A force for her people

Source:The Age December 4 2004

The controversial new Aboriginal advisory council meets for the first time next week. The woman who will head it, Sue Gordon, says she's no "sell out". Meaghan Shaw reports.

Sue Gordon fixes a stare and describes what it was like meeting her mother 30 years after she was taken from her family: "Traumatic." "You can imagine yourself, how many birthdays, weddings and all that did you miss in 30 years? So, obviously, it was traumatic, but that's for me to deal with."

Gordon, 61, is tough - a good attribute for someone stepping into the most controversial position in indigenous affairs.

The West Australian Children's Court magistrate is best known for heading an inquiry into domestic violence that prompted a $75 million funding pledge from the state's Labor Government to tackle sexual abuse.

Appointed last month as head of the Federal Government's new hand-picked advisory council, which has its first meeting next week, Gordon has had to fend off criticism of being a "sell-out" to Aboriginal people. The National Indigenous Council was set up by the Government to provide advice in place of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, an elected body discredited by in-fighting and poor leadership. Legislation to abolish ATSIC should be passed by Parliament next year.

The new council's 14 members include ALP vice-president Warren Mundine, Sydney Swans footballer Adam Goodes and Brisbane barrister Tammy Williams. But it has been attacked by some indigenous people as tokenistic, unrepresentative and filled with people who subscribe to the Government's "practical reconciliation" agenda at the expense of symbolic issues.

Several indigenous leaders, such as Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson and former footballer Michael Long, were approached to sit on the council but refused.

Gordon brushes off the criticism. She says that the council is not a replacement for ATSIC, with its $100,000 salaries for commissioners and $1.2 billion budget for indigenous programs. Instead, council members will meet four or five times a year and be paid a few hundred dollars for each meeting.

"All the criticism that's been coming has really been by uninformed people. Perhaps the Government didn't get out the message clearly of just what this body is," she says.

She was motivated to accept the position to ensure Aboriginal people continued to be heard by the Government, particularly on the issues of family violence and child abuse. "I got sick of the in-fighting that was in the papers on a regular basis about ATSIC."

Gordon admits she is not a symbols person. She leans towards the thinking of Pearson, whose views on rejecting a passive welfare mentality and accepting responsibility have been endorsed by the Government. "I respect him the most of the other so-called leaders because he's doing something," she says.

"Some people still have their priority to get an apology (for the stolen generation). But to me that is a second or third or a fourth issue. The highest priority for me is child abuse and family violence because, while we continue to have Aboriginal kids raped as young as six months old, and women beaten up on a daily basis, what's saying sorry? How's that going to fix that?"

Gordon was born in 1943 at Belele sheep station near Meekatharra, about 750 kilometres north of Perth in the Gascoyne Murchison region of WA. At age four she was removed to Sister Kate's Home for Aboriginal children in Perth because she was considered a "quadroon" or quarter-blood Aborigine, who deserved the chance "to be reared as a white person away from native associations", according to her court papers. (Sister Kate's Home was begun by an Anglican nun in the 1930s as a home for half-caste children. It operated until 1974.)

The court papers also reveal that her half-caste mother, Molly, was considered able to look after her but that was disregarded by the deputy commissioner of native affairs.

Gordon was told she was an orphan after she arrived at the home.

After her white father committed suicide on Christmas Day 1951 and could no longer be forced to pay maintenance for her upkeep at Sister Kate's, she was declared a destitute child.

Gordon was at Sister Kate's with football legend Graham "Polly" Farmer, and is one of the patrons of his foundation to help young Aborigines with sport and their studies. She was also with Aboriginal activist Rob Riley, who killed himself while suffering depression exacerbated by being sacked for drink-driving offences.

Gordon has a picture of Riley pinned to her office noticeboard. She dismisses any suggestion leniency should have been showed for his offences. "There's no excuse," she says.

Riley was raped as a child at Sister Kate's, but that was after the death of the Anglican nun. "When Sister Kate ran it, she ran it in a loving, caring environment in a cottage thing, with no men in the home," Gordon says.

In a 1996 report on ABC's Four Corners, Gordon recalls the children being white until they crossed the road to school where they became "natives and darkies and niggers".

"Of course there was racism," she tells The Age. "We were racist ourselves. We were racist to the Italians. We'd call them wogs, dings, dagos, whatever. And they'd call us blackies, niggers. It's not racism in the way the word's used today . . . To me, Sister Kate's didn't do me any harm."

Gordon's "first family" are the children she grew up with. Her best friends are from there and from her time in the army, which she joined at 18. She worked in the signals regiment and represented the army in netball and athletics.

A few years later, working at Carnarvon, she realised that she had been "playing basketball against some of my cousins and things, but they were just people. I didn't have a need to go and track anybody down because I didn't think I had anybody to track down." A move north to the Pilbara with her first husband, a Vietnam veteran, during the 1970s brought her into contact with people who first told her she wasn't an orphan, "that I had a family" - in fact 11 dark-skinned brothers and sisters.

But it was her family who tracked her down.

"I've had really good relationships, I still do, with all my family. I don't have any issues there."

It was also in the Pilbara, during a 12-year stint working in administrative jobs, helping mainly traditional desert people, that her first marriage, which produced two sons, ended.

"We both had post-traumatic stresses," she says.

"He'd been to Borneo and Vietnam and he was probably killing people before he was 22. I was coming to grips with finding my family and all that sort of rubbish, and so you just don't move anywhere. It's a horrific period but I'm not going to go into all of that, suffice to say we are still friends." Her second husband, a retired police superintendent, died six years ago. Gordon has achieved many "firsts". In 1986, she was the first Aborigine to head a government department in WA, as commissioner for Aboriginal planning; in 1988 she was WA's first Aboriginal magistrate and first full-time children's court magistrate; and in 1990 she was one of five commissioners appointed by federal Labor minister Gerry Hand to the first ATSIC board.

She has been appointed by state and federal governments on both sides of politics to various positions. Her appointment as an Aboriginal magistrate was despite her lack of formal qualifications. She later completed a law degree part-time. She started it when she was 50 and it took eight years, which she juggled with her full-time court work.

Gordon says the National Indigenous Council, set up initially for two years, will provide independent advice to the Government, which has as its priorities family violence, community safety and early childhood intervention.

"We're not Government puppets," she says. "I've said if our advice as a collective body wasn't being adhered to and we felt it was good advice, then we would have a recourse to go and see the Minister (for Indigenous Affairs, Amanda Vanstone)."

She is adamant she won't become a public commentator, "buying into" indigenous issues for the media.

Her friend and colleague Neil Fong, who has worked with her in the WA bureaucracy and on the Gordon Inquiry into domestic violence, describes her as highly principled and not into playing political games. Fong says Gordon's life has a theme of regimentation and character-building activities. "She comes across as a very hard woman but deep down, she's a real softie."

Some indigenous people have privately offered veiled criticism of her. But others have suggested the Government could get more than it bargained for with Gordon.

Outgoing Reconciliation Australia co-chairman and former Fraser government minister Fred Chaney describes her as a person of "fierce independence".

"Were I minister for Aboriginal affairs, I can't think of anyone I would rather have as an adviser. She's a really talented person with a good head and a good heart."