Don’t read the comments. Surround yourself with your elders. And have a reliable network of strong women around you.
Those are just some words of advice from Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, who spoke with Meriam/Mua Torres Strait Islander and academic Kat Henaway Wednesday afternoon, in an online Zoom conversation held by Women for Election.
Senator Thorpe, a Gunnai and Gunditjmara woman, became the first Aboriginal Senator for Victoria earlier this year, the first federal Aboriginal representative for The Greens, and was the first Aboriginal woman in Victorian parliament in 2017 as the MP for Northcote. Thorpe has a long history in advocacy and activism for Indigenous rights and was preselected in June 2020 to replace Richard Di Natale following his retirement as Senator for Victoria.
Thorpe spoke to Henaway about her unusual pathway into politics from Council to Federal Senator, her experience in advocacy, and why it’s critical our Parliaments are representative of the people they govern.
“We need more women making more decisions in higher places and more First Nations voices at the table making decisions,” Thorpe began.
Thorpe spoke from a hotel in her home-city of Melbourne on her third day of hotel quarantine as she prepares for her swearing into Parliament on the 6th October. She intends to give her First Speech on the first week of November.
Henaway asked Thorpe about her pathway from businesswoman to politician.
“I was born into a political family,” Thorpe said. “Being black means that you’re born political and we’re always justifying our existence, and fighting for a seat the table. We battle daily injustices. Fortunately, we have the fight in us.”
“I’ve always wanted to improve the lives of Aboriginal people,” she continued. “I was always around, like the discussions around Fitzroy and during the Black Panther movement and when our Aboriginal health services were set up in 70s and 80s.”
In her twenties, Thorpe started an events management business in Lakes Entrance, where she ran events. “I liked being in control and running events,” Thorpe told Henaway. “I went into business with my ex-husband. It was a glass and glaze business, where we were dealing with tradies.”
But her business eventually declared bankruptcy. “Because of family violence, I lost my business and my house,” Thorpe said. “But I didn’t lose my mental health.”
Thorpe left school at the tender age of 14, and had her first child at 17. She credits the women in her family and community for her fighting spirit and resilience.
“My matriarchy have been such a driving force in my life,” she said. “Nothing was going to hold me back. My struggles are just speed bumps. I learned to overcome them, maintain my own mental health and continue the work of my people.”
When Henaway asked Thorpe about how she became involved with the Greens, Thorpe said she was actually first approached by Labor.
“I was having conversation with Labor,” Thorpe said. “I was invited to dinners and coffees. I wasn’t thinking about politics. Labour was telling me to get into politics. Then I looked into what they stood for and realised they didn’t align with my policy and values.”
During a NAIDOC WEEK March around that time, Thorpe met a Greens politician who encouraged her to join the party.
“I met a lot of incredible people after that — at The Greens National Conference. I met so many good people. They care about important things. I joined the Greens, and then 12 months later, I got pre-selected for Northcote.”
“The success came very quickly, then?” Henaway asked. “It was a steep learning curve,” replied Thorpe.
It was during this time that Thorpe publicised her personal story of domestic abuse and bankruptcy. “I turned that story around,” she said. “I spoke out about my family violence story – I was inundated with stories from other women.”
That is the power of authentic leadership, Henaway added, “You showed the importance of owning your own story and that it’s better than trying to cover it up.”
“It’s part of our healing,” Thorpe said.
Henaway also pointed out the silent protest Thorpe conducted in Parliament that eventually changed the way politicians behaved during the Acknowledgement of Country.
“That’s what happens when you put an activist into a place like that,” Thorpe said. “At every new sitting, Parliament have the lord’s prayer, where it’s very quiet, nobody moves, everybody treats it very seriously, and nobody says a thing,” Thorpe explained. “Straight after then, they do the Acknowledgement of Country and that’s when they sit down and start talking. I thought that was so rude! So I stood. And people took notice.”
At the next sitting, Thorpe noticed a few Labor backbenchers mirrored her stance and remained standing during the Acknowledgement of Country. And then the next time after that, the whole parliament was standing; the same way they did for the Lord’s prayer.
It was a trickle-down effect that signals the power of silent protest. “You have to stand up for what you believe in,” Thorpe said. “It might feel uncomfortable but stay true to who you are.”
In the last 12 months, Thorpe has been working with fellow Greens politicians on an Anti-racism Portfolio that aims to call out the insidious discrimination that she believes is rising in Australia.
“We’re using it to call out far right fascist- which is rising in this country, as well as the US,” Thorpe explained. “We need to call that out. Having a dedicated Portfolio to do that is important at this time. Some of this behaviour is ‘un-Australian’; there is racism perpetrated against Aboriginal people in this country. We are calling that out. We are Black women doing this together, we are tough, and it sends a good signal that we won’t just stand by and allow these things to continue.”
“We are Black women policing racism and exposing it for what it is. I want to have these conversations in a respectful way.”
Henaway asked Thorpe about the recent news that Barbados was leaving the Commonwealth and whether she saw the need for Truth and Reconciliation Process in our country.
“We’re the only Commonwealth country that doesn’t have Treaty with its First Nations people,” Thorpe remarked. “Who are we? What do we represent, what’s our culture? Where do you want to go? What do you want this country to look like? What’s important to you to unify this country? I believe a Treaty can answer those questions and bring peace.”
“All of this country needs to have this discussion. We must let conversations bring out whatever it brings out. We have to de-colonise. The coloniser’s process has been so violent and unrepresentative of the people. We’ve had old white people making decisions for far too long. We’re becoming an uncaring society.”
“There are so many things Aboriginal people can teach non-Aboriginal people in this country, like how we look after our old people. They’re like royalty to us. Look at the aged care system in this country! It’s so sad.”
“We need the space to talk about that respectfully. It’s time for a Treaty. We need to have truth-telling. We need to talk about a Treaty and what they looks like; a voice to Parliament, a constitution agreement can be negotiated as part of the Treaty.”
Finally, Thorpe ended the Zoom conversation with some wisdom for aspiring female politicians.
“Don’t read the comments. Have strong women surrounding you. Women you can call up and swear off your head, and have that person swear back at you. Someone you can trust and have a good yarn with. Someone you can off-load, so you’re not offloading on your family all the time. Surround yourself with old people. Learn from them. My elders instilled within me wise stories.”