It took Australia 23 years to ensure that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner was Indigenous themselves. That position currently belongs to Dr June Oscar AO, a Bunuba woman who grew up in Western Australia’s Fitzroy Crossing, in the Kimberley region.
Currently in her second year of a five-year term, Dr June is in charge of elevating the voices and issues of Indigenous peoples, and it’s a role that’s brought her to Sydney, 4,700 kilometres away from Kimberley, Western Australia.
Born in 1962, the 57-year-old describes her childhood as a time when the “ravages of alcohol hadn’t hit,” and the majority of men in her community lived and worked on cattle farms, alongside their families.
“It was very solid in terms of security for family,” she said, speaking to Marlee Silva on Mamamia’s Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast.
“It was a wonderful childhood.”
Everything came “crashing down” in 1968 when the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission ruled on equal wages in the cattle industry. The policy was a hollow victory which didn’t deliver higher wages as intended, but saw hundreds of Indigenous families forced off the farms and properties they had lived on for generations, as their positions were given to white workers.
“Many families were told to move off the cattle properties as workers, and ended up in fringe camps and missions,” she said.
Describing the conditions as “almost-refugee like”, multiple tribes were forced to live in confined areas.
“There were communal toilets, taps, showers, washing areas, and very little housing. There was no real plan for the numbers of people who would be affected,” she described.
However, it was there that she was also exposed to “impressive” and effective governance, in which cultural leaders, who all spoke different languages, met up to discuss how their tribes could live harmoniously. And they did.
“We all got along. We all lived and shared food, stories. Many, many things,” she said.
Marlee Silva sat down with Dr June Oscar AO on our podcast, Tiddas 4 Tiddas and talked about her community and how she’s trying to create change through her role as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. Post continues after audio.
This admiration and respect for language and communication would become a central theme to Dr June’s career. At 17 years of age, she took a job as a telephonist and typist, before returning to the Kimberly, to work at the Aboriginal Legal Services as a relief person. From there, she would assist solicitors representing Aboriginal and Indigenous people in court, where a particular case caught her eye.
“There was a group of Aboriginal stockmen that had been discriminated against and treated terribly by white station workers in the Fitzroy Valley,” she said.
“I didn’t know anything about human rights then, but I guess I knew we shouldn’t tolerate this.
“It was then I realised as Aboriginal people we don’t have to put up with this. We can take action. It opened my eyes to the real way Aboriginal people could access justice, that we could secure legal support, that we could take action, have someone speak on our behalf, or we could represent ourselves in the courts.”