Local, Independant and Effective

Give voice, self-determination and leadership support to Aboriginal communities

Posted February 14, 2018


Cathy has made her response to the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap speech this week, highlighting the need for accurate data to support Aboriginal communities.


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (11:45): Much has been said in this debate which I'm not going to repeat. My contribution today is to bring to the table some input from the people in Indi—the importance of giving voice, self-determination, supporting leadership and making sure that we actually have accurate data.

As many colleagues in parliament know, many members of my community come to parliament as part of our Indi volunteer program. Today I'd like to acknowledge three of my volunteers, Catherine, Tracy and Hugh. I would particularly like to acknowledge Catherine, who has provided much of the background for this speech that I'm going to give. I asked Catherine for input and I'll be using her words as I move through. She talks about her leadership, particularly her work with the Wodonga Aboriginal Network. She talks about the need to support young people in leadership and she also talks about the need for accurate data.

So let's start with data. There's general agreement within the Aboriginal community that the population data issued by the ABS significantly underestimates the Aboriginal population living in Albury-Wodonga. The 2016 data reports a combined total of approximately 113,000 people, with the Aboriginal population making up 2.6 per cent, or around 3,000 people, whereas anecdotal evidence from the community suggests there are about 4,000 people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background living in Albury-Wodonga. The significance of this is that the allocation of funds is based on population data, and our numbers are way short of what the reality is. So we really need to look at that.

I want to speak now in Catherine's words. I asked her to help me with my speech today. I asked her to introduce herself. As I move through I'll be using the personal pronoun 'I', as in Catherine's voice. 'So who am I? I am a proud Gunditjmara woman, a descendant of Susannah McDonald from the Lake Condah area of south-western Victoria. I've grown up and lived most of my life in the Wodonga Aboriginal community. I'd like to also acknowledge my father's English-Irish heritage and I believe having contributions from both worlds has provided me with the difficulties and challenges that living in both worlds can present.

'I, along with my sisters, Jacqueline, Lucy and Mary, attended local primary schools and high schools before studying a Bachelor of Behavioural Science, Psychology, at La Trobe University in Wodonga. I continued my education by completing a postgraduate Diploma of Psychology with Central Queensland University via distance education. I was employed with the Department of Human Services for over 10 years, before becoming a senior planner with the National Disability Insurance Scheme in July 2017.'

Catherine is still currently living in Wodonga with her husband, Ash, and her twin daughters, Charlotte and Maya. That is no small beginning in life. Catherine says she attributes her strong cultural connection to her mother, Aunty Judith Ahmat, a respected Aboriginal elder within the Wodonga community, and she's inspired by other local Aboriginal people, including Darren Moffitt, Aunty Liz Heta, Tammy Campbell and the local Koori young people she's connected with. She says, 'I have watched and listen to mum and influential aunties sitting around my kitchen table as we discuss local issues for as long as I can remember. I have a strong desire to fuel change, reduce racism, increase self-determination and close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.' Catherine is currently on the board of Albury-Wodonga Aboriginal Health Services. She's a 2017 recipient of the Fellow of Indigenous Leadership, emerging leader, and she's current chairperson of the Wodonga Aboriginal Network.

I'd like briefly to talk of the Wodonga Aboriginal Network. It's one of 39 local Aboriginal networks operating in Victoria, made up of community volunteers. The network is a fantastic way to bring Aboriginal people together from many different nations within Australia. They are a strong and diverse community. The networks' participants support each other in a safe environment and they assist individuals and organisations to connect, share, learn and lead to improve outcomes for Aboriginal people. The network promotes self-determination and helps local people determine local priorities and develop local solutions. What a fantastic resource that is to a member of parliament.

The local network's current community plan has four main goals. These include reviving the Burraja Indigenous Cultural and Environmental Discovery Centre, supporting opportunities for young Aboriginal people, cross-border cooperation between Albury and Wodonga, and vice versa, and collaborating with other local Aboriginal networks to assist in progressing initiatives and programs at the regional level.

I'd like to speak briefly about some of these programs. The Burraja youth program is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people between the ages of 10 and 15. It's designed to connect Koori young people to cultural local services and community, and to improve cultural identity. Over the last six months, the youth program has had 67 students enrolled over five programs, and has delivered 120 activities to participants. It's really working well and I'd like to acknowledge the committee: the co-chairpeople, Walter Melrose and Valda Murray; Liz Heta, who is the treasurer; Tammy Campbell, the secretary; and Mark Cottee as a mentor. I want to thank them for their work, and particularly Uncle Alan Murray and Brendan Kennedy for their work. The program is auspiced by Gateway Health Wodonga.

There are a number of other projects done by the Wodonga Aboriginal Network in partnership with the City of Wodonga and the Koori Youth Council. In 2016 they hosted the first Victorian BLACKOUT youth event. Yarning sessions were held to address three main topics: the need for stronger cultural connection, issues with drug and alcohol and the need for youth activities. As a direct result, the Wodonga Koori Youth Network was established. It works with young people living in Wodonga, supporting them to do the work that they need to do. Fantastic work!

Another work is the Mara Healing Possum Skin program. I think you'll love this one, Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks! The aim of the Mara Healing Possum Skin pilot program is for families who have a family member diagnosed with a terminal illness to work through the grief they're experiencing when they have that diagnosis. A pilot workshop was held in 2017, and 21 community members participated. A possum skin sash was made up to help the family during their sorry business and for future ceremonies. We're currently seeking funding to take this project much wider. It's so powerful, and the little pieces that were made are now being put into a quilt which is going to be held in the Aboriginal Health Service. It's great work.

I'm conscious that my time to speak is running out and I want to use some more of Catherine's words. I asked her what her future vision is for the Albury-Wodonga Aboriginal community. She said: 'I have strong responsibility and obligation to ensure our culture is honoured with authenticity, and the Aboriginal communities across Indi are sustained with strong, recognised leaders. The key to this is to strengthen our families to ensure healthy communities.' Catherine's vision for the future includes a rise in self-determination and a decrease in racism.

She said, 'Self-determination is the key for us to make our own decisions about our needs and taking ownership of our own culture and future.' She said that, historically, this right has been taken away and that, as a result, her people have suffered greatly. She said, 'In order for self-determination to be fully effective, further development of skills needs to be implemented to assist with strong governance and decision-making.' How right she is.

She said that the young Aboriginal people in her community have a significant role to play in leading self-determination into the future. And, therefore, it is important to provide the new generation of emerging leaders with the skills and knowledge required to ensure her people succeed in moving forward. Catherine commits to working towards this goal with the support of the Wodonga Aboriginal Network and community leaders.

So, colleagues, what a strong and powerful call! And how proud I am to say that I am a representative of my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in north-east Victoria. I'd like to take the opportunity today to acknowledge, honour and thank them for all their work. I'd particularly like to acknowledge their patience and tolerance as they work with non-Indigenous people like me, who come with goodwill but who often need tutoring and care.

I finish my comments like many others today, by making a commitment to work with the leaders in the community, to do everything we can do within my community and within this nation to close the gap. I'd like to particularly acknowledge you and thank you, Catherine, and wish you well in your leadership journey.

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