Subjects: Karen Middleton ‘Telling it Straight’ book, Aboriginal representation in the Parliament, the Apology
PAUL WILES: Anthony Albanese is the working class, public housing kid from Sydney who went on to be Deputy Prime Minister and now counts Chris Pyne as one of his mates. Anthony Albanese welcome to CAAMA.
ALBANESE: Good to be with you Paul.
WILES: For those who don’t know Anthony, yours is one of those stories that the working class bloke loves to hear. Growing up in Sydney for you, like many young men, grew up within a single parent situation – your mother brought you up – then you went on to Uni and started your journey. But the actual beginning of the involvement with Labor, where did that start?
ALBANESE: It started really from my family. I was brought up with three great faiths – the Catholic Church, the Australian Labor Party and South Sydney Rugby League Football Club. And I say in the book that came out recently that I don’t think I met anyone who didn’t vote Labor until I went to University, because I grew up in a public housing community – City Council Housing in Camperdown – and it was a very working class community. People were pro-union, pro-footy and pro-Labor.
I remember handing out for Gough Whitlam in 1972 and when the Whitlam Government was elected it was like our team has won for the first time in my lifetime. It was just one of those things. I didn’t join the Labor Party to go into Parliament, I joined the Labor Party because, by and large, that was what people did in the community where I grew up. My mum was a rank and file member of the Party and my grandfather was a rank and file member of the Party and I guess it was a natural thing to do.
WILES: Just getting back to that part of your life story and you do talk about it in the book, about not knowing your father and there is a story attached to that, but what I’m interested in is how you felt when you realised that your father was alive.
ALBANESE: Yes. I was told that at the time it occurred it was difficult for a Catholic woman to have a child out of wedlock. And so in 1962 my mother had travelled overseas, met my father, became pregnant to him. He told her was betrothed to someone from the town he was from in Italy. So she came home, told people that she had married him overseas and that she then was widowed – that he’d died in a car accident. I was due to be adopted out. That happened quite a lot to young women at that time and of course, that is a story that is pretty familiar to the Indigenous community.
WILES: And that‘s where I’m taking you right now, because as a city boy growing up obviously you felt pretty connected to your mother but then finding out later in life there was another whole part of your life journey you didn’t know about. And, as you have rightly suggested, there are so many Aboriginal and Islander Australians who were removed at childbirth and knew nothing.
ALBANESE: Absolutely, and so I relate very much to the need to have a sense of identity. My mum told me when I was old enough, about 14 or 15, that in fact my father hadn’t died and that I was due to be adopted out but that she was determined to keep me. At the time I was a pretty headstrong bloke and I said “Well he didn’t care too much about me so I don’t need to look for him”.
But as you get older and later in life and as I had a son of my own, my mother had passed away in 2002 and my son was born in 2000, there was a particular time at Rookwood Cemetery, we were visiting my mum’s grave, he was a little boy and he must have been 5 or 6 and he said: “where’s your daddy?” and I didn’t know. I had a name and he was from Italy and that was about it. The book outlines the incredible, fortuitous circumstances whereby I did end up finding him and meeting him and getting to know him a little bit before he died in 2014.
But I very much relate to people who speak about the need for identity. It is hard to explain but once I got told someone had found him I had a real physical need to meet him. There was a sense of urgency about it that is hard to explain. By then I was 46 years of age and had never met him and in the end I met him and I have a whole family in Italy – a brother and a sister, cousins, nieces and nephews and all of that.
WILES: You touched on another important matter, the sense of identity. We know that for many first nation’s peoples this is an ongoing issue. Since colonisation 200 years ago we’ve seen Aboriginal people marginalised, living on the outskirts of Australian society. It is only of late that we have seen more Aboriginal Members of Parliament. It has doubled which is a good thing. But when we talk to people living out in communities we look at the appalling suicide rates, incarceration rates, the signal is very clear and strong that the mental well-being of a large number of Aboriginal people is not good and when we talk to them they say “we don’t know who we are in our own country”.
And I’m wondering at the big end of town and sitting in Parliament, and I know we have more Aboriginal representation in Parliament, but prior to that Aboriginal issues – former Coalition Prime Minister wanted to be the Prime Minister for Indigenous peoples, of course Kevin Rudd made the apology but it is almost like yesterday’s news in a way. For Aboriginal people the intervention, the flow on affects, the ongoing impact of all of those things are daily, they don’t go away.
ALBANESE: Absolutely, and you look at one of the things that arose of course from the apology is the closing the gap, which is so important. It is not just figures. Those figures represent people, they represent tragedies, they represent real circumstances and one of the things when I was first elected – I grew up with a lot of indigenous people around Redfern.
I was very close to there, I played footy with them and they went to my school, but as a Member of Parliament one of the first committees I nominated for was the House of Reps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Committee because I felt a responsibility as a new MP who had never been to the Northern Territory. I’d never been to the Torres Strait, never been to a whole lot of communities like Bourke, Walgett – places in NSW outside of the big capital cities and to try to get some understanding of what the challenges were of those communities.
