Lidia Thorpe interview

Lidia Thorpe: “I Am Angry And I Have A Lot To Be Angry About”

Since entering Parliament, Independent Senator for Victoria Lidia Thorpe has been unwavering in her full-throttled advocacy for us Indigenous folk. She brought her typically unfiltered energy to our chat about clearing a path for young people in politics, the government’s complicity in the destruction of Gaza, and how Parliament could benefit from getting “rid of a few racists”. Words by Ky Stewart

By Ky Stewart, 12/6/2024

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

At the end of last month, we asked how you were feeling about Australian politics right now. The responses were grim: 89 percent of you didn’t feel inspired by politics; 83 percent had no confidence that the Labor Government would address your issues; 93 percent felt unrepresented. That didn’t sound good, so we decided to take your concerns to the seat of power. That’s right, Junkee went down to Parliament House. During Budget Week, no less. We spoke to Senators and Members of Parliament from the Labor Government, The Australian Greens, and the Independents about the stuff you told us you care about. (We reached out to Liberals too, but no one wanted to talk. Honestly, we tried.) 

Lidia Thorpe needs no introduction, but I’ll do it anyway.

She is a Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung Independent Senator for Victoria. In 2017, she became the first Aboriginal woman elected to the Victorian Parliament and was the Greens MP for Northcote, inspiring hundreds of First Nations people across the country, including me. Lidia then became the first Aboriginal Senator from Victoria when she was chosen to replace Richard Di Natale in 2020. Since entering Parliament, Lidia has been unwavering in her full-throttled advocacy for us Indigenous folk. She was sworn in holding a message stick with 441 marks representing each death in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 (that figure now stands at 567). Lidia made the shock exit from the Australian Greens party in 2023 to sit on the crossbench as an Independent Senator representing the Blak Sovereign Movement.

Here’s our chat.

Ky Stewart, Junkee: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat today. It’s a great privilege. I’m a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and my great grandfather was part of the Stolen Generation so it means a lot to speak to you. Your journey through Parliament has really inspired me. 

Lidia Thorpe: Well, it’s equally a privilege and an honour to speak with you. I get more and more young people saying they’re inspired by the work I’m doing. I sometimes question that in my own mind and you get lost in this space [Parliament House] because of the trauma and the violence, colonial violence particularly. You don’t feel that you’re doing that much. But I am heartened to hear that more and more young people are interested in politics and not afraid. That’s why [I want to] finish in four and a half years — I mean I’ve got a couple of reasons. One is that I’ll be 55 and Blak women don’t live as long as white women. So I don’t want to spend too much time here and end up leaving in a box. I need to have some rest and quality time and go back to my community. But also because older people need to move aside for young people to run this country. You look at the chamber both in the Senate and the House of Reps, there are a lot of old white men with really old crusty ideas who have no idea what young people want for their future. It’s not his future, the old white fella down there. It is our young people’s future. So young people have to be in the decision-making seats now to have a brighter future for everybody.

That’s why we’re here. We surveyed our audience and 89 percent didn’t feel inspired and 93 percent didn’t feel represented by Australian politics. 


Why do you think those numbers are so high? What are the barriers for young people getting involved in politics?

Well, behaviours. Even today you saw the racism and discrimination that people have to endure. It’s part of the struggle. It’s part of the colonial violence that exists in this place. Also the decisions that are made around our future, according to the last government and this government, is about opening up new gas [projects]. Well, talk to any young person — they know gas is not good for us. They know that we should not have a future in gas. So I can absolutely see why young people are disillusioned when decisions are being made that threaten their futures and they’re not represented in this place. 

It’s very hard to become a politician. You have to come from a privileged background usually. I mean, I fluked it in here by being a member of a political party and then doing the hard yards and running in a pre-selection, which was justifying my existence amongst a party that was majority white people. So you’re always proving your worth. But when you see these decisions — destruction of Country, and for us, deaths in custody and child removals and the fact that those recommendations have been sitting there for three decades — you can understand why we have to start looking elsewhere. I’d be open and interested in what young people see as the alternative because it’s certainly not the two bigger parties who continue to take donations from the companies that are polluting our planet.

What has it been like to experience that from inside Parliament?

Well, besides it being another day in the colony, the ongoing genocide to destroy Country destroys a part of who we are because of our connection to that water, land, totem, sky and all living things. So to a coloniser’s mind, it’s all about what you can get while you can. It’s all about money and power. They don’t have that understanding that we need that stuff left where it is for good reasons. We have stories around why gas and nuclear needs to stay in the ground. It’s very dangerous and it causes harm to living things, living beings. They don’t have that deep understanding and connection to Country. And it is demoralising in those moments where you sit on Country with old people and lore people and they tell you these incredible stories and then you sit in this place and they just put that aside with the stroke of a pen. It infuriates me they still say they support First Nations [Peoples]. 

