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Melbourne senator talks about racism she suffered as schoolgirl

An incoming senator who declared she doesn’t identify as Australian experienced racism as an Aboriginal girl that was so awful she left school at 14.

As a housing commission kid in Melbourne, Lidia Thorpe never expected to be a lawmaker in the Australian Parliament. 

The indigenous activist has told Daily Mail Australia about her long journey from the hard-scrabble but now gentrifying inner-city suburbs of Carlton and Collingwood to the Senate in Canberra as a 46-year-old mother and grandmother.

The woman with the fighting spirit has revealed she sat on Muhammad Ali’s knee when she was five.

Along the way to being a trailblazer, she escaped from a violent relationship as a single mother and had to return to living in public housing. 

When she takes that oath, she will become just the eighth indigenous member of federal Parliament since Federation in 1901, but one of many remarkable women from a family of Aboriginal leaders.

At school, people like her were derided over the colour of their skin.

‘I used to get call an ABC – Aboriginal Bum Cleaner,’ she said.

 

‘I used to get called a Chico baby, coon, Abo. I used to get really hurt and I used to want to fight people that called me those things.’

The taunts were so awful she felt unsafe and left before year ten.

‘I left school at 14 because being one of only two Aboriginal kids at the school, racism was rife,’ she said.

‘I got picked on not just by the kids but by the teachers as well.

‘I had to leave because I wasn’t learning anything. 

‘I was rebelling because of how I was being treated and I got a job.’

As a young single mother, who never went on the dole, she had to return to public housing to escape an abusive relationship that was potentially life threatening.

‘Public housing saved my life because it was the way I could escape family violence and have a safe place of my own for me and my son,’ she said. 

‘Those struggles and survival at the time made me resilient. It made me tough.’ 

Toughness is a quality Ms Thorpe will be bringing to Canberra in August.

In two months’ time, she will be swearing an allegiance to the Queen, Australia’s head of state, as required under the Constitution, to replace former Greens leader Richard Di Natale as a senator for Victoria – a state named after another Queen.

This is despite her misgivings about the treatment of indigenous people since British settlement.

In recent days, she has faced a barrage of criticism on social media after the ABC last month aired footage of her telling UK-born actress Miriam Margoyles in the Almost Australian documentary: ‘I don’t identify as being Australian. 

‘It’s a concept that’s been imposed on our people since we’re invaded.

‘The colonisers came and set up the colony which they now call Australia.

‘Mass genocide occurred.’

When Victoria was founded as a state in 1851, European settlers were continuing to kill Aboriginal people, with a Koorie Heritage Trust map showing 68 killing sprees between 1836 and 1853.

In one massacre, 30 or more were killed at Mount Eccles in the state’s east in a frontier battle with white settlers.

An indigenous woman wasn’t elected to the Victorian Parliament for another 166 years, when Ms Thorpe in November 2017 became the member for Northcote in Melbourne’s inner north. 

The mother-of-three never thought she would be delivering an historic speech to the Legislative Assembly. 

As a teenager, Ms Thorpe said she never considered getting into politics.

‘Not at all. I had absolutely no plans to be a politician. It was so out of reach and privileged,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.

‘Black politics, to me, was something that I knew from the moment I entered this world. White politics was something I learnt later.’

In the white-dominated arena of state politics, Ms Thorpe told the Legislative Assembly about the racism she endured as a schoolgirl.

‘At school where my cousin and I were the only black kids, I was picked on by students and teachers for being Aboriginal. It only made me more determined.

‘I never felt for one moment I could be beaten down.’ 

Ms Thorpe was elected to the state parliament following the death from breast cancer of sitting Labor member and minister Fiona Richardson. 

In her maiden speech, she spoke of how her mother’s family had been ‘refugees in their own country on Gunnai land’ in Victoria’s Gippsland region. 

‘They were poisoned, shot and herded off cliffs in one of the most ruthless and systematic attempted genocides the world has ever seen,’ she said.

‘The survivors were rounded up onto Lake Tyers mission and imprisoned on rations. 

‘Decisions made in this very chamber took our language away, removed children from our families and forced us from our land. 

‘Those scars run deep for all Aboriginal people.’

A year after delivering that landmark speech, she lost her seat in Victoria’s general election with former political adviser Kat Theophanous, the daughter of a former state MP, winning back the seat Labor had previously held uninterrupted since 1927.

That defeat opened an opportunity, with Ms Thorpe this week defeating 70-year-old private school-educated Queen’s council barrister Julian Burnside, in a ballot of Greens party members, to replace Senator Di Natale in Parliament. 

The winner of that contest within the Greens has a more unique life story, at least among members of federal Parliament.

She will be among five indigenous MPs in Canberra, alongside Labor’s Linda Burney, Malarndirri McCarthy and Pat Dodson, and Liberal Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt, who in 2010 became the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives.

Neville Bonner made history in 1971 as Australia’s first indigenous senator when he filled a casual Liberal Party vacancy in Queensland.

Aden Ridgeway in 1998 became the next indigenous senator, with the Australian Democrats in New South Wales, while Olympian Nova Peris became the first female indigenous senator in 2013 as a Labor candidate in the Northern Territory.

When it comes to fighting for change, Ms Thorpe drew inspiration from her great-grandmother Edna Brown, who arrived in Melbourne on the back of a truck in 1932 as a 15-year-old girl during the Great Depression. 

This teenager, who left a mission at Framlingham in western Victoria, three decades later saw an Aboriginal person being buried as a pauper.

‘Back in the 60s and 70s, it was common for Aboriginal people to be buried in unmarked graves, no service, just straight from the morgue into a bit of dirt,’ Ms Thorpe said. 

Her great-grandmother left a legacy establishing the Aboriginal Funeral Benefits Fund, before joining with Ms Thorpe’s aunties to provide soup to the hungry in inner-city Fitzroy.

‘Nan raised money to enable people to be buried with dignity,’ Ms Thorpe said. 

Lidia Alma Thorpe’s grandmother Alma Thorpe set up the first Aboriginal Health Service in Victoria.

The future Greens senator was one of the first babies to receive medical care with this pioneering service shortly after she was born in August 1973.

As a girl in 1979, she was there when boxing legend Muhammad Ali visited this indigenous clinic in Fitzroy.

‘He came into the health service and picked me up and put me on his knee,’ Ms Thorpe said. 

She has a message about fighting back for teenagers like herself growing up in housing commission.

‘My message, not only to young indigenous girls but to all young black and white kids living and struggling in public housing is that it’s okay to be just who you are,’ she said.

‘Don’t give up. It may seem impossible now but don’t lose hope.’ 

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