Introduction by Croakey: As the world watches COP27 negotiations, it’s timely to hear from Larissa Baldwin-Roberts, a Widjabul Wia-bul woman from the Bundjalung Nations, and longstanding campaigner for climate justice.
Baldwin-Roberts, CEO of GetUp, recently delivered the 2022 Dr Charles Perkins Oration at the University of Sydney, a wide-ranging address in which she paid tribute to generations of First Nations activists and community mobilisers, and urged support for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.
If you want to understand how to deal with the climate crisis, we must first situate ourselves within an Indigenous worldview. To do that, we need to be thinking about three generations behind you, and three generations in front of you. Make decisions that will benefit the people in front of you, and take lessons from the people behind you. Governments can’t do that, but the leadership from our communities can.”
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article includes the names of deceased people.
Oration by Larissa Baldwin-Roberts
I’m a Widjabul Wia-bul woman from the Bundjalung Nations. I want to start by acknowledging the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, the custodians of the land that we meet on today and pay my respect to Elders past and present.
Thank you to Uncle Chicka Madden for your warm Welcome to Country today. Sovereignty was never ceded in this country, it is and always will be Aboriginal Land
I also want to pay my respects to the Perkins family, including his children Hetty, Rachel and Adam and thank them for this space and for inviting me to give the Dr Charles Perkins oration today.
Charlie was born in the aftermath of the frontier wars and the extreme violence our people faced when we were being forced onto missions.
For his generation survival was an ongoing fight and in many cases the violence of invasion was still a living memory.
Charlie is remembered as a freedom fighter when assimilation and segregation was widely practised in this country. In the face of that, he stood up against racism, called out hypocrisy and woke up this Nation and that was the catalyst for substantive change in this country.
The reckoning against racism and segregation in the US made waves here, everyday people supported and were inspired by the Civil Rights movement over there. It was Charlie and many others who spoke out and held up the mirror and forced this country to confront its own racism and subjugation of First Nations people
This is Charlie’s legacy for us and I am so honoured to be here today – so much of my life and work has been inspired by Charlie and my old people. They were a special generation of grassroots movement builders. So much of what we do as Aboriginal activists is standing on the shoulders of giants, and Charlie is one of those people for me.
Their legacy to us is not a history lesson but a call to action, to continue the fight until we achieve real self-determination, justice and equality.
We’ve just lived through some of the biggest crises in modern history all of which came in quick succession. Throughout the bushfires, droughts, floods and pandemic – the Morrison Government left too many people behind to fend for themselves.
It’s understandable that so many people are relieved to see a change in government. The Albanese Government has shown a commitment to change things and an ability to deliver on their promises – but we cannot take this as an invitation to be complacent.
We are entering what could be a transformative decade for First Nations rights and climate action, and my biggest fear is that we will squander this moment, that we’ll spend too much time appealing to governments and not do the necessary work persuading the rest of the country of a better future that’s within our grasp.
Charlie taught us that we have to articulate the change that we want to see. Governments won’t save us. Governments do only what is popular.
My analysis comes out of decades of windbacks to our organisations, like when we win and how we lose ground – I think we’ve tried to make our organisations look more like government in order to appeal to them.
We changed how we talked about ourselves in the aftermath of the NT intervention. So much of our advocacy leads with how we are being hurt and explaining that we are not the problem.
It makes sense – if the government can understand how much we are hurting, then maybe they’ll do something to fix it.
The reality is that there is little to no political will to do that because there is no demand from the majority of voters to do that.
Good campaigns don’t say what is popular, they make popular what needs to be said. That is our challenge. And in truth it’s the only way we have ever won.
My political education comes from growing up in a situation where I personally understood how much power governments have over you.
I grew up in housing commission in Lismore, I was mostly raised by a single mother, we lived in a fibro house, with garbage bags taping great big holes in the wall, my brother would throw seizures and fall clean through to the outside, we didn’t complain ever, we were too worried someone would call the welfare and we’d get taken away.
My Dad used to say to me, you’re really privileged to know who you are – I didn’t get that, it confused me and annoyed me. We were really poor. It wasn’t until I moved away from home, that I met young mob whose family were removed from Country that I understood the privilege of knowing my Country, culture and history.
