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ACT's first Aboriginal Supreme Court judge draws on lessons of the past to call for a better future

Jess Whaler -

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (AIATSIS) held the annual Russell Taylor Oration Thursday, marking its first year since the recent passing of Mr Russell Taylor, a proud Kamilaroi man and the longest standing Chief Executive Officer of AIATSIS.

The Russell Taylor Oration honours the achievements and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in the public service. Delivering the oration this year was his daughter, Louise Taylor - the ACT's first ever Aboriginal Supreme Court Judge.

Mr Taylor was also a highly reputable Australian Public Servant himself, having worked to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for over forty years.

Ngunnawal Elders Aunty Caroline Hughes and Aunty Jude Barlow were in attendance, with Aunty Caroline emceeing the event and Aunty Jude delivering a Welcome to Country.

Ngunnawal elders Aunty Jude Barlow and Aunty Caroline Hughes with Kamilaroi woman and Magistrate Louise Taylor. (Image: Jess Whaler - National Indigenous Times)

The Honourable Magistrate Louise Taylor took to the podium to deliver a heartfelt speech dedicated to her father, speaking of ways in which he inspired her and improvements that could be made to the Australian Public Service (APS).

Magistrate Taylor acknowledged country and stated "sovereignty has not been ceded this always was and always will be Aboriginal land."

She then provided an overview of her father's life and career, sharing that he was born and raised in housing commission residence in Millers Point, New South Wales, before leading a career as a senior public servant, she added that growing up in Millers Point made him tough.

Magistrate Taylor said her father often reflected on how his life could have gone in a different direction, "he had a lifelong friend who was murdered after becoming involved with drugs and as a younger Aboriginal man he had his own interactions with the law".

"Those factors all combined to see dad a student of the human condition and careful I think in his judgement the failing of others."

Mr Taylor spent years in the banking industry before undertaking a Masters Degree to further his career, and saw tertiary qualifications as a key to unlocking professional mobility.

"He was right," she said.

"Dad was the first Aboriginal person to obtain an MBA and he would go on to spend three decades as a public servant."

She reflected on a time he spoke at Old Parliament House where his family watched on proudly in awe.

"A Kamilaroi man holding the floor in that place, would have been unthinkable in our recent past. Yet here he was occupying space like he was always meant to be there. It was I think a big reflection of dad's life," she said.

"A life spent carving out a place for himself and for his people."

Magistrate Taylor spoke of the grief of missing her father.

"I take this opportunity to say something of the role of grief in our communities, a burden my father certainly carried in his life and a burden our communities seen to disproportionately bare," she said.

"In my work I commonly observe the effect of loss and grief and it can be all consuming. We are not especially good as society at dealing with grief. Or supporting those around us who are carrying the burden of it. Without the right supports people have nowhere to put their grief and it often manifests in behaviors that are self-destructive and or antisocial.

"Even with all the wonderful supports that I have, grief feels to me like the heaviest of cloaks laying over my shoulders. Some days it's oddly comforting and others it feels so heavy, it almost brings me to my knees."

Magistrate Taylor spoke of the expectations her father would have of her to get on with her life before she saying that she tries to live up to this expectation, but that "not everyone is well supported in our community, they experience grief on top of additional trauma".

She spoke on her roles as a Kamilaroi woman and judicial officer.

"I don't see myself through the prism through my judicial appointment I see myself as a Kamilaroi woman with some knowledge of the law and unsurprisingly I have many thoughts of how the world is for our people both in and outside of law."

Magistrate Taylor said she spent many hours discussing politics and the public service with her father and they agreed: "it is essential for First Nations people to be walking the hallways, to be inside the offices and to be sitting at the tables where decisions are being made about ideas that will impact our lives."

"Firstly, he truly and authentically believed that public service provided the opportunity for our people to contribute to improving the lives of our mob. Dad firmly believed in the idea that nothing about us should be without us. And I think he's longevity in the APS (Australian Public Service) is proof of the strength of that belief, for it was not always easy," she said.

"In fact, I'm not sure it was ever easy. Dad experienced many periods of great frustration, disappointment and disillusionment with the APS, his role in it and the constraints of public office. Dad was single-minded in his determination to make space for himself and for other First Nations people in the APS. And in many respects, it was sheer stubbornness on his part, not to be pushed out by those more difficult periods."

She said her father's capacity to push through his frustrations and disappointments with the APS at times was driven by the idea that some of us have to be there, and, critically, that more of us need to be there.

Reflecting of the Australian Public Service now, Justice Taylor highlighted that First Nations people are still significantly underrepresented in senior executive roles and are therefore unable to be truly influential in shaping policy decisions.

On how the APS can improve to attract and retain First Nations employees, she said cultural competence should be core business as should identified leadership pathways and training opportunities.

Justice Taylor referred to racism, stereotypes and the burden of walking in two worlds as barriers to a successful career stating that she can strongly identify with those challenges.

"There is professional risk inherent in calling out some of those challenges when you are inside a tent," she said.

"For my own experience, it's a factor that has constantly demanded a biting of my tongue. A tolerance for the dominance of Western culture and the need to express my views carefully, lest I be accused of being overly emotional, or too close to a topic.

"It's a factor that sees me sit in rooms over the years and have my own people explained to me by non Indigenous bureaucrats and other professionals, confident in their ability to lead us to salvation. I've been in situations where those same kinds of people have mused about the position of our mob, like I'm not even in the room.

"It's a feeling of being outnumbered, knowing that at some point, you will have to speak up and the non Indigenous people around you, who have enthusiastically professed ally ship at every turn, will lower their eyes when you ask them to put their neck out."

The trail-blazing judge said "subtle references" to her identity were used "as a tactic to suggest that my presence in the room or indeed on the bench is an accident of tokenism, as opposed to the consequences of my skill and ability".

"The two worlds factor has most commonly resulted in a reevaluation of my place in the system I am part of resulting in questioning whether that position is sustainable in the interests of my own well-being and my own integrity," she said.

"When I look back on my life and indeed my career, I can identify two different kinds of experience. One where a person has clocked that I'm Aboriginal and the other where they haven't because my skin isn't black so they've got permission to treat me as either being not quite Aboriginal enough or as a potential co-conspirator.

"The first kind of experience means non-Indigenous people have felt permission to say all kinds of things instructive of their authentic views about our mob.

"You learn to move around in the world bracing for those experiences, and over time, you develop ways of responding to them. But it must be said that cumulatively they take a toll, and they represent the additional labor that First Nations people take on when we move around in the APS and other places where it's essential for us to be."

Justice Taylor said her father strongly believed in a Constitutionally Enshrined Voice to Parliament as a mechanism to guarantee policy and decision-making about us was not done without us.

"He saw it as one way to balance the absence of our critical senior mass across the APS and as an essential lever to ensure government transparency and accountability in particular, over their billions of dollars spent on our affairs each year," she said.

She noted her father had previously said: "I believe that there is considerable value and benefit to the nation in pursuing and securing both meaningful constitutional change and agreement in the form of a treaty or treaties in order to address unresolved issues of sovereignty and historical grievances."

Justice Taylor's full speech and video will be uploaded to this page as soon as it is available.

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