“More Than A Voice”: Senator Lidia Thorpe On Why It’s Time For A Blak Republic

Senator Lidia Thorpe sat down with Wonnarua Junkee staff writer Merryana Salem to yarn about the new Blak-led republic movement. Words by Merryana Salem

By Merryana Salem, 25/1/2023

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In December 2022, I sat down with Senator Lydia Thorpe to discuss the potential of an Aboriginal-led Republic in so-called Australia.

Republic movements in Australia have waxed and waned over the decades, with our last referendum on the subject occurring in 1999. In becoming a republic, Australia would cut ties with the Crown and Commonwealth, and become a self-governing Nation. As a proud Wonnarua person, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that self-determination and reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and settlers is not possible with the Crown in governance.

After all, this is the same family that signed off on orders for and resided over the massacres, displacement, theft, incarcerations, and attempted genocide of First Nations peoples in this country. As Audre Lorde so wisely said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

I wanted to understand how a republic led by Aboriginal peoples, as Senator Thorpe has campaigned for since 2016, could provide the foundation for a better Australia – how a republic that shares sovereignty between First Nations peoples and Australians, not only could restore long overdue justice for Aboriginal peoples, but also lays the the groundwork for a country that is for those who actually live here, not a handful of rich people thousands of miles away.

In the course of our discussion, Senator Thorpe lays out clearly how the Voice to Parliament, mass incarceration and Indigenous health, as well as the prosperity of the nation’s economy and climate change — would all be better addressed within a nation that has complete control over its own destiny. I hope in reading our chat that you, like me, find excitement, pride or maybe even hope in the idea of a future where truth, treaty and self determination are the pillars of this country.

Merryana Salem: A lot of people are aware of a Republic movement and also past Republic movements here in Australia, I’m curious how does a Blak Republic movement differ to those past Australian Republic movements?

Senator Lydia Thorpe: A Blak Republic is about, obviously. self-determination. It’s about First Nations people in this country, deciding our own destiny and being part of deciding our own destiny. Colonisation has done so much damage to this country over the last 200 years and we’ve seen successive governments fail particularly around First Nations justice. So having a Blak Republic is about taking back what was ours in the first place and sharing it in a way that we know how best to do. I mean our whole culture is based on sharing and caring. So a Blak Republic would ensure that everybody in this country is looked after. Everybody in this country understands the true history of this country, understands or has some basic knowledge around how to look after the land that you are on and how we’ve looked after it.

We have got thousands of generations of knowledge that we want to share with the rest of this country. And if people only listened and, and opened up their minds to the solutions that we are providing, the knowledge that we are sharing, we’ll be able to sustain this country the way we have pre-colonisation.

We have got thousands of generations of knowledge that we want to share with the rest of this country. And if people only listened and, and opened up their minds to the solutions that we are providing, the knowledge that we are sharing, we’ll be able to sustain this country the way we have pre-colonisation. That’s the knowledge we want to share because we want everybody, everybody’s children to prosper and have country to be able to live. Basically, it’s about the survival of our race. We need Blak people, First Nations people in this country to be in the driver’s seat so that we are self-determining in a way that we have for so long. There’s so many, that’s a very big question. What does a Blak Republic look like? And my mind just goes, you know, treaty, we need a treaty before we have a republic.

We need to, to end that war first and then through a treaty, we could have a republic. I think a republic can come from a treaty because that is the end of the war, and that is a way that we can mature as a nation. And that’s why the two go hand in hand. Treaty. Republic. It makes perfect sense. It’s the only way we’re going to unite the nation, mature the nation, and come up with a day and a way where we celebrate together. We all know the 26th of January, how hurtful that is and the racism that comes out. But you know, that’s our day of mourning. So we can move forward together through a republic and a treaty so that we can celebrate this country together on a day that could be the Treaty Republic Day.

One of my favourite anecdotes I love to tell people is that I was in a building visiting my cousin at her work, and I ran into Malcolm Turnbull in the elevator, and this was on one of the days that he had gone on like ABC Mornings or something and talked about how he held similar beliefs that, you know, any Australia Day should be the day that we became a republic. And as someone who is a Republican myself, I was like, ‘oh, I really enjoyed your speech.’ And, when we got into the lift and he very sort of despairingly looked at me and went,’ well, I’m glad someone liked it.’ So unfortunately there still seems to be a lot of resistance.

