Meet Tammy Solonec: the lawyer leading the fight for Indigenous rights

Meet Tammy Solonec: The lawyer leading the fight for Indigenous rights

Tammy Solonec
Tammy Solonec has spent her professional life working to better the lives of Indigenous people in Australia.

Solonec is a Nigena woman, born in the Kimberley of Western Australia. She grew up moving around the state, often living in remote and regional areas. The injustice she witnessed in her young years steered her on a path of Indigenous rights advocacy and years later, she isn’t slowing down.

She’s the Indigenous Rights Manager at Amnesty International Australia and is leading the Community is Everything campaign that aims to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the criminal justice system in Australia. As she shares in the below Q&A, every single child incarcerated in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal.

Solonec has done extensive work for NAIDOC Perth and worked at the United Nations. She is also at the forefront of the campaign to change the age of criminal responsibility in Australia.

“Amnesty would like to see the age raised to at least 14, and the Aboriginal grandmothers in central Australia that we work with are adamant it should be 18 – that no child should go to prisons,” Solonec shared with Women’s Agenda recently.

Below, Solonec tells Women’s Agenda where the Community is Everything campaign is at and shares some striking memories from her childhood.

Can you share with us a little about your upbringing? Where did you grow up and why did you decide to pursue law as a career path?

I was born in Derby in the Kimberley of WA where my parents met, and my mum and sister were born. My mum’s Aboriginal mother was born at Beagle Bay mission, after her mother was stolen as a child. My parents met through the Telstra/Australia Post connection – Dad worked for Telstra (or Telecom as it was then) and Mum for Australia Post.

We moved around the state following Dad’s career – Derby, Exmouth, Mullewa, Marble Bar, Tom Price… then I came down to Perth when I was 16 with Mum so I could finish high school and mum could finish her degree in Aboriginal and Intercultural Studies. She now has a Masters and PhD – even though she didn’t start tertiary studies until she was 36! I was always going to go to university as I liked school and was good at it. My parents wanted that for both me and my sister.

Mum wanted to ensure we had the opportunities she was denied as a young Aboriginal woman.

I decided to study law when I was offered a place in the inaugural Aboriginal Pre-Law Program at UWA (the first of its kind in Australia). At just 17, I was the youngest participant and I haven’t looked back since.

Was there a specific moment or turning point in your life that made you want to dedicate your career to improving Indigenous people’s rights in Australia?

Growing up in regional and remote WA, and being Aboriginal myself made me want to do this type of work. I grew up seeing so much injustice. When I was eight, we lived in a small town called Mullewa, north of Perth. There was a racial riot there after a Yamatji (Aboriginal) man was killed by a publican. I remember asking many questions and that moment really stuck with me.

Then as a teenager while Mum was doing her degree in Aboriginal and Intercultural Studies she taught me and my sister, which raised more questions and interest in the topic.

Can you tell us about your role as Indigenous Rights Manager at Amnesty International Australia? What does it involve on a day-to-day basis?

As Indigenous Rights Manager I manage a small team that work on Amnesty’s Indigenous rights campaigns. Our campaigns are long-term investments in a particular area of work to create change.

My work at Amnesty has mainly revolved around campaigns to ensure Indigenous people have a right to their ancestral lands – our Homelands campaign, and to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the criminal justice system – our Community Is Everything campaign.

I also contribute to the cultural competence of the organisation through our Reconciliation Action Plan and other activities. For example, I sit on our Diversity, Inclusion and Well Being steering group. I travel a lot for my job, and I’m lucky to have visited the United Nations a couple of times with Amnesty and travelled all across Australia for meetings, conferences and presentations.

When I’m not travelling I’m either editing and approving documents or I’m in meetings, which are usually done by video conference as most of the people I work with day to day live in different cities. I am also a spokesperson and representative for Amnesty and I’m constantly on social media advocating for Indigenous rights and sharing news and updates with my friends and supporters.

You are at the forefront of the campaign to change the age of criminal responsibility. Where is the campaign at in Australia right now and what changes are needed?

We’ve been working on this issue for a long time and we’re now at the stage where policy makers know that youth justice (and specifically the minimum age of criminal responsibility) is an area where reform is needed.

When we first started doing this work, the awareness among not only the general public, but also politicians and people who should have known what was happening was very low. The changes we’re trying to achieve are often reached more quickly through collaboration with other organisations. It’s been wonderful to work together with organisations as part of the Change the Record Coalition nationally and others in our focus jurisdictions, to raise awareness and to have a strong united voice such as the ‘Free to be Kids’ National Action Plan on youth justice.

It’s looking likely that the Committee on the Rights of the Child (a body of independent experts that monitors and reports on implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by governments that ratify the Convention) will raise the minimum standard to 14. Australia is due to be reviewed by the Committee this year.

What Australia needs is a brave jurisdiction to make the first move and raise the age. The states don’t need to wait for the Federal Government.

It is disappointing that the Northern Territory, which has publicly committed to raising the age to 12 has not yet done so. Amnesty would like to see the age raised to at least 14, and the Aboriginal grandmothers in central Australia that we work with are adamant it should be 18 – that no child should go to prison. This is something we, as a society, should be aiming for.

It now appears that most jurisdictions are waiting for a report from the Committee of Attorneys Generals due in November before making a move. We are hopeful that the report will recommend a raise of age to at least 14. Once that decision is made, in tandem with the changes required to Criminal Codes, governments need to invest in prevention and diversion programs (especially those that are Indigenous-led) for young children who end up in trouble but are too young to be held criminally responsible.

What is Amnesty’s Community is Everything campaign and how does it work to change the lives of Indigenous people?

Amnesty’s Community is Everything campaign aims to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the criminal justice system of Australia – a glaring human rights issue in this country.

Today, every single child incarcerated in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal.

Amnesty is focused on the three jurisdictions where the overrepresentation is worst – Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. We released a national overview and Western Australian report in 2015, a Queensland report in 2016 and we contributed to the Northern Territory Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children.

We work in coalition with organisations such as the Change the Record Coalition nationally, Social Reinvestment WA and the Aboriginal Peoples Organisations of the Northern Territory. We also work with brave rights holders, children and their families who are suffering as a result of our broken youth justice system.

As well as work on raising the age of criminal responsibility, we draw attention to the outrageous conditions children face in detention in Australia, and ways to solve the issues, like justice reinvestment and Indigenous-led solutions. Solutions like Bush Mob and Common Ground in Alice Springs that we recently took our Secretary General Kumi Naidoo to visit. We campaign in a variety of ways including research, lobbying, social media and press activity, and working with activists and rights holders across the country to mobilise on the important issue of children in detention in Australia.

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