The NT intervention and the Palm Island riots set me on my course into activism – I didn’t recognise what the media was saying about Aboriginal communities as being true to my family or my community. I just felt like the whole country was lying, police and politicians included.
I’d recently moved to Brisbane and I started going to these protests, I found direction from mob from the Brisbane Blacks, and many staunch Elders like Uncle Sam Watson and Uncle Ross Watson – I saw the incredible power in their activism and truth telling.
I was looking for a place to connect to people. I found people who had seen the world the way I did and they became like family to me.
Protesting outside Roma street was really unsafe, the police union was threatening to strike and there was an investigation into the murder of mulirindji Doomadgee.
I was so inspired by the work and bravery that these older activists were doing. It gave me courage to stand up. It was this influence as well as the stories from my old people and my Dad that really inspired me.
Growing up, my cousins and I would ride our bikes to the historical society in summer because it had air conditioning.
We’d type ‘Roberts’ into the catalogue and scroll right back until our grandfathers would come up.
We’d see all the letters that they wrote to the local paper telling them they wanted to smash the Aboriginal Protection Board.
Writing letters to the families in Lismore – I remember reading stuff from Uncle Frank Roberts saying ‘how can you call yourself Christians? If this is how you treat people?’
I was born into a family of truth tellers – resistance and protest is part of our history of our community. My grandparents walked off the government controlled missions in the 1930s to our own reserve on Country called Cubawee.
For my family, the Cubawee Walk Off was about the violence that they experienced. It was about protecting our community. In our language, Cubawee means “a place of full and plenty” – they didn’t have much but they had each other.
Life at Cubawee was hard – their homes had dirt floors which they swept every day, and in those days Lismore Council put a tin fence around the reserve, so white people wouldn’t see the “eyesore” of Aboriginals living there.
The Walk Off was a refusal of the control that governments had over us. It was about having greater control over our lives.
This kind of community campaigning has been in my family for generations. Dad would tell me stories about moving here to Sydney when he was a teenager he was working in the factories to send money back home to Lismore.
The stories of the protest movements in the 50s and 60s fighting for Land Rights captured my imagination. Dad met Charlie and he would tell me about him and many others and the vision they spoke about all the things that we were going to change and about what they needed to build.
None of these things made me want to be a campaigner but it did tell me who I was as a young Aboriginal woman.
I got dragged into campaigning, organising and advocacy when I was a teenager. My Elders started the Nguyundi Aboriginal health council, and we were going out to communities to work out what they need and we were going to tell the government their policies don’t work for us. My other Aunty told her I could use a laptop so that was it, I was going, I wasn’t asked.
I travelled all throughout northern NSW, to multi-day meetings travelling out to communities.
Mob would come to talk about the issues they faced. I would take all the notes and send copies to all our black organisations, the NSW health service and ministers.
People would raise things like incarceration for not having a licence, there was no public or hospital transport, and you couldn’t get taxis into Aboriginal communities because they wouldn’t go there, so they had no choice but to drive family members to dialysis. They felt targeted by the police.
They’d talk about how people were getting sick because there wasn’t proper sanitation. This was in the 2000s, and I very quickly gained an understanding of the systemic inequality that existed for First Nations people.
One day when one of my old Aunties was sick, she rang me up and said, Bub, I need you to go to this meeting for me in town and just tell them about our meetings. It’s really important.
I go in there, there were a couple of deans from universities, state and federal ministers, I’m a teenager wearing singlet, boardies and thongs.
My Aunty called me after and said what happened? I said, I told them everything, told them what we needed. She asked me how they reacted; I said, they just looked at me stupid but I told them to come to our next meetings if they don’t believe me. She just laughed but they did come to many meetings.
So when people ask me how I got into this kind of work, it’s sort of this question of nature or nurture. I come from a big activist family that has carried protest and change through generations.
As Aboriginal activists we’re called troublemakers. Charlie was called a troublemaker. We are those things, but that’s because we’re committed to making things better for our communities.
It’s in our DNA, it’s instilled in us to carry on the work of those who blazed those trails. If we respect the work of our old people that fought back against segregation and assimilation and refused to be controlled, then we have a responsibility to continue that fight.
