By SARAH EMERY
Lidia Thorpe is a proud Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman who never imagined she would one day represent the Victorian seat of Northcote as a Member of Parliament.
Born and brought up in the suburbs of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Northcote, Ms Thorpe grew up in public housing and left school at 14. “Taking my seat in this chamber is something I was told could never happen,” she said in her maiden speech.
It was only after she spent decades of her career campaigning for Aboriginal rights and the environment that she realised her potential in politics.
“I’ve always been involved in politics, more ‘Black Politics’, in terms of working in Aboriginal communities,” she said. “Never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be a politician.”
One of her greatest accomplishments is saving the million-year-old gorge in Nowa Nowa, East Gippsland.
Ms Thorpe fought against a multinational company to save the gorge, which was supposed to be blown up to make way for pipeline for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“Today that is the only bend in the pipeline from Longford to Sydney because of the protests that I started,” she said. “There were non-Aboriginal elders of that community that had beautiful stories about the gorge, just as much as the Aboriginal elders.”
“To get the two communities together to save a particular site that everybody loved was quite beautiful,” she said. “That’s something that I’ll never forget and I’ll keep with me.”
Last year, Ms Thorpe became the first Aboriginal woman elected in the Victorian Parliament with a swing of more than 11 per cent to the Greens, after a by-election was triggered by the death of Labor MP Fiona Richardson.
In Ms Thorpe’s first speech in Parliament, she acknowledged the tragic circumstances of her predecessor. “As a survivor of domestic violence I am personally grateful to Fiona for the work she has done in increasing protections for women,” she said.
Despite aligning herself with the Greens, Ms Thorpe recognised Labor’s active support of Aboriginal people in the past, but said times have changed for the party. “[Now] it’s all about keeping up with the Libs.”
“And introducing things like mandatory sentencing. I was really disappointed to see a so-called ‘progressive government’ introduce legislation that is really going to be detrimental to all of our vulnerable communities across the state.”
In her career before politics, Ms Thorpe held a number of positions in health, government agencies and local council. In these roles she advocated for the protection of country, land rights and equality.
For seven years, Ms Thorpe worked in the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, an organisation set up by her grandmother, Alma Thorpe.
“My family have always been quite political,” she said. “I come from a strong matriarchal line of strong Aboriginal women.”
Since winning the by-election, Thorpe has pushed for a clan-based treaty and environmental policies.
Ms Thorpe was disappointed that Labor and the Liberals voted down a plan for a container deposit scheme, which would incentivise people to exchange empty bottles and cans for cash. Victoria and Tasmania are the only states in Australia without a scheme.
“Yes it’s going to cost the government money, but compare that to the clean up costs of having plastics and plastic bottles. Particularly on our streets [and] in our rivers,” she said.
Ms Thorpe said her decision to join the Greens was inspired by their approach to grassroots democracy and the fact that they “stand up against injustices”.
“It was just a natural fit for me,” she said. “We need to save our environment and the only way we can do that is to come together.”
The other reason was the Greens’ policy regarding transparency. “We don’t take donations from big developers, we don’t take donations from the gambling industry. We’re very clean in our operations.”
“I do believe in accountability, all politicians should be held to account. We are funded by taxpayers and we serve the people,” she said.
Ms Thorpe said if re-elected she would continue to campaign for rent caps, but that the property price issue was federal. “I think that the problem is federally with capital gains tax and negative gearing and that’s where it needs to be fixed,” she said.
As a policy platform in state politics, the Greens will continue to pressure the government into enforcing that new developments offer around 30 per cent “affordable housing”.
Public housing was another concern for Ms Thorpe. The redevelopment of the Walker St Estate in Northcote is underway and most of the residents have already found alternative accommodation.
“Walker St is a good example where Labor is trying to sell all of our public housing stock off at a time when we’ve got 80,000 people on the waiting list.”
When asked what the priorities for Northcote were, Ms Thorpe emphasised congestion on public transport. She said the No.86 tram was the third-busiest line in the city and that the train signalling systems were “ancient” and needed to be updated.
She raised school funding, the Great National Park, climate change and safety for bike riders as other primary concerns for the electorate.
The November election will mark one year since Ms Thorpe was elected to represent Northcote. As a mother of three, she has repeatedly mentioned the importance of empowering young people and giving them a voice.
“I’ve just set up a youth advisory council because I want young people to tell me what I should be doing in parliament and what they care about in Northcote … and it’s going straight into Parliament, hopefully, if I’m re-elected.”
This article was co-published with The Junction and UniPollWatch. For more on the Victorian Election 2018, please go here