They’ll go and buy their earrings and the handbags with the Aboriginal designs, they’ll even have lovely Aboriginal paintings. Most of ’em have Aboriginal paintings in their offices. It’s wrong. I keep going because I have to. It is for my ancestors, it’s for my old people. And as a Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman, I have a responsibility to fulfil my obligations to my old people. And that’s what I do. And yes, it hurts sometimes and it’s a struggle, but I always go back to why am I here? What am I doing? I have an opportunity with a very big platform. So use it and keep fighting and get what you can.

You are very critical of Labor’s Budget. What did you hope they’d included?

Funding for legal services, particularly Aboriginal legal services. We’re in a crisis out there. We need over a hundred million dollars to make any impact on our Aboriginal legal services, including family violence legal services. And to get just what, $15 million, is an insult. I know these people personally. It’s community, it’s family, and they’re not able to seek legal advice to leave a situation or to not be locked up. What happens when our people are locked up? We have almost 600 deaths in custody in this country. So there’s nothing happening in the deaths in custody space. There’s nothing happening in the child removal space in terms of funding the legal services. To think that they’re funding more police, more prisons, and they’re being tougher on crime. That’s not the answer.

Labor boasted about the Budget surplus, but they could have spent it in important ways. Including implementing the full recommendations from the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission. Why do you think there isn’t a Treaty with our people? 

Why? All I can say is that their mandate is to continue the colonial project. The head of this country lives in another country — the King of England. That makes no sense whatsoever. And so as long as we’re under a colonial regime, they must continue their colonial project. Part of that is to eradicate the Blaks and to do that, don’t fund their legal services, don’t act on deaths in custody, don’t stop removing their children, don’t stop destroying their country. That is genocide. And it’s as blatant as that and it’s as serious as that because this government is no better than the last. In fact, none of them have been good for our people since 1901. There’s never been a piece of legislation that’s been good for us, not one piece of legislation. Even though they’ve said it’s going to be good for you, like the Northern Territory Intervention, like stealing children, it was all to be good for us. We need to have a Treaty to sort the issue out of this illegal occupier called King Charles. We need to get rid of him and we need to have a Treaty so that we as a nation can mature, can tell the truth to each other, understand it, and heal from it. But we can’t move forward unless we go through the steps of owning that true history. 

It’s not impossible. It can happen. I understand the feeling of hopelessness. I see that amongst our people too often. I’m not going to allow that hopelessness to set into me. I don’t think my ancestors are letting that happen. That’s why I’m just the wild, Blak, angry woman all the time. And I don’t mind that label. I am angry and I have a lot to be angry about. If I have to wear that label then so be it. But I’m not going to back down. I’ll continue to fight for Treaty and I’ll continue to call out the colonial project and its oppressive regime against our people and ultimately against their own. Treaty is what is good for everybody. The decisions we make as Aboriginal people who’ve been here for thousands of generations, they are good for everybody. We’re more inclusive, we’re more holistic in our approach. We don’t just say, here’s a job, but don’t worry if you don’t have a house or you’re not well. We look at the whole person, and if this country and this government started to look at a person that way, I think we’d be a lot better off.

What do you think of the government’s nuclear submarines and the nuclear waste plans?

Well, they don’t tell you everything. Whatever you see politicians talking about, particularly from the government, it’s not the whole truth. There are hidden agendas and the nuclear subs are one of those. And the fact that we have opened the doors for nuclear waste from the UK and the US to come here, no one knows about that. It is massive. Usually waste goes on Aboriginal land. Well, it’s all Aboriginal land, but where Aboriginal people are living is where they always want to dump that nuclear waste. We’ve had a number of communities fighting back against that for decades. But there is a real concern here that this government hasn’t closed any loopholes or denied the fact that the US and the UK through AUKUS can dump their nuclear waste here. Nuclear waste is something that’s very dangerous, as we know, but spiritually it’s even more dangerous. It’s not something you take out of the ground for very good reasons. And we don’t need to be investing in war machines either. There’s so many reasons why these nuclear subs are not good for this country. Australia’s really tough on crime and running the war machines right now and emboldened by their US mates. That’s a bit scary.

You’ve been very critical of the lack of aid for Gaza, especially in this Budget. What’s your perception of Labor’s position on Israel / Gaza?

They’re simply complicit in genocide. The Australian government is complicit and guilty of genocide against us as First Peoples, and that’s defined under the UN’s Genocide Convention, but they’re also complicit in the genocide of Palestinians. It’s unbelievable. It’s like these people must walk around with their eyes closed. I did think Labor was better, but based on what I’ve seen since they’ve come into power, they aren’t. They’re no better than one another, the coalition and the Labor Party. It’s an eye-opener in this place. I did think that we’d be stronger as a country against the genocide unfolding in front of our eyes every day [of] innocent Palestinians. This is not about condemning Israelis, this is about the Israeli government and what they are doing. It’s not about being anti-Semitic, it’s about human rights. It’s about, I dunno, stop killing children and women in front of the whole world. [It’s] hard for everybody, including me, to fathom. I think about my ancestors and what they endured in the invasion of this country. I see the effects of genocide today in our people. 

