having people like me in there.”