We have an absolute responsibility far greater than anything else to deal with these issues, with the consequences of dispossession that’s occurred. This is the fourth or fifth trip I’ve made to Alice Springs and on each and every occasion I talk to people about the consequences of that and how we address the inequity that’s there – employment, in health, incarceration rates, in education, right across the board, life expectancy, the issues of domestic violence that impact on women and children.
All of those issues require more consultation, more involvement, more discussion and more action by the Federal Government. A start has been the election of, at the last election, Pat Dodson, just before the last election to join Ken Wyatt, Malarndirri McCarthy, Linda Burney who is my local member. She lives around the corner from me and is a very dear friend. I think the best first speech I’ve ever heard in Parliament was Linda Burney’s.
WILES: Well Linda is a Wiradjuri Warrior from a long time back. She takes people by surprise I think because she is very tiny, she is very forthright.
ALBANESE: She is, and she is disarming because the way she advocates her causes is disarming and it is hard – she never gets angry but she is as tough as they come. And if you know of her background that was written in her biography in the last couple of years that is an extraordinary story and the fact that she has overcome such hardship without any sense of bitterness. She is an inspirational person and I’m very proud she is my local member.
WILES: Again, getting to the big picture scale – we talk to politicians, they fly in they fly out. They consult with Aboriginal people. The bureaucrats fly in and out of communities giving advice on what needs to be done. At the very end of the day solving these problems, and it’s been proven in most research, the problem has to be solved from within and allowing the Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait Islanders to be part of the problem solving – to not only have input but to be part of the decision-making process.
Now, governments come and governments go, Ministers come and go, Prime Ministers come and go but the Mob are going nowhere. While we have seen greater engagement there is still reluctance at different levels and particularly within bureaucracies, even though Ministers may have views and opinions, getting that process through the bureaucracies is not an easy thing.
ALBANESE: We’ve had five Prime Ministers in the last six years but the bureaucrats are the same. Hence we need to understand, and they need to understand as well, that solutions cannot be imposed from outside. Unless the community has ownership of those solutions, involvement and authorship of them they won’t fly on the ground.
In my time when I was on the Parliamentary committee looking at issues like CDEP that is still an issue of conflict. People losing their entitlements under circumstances whereby if they were in a different employment program they wouldn’t and a lack of understanding of the need to ensure Indigenous people are empowered to make the decisions is very much critical to getting good outcomes.
WILES: Anthony, as a senior member of Labor, and we know that over the years the Mob have attached themselves very strongly to Labor going back to the days of Gough. Gough was certainly an inspirational moment in the lives of Aboriginal people and he is still held in very high esteem. But, as I say, governments come and go, policies that continue to impact on Aboriginal people, we have seen here in the Northern Territory a Labor Government come and go and they ae now back in again getting back to this implementation of policy that is always coming from a white-fella area telling black-fellers what they should be doing with their lives. What is the reality of that changing?
ALBANESE: Well, it certainly needs to change and that is why empowering Indigenous people to make decisions themselves. It was a tragedy what happened over the time since I’ve been in Parliament, what happened with ATSIC, where we saw a body that was empowered to represent Indigenous people, and it fell by the wayside. So, it is a challenge but it is one that we can’t skirt around, we can’t just dismiss or say it is inconvenient because unless Indigenous people are empowered then the solutions won’t come.
WILES: And if you had a message for the Mob around the country about hanging in there, they’ve been hanging in there with white-fellas in the country for 200 years.
ALBANESE: And the truth is it would be perfectly understandable the frustration that is there but at the end of the day I guess I’m an old fashioned progressive, or lefty if you like, and I think the world does move forward. Sometimes it is slower than we would like. Most of the time it is slower than we would like and, certainly for the original inhabitants of their land, it has been far too slow but there has been advances.
In the time that I’ve been in Parliament, the fact that there are now four representatives in the Federal Parliament; the fact that we are talking about not whether there should be recognition in the Australian Constitution but what form it should take; the fact that we are saying that we need to have a discussion about a treaty as well, dealing with those longer term issues.
I sat in the Parliament for 12 years under the Howard Government where we were told that an apology would lead to division in the community. And, in my view, I have been in the Parliament for 20 years this year, and it was the finest moment since I have been in Parliament. The entire country, whether it be Indigenous people here in Alice Springs, or my son at Dulwich Hill Public School in Sydney all stopped, the whole nation stopped and was uplifted by that.
It was a magnificent moment; of course it needs to lead to much more practical change, the closing of the gap plus that range of indicators that essentially means, wouldn’t it be a great day if firstly, you had respect for the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders owned this land and secondly, if then you couldn’t have an indication of people’s economic health or social wellbeing by their race. And the fact is that you do today and all the key indicators and it will be a great day when that gap is truly closed right across education, health, employment, incomes, life expectancy, incarceration rates, right across the board.
That’s the vision that I have and this is the vision that I think most Australians would like to see. It is not clear how you get there. If it was easy someone would have done it but it is clear that we need to work together towards that aim.
WILES: Anthony Albanese thanks for your time.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.