What do you make of the student encampments in support of Palestine? 

I support students protesting against genocide and standing up against injustice. I’m heartened to see so many students and young people coming out in support. I think it’s frightening for the government to see young people activating because young people vote and young people are our future. I support those students in those campuses and I was hoping that the universities would’ve done that as well. But they’re also complicit, in a way, for not allowing the truth to be told.

There’s quite clearly a crisis of violence against women in this country — but there’s also a crisis of murdered and missing Blak women across Australia. What should the government be doing to better protect women, especially First Nations women?

This is again about colonial violence. It’s about the patriarchy and how Blak women are looked at in this country. We are like the bottom rung and that plays out in the chamber. It plays out in successive governments in how they handle policy to eradicate this colonial violence. We need to self-determine our own destiny as Blak women. We don’t get the platform to do that and we certainly don’t get the resources to do that. Our men are demonised, which is another colonial oppressive strategy. It’s not about demonising our men, it’s about allowing our families to prosper and flourish like every other family seems to do in this country except for Blak families or migrant families.

This has been an ongoing issue for 250 years. Blak women are the target and this government talks about gender equality and violence against women [like] we don’t exist. So we need to have our standalone strategy, which we’ve been calling on, and I know that they’ve recently had a meeting, but it’s a little too late. We need to look at the systemic racism that exists within the structures that we are meant to go to for help. Our people, our women, do not call the police for help. I’m one of those women. I didn’t call the police for help and I know many other Blak women who don’t because they will have their children taken away or they’ll be seen to be the perpetrator. We have to address systemic racism that still exists in all facets of our everyday lives. Education, health, police, the list goes on.

So much of Australian media and politics focuses on narratives of defeat and deficit. How we can bring more Blak joy and life and culture and vibrancy to this colony, this building?

We need a treaty and we need truth telling. Treaty is something that I think is going to be wonderful for this country. We can have everybody learn from the oldest continuing living culture on the planet. I think that’s something to celebrate in itself. There’s a lot of work to do in this building. I did ask for a fire pit. I said I felt culturally unsafe, I need a fire pit in winter. I had a few white fellas back me up on that one too, because they wouldn’t mind standing around the fire. But imagine if the whole Parliament walked out and stood around a fire and had a conversation about how we can actually do good in this country. I think it would make a little bit of a difference. 

It’s going to be hard to decolonise this building. There’s too many old white men in here that think they have all this power to keep that colonial project going. Having an Aboriginal flag in the chamber, outside the chamber, I mean it’s a bit tokenistic. It’s not safe in this building when you’re a Blak woman. The racism is rife. So they could get rid of a few racists. That means they’d have to work hard in Queensland. But that could make it a great place. And look after the workers in the Parliament. There’s a lot of good workers here — cleaners, maintenance people. The grassroots workers here, they’re not even looked after. 

How do you think we can barge the doors down, so to speak, and have more of us in here?

What my nan and mum always said to me is ‘Never forget who you are and where you come from’. And that’s my mantra. You have to maintain your identity. You can’t change your values or your lore. I can’t change that lore and toe the line for something that I cannot agree upon. So think carefully about if you join a party, if you join the Labor party, are you prepared to gas your own country? Maybe, maybe not. There’s Blakfellas in that party that do it all the time, but never forget where you come from and know that when you’re in this space that you do have a lot of support. It’s like a road. There’s speed humps, [then] smooth sailing, real deadly, feels good, and then another speed hump. That’s what I feel like my experience has been.

But before I leave this job, that is one thing I want. To give this spot to a young person, but also I want to create a space so that our young people can learn the Blak politics before they learn these politics. For non-Aboriginal people, the Blak politics of this country is just as important and it’ll make you armed with the information required to keep you strong. It can happen. I will spend the rest of my life mentoring and just being on the phone for whoever wants to do it. As long as you’re not Liberal, National, One Nation [or] Labor, I would be happy to create a space. Which I’m starting to talk to certain people about. I’ll announce it soon, but we’re just working on something so that there is something available for our people to go into politics.

Well hopefully the speed bumps you’ve experienced means it is a more smooth sailing for the rest of us. 

That is what our ancestors did for us.


So that’s our responsibility. Thanks for having me. I’m in young people’s hands and my grandmother’s always said, our children are our future. And now that I’m 50, I’m saying it. So it’s over to the young people.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See full interview here: 

Other articles in this series: Chris Bowen, Tanya PlibersekLarissa WatersAdam Bandt.

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and Multimedia Reporter at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram and Facebook so you always know where to find us.