DURING THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, Charmaine Clarke was introduced to the nation on SBS as an 'indigenous lesbian'. But that description doesn't go far towards capturing a woman who, at the age of just 31, has been a field archaeologist, a musician (with the band Tiddas), and a journalist with the ABC. And now, having won a spot on the Victorian Senate ticket for the Australian Greens, Clarke has her sights firmly set on the political arena.
'I run under the green, pink, black and purple banners,' says Clarke.
Born into the Gunditjmara community in Western Victoria, Clarke is a member of the Stolen Generation. Separated from her family at a very young age, she was sent away to a religious order in Ballarat, before being fostered out to a white family when she was nine years old. At 14, Clarke ran away to find her natural mother.
'I ended up back with my mum for about three months and got to know her a lot better. I also got to know a lot about the sort of pain and anguish she went through and to understand the circumstances of her life. It had always been told to me that my parents were ill and that it was all their fault that we'd been taken away. I came to realise it wasn't their fault. I found it was a very different story from my mother's mouth.'
With all this behind her, it is hardly surprising that although Clarke is now gearing up to enter the formal political arena, she believes her life has always been somewhat political.
'Indigenous people can't avoid but be political because we're politicised every day,' she says. 'Part of my personal development was to find out about myself first, and to try and gain as many skills and have as much input into society as possible. I was approached by the Greens to attempt to facilitate greater input into reviewing their indigenous policies. The fact that they, as a political party, were inviting indigenous people to have direct input really impressed me. I came to learn a lot more about them and that they weren't just a single-issue party.'
Given that Neville Bonner is the only Aboriginal Australian ever elected to the Senate, Clarke's aspirations hold considerable historical significance.
'There's a lot of interest because I'm an indigenous person running for parliament. One of the things I want to emphasise is that I'm just one person and don't want to be pigeon-holed as being the representative of indigenous people. A lot of people feel very disenfranchised by the political system and don't have any faith in it. I mean historically, do you blame them?
'I'm tired of feeling that indigenous people are a marginalised group. I want to break through that into the mainstream. Hopefully then, through consistent pressure, we can bring about change. We've got to start somewhere, even if it takes ten years, we've got to start somewhere.'
The recent National Sorry Day highlighted just how hot emotions run on indigenous issues in Australia. Evidence of differing opinions in the community were echoed in newspaper headlines ('Thousands Sorry, But Not PM', 'Saying Sorry Won't Fix the Problem'), as well as on talkback radio and in parliament (the Prime Minister refused to attend any Sorry Day functions). Clarke feels there were many misconceptions being thrown around about what the day was supposed to signify.
'People think that indigenous people are trying to ladle guilt on other Australians. We're not. It's about recognition that things happened and that they affected generations of people. It went on from the 50s till the 70s, and I'm only 31 but it's affected my family considerably. National Sorry Day gives a greater context where we say, "from this day forth, through a recognition of historical events, we commit ourselves that these sort of things will never happen again".'
With a resurgence in the popularity of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, and the continuing debate over Native Title as the federal election draws near, issues of race are high on the political agenda. While Clarke believes the means of pushing issues of race into the mainstream have been malicious and divisive, she does think it's time Australians pay close attention to their attitudes.
'Australians don't see them- selves as racist, yet to outsiders we are considered a very racist country. Hanson does have some really extreme views and views which are offensive not just to indigenous Australians, but to Australians generally. I'm very concerned about her rising popularity. But I think the media and the Coalition have provided a platform for it.
'If Australia's really going to be a society that's beneficial to all its citizens, then we've really got to start looking at our own internal racism. Only once we reach that stage can we really start comparing contemporary attitudes to our historical attitudes and see how far we've really come and how much further we can go.'
Clarke is upfront about her desire to enter parliament and bring about change for Aboriginal Australians. She wants to be part of an evolution in Australia's attitudes on race relations, and to 'kick the doors open' for other indigenous Australians to enter parliament.
'Indigenous people have always been pigeon-holed in Australian society by an attitude which says "that's indigenous people over there and mainstream over here". Indigenous people are part of the mainstream as well. If we're kept marginal then how can we ever truly participate in the evolution of this country?'
The Big Issue, Australia: 15 - 29 June 1998