Opinion

Lidia Thorpe
After the virus: Fighting for our future

This year has brought our lives, particularly in my home city of Naarm, Melbourne, to a standstill. Millions of us have sat inside our homes, trapped in our own heads, trying to understand how things got to this point, thinking critically about the structure of our society and the country we want to emerge from this crisis, the life we want for our kids.

As an Aboriginal woman, these questions are familiar to me. They are part of the conversation Aboriginal people have been having for more than 200 years, since invasion; a conversation that has been central to our struggle for survival. My responsibility as an Aboriginal woman has always been to care for Country and community. This is what my ancestors taught us; this is how my people have survived.

I see that, in the wake of this pandemic, many like-minded people across this country are joining us in asking: Why was the government keeping people in poverty? Why can it afford to funnel billions into weapons or tax cuts for the already rich? Why have we not used the enormous stolen wealth in this country to look after our Elders and ensure no one needs to worry about putting food on the table? Why are we killing the environment for the profit of a greedy few?

These are the questions I am asking, too, as I am sworn in on October 6 as the first Aboriginal senator from Victoria. And I am hopeful about what comes next.

 

Even during the hardest times, 2020 has made us stronger.

I remember the way Aboriginal communities came together to provide support to each other when we were first heading into lockdown in Victoria. Mutual-aid social media pages were quickly established with Mob working together around the clock to ensure everyone had what they needed. We pooled resources, organised dropoffs and grocery runs, and made sure our old people were safe and well cared for.

What I’ve observed during the lockdowns here in Naarm is exactly the same spirit – people from all walks of life looking after others they may not even know. The city banded together when the public housing towers were locked down. Within hours of the announcement, people came together to ensure those being held inside under police guard were safe and well fed.

This care-led community response has made me proud to be part of the Aboriginal and Victorian communities. It stands as a model for how we, as a country, should rebuild.

The boundaries of what is politically possible have shifted, rapidly, during this pandemic. The conditions have been created for the most significant policy reforms in our history. No one wants to see what we are now weathering repeated. There is an appetite for change.

The government could build a fairer future for all of us – if only it was motivated to do so.

People are tired, society is tired, and Country is sick. For too long it has been the same people who have tightly held and controlled our narrative, our economy and the structure of our society.

The pandemic has proved that those in positions of privilege and power not only turn a blind eye to need but also prefer to look after themselves and their own kin. Many of us have always known this, but for others it has taken a deadly virus to see the gaping holes and inequalities in the system.

Poverty is making people sick; it’s wrecking our economy. The Morrison government’s temporary increase of JobSeeker and establishment of JobKeeper was an admission that the pitiful amount rationed under Newstart was not enough for people to live on, much less enough for anyone to thrive.

We know that it makes more economic sense to keep people out of poverty than it does to keep them poor. Yet now, in the middle of a recession, we’ve seen those payments again reduced. How are people expected to survive? How can people compete for jobs that simply do not exist? Again, it comes back to the central question: Is this the type of country we want to be?

 

As we take up the fight for a fairer future, the progressive movement cannot forget or separate itself from the First Nations people of this country. White Australia has a Blak history. We are all connected, and we are all fighting for the same future. The progressive movement needs to listen to First Peoples and enable us to take our seat at the table.

One of the things that has brought me hope this year was the spirit of solidarity displayed as Aboriginal people and allies came together to demand that Black lives matter, to fight for a more just and fair society for First Nations people and to demand they stop killing us in prisons and in police custody. While it is overdue, it’s not too late to change.

Since the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, there have been 441 Blak deaths in custody. Far more than the 339 recommendations that were handed down to prevent such tragedies happening – most of which have been implemented by the relevant state governments, but many of the recommendations that matter have not.

For 240 years, Aboriginal people have demanded justice for those who have been killed. We show up, we protest, we say their names, we show their faces. I’ve lost count of how many families I’ve personally supported through their grief. It is a shame it took a Black death in custody in another country for this nation to take a meaningful look at what’s happening in our own backyard. But now you know, do not look away.

We’re not just dying in custody. During the preselection contest for my senate seat, I had to take a break from campaigning to grieve with my mother and our community on Gunnai Country in south-eastern Victoria. My community had lost four young people to suicide in just four days. There is a deep sickness that runs through this nation, passed down through intergenerational trauma.

As custodians of this land for thousands of years, we understand that the health of the community is only as strong as the health of our environment. Caring for Country is at the heart of who we are as Aboriginal people – knowledge that, when shared, enriches all our lives.

My own ancestral lands, Gunnai Country, were ravaged by bushfires over the Christmas period. And last season was only a harbinger of what’s to come. The climate crisis is not going to go away, and the government needs to listen to and learn from Aboriginal people.

Instead, the Morrison government believes the economic answer is to bail out its mates in the fossil fuel industry. Gas is as damaging as coal. It poisons our water and destroys our land and will drive the climate crisis. Both the Liberal and Labor parties have accepted millions of dollars in donations from coal and gas corporations, and instead of backing the obvious and inevitable winner –
cleaner, cheaper renewables – they are backing their donors and selling us out.

We have been caring for this Country for more than 80,000 years. Watching the major parties in state and federal government continue to destroy our land and climate is not just heartbreaking, it is deeply traumatic. For this reason, we can never separate climate action from First Nations justice.

Justice can be served to First Nations people in the form of a Treaty – a written agreement between Aboriginal people as sovereign custodians of these lands and the invading Commonwealth body. While we cannot rewrite history, we can pivot our narrative to a more positive one. We can celebrate what unites us, protect the rights of Aboriginal people and acknowledge the injustices, both past and present. Treaty would allow us to move forward together, creating an inclusive national identity of which we can all be proud.

It is time for the government to listen to our people. The progressive movement, too, needs to champion First Nations voices as we come together to fight for a future that cares for community and Country – for social services that genuinely support all of us, for truly universal health and education, for climate justice.

This conversation we’re having is more important than ever and right now we have a chance to mobilise millions of Australians to create a brighter, fairer future, sooner than we ever thought possible. 

 

This is the first in a series of essays that will run through October, each examining how Covid-19 will reshape key issues facing our nation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "After the virus: Fighting for our future".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Lidia Thorpe is a Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman, mother and grandmother living on Wurundjeri Country. She will be sworn into federal parliament on October 6 as a Greens senator for Victoria.