Noel Blencowe says CERES’ present day success was borne of innovation and hard work.
OR Brunswick-based Victorian Upper House MP Sheena Watt, the path to this year’s constitutional referendum on a voice to Parliament began more than a decade ago.
In 2011, Ms Watt moved from Melbourne to Sydney to take up a role as a campaign manager for the constitutional recognition with the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, a representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people established under the Rudd government.
But when the Abbott Government was elected in 2013, it quickly took all funding away from the National Congress. It limped on for a couple of more years before it was disbanded.
The experience – which had echoes the deliberate dismantling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission by the Howard government in 2004 – convinced Ms Watt that the only way Indigenous Australians could truly have a say in their own destinies was by having a representative body permanently enshrined in the constitution.
She said that reading the Uluru Statement from the Heart for the first time in 2017 lit a fuse that makes her determined to spend every day between now and the referendum – expected to be held in October – fighting for the Yes case.
“It’s unfinished business for me,” she said sitting in a sparse conference room in the electorate office she recently moved into just a stone’s throw from Sydney Road.
“It’s unfinished business for every single ally that I’ve ever worked with on achieving Aboriginal justice, rights and recognition. It’s unfinished business for the leaders in our community who have stepped up to be changemakers for the future generations of Aboriginal people, and it is unfinished business for our country.
“So that’s what’s on the table. And that’s what we’re being asked to vote on this year.”
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AS the only current Aboriginal member of the Victorian Parliament, Ms Watt, 39, has an almost unique perspective on what a difference a voice can make both within and outside the political system.
She was working for the not-for-profit job training organisation AFL SportsReady in October 2020 when she was picked to fill a vacancy in the Northern Metropolitan seat following the resignation of former Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.
She was the first Aboriginal woman to ever occupy a seat in Victoria’s Upper House.
Entering Parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic was a slightly surreal experience for Ms Watt, who was re-elected last November. Earlier this year, she opened her new electorate office in Black Street in Brunswick, a suburb she has lived in for more than a decade.
Ms Watt brings to her role a decade and a half of experience in public policy and a lifetime of overcoming the odds which she struggles to describe because of the emotional trauma and hardship it forces her to relive.
She was born in Carlton but had an itinerant upbringing characterised by a lack of financial security. Her late father, John, worked in construction until he suffered a stroke that forced the family to rely on her mother, Annette, as the main breadwinner from a series of jobs in aged care, the food industry, and even taxi driving.
The family regularly moved home to all parts of Melbourne before Ms Watt relocated to Queensland at 13, where she finished school and began university before returning to Melbourne.
Large crowd turns out to hear the case for voting Yes at this year’s referendum.
In her maiden speech to Parliament, Ms Watt cited both her parents, along with her paternal grandmother as inspiring her to work hard, to pursue social justice and join the Labor Party.
From her mother, who was born in Echuca and is a Yorta Yorta woman, Ms Watt drew her Aboriginal identity and learnt about her culture and history, including the intergenerational trauma of the stolen generations.
“Mum guided me on celebrating and honouring my Aboriginal culture and heritage — that decisions made on her behalf before she could even speak her name, before she was even considered a citizen in this country, do not define our story,” she said in her maiden speech.
She takes pride from being descended from the same Yorta Yorta community that produced two of Australia’s most signficant Indigenous leaders, William Cooper and Sir Doug Nicholls.
After years of working in the union movement and the community sector, Ms Watt said she was drawn to politics by the opportunity to drive change for the better.
“I knew that good governments change lives, and that people like, me and my family and the people I grew up with needed good government. And I just wanted to be a part of that, frankly.”
RIGHT now, the most important change to which she is dedicating most waking hours is the Voice to Parliament.
Ms Watt said entrenched problems of health, education, low life expectancy and poverty in Aboriginal communities could only be solved by harnessing the knowledge and expertise of Aboriginal people.
“And yet, time and time again, that advice has been ignored,” she said.
“And so that’s why we said it needs to go into the Constitution, because it needed to go somewhere where it just can’t be taken away again, it can’t be ignored and dismissed.”
Despite some public polling that shows support for the Voice slipping, Ms Watt remains confident the referendum will succeed. She said she was filled with great hope and optimism that her local neighbourhood in Brunswick will be a strong yes vote, but also from multicultural communities across the northern metropolitan region.
Many people she meets who are initially reluctant to say they will vote yes are often wanting to be educated about what difference a Voice would make, she said.
“There’s a genuine interest in what’s the question before us and what it will mean for First Peoples and I’m trying to not get myself distracted by people sowing division and driving a really dangerous message that will ultimately hurt the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia.
“I am renewed by people in our community who want to reset the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
“They want a true and just and fair future for our First Peoples. They want the truth to be told about the story of our nation.
“And they want a moment of pride.”
“There is an enormous responsibility that I carry to be the best that I can be for not only me and my community of the Northern Metropolitan region, but for the young people who look up and see a woman that looks like them, that has the same skin color as them.”
MS Watt admits to frustration with the argument that the Voice does not go far enough in restoring sovereignty to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and a treaty should come first. She said the opportunity now was too great to be missed because of “a mistaken view that this is not perfect”.
Ms Watt said there was not a day that went by that she didn’t reflect on both the responsibility and the privilege she has to serve as the only Aboriginal member in the Legislative Council.
“There is an enormous responsibility that I carry to be the best that I can be for not only me and my community of the Northern Metropolitan region, but for the young people who look up and see a woman that looks like them, that has the same skin color as them,” she said.
“That has a story of overcoming adversity, like them, and story of overcoming some enormous odds. So that rests with me every day. And it just also drives me to be the best that I can be, frankly.”
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