Because of her, we can: Jackie Huggins is proud to be a leader and a role model

By Stephen Easton

July 6, 2018

This year’s NAIDOC Week celebrates Indigenous Australian women for the contributions they have made to their communities.

“They are our mothers, our elders, our grandmothers, our aunties, our sisters and our daughters,” explains the official statement, noting however that their roles in the “cultural, social and political survival” of their people have been “invisible, unsung or diminished” in many cases.

These sentiments resonate strongly with Jackie Huggins, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, who stepped away from the international First Nations Governance Forum at Old Parliament House to speak to The Mandarin ahead of NAIDOC Week.

“This year it will highlight the wonderful role that women have played within their communities. And we’ve always known that Aboriginal women are the backbone of our communities — and Aboriginal men will usually agree with that — because we are the nurturers, the carers.

“Generally speaking I think that Aboriginal women have always been there at the forefront, but not so highly visible as Aboriginal men, particularly in leadership roles, and particularly in the past.”

Huggins has earned much respect over her career as an activist, author and historian, as well as in various roles with the Queensland and Commonwealth governments. Her biography in the Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia shows why she is a role model to many, and it’s a badge she wears with pride.

“I have no problems with that, or problems with the notion of being a leader in my community, and the wider community. I don’t flinch away from that whatsoever, because I’ve worked over four decades now in Aboriginal affairs, and I feel I’ve certainly earned a lot of respect, and wisdom, from it.”

Recognition of her work goes beyond the sphere of Indigenous affairs; a La Trobe University scholarship for a refugee or migrant studying in the field of human rights was recently named in her honour. “I think that’s been quite a coup, in terms of reversing the dynamic a bit, so I’m very proud to have been able to do that,” she says.

This came after the National Congress and the Islamic Council of Victoria, which partly funds the scholarship, signed an accord recognising they both support “a multicultural and respectful Australia” and respect the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

A special role for Indigenous public servants

Coincidentally, it was also at Old Parliament House that Patricia Turner, another very strong role model for Indigenous women and a former APS deputy secretary, spoke to public servants last year at an event marking 50 years of Commonwealth Indigenous affairs policy.

Turner said public servants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background should stand up for their people in their day-to-day work, where possible. A self-described member of an activist generation, Turner said they still needed to play this special role — and that meant a little “fire in the belly” might still be required.

“I’ve always believed we should have our people working within the system, and outside the system as well, so that we’re able to find the solutions and work together in eradicating the social ills that present themselves to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” says Huggins.

She counts the “tenacious, ferocious” Pat Turner as a dear friend and one of her own role models, and says she also learned a lot herself in those early days of the Aboriginal Affairs bureaucracy.

“I worked in the public service for about 12 years myself, back in the day. I cut my teeth there, and I can appreciate how hard it is being inside the system and trying to advocate the policies and procedures of the day for government, but also being a member of the Aboriginal community, and I think every Indigenous public servant is struck by that.

“But in those days it was very hard. Pat was the only one at the most senior level … but what a great role model she was. She was incredible, because there was nobody else there, and we all looked up to her.”

Huggins lists a few other notable Indigenous people who have climbed high in the APS, including Kerrie Tim, who became the first Indigenous woman to be chief of staff to the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs this year.

“These are people I think that never lost touch with their communities, or were sucked into a machinery of government that they got so seduced by, in a sense, that they forgot about their people.”

Like Turner, Huggins explained this idea of not “selling out” by putting your own career first and standing up for your people in your work for the government was often driven by expectations of family and community.

“Yes, I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it myself.

“You walk between two worlds, as the old saying goes, within the public service and in your community, and you work in those two worlds of black and white. And I think it takes an extremely skilled person to traverse that.”

She doubts that non-Indigenous friends and colleagues would ever quite understand, but times have changed somewhat as well. The current deputy secretary in charge of Indigenous affairs, celebrated academic Ian Anderson, also spoke at the event last year and counted himself among an emergent “Indigenous middle class”.

The term sets this group apart from those dwelling outside of cities and towns, where significant disadvantages remain, and Huggins still believes Indigenous people need to work together help each other.

“I think there is a clear obligation that when you have education, when you have status, when you have any kind of elevated position or role in the community, it is incumbent upon you to give back to community.

“It’s really incumbent on you to give the others a hand, to be better positioned and to build better lives for themselves, rather than disappear into the quagmire of the effects of colonisation and dispossession.

“I’ve always felt that’s been a very strong focus in my life, and the purpose of why I do this stuff — because I know I’m a privileged Aboriginal person now. I’ve worked damn hard, to make myself comfortable in my own skin, and also in terms of my economic power, and I want that for all my people.”

The struggle goes on

A focus on disadvantage is often said to contribute to entrenching it, but this is hard to avoid with Indigenous affairs. A culturally unified society is also a nice ideal but in reality a divide still exists between mainstream and Indigenous Australia, in terms of perspectives and priorities, as much as indicators of health and socio-economic wellbeing.

Issues recently taken up by the National Congress include the longstanding gap in life expectancy, finance sector spivs targeting vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, high incarceration rates and many more. The body recently criticised the disproportionate funding for juvenile detention in the Northern Territory, compared with meagre investment in diversionary programs that aim to reduce offending.

The peak body also urges immediate action after unsafe levels of Uranium and other poisonous substances were found in the only  available drinking water in at least seven remote communities, according to an ABC report.

“Water is a basic human right, as is the air that we breathe, so we have to be vigilant,” says Huggins. “Every human being deserves that, no matter where they live or where they come from, especially in a rich country like ours.”

Then there is bickering between four governments that has stalled negotiations for a renewed National Partnership Agreement on Remote Housing. Current funding for remote communities runs out in September and the National Congress fears the political stand-off will lead to even lower living standards for Aboriginal people living on country.

“Aboriginal people’s welfare and interests must not be sacrificed in partisan political disputes,” Huggins said in a press release urging the politicians to come to a compromise.

A long journey in only a few generations

Poster, National Aborigine’s And Islander’s Day Observance Committee, 1976

This year’s NAIDOC Week organisers listed some prominent Aboriginal women from the past and the present, including the iconic Palawa woman, Truganini.

Her story encapsulates both what Australia’s colonisation was like for Indigenous groups, and the start of the era when white Australians began to understand and respect their perspective on our short history, to somehow acknowledge the pain and suffering of the past, and hope for a more inclusive future.

The fledgling event paid tribute to Truganini in 1976, the year her plea for the white community to treat her with respect in death was finally followed, 100 years after she passed away.

Only a few generations earlier, she had been exhumed by scientists and put on display as a curious specimen — much as she had feared — and her name is typically recorded beside a tragic descriptor: the last full-blooded Indigenous Tasmanian.

The 70s also saw more progress towards equal treatment under electoral laws, and the first Indigenous parliamentarians — people like Neville Bonner MP, who Huggins remembers walking the halls of Old Parliament House.

“It was all men in those days,” she recalls. But now there is Linda Burney, the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives, who also spoke at the First Nations forum this week.

READ MORE: There is a decidedly positive tone to this year’s NAIDOC preparations.
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