Climate change has already become one of the biggest challenges that communities across this country are facing and governments must be held accountable to their inaction and lack of support. We‘ve just had the largest and most expensive natural disaster happen in the country and it was in my hometown.
My community has been devastated by the floods. My Dad’s house went under, as did a lot of other Aboriginal housing, and the scale of this disaster is a direct result of climate change.
There were people that came out and said that it was a choice to live in these flood prone places. But the reality is first of all, that this is where we come from. My family are Traditional Owners and to hear people saying that is infuriating and disrespectful. And what those people also don’t realise is that we’ve always lived in this place.
Everybody has a story of the ’74 floods. Everywhere you go, there are blue markers on the ground that indicate the flood levels. If you live in that town, you know what to do to deal with flooding.
This year’s floods surpassed those markers by two metres. We were completely unprepared for something of this size. People were evacuating in the darkness in the early hours of the morning, they were told the levee is going to break and on an unprecedented level. The sheer pace of how fast that water moved, made it so that even a town that is so experienced with dealing with flooding, couldn’t prepare and respond in time.
By daybreak, people were stuck on the roofs of their houses. There was a full evacuation happening, but it wasn’t the SES, it was local people that were bringing in tinnies and people coordinating Facebook pages, like Lismore Connections, putting together spreadsheets to organise help for people because the emergency call centres went down or were inundated.
In this moment it actually had to be the locals as first responders because they had the local knowledge of where the streets were and where houses were underwater, it would’ve been unsafe for professional rescuers to go in blind that quickly.
The Koori Mail, our Aboriginal community led newspaper that’s been operating for 30 years, their building is right next to the River and went completely under, in the midst of that they were leading the way with helping the community rebuild.
People were in boats for hours, my cousin Chris is the CEO of the Jali Local Land Council, which is at Cabbage Tree Island in the heart of the Richmond River. He was in his boat for three days.. That whole community went under; 180 Aboriginal people were displaced and they still don’t know when they’re going back.
The community-led response was amazing. But there was a lot of resistance, particularly from our community, to listen to what the emergency services and local services were saying. Firstly because we’d never seen this before. But also, it was only mob that could go and get people out of houses because they didn’t trust other people telling them to move on, and there is a big distrust with the police.
They didn’t have anywhere to go. There was no plan. And right now, there are still thousands of people living in tents and caravans in the front of yards. There are still upended, mouldy houses that have been moved by this force of water. There are pipes everywhere. There are parts of this town that are just totally abandoned. There are places that are still locked off from people. It’s utter devastation. And the reality is, how do you fix that?
Right now, we’re looking at a La Nina system that has multiplied. It has been supercharged by climate change. We’ve now got floods coming back and forth. They said this was a one-in-one-hundred year flood but then a month later, we had another one. This is the new normal.
We have to do something to mitigate it. We have 1.25 degrees of warming and nobody has a plan for adaptation. It is not as simple as moving people.
In Lismore, there are big issues with mental health, and now where people have been displaced, the services have been overwhelmed and people can’t access that care.
Labor have introduced a significant climate bill as their first bill in parliament, but it’s not enough and we need to see action quicker.
Lessons from Lismore
If we have learnt anything from Lismore, it is that things are urgent and that there are so many flow on effects for communities on the frontline of climate change. We need to talk about climate in a way that sees the big picture – the cause and impacts. Why there is inaction and who profits. And from that, trust communities who understand the solutions, to bring them forward.
I’ve been talking about climate for a long time. I vividly remember learning about climate change in school and seeing the temperature maps and how temperatures would rise in different parts of Australia and how sea levels would rise as well. I know the breadth of Aboriginal communities that were represented by those mobs and was looking at the map and knowing I had visited some of those places as a young person.
It became really apparent to me that this was going to force the removal of people off Country. We already know the trauma of being removed from Country – the thing that was most shocking is that people were going to be displaced in the next few decades.
This decade we know that if we don’t do anything, then more people are going to be removed.
People are going to lose their connection to Country in a massive way. We are going to lose so much of our culture and language that is connected to those places. And it’s not just us, it’s going to be right across the country.
