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Pat Anderson's long journey has important steps to come

Andrew Mathieson -

To deliver a speech for your own nation among the nation states of the world in diplomatic Geneva is always deemed a privilege, but one personal address from the heart of the world's oldest continuous living culture was worth the wait of the journey.

There Pat Anderson from the podium was surveying the eyes of the room of delegates of United Nations members staring back, all the while carrying the weight of 65,000 years of history proudly on the resilient Alyawarre woman's shoulders.

The internationally-recognised advocate for Indigenous health grew up from humble beginnings and that upbringing was not far from her mind in that moment.

"All I was thinking is, 'I am a long way from Darwin, let alone a long way from Parap camp'," Pat says, reflecting on her childhood memories at the time.

Parap was an inner suburb on the pointy end of Darwin where values were ingrained to a different time, even for the day around war-time Australia.

The camp itself, which she called once home, was a collection of surplus army tents, pegged down and sheltered away from the rest of established Darwin for Aboriginal and "mixed" families to exist.

Almost indignant at the surrounds of the Territory's colonial post-war period, parents Gus and Molly Anderson only knew one way out of Parap.

"It was a tight, intolerant, closed community, but nevertheless, it was a safe place for us to grow up," Pat recalls.

"That's where my parents instilled in us a really strong sense of justice and what was right and wrong.

"They also encouraged us to be brave, to stand up and say what you needed to say."

It was the site of the Darwin Rebellion a war generation earlier, where a culmination of unrest in the Australian Workers' Union against the Commonwealth concerning political representation, unemployment, taxation, industrial disputes, and the White Australia policy came to a head.

That had shaped the mindset of unionist Gus and stirred up a downtrodden people where scenes even rivalled the Eureka Stockade nearly a century earlier.

The echoes of a then unrepresented people, deprived of a vote, let alone a say in their lives, still resonates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today.

"I thought much of the same thing where I've spent my life of trying to make change, trying to educate, trying to convince, trying to coax, trying to cajole what is a wider community to our cause," Pat says.

"We are a sovereign people, an ancient people, we have knowledge and we are of value."

That brings the 79-year-old's thought back to the nerves on the Geneva floor, between shuffling a few papers for the UN working group on Indigenous populations that were intensified further by mentor Lowitja O'Donoghue.

The ATSIC chairwoman of the time, who remains a revered figurehead, reminded Pat to make the speech count considering they don't have speaking rights on the floor.

"Lois looked me in the eye and said, 'Have you come prepared?' We were just like, I think, 'yes, we think we're ready'.

"She took a second, twirled around in her chair, saying, 'you take the floor', pointing to me. I'm thinking does she mean now or on the floor of the session?"

Lowitja needn't worry. The message came out as clearly as the applause that followed.

The honours and awards for the Canberra resident have piled up since that day, but that does not tell the full story behind Aunty Pat's body of serious work.

She is, and has remained, gentle and polite. A real softie at heart. A person who could not welcome a visitor into her modest home without an offer of a cuppa.

But in knowledge that her mum was part of the Stolen Generations, she has remained an outspoken critic on government policies that have affected First Nations people.

She first co-authored the Little Children Are Sacred report in 2007 about child abuse in the Northern Territory that led to a speech that damned the Howard government over its intervention.

Interest has since landed on – for the better part of a decade – co-chairing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The architect for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament has taken a very pragmatic stance amid all the pollie waffle close to home in the nation's capital.

"Any gains or achievements and there have been many – things have changed – but to say that nothing's changed is not correct," Pat says.

"We're still fighting the same battles. But what we have done through our activism, I am pretty proud of that."

The statement was released back in 2017 at the First Nations' national constitutional convention after meeting with more than 1200 prominent Indigenous people of note.

The respected Indigenous elder said this year's referendum to alter the constitution can finally rid partisanship politics and allow "truth-telling" to enter the Parliament.

"It's a gift that we very mindfully gave it as a gift for the Australian people because it's the Australian people that can change and call for reform, proper structural reform," Pat explains, "and it's the Australian people who vote in the referendum and it's the Australian people that tell the politicians and the PM what to do."

Opponents to the affirmative in the Indigenous Voice to Parliament argue that the tool will be too bureaucratic and not in the hands of the real people that it affects.

But Pat waves away such talk that her activism is not embedded in grassroots causes.

The care for her hometown had her recent fight nearly 4,500 kilometres away to stop a Dan Murphy's bottle shop, during the pandemic, to build a new liquor outlet across the road from three Aboriginal dry communities.

"Other than there was not the population for it, which would've be the biggest in the country," she says, "it was just unconscionable with all that making money from our people's misery."


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