Indigenous people travelled for three days to get to Canberra to put their case to a Parliamentary committee; Tony Abbott walked in late, didn’t apologise, sat down and then fell asleep. Lavinia Projustice saw it all.
This blog is dedicated to all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who may feel offended by one man’s actions. This is the story of the picture below – which has been shared thousands of times on social media – and the subsequent “victims” statements.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN — MY FIRST VISIT TO PARLIAMENT HOUSE
I had a sense of foreboding as I walked toward Parliament House with my husband on 18 September 2008.
The enormous Australian flag overhead calmed me, but the Union Jack made me feel as if this place wasn’t quite ours. My reservations were quelled as the Australian sunlight lit the vast marble foyer. Huge vases of native flowers stood proudly on pillars and desks hewn from native timbers - all guided your eyes to staircases that were grand without being opulent.
We climbed the marble staircase.
Question Time was booked out (as newcomers, we did not know you had to book), so we decided to check out a Committee or two. We headed for the one on Indigenous Affairs, which was due to start shortly.
Waiting in the foyer outside the Committee room, I noticed a group of Indigenous people. My heart leapt to see them in this place. Were they there to sit in on a Committee? Were they from the Outback? Why were they here? Did they work here?
I caught the eye of one of the two ladies. The last thing I wanted was for them to think I was staring, but I wasn’t about to look away as her warm eyes met mine. She was a beautiful lady with a serene face. Her dark eyes showed humility yet quiet confidence. Her hair was neat but not tailored, her perfectly ironed clothes were neat and practical. This was a woman with a sense of purpose and substance, yet I could sense an uneasiness and nervousness. The other lady had the same “presence”, but I looked away for fear of appearing rude.
I began to get nervous. We were asked to wait in what seemed to be a small foyer now. A guard sat by the huge doors. The guard startled me as he stepped forward. He opened the doors and an ocean of people appeared, all sitting, staring at something. He set us down, I was so glad to sit.
My heart raced. My eyes followed the stares. The Ladies I had seen before were sitting out the front with three other people. They had their backs to us, the audience, but were facing the six Parliamentary members of the Committee. I sat there with a sense of pride in my heart for these women. I felt immense humbleness as I hung on every word. These amazing ladies were presenting submissions.
The first community representative spoke with authority about the remoteness of where they lived; how remote areas often missed out on new business enterprise funding. She explained that just to get to Canberra, they had been travelling since Monday. It was Thursday; they had travelled for three days.
The second lady spoke of a tourism venture she coordinated. They desperately wanted their remote communities to set up businesses. They knew education and jobs got people off welfare, but remote communities miss out. This was the general theme of the speakers.
Then, well into proceedings, a white man wearing a shirt and tie walked into the room. It was an MP and he was late — but he did not apologise. He just came in and sat down. For this, I was appalled. My husband tried to calm me, but I couldn’t be calmed, as I ached with shame and embarrassment.
But this was not the worst of it.
He looked tired. And after sitting for a few minutes, his eyes drooped and his head fell forward - like a baby fighting for consciousness. Time after time he jerked it back and pretended to listen, but it kept dropping mercilessly to his shirt. Then he placed his hands behind his head and lent back — a great tactic to stop your head falling on your shirt.
Then he went fast asleep.
This man was Tony Abbott.
This incident has haunted me to this day. But what could I do?
MY SECOND VISIT TO CANBERRA (September 2012)
Seeing Tony Abbott in Parliament made me cast my mind back to that day with the ladies. From that day, I had no respect for this man and could not believe it when he was made leader of the Liberal Party and could become our nation’s Prime Minister.
Here he was abusing the Prime Minister; calling her a liar; tearing her down. That triggered me to have a flashback, where I could see him asleep in front of the ladies - the ladies who had travelled from the middle of Australia for three days to meet our representatives in Canberra. Watching his insulting three word slogans and absurd points of order, I felt bilious.
When we left Parliament House, my husband found this photo of Tony Abbott asleep. I made this post on Facebook. To me, this poster is an apology.
Before the poster I had mentioned this incident on Facebook often, and each time I had the same reaction from others. Horror.
When we got home, we researched and posted the detail of the Committee for all to see - and for those who still doubted, who cared? Us and the ladies (who we were then unable to track down) and a room full of people knew it was true. But, most of all, Tony Abbott did.
