Sue Taffe

Introducing Sue Taffe: Sue is currently tutoring the course, ‘Rethinking Our Story, Part 2: The Uluru Statement, January 26th and other matters’. She is a Melbourne historian and has published two books: FCAATSI Black and White Together and A White Hot Flame: Mary Montgomerie Bennett – Author, Educator, Activist for Indigenous Justice, published in 2018. She holds a Master of Arts and a PhD in history.

Sue researched and wrote the permanent online exhibition, ‘Collaborating for Aboriginal Rights’ which can be found on the National Museum of Australia website.

Sue retired after completing A Hot White Flame. Marketing the book was brought to an abrupt end by the Covid lockdowns. Sue had wondered how she was going “to do that retirement thing.” Her thoughts on running a class at U3APP being, “perhaps it is the last thing I can usefully do, with regard to my research work” on earlier cross-cultural collaborations for Indigenous justice and the challenges we face today.

Sue refers to Ian Spalding, who had a “really strong influence on me.” Ian and his wife, Barbara, were original 2004 members of U3APP and Barbara is a life member. As a young man in the 1950s Ian Spalding had travelled around Australia visiting Aboriginal missions and camps and seeing firsthand the appalling conditions of life for first Australians. Horrified by what he saw, Ian Spalding with a group of supporters edited a journal On Aboriginal Affairs to educate non-Indigenous Australians about the systemic injustices facing Aboriginal people and contribute to the groundswell movement for reform which culminated in the 1967 referendum and the land rights campaigns of the 1960s.

Sue gives an example of systemic racial discrimination in the 1960s. If you were Aboriginal and contracted tuberculosis and lived in Queensland, you were not eligible for the Commonwealth Government’s tuberculosis allowance which was designed to keep those who contracted the illness at home so they did not infect others. Kath Walker (she later became Oodgeroo Noonuccal) alerted the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) to this discrimination and FCAATSI took up the matter.

Dr Barry Christophers, a Richmond GP, who was a FCAATSI office bearer and Joe McGinness, the Aboriginal president of FCAATSI, a wharfie who lived in Cairns, worked together to highlight this injustice. Joe interviewed Indigenous tuberculosis patients in the hospitals and clinics in north Queensland. He sent this information down to Barry in Melbourne and Barry worked within his medical networks in the Australian Medical Association to apply pressure on the Federal Government to amend the `Tuberculosis Act, even threatening to raise the issue with the United Nations. In February 1965, after a sixteen-month campaign targeting members of parliament, health bureaucrats, doctors and even the Governor-General who was patron of the Tuberculosis Association, they succeeded in getting the Act amended so that Indigenous sufferers would be eligible for the allowance.

At University, Sue studied Anthropology and Sociology in her undergraduate degree. For the following 20 years, she worked as a teacher. Sue and her husband lived in Canberra for twelve years, where she taught at Narrabundah College which offered a course in Aboriginal languages and culture. Sue taught this course gradually learning more and more about Aboriginal history, languages and culture. Rachael Perkins, daughter of Charles Perkins, was a student at this school.

Returning to live in Melbourne, Sue continued working in education, running a program from the Catholic Education Office to assist secondary teachers to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into their curriculum. This was “very forward thinking at that time.” It was during this time that Sue met Ian Spalding. He would come and critique their work and, along with Aboriginal educators, provided guidance for secondary school teachers, interested in expanding their knowledge and broadening their perspectives. Sue reflects that the momentum generated by reconciliation groups set up across Australia, organised through the then Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in the 1990s, has sadly been lost when it is most needed now.

Reflecting on more current controversies, Sue responded that she is somewhat ambivalent in respect to changing the date of Australia Day. Her personal view is that it would be better to celebrate on another day, as the “vehement feelings that Aboriginal people have against it, will not go away.” Sue asks, “What are we celebrating on Australia Day, the arrival of ships?” Laughing at the absurdity of it, “it’s not as though we are celebrating an achievement, just the arrival of ships with convicts, so it makes sense to shift it.” Sue wonders if many are aware that in 1938, Aboriginal people came to Sydney for the sesquicentenary to protest on what they regarded as a day of mourning.

