Senator Lidia Thorpe is an Indigenous woman from Victoria and is one of sixteen members of the federal parliament from the Australian Greens. The leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt describes her as “a warrior for her people”.
The Greens emerged as a political party from state and national environmental movements in the early 1990s, winning a handful of positions in the Senate before making headway in the House of Representatives, first in Victoria and then, spectacularly, in Queensland at the May 2022 federal election.
As well as having strong commitments on environmental matters, the Greens give priority to social justice in general and to the rights and needs of Indigenous Australians specifically. It is a long time since they could be portrayed as a ‘single-issue’ party and Senator Thorpe’s warrior qualities sit well alongside the Greens’ often combative approach to politics.
(There are ten other federal parliamentarians, from across the political spectrum, who identify as being Indigenous Australians, some of whom can rightly claim to have fought long and hard for Indigenous rights.)
Lidia Thorpe has been a Senator for just over two years. Following the recent election, she came Deputy Leader of the Greens in the Senate, where the party holds twelve of the 76 positions. On Thursday, she was obliged to resign from her leadership position, following a media storm over a hitherto undeclared personal relationship with a former member of a ‘bikie gang’.
Was that consequence reasonable in the circumstances? Has the media reporting and other commentary – which continues as I write – displayed undertones of racism and sexism?
To me, the answer to the first question is a clear ‘Yes’. At the time of the relationship – they “dated briefly” according to Thorpe – the Senator was a member of parliament’s Law Enforcement Committee. The activities of bikie gangs was one of the subjects considered by the committee from time to time. So, there was potential for Senator Thorpe to have a conflict of interest. The wisest course would have been to inform the other committee members and Adam Bandt about the relationship – it is understood they had ongoing, infrequent, low-key interactions – or to give up her place on the committee to another Greens parliamentarian. She chose to do neither and that – not the actual relationship – was an error of judgment.
The answer to the second question is not so clear.
One of the consequences of being a ‘warrior’ rather than a person who goes about their work somewhat meekly, is that you make enemies as well as admirers. For example, earlier this year, when freshly-elected Senators were being sworn in, Thorpe referred to the then Queen as being a “coloniser”. She was obliged to redo her oath of allegiance but she’d made her point. It quickly generated a brief storm of commentary, some congratulatory, some condemnatory. And there have been other negative headlines arising from the way Thorpe goes about her work.
Throw in the fact that Lidia Thorpe is from the combative Greens party, is unfailingly proud to be Indigenous and is an assertive woman, well, that widens the scope for her to face prejudice. So, when the error of judgment came to light, some of her detractors couldn’t restrain themselves.
I think some of the reporting of this episode has been factual and fair, while some has been salacious and unbalanced; and, as a whole, it has taken on a life of its own to create quite the pile-on. This has included provocative contributions from Labor – who are in a constant state of undeclared war with the Greens – and confected indignity from the Coalition, who are quite comfortable with being the pot that calls the kettle black.
However, the waters have been muddied a little by the fact that some of the most strident criticism has come from another strong Indigenous woman, Professor Marcia Langton, who has been at odds with Senator Thorpe for some time over Thorpe’s stance on the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Professor Langton seems to have taken this opportunity to seek to diminish Thorpe’s influence in the Greens ranks.
IF Lidia Thorpe’s political career continues – she has more to endure when parliament resumes next week – she will need to learn some lessons from this brouhaha. One is that perceptions do sometimes matter more than you would like. So, to be an effective, enduring warrior, you need to be particularly assiduous in being seen to have integrity in all that you do. And, to help ensure that is the case, you need to empower those who work for you.
Cheers for now!