After a while, I forgot about the poster, but the ladies shot to my mind at certain times. I thought of them with pride. When the Prime Minister delivered her misogyny speech to Tony Abbott, I felt she was speaking for me and all women as I am sure a lot of women did. Particularly vivid to me was the fact that it was directed at this man - the same man who had gone to sleep in front of these two women.
Then I saw the poster appear on Facebook out of the blue with 5000 shares. At the time of writing, it is close to 11,000.
One night, Independent Australia’s David Donovan messaged me about writing about the incident and the ladies. He asked us to provide statutory declarations and asked us try again to track down the ladies.
Thank goodness for Google, because armed with the official Hansard of the hearing for that day, we found their homeland from where they took three days to get to Canberra. They were lobbying for funding for aboriginal business enterprises to get started to break the welfare cycle, but particularly for remote areas. Take it from me - they are remote.
Using the detail we had on the Committee hearing, we tracked down where “my ladies” lived. We even used the White pages. We rang a few people with the same names, my heart pounding each time in the hope the elusive ladies could be found. I just wanted to tell them that people were apologising for Tony Abbott.
We found a community web page which had a Community phone Directory, which included the General Store, Community Centre, Police, School, etc.
My heart began beating wildly again. This must be it. I rang several numbers, including the Police Station. Nothing. I hoped it was too early in the morning. I got to the stage where I just dialled and held the phone, no racing heart in anticipation. Nobody was answering
The guy at the garage answered! I almost jumped down the phone. He was a gorgeous person. I think he thought he had a mad woman on the phone, because I ranted about how rapt I was to have him answer. When he said he knew both ladies, I went through the roof. He said the first lady had been there the night before.
The garage guy took my phone number and said he would pass it on to the ladies when they called there. That might take a week or so - but I’d already waited 5 years. The next morning, would you believe, the phone rang. My husband answered and had a grin from ear-to-ear. It was my Lady One!
I told her our story, how humble I felt talking to her, and how brave she was for doing what she did. We talked about the outcome, which wasn’t great. I mentioned Tony Abbott walking in late and falling asleep. She said she had screwed up a piece of paper and felt like throwing it at him to wake him up, but her friend, Lady Two stopped her. She said she felt sorry for the other speakers, they also thought he was rude.
I told her about the Facebook poster I had made, and how so many people had shared and were horrified that this had happened. She replied with incredulity: “Yeah?”.
This beautiful lady, treated so badly yet thinking of others, and surprised that people would feel disgusted by this behaviour. It was one of the most extraordinarily humbling feelings of my life.
I was to find out from Lady Two, later, just why she felt like this.
Dear Lady Two rang me the very next day. The garage guy had passed on my message. I was at work and couldn’t speak. I quickly jotted down her number as if it were the Holy Grail. Apologising, almost begging if it would be OK for me to ring later that day. She sounded like a happy, carefree lady and said it was fine.
That day I was full of anticipation again. Lady Two lived further away from Lady One and, to me, this was further out in the bush. Would the landline work?
I realized, as I pondered ringing Lady Two, that I felt in two minds about contacting her - no longer just wanting to contact the ladies for verification about Tony Abbott going to sleep. I wanted the poster and its thousands of shares to act as an apology to the ladies. None of us needed verify anything. This is not political, money or media driven. It is plain human decency.
The time came. Heart racing in anticipation again, I rang Lady Two’s number and she answered. She immediately made me relax. Straight away, she asked in a down-to-earth, no-nonsense way, what she could do for me. Reading her replies to the typically stupid Committee questions, I already knew there was no beating around the bush with Lady Two.
As with Lady One, I explained my husband and I were at the Committee hearing in 2008 . She immediately launched into how it was a waste of time as they got no money to establish businesses. As she had said that day, they are just too isolated and money doesn’t get there. It goes to the towns. She told me about her family and gave me a far greater picture of her life. She said out of the blue, “Abbott” was on that committee.
She said: “Yes, he went to sleep”
“Yes,” she replied. I told her then about my poster and how thousands of people thought how terrible that was, and that I believed it was their way of apologising for his rudeness.
“I can’t help it if he is an ignorant pig.”
I agreed with that and explained how overcome I was to talk to her and Lady One and how ashamed I felt because of this behaviour. She said other people in her party thought he was rude and added:
“We are used to being treated like that!”
A sob paralysed me; my body ached with shame. Not only for the ladies, but for all Indigenous people.
I simply added, “Well you shouldn’t be used to it.”
At that moment, I decided to write this blog myself.
I did not stand up on that day and protest.
This blog is the least I can do.