What we learnt about climate change in school was really dominated by the science of it all. But no one was talking about climate change the way I wanted to talk about climate change. Everyone wanted to talk about biodiversity and reefs and tipping points. But I was always thinking about the people. And that’s what I’ve always cared about, is the human impact of climate change. I felt like there was this massive storm coming and no one else could see it.
I wanted to create a space where we could talk about climate in a way that centred how it was going to impact people. This was core to why we founded Seed, to create a space to have the conversation about climate that framed it as a human rights issue. So that people would see that it was going to cause so much hurt and pain for people. And while it’s nice to talk about reefs and animals, we needed to talk about how climate is already disproportionately impacting black communities.
The climate movement had a lot of momentum in 2007. We thought that if we elected someone who believes in climate change that we’d solved it.
The reality is that we underestimated mining corporations’ ability to rip the legislation out of our parliament – we saw the mining tax campaigns that turned climate into a culture war. For the last decade, we’ve not only been fighting for people to take action, but also we’ve been fighting against incredible political forces with organised money and vested interests.
They don’t want to stop extracting and they don’t care about people from communities like Lismore or any other community for that matter. The climate crisis and the way it is impacting our communities is a bi-product of colonisation – that is what the systemic root of this issue is.
Since invasion, this country has had an extractive relationship with the country in which it sits. Mining corporations have been given free reign for profit off stolen land and it’s compromised our ability to look at what people need to survive.
There are tipping points that once we get there, we’ll have no control over – that is an individualistic system, that will require a unified collective response in order to change it.
We are absolutely the best people to articulate this and to understand the scale of solutions and how we need to move together.
If you want to understand how to deal with the climate crisis, we must first situate ourselves within an Indigenous worldview. To do that, we need to be thinking about three generations behind you, and three generations in front of you. Make decisions that will benefit the people in front of you, and take lessons from the people behind you. Governments can’t do that, but the leadership from our communities can.
Momentum for change
Over the last decade I have worked with communities from across the NT – from areas over ten hour drives away from one another – all connected in this united fight to protect land and water against fracking gas bills that would protect over 70 percent of their land mass, and that was what we wanted to do – build community power.
We’re seeing this connection of communities happening all across the country, where there is this reckoning happening with the relationship and the power imbalance that exists between communities and mining corporations.
It wasn’t until George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement happened that forced us into a global reckoning about systemic racism that Traditional Owners whose globally significant heritage sites were threatened, that they started to rally again and say, hang on a minute, this was also racism. That’s what blew the campaign for cultural heritage protection right open, and people were outraged that this was completely legal and the legislation at federal level still hasn’t been implemented.
This is exactly what Charlie did. There was a global movement for civil rights that was happening and people were so outraged by what was happening in the US, that Charlie and his friends took that moment and stood up and said that you’re hypocrites. He held the mirror up. This is happening right here too.
When Charlie stood up, he was called a troublemaker, and when our stories still weren’t being covered in the mainstream media, he persisted. He knew that by building this momentum over time, it eventually builds to a moment to have huge impact.
It is this momentum that will continue to force our governments into change. Brought on by First Nations leadership, through increased agitation and people on the streets.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is the longest running protest in the world – on the 40th anniversary, people remember Tony Abbott when he said that we should move on and that we don’t have any reason to be protesting anymore.
We were so outraged as a community that a politician could come out and say something like that – but his comments, and the fact he was able to say that, are a testament to how our communities were silenced by the intervention. People didn’t know how bad things still were.
The strategy behind how we campaign across everything is centred around the breaking of this silence. That we need to reinvigorate the ability to protest in this country. We need to break the silence and people need to understand that it’s not just a few hundred or maybe thousand activists that are going to come to protests, but we want to see this all over the country. We wanted embassies across the country. And we wanted everyone to talk about the injustices that are happening in our communities.
This year, on January 26, we marked the 50 year anniversary since the Tent Embassy. A decade on from Tony Abbott’s comments and we’ve got more people turning out for Invasion Day protests than official January 26 celebrations. And that’s because people actually want to confront our history, and we take that day to really explain how systemic racism and colonisation is still impacting us today.
This is a strategic movement for us to build support and to truth tell. This is our community, creating the opportunity for us to win.
