By Jack Latimore
Senator Lidia Thorpe is a polarising figure even among the Aboriginal community in her home state of VictoriaCredit:Justin McManus
In a moment earlier this month that passed largely unnoticed, Australian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe vehemently denounced in parliament a gas project in Victoria for allegedly using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, on Gunnai Country in the state’s far east.
The exchange during a debate in the Senate between Thorpe and her upper house colleague, Nationals Party’s Senator Bridget McKenzie, was a classic Thorpe spectacle, her critics say: shouty, largely uninformed and ultimately ineffective.
But Thorpe’s conduct also displayed the very attributes that appeal strongly to her constituents. Here was an outspoken Blak woman, a distinctly unorthodox politician, standing in the very (white) symbol of Aboriginal dispossession in the form of Australia’s federal parliament, staunchly holding big industry to account on matters of environmental and Indigenous justice.
Her party, the Greens, are fond of this political persona. An image of Thorpe’s admission to the upper house chamber in 2020 sits prominently on her Greens profile page. It’s a representation charged with radical, militant political activism, heavily reminiscent of the Black Power movement that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s.
Senator Lidia Thorpe is sworn in to the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra in 2020. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
There are nods to traditional Aboriginal culture too: a message stick symbolises Aboriginal deaths in custody, white ochre is daubed on Thorpe’s cheeks. There’s a possum-skin cloak around her shoulders. But it’s the fist – raised in salute to, and in solidarity with, Blak resistance and refusal – that really announces the arrival of the first Aboriginal Senator from Victoria.
But a quick check of the facts finds that Thorpe’s activism is sometimes more about noise than substance. Her remonstration in early April with McKenzie on the Golden Beach gas project ignored the fact that there is no fracking in Victoria. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas deposits is banned in the state, and the Greens party actually boasts of its contribution to the nation-first legislation passed by the state’s parliament in 2017.
It’s clear that Thorpe has a number of detractors within and outside federal parliament, to which she is seeking to return at this year’s election. But some in the Aboriginal community in Victoria also raise objections to her growing influence on progressive politics. These detractors, most of whom will not be named, question Thorpe’s cultural authority. They look askance at the theatre of Thorpe’s admission to the Senate: the message stick she carried was not genuine, they say, and the possum-skin cloak, gifted to her by the Loddon Campaspe Indigenous Family Violence Action Group affords her no traditional cultural or community authority.
So who, really, is Lidia Thorpe?
In her maiden speech in the federal parliament, 48-year-old Thorpe situated herself in a long line of radical Koori activists and strong Blak women. The Thorpe family’s history is closely tied, as are so many Aboriginal families’ in Victoria, to the once hard-scrabble inner-city suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood.
Thorpe’s great-grandmother, Edna Brown, became a community organiser after she was forced off the Framlingham Aboriginal reserve, aged 15, in 1932. Edna set up an Aboriginal Funeral Fund from her new home in Fitzroy after observing too many Aboriginal men dying in the parks around that suburb and being buried “as paupers in unmarked graves”. Edna eventually married Alister Thorpe, a Gunnai man who had also arrived in Fitzroy from the Lake Tyres-Bung Yarnda Aboriginal settlement in Victoria’s Gippsland region, east of Melbourne.
An Aboriginal land rights protest in Fitzroy in 1986.Credit:Craig Abraham
Thorpe’s grandmother is Alma Thorpe, a renowned community organiser who played a role in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy protest in 1972 and soon after founded the first Aboriginal Health Service in Victoria in 1973 – the year Lidia was born. Thorpe’s mother is Marjorie Thorpe, a preselected Greens federal candidate for Gippsland. In the ’90s, Marjorie was a co-commissioner for the Bringing Them Home Stolen Generations inquiry, and later a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Most recently, Marjorie was involved in the effort to stop the destruction of culturally contested trees on Djab Wurrung Country in Victoria’s western district.
Thorpe’s uncle is Robbie Thorpe, who is also linked closely to the earliest decades of the Black Power movement’s struggle for Aboriginal self-determination, and is synonymous with the Pay The Rent campaign, and the Black GST (Genocide, Sovereignty, Treaty) Collective that protested at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Thorpe’s sister, Meriki Onus, is a founding member of the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) activist collective that rose to prominence as an integral driver of the anti-colonial and Aboriginal Sovereignty movement. The WAR collective has organised the mass street demonstrations in Melbourne on January 26 for a decade.