And unfortunately when it comes to us Blackfellas wanting our sovereignty and self determination, we’re met with even more resistance. But I’m a little curious, as someone who is part of the community, I’m very curious as to how, we as Aboriginal people, we’re not a monolith, we have very different ideas of how things should be run. And, you know, no two black fellas believe the same things. I’m curious, um, what, power do you think in a republic all mob would be heard and have their, have their opinions heard, have their voices heard? What would that structure look like?

Treaty. And that’s why a treaty is so important to have first because it’s the clans and the nations that need to be at the table to negotiate the sharing of sovereignty in this country. And that’s, again, why the treaty is so important because we don’t want to cede our sovereignty. We have maintained our sovereign status in our own country since forever. We are not about to cede our sovereignty. So we may be prepared to share our sovereignty if things like deaths in custody end, the incarceration rate ends, the child removals end. So through a treaty, we have to negotiate hard on eradicating the genocidal acts that still continue today. And then, you know, it’s up to each clan and nation to decide whether they participate or not in a treaty, and the Waitangi Treaty certainly went through that process and had clans that did not participate.

But I think it’s time to move away from the colonial project, which creates so much destruction here. I think the royals will be quite happy for us to cut ties and even have a treaty. So I don’t see mobs opposing each other if it’s done with mobs themselves. You know, as you say, we’re not all one homogenous group where we all think the same and do the same, but our family clans are the ones, where our authority comes from. And that’s where we go back to our family clans and nations and we make a collective decision with those families, and our own nations about what we want to do. And that’s self-determination, that’s genuine self-determination.

Yes. I’m a big believer in a treaty obviously, as well. But one of my big questions I have for you: I saw you speaking in the Senate recently about the Voice to Parliament campaign and I was wondering how your advocacy for a Blak Republic connects to your very public criticism of the voice to Parliament?

Well, a republic is, hopefully I’d like to see through a treaty, let’s rewrite the Constitution, or let’s take out everything that is racist in the Constitution. Let’s update the Constitution to fit with this country today, because when it was written, when it was established in 1901, is very different to where it is in 2022. So I believe a treaty is also an opportunity to update this constitution, and through that we will have power, not an advisory body.

We need to have real power. We’ve been advisors for too long in this country. This government is not about to give us real power. They still want us to be advisors. So a treaty will negotiate real power through shared sovereignty and going to the republic, we’ll have a new constitution or an updated constitution that actually has equal power with the others who say that they are sovereign, and that’s the parliament here.

We need to have real power. We’ve been advisors for too long in this country. This government is not about to give us real power. They still want us to be advisors.

I agree. I don’t think the voice to Parliament is what we need. I believe as you do the treaty is what we need. It’s what we’ve needed for a long time. I’m curious, why or whether or not you believe- why do you believe that people might be more open to a republic now that the coloniser Queen Lizzie is dead?

Well, I think that more people in this country are becoming more aware of how tied up we are with the colony and the colonial system, and how they still have the decision making seat on anything we do in this country. We need to cut those ties. And I think that’s what this country is becoming aware of.

I think maybe in light of, you know, we keep losing our babies, you know, in the streets with like young Cassius [Turvey], God rest his soul, and our women keep going missing. No one, no one keeps doing anything about it. So do you think with people becoming more aware of these things and how the Crown has failed, not only failed to act, but been complicit in many of these things, do you feel that this is gonna push people more towards a republic?

Aboriginal people, First Nations people in this country have known this for a long time. We know the effects of colonisation and these symptoms of colonisation. I think truth telling is really, really important in this process. And that would come with treaty. I think it’s exciting, you know, it’s OK to be excited about a republic, but we have to finish the unfinished business through a treaty before we become a republic. And hopefully one day we can have a Blak president.

I’m so sorry, the recording cut out a little bit. Would you mind just rehashing what you said about truth telling before, because that is such a vital process and I don’t think a lot of people understand what truth telling actually means.

Truth telling is so important in this process and that’s where treaty and truth telling need to happen at the same time. There’s a lack of awareness right across this country about the power that’s coming from, you know, from someone on the other side of the world dictating to us how we run our country. I think we’ve matured enough, to cut those ties with the coloniser and that’s where truth telling is so important.