We’ve been building this momentum for years and around the time Tony Abbott made those comments about the Tent Embassy, he also came out and said that living in a remote community was a lifestyle choice – amidst the forced closures of remote communities where people were facing being displaced from their home, families and culture as they threatened to turn of the power and bulldoze whole communities.
I knew that our communities had to be the truth-tellers, and call this for what it was – assimilation and the forced removal of people off Country. I remember getting in touch with the Brisbane Blacks and saying we need to organise a protest against this. We decided to just keep protesting about this until we could get this into the media. Over a short period of a few weeks we went from about 20 to 30 people to in the 100,000s and were shutting down cities across the country.
This was one of those turning points. Where we built community power and turned that into political power.
We leveraged our community power by building that momentum and we saw this during Black Lives Matter. Communities across the country were talking about deaths in custody and the racist policing that’s existed since colonisation and shone a light on total government inaction with over 500 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the Royal Commission. People stopped seeing police targeting First Nations people as an isolated issue but a systemic problem.
We saw the power of the Yuendumu community when Kumanjayi Walker was killed by Zachary Rolfe. His family stood out in front of the police station for hours while he was inside, not knowing if he was alive. They used videos to tell their story, to truth tell – so that people everywhere would know what happened there.
In doing this, they created a national network and were immediately organised. Black Lives Matter enabled them to leverage that momentum and they got this case all the way to the Supreme Court. And in taking those videos they also collated extensive evidence for the trial and the largest coronial inquest, this truth-telling process fuelled their fight for justice.
Protests are an integral part of democracy here in Australia, with protests happening in remote communities across the country. They build this momentum through the connection of people knowing people, travelling to communities and mobilising them – this is why conversation is so powerful. It’s just regular people talking about what’s happening, sharing our stories and sharing our truth.
Holding governments to account
How we harness all of this community power for big scale change is when community power meets critical moments and points of decision – whether that’s an election, or a referendum. It’s not just about electing a government to do things that we want them to do. It’s about using our power to hold governments accountable.
There are leaders in these communities who are driving this change every day. One of the senior leaders we’ve worked with a lot – Aunty Naomi, we met in the initial days of working with Seed. She’s a stalwart of looking after her community. She understands her community and how to transform that knowledge into power.
She said to us after Kumanjayi was shot, that this wouldn’t have happened if the NT intervention hadn’t happened. Before the intervention, police couldn’t have grabbed someone out of their home the way Zachary Rolfe did to Kumnajayi. She remembers that before the intervention we had more control and decision making, we would have known the police and it wouldn’t have been a white, ex-military police officer who’s never worked in a remote area and doesn’t know the community.
She equated that loss of control to how governments hadn’t supported them during COVID, calling on the government to shut down FIFO workers, they were running out of essential services, they were being denied the right to funerals and burial rites couldn’t be performed. In our communities across the country, when COVID happened, there was a total lack of government support. It was communities who stood up and looked after each other, putting up signs, translating and using that frame of needing to protect our elders. They moved into action before anyone.
Aunty Naomi is one of the people in the community that leads the way. She has built countless programs, and she’s the one that was explaining to communities what COVID was. She was the first one to get vaccinated and the one to explain to people why they should go get vaccinated too. People like her are so important, and a testament to why community control works, she was the only one who could do this work because people didn’t trust health workers or the government after years of systemic failures to health, why would they.
Come election time, Aunty Naomi was going door-to-door and telling people to get on the electoral roll. During the NT election, Aunty Naomi made headlines calling out the government on their broken promises.
She explained why people in her community and all across remote communities in the NT, people feel frustrated during elections by being all talk and failing to deliver. She has this one quote where she says ‘we vote for them and make them look good upstairs, but down here things look ugly.’ Instead of letting politicians play politics and make empty promises, her people are getting enrolled so that they can hold them to account on these things.
The community made clear what they wanted action on – housing, a ceasefire meaning no guns in remote communities, stopping fracking, ensuring essential needs are in our shop. They didn’t care whether the government could deliver it or not, but they wouldn’t back down on their ask.
I’ve done a lot of research into what works in organising and understanding how change happens in First Nations communities. The key ingredient to creating wide scale change is First Nations people articulating what they want on a broad scale. We have to say what we want and we have to say what we don’t want. The majority of the country is open to being persuaded, but we have to understand that we are the most powerful messengers and truth tellers.