“I had no choice in being influenced by black activists and the black struggle of my people,” Thorpe tells The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “I was born into it and I don’t know anything else.”
She recounts growing up in the high-rise Collingwood housing commission flats, attending Gold Street primary school in nearby Clifton Hill and graduating to Fitzroy High for year 7. The following year, she attended Collingwood High, before returning to Fitzroy High for Year 9, where she soon left, aged 14.
“You can take the girl out of Fitzroy but you can’t take old Fitzroy out of the girl.”
Her first job out of school was working with her uncle Robbie at the Koori Information Centre at 120 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, which in the eighties became a hub of Black political activity. Thorpe recalls the racial slur “c–n” being written on one of the centres’ windows when she showed up for work.
“I’ve worked ever since. I’ve never been on the dole. I’ve been on sole parent pension when I’ve had a baby, but I was never out of work for more than six months, even after a baby,” Thorpe says.
She was also a keen sportsperson, a background she says shaped her approach to parliamentary politics. The Senator recalls playing football in a back paddock at Collingwood High against the young Collingwood Magpies players, which included the former player and now comedian, Sam Pang. Later, she starred on the netball court, eventually coaching the Lakes Entrance Seagulls and playing A-Grade for Rumbalara in Shepparton. Her competitive edge on the court, she says, once prompted former Hawthorn AFL champion Greg Dear to describe her as the “Glenn Archer of Netball”.
“I’m very competitive. I have white line fever. I play hard, and when I go into that chamber, or I go into those Senate estimates, it’s the same thing. It’s that white line fever. Game on. Bring it,” Thorpe says.
Labels such as “hothead” and “street brawler” sit okay with Thorpe: “I copped so much shit as a black kid. I didn’t know how else to deal with it. So, yeah, I used to punch the boys and the girls out. But now I’ve learnt to use my mouth.”
At 17, Thorpe became a single mother. She has now borne three children and boasts of being the proud grandmother of four grandchildren. “There were relationships here and there, but they never lasted.” She says she experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma in the form of anxiety and PTSD, and endured several violent domestic relationships.
Victorian senator Lidia Thorpe at the Invasion Day March in Melbourne in 2021.Credit:Justin McManus
In 2017, several weeks ahead of contesting the Northcote byelection as a Greens candidate, Thorpe revealed details of one. The Greens claimed at the time that details of Thorpe’s 2013 bankruptcy over approximately $700,000 in debt was being shopped around to the media to ruin her chances at the ballot box. Thorpe was discharged from the bankruptcy in 2016, eight months before the byelection. She says her financial problems were the direct result of domestic abuse, her partner’s alcoholism and the eventual collapse of their marriage. Her ex-husband confirmed Thorpe’s account of the break-up at the time.
Her historic win in the byelection with a more than 11 per cent swing to the Greens made Thorpe the first known Aboriginal person elected to Victoria’s Parliament. The seat was returned to the Labor Party 12 months later in the state election. Then, in August 2020, Thorpe replaced former Australian Greens party leader and Senator for Victoria Richard Di Natale after he resigned for personal reasons. She was handed the portfolios of Aboriginal affairs, mental health, consumer affairs and sport.
The Greens’ selection of Thorpe to fill the vacancy was anticipated early within the state’s Black political circles at the time.
Thorpe says she asked permission from Wurundjeri elders before running as a candidate for Northcote and then enjoyed broad support from Victorian and interstate Aboriginal communities going into the federal role: “They’re on that journey with me and I don’t feel alone as a result,” she says.
But the reality is that Thorpe’s firebrand approach does not enjoy the broad support of the Aboriginal community in her home state or further afield. One Thorpe critic who would not be named because of fears it might compromise his position, told The Age and Herald she is viewed as an “ineffective representative” for the community.
“With Lidia, it’s always the adversarial perspective, rather than observing common ground to resolve an issue. Relationship management is not her strength.”