Sue supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as it expresses a strong case for acknowledgement and inclusion. How can Indigenous Australians have no sovereignty when they were here for 60,000 years? Did they lose it because Europeans arrived?

Sue feels apprehensive however, concerning likely conservative opposition to it. Many may be suspicious, fearing that the Voice to Parliament will have too much power. A community education campaign is much needed.

If the Voice to Parliament isn’t managed well, “my greatest fear is that it might fail.” Reaching an agreement on the words that are acceptable to the Opposition is essential otherwise it will just turn into a fight and not do any good at all.

Recent valuable initiatives in our society, such as the establishment of the Koorie Court Magistrates Court of Victoria show we are capable of creative thinking. Young Offenders may be taken out to the bush by elders as an alternative to putting people in jail.

Connection to country: Sue related an interesting experience conveying the importance of connection to country. She was engaged with an interview programme with an Aboriginal organisation which took her to the Murray River in New South Wales. The Aboriginal cameraman on the project from the Echuca region teamed up with an Aboriginal man who was from further down the Murray. These two men were both from an urban environment. They talked to each other by first establishing ways in which they were connected. They did this by telling each other river stories, comparing how they were similar but also how their stories differed in relation to their own history of the Murray. This mattered and both men needed to establish communication with each other in this way before talking about other content for the interview.

A White Hot Flame: During the course of Sue’s interviews with Barry Christophers about his work in the 1960s, he had talked about Mary Bennett who died in 1961. Barry had described Mary as the ‘spiritual mother’ of FCAATSI. Sue’s interest in Mary led to a decision to write her biography.

In the 1930s Mary was opposed to taking Aboriginal children away from their mothers and became a strong advocate on their behalf. Interestingly, white feminists at the time promoted the separation of children from their mothers as being the best thing for them. Mary was convinced that this was wrong. Her views at this time were later upheld by British psychiatrist John Bowlby whose Attachment Theory reinforced the need for unbroken care between mother (or significant parent figure) and infant during the first three years. Mary Bennett was then in contact with the United Nations and informed the Western Australian Government of Bowlby’s research findings which led, eventually, to an end to the taking away of children on racial grounds.

Moving to other current themes, Sue agrees that movies and sport can influence our culture, assisting people to examine their own attitudes and be more open-minded towards Indigenous Australians.

Programs such as those run by Melbourne Indigenous Transition School in Richmond, also at Melbourne Grammar and Warragul Regional College are valuable in assisting Indigenous students to find pathways into mainstream education. Sue fully endorses such programmes.

Sue confides that she started the second term of her course with “some trepidation,” knowing that she does not have the answers, she is in the same boat as her students. “I am just another person trying to work out how we can go forward and what roadblocks there may be.” When asked if she has a sense of achievement after finishing her book, Sue accepts that it was an effort, but it was also a wonderful experience. She had been all over Australia gathering information. The project was mainly self-funded, with a little outside help.

While writing A White Hot Flame Sue visited many of the places where Mary Bennett lived and worked, in northwest Queensland, Kalgoorlie, Mount Margaret Mission, which was a “privilege.” People shared stories with her, “you feel a strong sense of responsibility, you have to get the story out.”

Sue located a series of professional photos sent to the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights by Mary Bennett, in a folder in the State Library of Victoria. She related “one of the most memorable experiences of my life,” a very moving occasion was when she showed these photos to living descendants in Kalgoorlie. Sitting around a large table, Sue told them her purpose was to return the photos to them and to ask their permission, in the interests of education, to put them on the ‘Collaborating for Indigenous Rights’ website. She recalled how they looked at these photos “in silence” they had never seen them before. The Elders in the group conferred together and gave permission to display copies in the National Museum.

Sue is looking forward to doing some U3APP courses, to being a “student” again. She enjoys taking their Border Collie for a daily walk to the beach. Sue and her husband have a house at Marlo where they can enjoy the ocean and go bush walking.

Interviewed by Felicity May and edited by Sue Taffe

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