We spend a lot of time talking about the problem. But we don’t give nearly enough time to talk about how it could be different – that is what is required at this moment. All of the generations of fights and protest, resistance and persistence – we learn from this.
We can see the decades of work. We have state and territory governments looking at treaties, we’re looking at truth telling commissions, cultural heritage protections. We should be looking at representation of First Nations people now. We should be talking about a republic. These types of things need to get moving.
Seize the moment
If Charlie was here, he would be telling all of us to take this moment. Shaking us to understand that what we’re in is a very unique, once in a lifetime, moment. These opportunities don’t come around.
In the 1967 referendum, communities and organisations mobilised and said to the country we had to vote ‘yes’. From this, we’ve now spent decades growing electoral power in our communities so that we could build these moments, so that our votes are counted and that we have a voice in our democracy.
There are still issues with voter suppression and barriers that prevent First Nations people from having their vote. In the last ten years there has been wide scale voter suppression and means if it’s not fixed there will be no mandate from Aboriginal communities.
And we cannot go to a vote on this referendum until that is fixed. It was less than a year ago that the Morrison Government was ramming through racist voter ID legislation that would see thousands of First Nations people taken off the electoral roll amidst the other issues around access that already exist. This Government needs to invest in undoing the damage of the previous Government, because we can only look to expand our democracy at this referendum if everyone has equal rights and access to vote on it.
We have this moment with a referendum on the table and everyone has a role in it. When I stepped into this role as CEO of GetUp, I spoke with my old people and Elders, and I wouldn’t have stepped into my first role at GetUp without having a conversation with Uncle Sam Watson.
He asked me what I wanted to do with this; he said this is the largest political organisation in the country and you’re being offered the ability to use this resource and set the agenda with a First Nations person at the helm.
In taking up this role, I don’t take that lightly – we have the power of a million strong member base that we will mobilise for this campaign. I have an agenda, and that agenda is to make sure that we use this moment to re-envision what the next decade looks like.
That is why we have to look past the referendum, but focus on how we can transform this into making so much more possible. In campaigning we call it the Overton window. A moment when something happens and it makes so much more possible.
This is why we need to say yes – but it’s yes and… In the ’67 referendum there wasn’t a no campaign. This time we are going to face a racist no campaign from people who don’t want us to have more rights.
This is why our campaign needs to be about more than yes. Whether you’re talking to your neighbour, at your kitchen table, to your family, we need it to be: yes, I’m voting and I’m going to fight for all these other things because this is who I want to be.
Everyone needs to be able to articulate what this moment is and what it means for them. Because some moments are too important to let governments decide them, and this is one of those moments.
If you can lift Aboriginal people in this moment and recognise the crises that we face, not just here, not just climate, but the issues with housing, guns in remote communities, over-policing, deaths in custody, health – if people can understand that breadth of context, and understand that what we’re talking about what is our freedom and what it’s like to have control over our lives. Then we can persuade the masses. We can combat a racist no campaign with this narrative.
There is a role for everyone on this campaign to take action and stand with us. I see my role in this as following in the footsteps of my Elders and old people and continuing the legacy that they leave. I’ve had a hard year. In the final weeks with my dad, we spoke about everything that he achieved for his people and his community and he said that it was a promise that he made to his grandfather – that commitment to keep looking after our community.
But most importantly, we need people to see that this is not a gift that the country gives us, this is not a handout or a box ticking exercise. Our communities are not going to get behind something that is symbolic. We know that by expanding our democracy and seeing First Nations people with a seat at the table, that’s a gift that we can give to the rest of the country
We are offering the country a gift at this referendum. Charlie Perkins said: “My expectation of a good Australia is when white people would be proud to speak an Aboriginal language. When they realise there is a wealth of Aboriginal culture, it is there waiting for us all. And all they have to do is reach out and ask for it.”
What we’re offering is a better future, not just for us, but for everyone.
Watch the oration
The oration begins at 24.40 minutes in.
We acknowledge and thank the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation for funding the #HealthyCOP27 series, and Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed and the Lowitja Institute for partnering with Croakey Health Media on the project.