Senator Thorpe during a committee visit to Borroloola in the NT
Another community recalled Thorpe, who was a delegate for Victoria at the Referendum Council’s Uluru meeting to discuss the Voice to Parliament, being asked by Aṉangu traditional owners to leave the First Nations National Constitutional Convention at Yalara in May 2017 after she allegedly broke a requested behaviour protocol and showed a lack of respect.
Thorpe is still said to face “outstanding payback” – meaning she is not welcome back to that Country.
“You can take the girl out of Fitzroy,” notes another black political observer, “but you can’t take old Fitzroy out of the girl.”
‘Rude, offensive, dishonest’
Shortly after Thorpe joined the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, which was inquiring into the destruction of the 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of WA, she described it as a “boys’ club”. Then, in a post to social media, Thorpe claimed she had been “silenced” by fellow members, Committee Chair Warren Entsch and Labor Party Senator Pat Dodson, when trying to question the Minerals Council.
At the time, Entsch publicly labelled Thorpe’s remarks “bullshit”, and added that in his opinion they had the potential to compromise the committee’s entire inquiry.
Entsch admits that Thorpe “at times” asked good questions during her short stint on the committee, but recalls her “going off on tangents” and “having her own agenda”. He describes her as “rude, offensive and dishonest” and somebody he would be happy never to work with again. At the end of the inquiry into Aboriginal cultural heritage protection, the Greens released its own report on the committee’s A Way Forward final report.
Thorpe counters that video recordings of the hearings show how little “air time” she was given compared to male committee members: “I raised climate change and they tried to stop me from bringing climate change into the conversation because it wasn’t in the terms of reference,” she says. Thorpe also alleges to have made a “serious” complaint about her experience on the inquiry. The Committee Secretariat said it had not been made aware of a complaint when contacted by The Age and Herald.
Entsch is not the only representative of middle and conservative white Australia to have lost patience with Thorpe. Former Liberal Party Senator for Western Australia, Ben Small, describes her as “destructive” and “narrow in her focus”.
“Parliament and the chamber is supposed to be a contest of ideas: I’m yet to see Lidia make a meaningful contribution. She stands out as the most ineffective member of parliament, which makes our objectives much easier,” he says.
Thorpe has become a favoured mark on conservative media. In late February, Sydney radio station 2GB’s breakfast show condemned her for a catalogue of indiscretions, with host Ben Fordham describing her as a “fruitcake” with “an appetite for destruction” and “the most toxic person in Canberra”. The radio jock highlighted among other things Thorpe’s June 2021 verbal exchange with Geraldine Atkinson in an official meeting at Parliament House in Canberra to discuss Victoria’s Treaty process. The incident left the 70-year-old co-chair of the First People’s Assembly of Victoria requiring attention from the parliamentary nurse for high blood pressure. Atkinson later wrote to the Senate president, Scott Ryan, and Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt seeking a formal apology from Thorpe.
Thorpe maintains there will be no apology: “Well, it was a hard, robust conversation, which I have every day in this job. Geraldine doesn’t work in this space or understand the challenges and the complexities of the role. That’s just a normal conversation I have in parliament every day. I meet with people I agree with. I meet with people I disagree with. I did nothing wrong so there’s no apology.”
In November last year, the conservative commentariat railed at Thorpe for removing her jacket and scarf during a debate about a $50 million government incentive to explore and establish fracking wells in the Northern Territory. She revealed a t-shirt bearing the slogan: “Black lives don’t matter in Beetaloo,” resulting in her ejection from the chamber.
Days later, as the Federal Parliament’s adjournment last year for the Christmas break loomed, Thorpe delivered a barbed personal gibe at LNP Senator Hollie Hughes during a debate over the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Hughes’ colleague Senator Ben Small recalls there being some verbal back-and-forth across the chamber before Thorpe remarked sharply: “At least I keep my legs shut.”
Small immediately interrupted proceedings to say it was the worst thing ever said in the upper house. The remark reduced Hughes to tears and sent her running from the chamber, says Small, who says he believed there was “no doubt” Thorpe was alluding to Senator Hughes’ autistic son.
Thorpe responded: “I just got a view of something over there that disturbed me, but I’m happy to retract.”