We need to tell the truth so that people become more aware and the truth about those harms that colonisation has brought to this country and continues to perpetrate in this country, that’s where truth telling is imperative. And everybody can tell the truth, right? Our education systems, our communities, local governments, state governments, it’s time to tell the truth. We’ve gotta stop hiding the truth from the people out there. The more we tell the truth, the more people will get on board with Truth, Treaty, and a Republic.

I firmly believe that there is absolutely no way that you can fix anything before you actually know what you need to do, what you need to change. And I feel like truth telling, creating those truth telling commissions like the one in Victoria that I know you’ve spoken about and have seen, it’s so fundamental, and it takes time, but, you know, we’re never going to actually get this done if we don’t start somewhere, and truth telling is where we need to start.


How do you see Australia becoming a republic impacting other issues like climate policy, economic policy and other things that not only affect Blackfellas disproportionately, but also other Australians?

Well, I think we have more say over our own affairs rather than, as I said earlier, being dictated to and controlled by another country in England. And I think there’s so many opportunities there where we can enrich this country economically, socially, culturally, through Treaty and Republic. I think we can create, you know, new economies and, and create opportunities for knowledge to be shared, which will only benefit everybody. That knowledge in itself creates opportunity both economic and culturally.

We’ve gotta go out there and talk to the people. But I will say that young people want a change. And in the current climate, if I could say that, you know, climate change is here, it’s not coming, it’s here. We’re almost at 1.5 degrees right now. Right now we’re at 1.47 or something. So it is here now, and we can’t talk about it anymore. We’ve gotta take that action. A Republic will empower us as our own independent nation with First Nations people at the helm of running the country. You know, we, not as an advisor, not as doing the acknowledgement or the welcome to country — with real power and we can do this and it’s time.

Absolutely. I’m curious, what do you think are the biggest barriers to a Blak Republic happening in this country?

Racism, and we’ve only seen [recently] through Reconciliation Australia’s barometer that racism has increased in this country. So I would say that that needs urgent attention and that includes systemic racism. So I think we need to really have some emphasis on creating a safer space for people in this country and eliminating racism. I think that people’s fear of letting go, of cutting the apron strings, I think a lot of people are fearful of, ‘oh my gosh, if we don’t have the new king now and we’re not part of the colonial project, what does that mean?’ I think there’s a real fear in people in doing that. So we need to get out there and talk to those young people. We need to inform people and also ask for their input into what their country is, what they want their country to look like or be like.

I’ll be gone. I’m getting old now, and it’s up to our young people today to think about these issues very seriously because you’ll be the presidents, you’ll be the ones running the country. So, it’s basically over to you. And we’re here as the elders and the supporters in this space and to support you and to support our young people to get this country into shape because these governments and the legacy that this country has left our young people isn’t great. So young people are now going to wear the burden of that. And that’s why it’s more important to have young people involved in a republic movement and a treaty movement.

It’s something in our culture to think of future generations, whereas in non-Indigenous cultures, at least in the coloniser culture, it’s very much not a thing to think about the future. It’s something I find very frustrating about politics. It drives me nuts. I know we’re running quickly out of time, so I just wanna say for people who, like myself, who do, who already support this movement, but also for people who wanna learn more and get more involved, how can people support, a Blak Republic movement or in the very least learn more about it?

Well, there is a Blak Republic movement happening, so I would be reaching out to them, and joining them, join the, the fight, join the path out of colonisation and into something that could be quite beautiful to unite this country. To have First Nations people with real power, to cut our ties and, and decolonise this country will be good for everybody.

Senator, thank you so much. Is there anything, before we go, is there anything you would like to say to make sure people understand about the movement or your own involvement in it? I like to make sure that everyone says what they wanna say in interviews. So is there anything, any final thoughts?

Well, it’s in its infancy in terms of the Blak Republic movement, even the Old Republic movement and that we now have Nova Peris on the Republic Movement Board, which is just incredible. I just think it’s now time. If anyone wants to get involved then we need as many people as possible to be a part of this change. And it has to be a Treaty Republic. If we don’t have a treaty first and we become a republic, then we may lose power. So we need to position ourselves as, as sovereigns and equal sovereigns, and then transition into a republic. So it is always a Treaty, Republic and we have to be really mindful of that and careful that we’re in a position of power before we enter into the republic.

Editor’s note: This interview has been slightly condensed for length and clarity.

Watch the full interview below:

Follow Senator Thorpe on Instagram and listen to her new podcast, Truth Telling With Lidia Thorpe

Photo credit: Sam Mooy / Getty Images

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