Gentle and polite, ACT Senior Australian of the Year Pat Anderson tells reporter ANDREW MATHIESON about the gift indigenous people are giving to Australia…
CAUTIOUSLY standing on a podium of the United Nations, the eyes of the room all drawn towards Pat Anderson, was an audacious introduction to stand up for your people on the world stage.
The internationally recognised advocate for Aboriginal health and human rights who rose up from the humblest of beginnings still remembers the weight of expectations of her words in Geneva some three decades on.
“All I am thinking is ‘I am a long way from Darwin, let alone a long way from Parap camp’,” Pat says, reflecting on her childhood at the time.
Parap was a suburb on the pointy end of Darwin where values were locked into a different time even for the day.
Almost indignant at the surrounds of the Territory’s colonial post-war period, parents Gus and Molly Anderson only knew one way out of the huddled masses of the Parap camp, a collection of surplus army tents pegged down and sheltered away for Aboriginal and “mixed” families.
“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 also came with a reminder as the site of the Darwin Rebellion a war generation earlier where the 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 that rivalled the Eureka Stockade.
The echoes of an unrepresented people deprived of a vote, let alone a say in their lives, still resonates towards making change.
“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 the wider community to our cause,” Pat says.
“We are a sovereign people, an ancient people, we have knowledge and we are of value.”
Those nerves in Geneva between shuffling papers at the UN working group on indigenous populations were heightened further by Lowitja O’Donoghue.
The ATSIC chairwoman at the time, who is still a revered figurehead in the Aboriginal community, told the Alyawarre woman to make the occasion count considering they didn’t have speaking rights on a floor.
“She said, ’Have you come prepared?’ And we were like, ‘yes, we’re ready’.
“She took a second and 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?
“She was sitting, then got up, walked across to me and leant across the balustrade, and said: ‘Let me tell you, don’t go over time, madam is going to ring the bell and it’s very rude’.”
Pat did go overtime, but it didn’t matter.
The message came across as did the applause.
The honours and awards have piled up since, but that doesn’t tell the full story behind the woman.
She is gentle and polite. A softie at heart.
Maybe that comes from her mum being one of the first of the stolen generation where protecting children is more her mantra than a job.
But despite the nature of her soul, the Hackett resident can and has been an outspoken critic on government policy.
She co-authored the “Little Children Are Sacred” report in 2007 about child abuse in the NT that led to an infamous speech that damned the Howard government over its intervention.
Now the process that has taken the better part of a decade lands on the Uluru Statement that draws shape from when the First Fleet arrived.
“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 Uluru Statement from the Heart was released in 2017 at the First Nations national constitutional convention after meeting with more than 1200 indigenous people of note.
It calls for a First Nations’ voice in the Australian constitution and to supervise agreements and truth-telling with the federal government.
“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.”
Recently named the ACT Senior Australian of the Year, Pat is still thinking of the little picture and her roots, too.
The 75-year-old is heading the fight to stop Dan Murphy’s building a liquor outlet across the road from three Aboriginal dry communities.
“There is not the population for it, but it will be the biggest in the country,” she said.
“It’s just unconscionable. It’s about making money from people’s misery.”