She says now that after being “constantly badgered” she called out an angry statement about the recent deaths of black women in custody and, in the ensuing uproar, “I got a view of Senator Hughes’ knickers”. She admits she said “the wrong thing”. Small counters that Thorpe’s explanation made no sense because wood panelling from floor to desktop in the Senate chamber would have blocked her line of sight.
In the aftermath, Thorpe took early leave from parliament and fell conspicuously quiet over the festive period before re-emerging on December 30 with a tweet appearing to support an arson attack on the doors and portico of Old Parliament House: “Seems like the colonial system is burning down. Happy New Year everyone,” the tweet read.
The vandalism was initially attributed to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, but within hours the embassy’s council issued a media statement condemning the act. It became clear that a group of anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination Sovereign Citizen-QAnon conspiracists were behind the attack. Thorpe’s post was deleted.
Fire damaging the front doors of Old Parliament House in January.
The “Blak Greens”
The Greens themselves are also subject to criticism in the Aboriginal community. Among some black political observers, there is a view that the progressive party has recently adopted Aboriginal rights as a “contrivance”, and its announcement of an historic all-Aboriginal senate ticket for Victoria, led by Thorpe, is part of the window dressing. James Blackwell, a Wiradyuri man, ANU academic and former Greens member represents the view of some who say that, since Thorpe took the Senate place of Richard Di Natale, the party has adopted her personal views on the bulk of its First Nations policies, and particularly its readjusted position on the Uluru statement.
The Greens national policy now argues that it should start with truth-telling, followed by a treaty, and finally ending with a Voice to parliament. Says Thorpe: “There’s no agreement in this country between the first people and the colonisers. Why would we go into the colonisers’ law book before a treaty?”
But Blackwell represents many when he says this gets things the wrong way around. Signatories to the Uluru statement want the Voice first, as the most important step to achieving change. He left the Greens last week saying that he had been “bullied, berated, and belittled by some in the party” – including having his Aboriginal identity questioned – over his support for the sequence laid out in the Uluru Statement.
“There’s no room for debate or disagreement over policy within the party any more,” Blackwell says. The Greens’ policy positions, according to critics such as Blackwell, now only represent the agenda of Thorpe.
For her part, Thorpe says one of her proudest accomplishments has been establishing the party’s First Nations Network, known as the “Blak Greens” – a group of Aboriginal members of the party which has representatives on its national council for the Greens. “These are not tokenistic positions,” she says. “They are dedicated positions to ensure that we are at the table.”
Thorpe says the focus on her controversies misses her achievements, prime among which she nominates as putting a national Treaty on the federal political agenda, and the establishment of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered First Nations women and children, which has been referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for inquiry.
Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt, Director of Research at the University of Technology Sydney’s Jumbunna research unit says that, for conservative white constituencies, Thorpe fulfils the “scary Blak woman” trope. “She represents that old-school activism, she literally inherits it, and that unsettles them. It’s one thing to be outside protesting, and another to have a seat inside a parliamentary chamber,” Berhendt says.
First Nations politicians are accountable to constituencies like any politician, argues Behrendt, but they’re more accountable to mob: “That often means they carry a bigger burden and are held to higher standards.
Adam Bandt campaigning with Lidia Thorpe in Federation Square on April 10.Credit:Paul Jeffers
“These fascinations and fears are projected onto Lidia Thorpe. She is regarded as a rabble-rouser and troublemaker, somebody who wants to tear down the system, somebody that doesn’t belong in there.”
Meanwhile, Thorpe’s supporters and fans argue that a staunch Blak woman’s place is inside Parliament House. “If anyone has a problem with that, it says more about them than it does about me,” says Thorpe.
Greens party leader Adam Bandt says Thorpe continues to have the full support of the party room as “a strong and valued member”. Thorpe, he says, had made the Greens reflect on what it meant to acknowledge First Nations history and has helped her constituencies gain an understanding of the barriers positioned in the way of First Nations’ women participating in Parliament.
“When she’s made mistakes, she’s owned up to them, and owned up to them straight away, which is more than I can say of many of the male politicians in this place,” says Bandt.
“And that’s really all you can ask of someone.”
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