An Interview with Dr Tjanara Goreng Goreng, Greens Candidate for the Senate

CW: Mention of Indigenous deaths in custody.

With the federal election drawing nearer, Woroni interviewed Dr Tjanara Goreng Goreng, former public servant, academic, unionist and Greens candidate for the Senate. We asked Dr Goreng Goreng about her opinions on climate action, systemic racism and the importance of practising sacred leadership in Australian politics, among other issues.

Woroni: What motivates you to run to be a senator for Canberra? 

 Dr Tjanara Goreng Goreng: My motivation is to transform the whole country … [and] to transform the systems we have in Australia to make them more people-, country- and climate-orientated. To equalise the relationship between everybody who is black, brown or a different colour- to make that an equitable relationship so we don’t have class structure or any sort. Even if we do have a class structure of the rich… Black and Brown people, First Nation people, LGBTQ people, students- anyone who is considered in a different class of income or colour, or religion or gender needs to be treated equally like humans. 

We recognise and respect diversity, but I’m motivated for us to…love and take care of everyone in the community and that community is the whole of Australia. You must start somewhere, it’s my community, then it’s the ACT and then it’s the country. The senate’s role, despite party politics, is to check and balance from the state and territory point of view, so that the country is fairer. 

For me the senate is the place where I can act in that way, which is fairer, which aligns with my values. I feel very passionate about the fact that we all should have this way of being in our country because it is moving too fast and destroying people’s lives. Why would we do that to other human beings? Our country is huge, it is wealthy. As First Nations people, we have a responsibility that everyone who comes to our country is taken care of. So I come from that perspective. That’s why I’m running. 

W: This year we’re seeing a number of independents running in the federal election, why are you running with the Greens?

TGG: I’m with the Greens because I like party structure, because there is a whole lot of structure behind it. It’s a consensus political party so it aligns with my way of being as a First Nations person. In our culture we take consensus even a step further than the Greens do. We don’t vote for anything if everyone doesn’t agree, whereas the Greens form a consensus and if they get to a point then they do a majority.  The Greens initially did not have enough First Nations input into every policy but particularly the climate action policy.  

So that’s why Green politics, that’s why party politics because I’ve got a structure of people around who I can really rely on. I don’t think I’d have the courage to be an independent, so all bravery to them for standing up and saying “I’m going to run.” Because independents need money, they need people, they need structure, and they need policies. Whereas in this organisation I’m already aligned with their value system, I’m already aligned with their principals, their pillars of being in the world. 

It fits with my cultural way, fits with my human way and they recognise gendered diversity and colour diversity… There’s a lot of power in that and there’s already six or so senators, there’s more power there for me. If I was an independent, I would have to rely on myself and I just know that I don’t have that capability. I like to be in a team.

W: What do you believe distinguishes yourself from the other senate candidates in the ACT? 

TGG: Humanity, real transparency, real integrity and accountability. My moral values are very important, and that you practise what you preach. I’m brought up in a culture, where your elders teach you certain ways of being by the time you get to my age, you’re an elder for the next lot down. You actually have to practise it so that they can see it, so they know how to do it. That’s very serious in my culture, we don’t take that lightly. 

I know I’ll make mistakes, everyone’s human, but I think I’m distinguishing myself as one because the Greens have sets of policies that they spend a lot of time on. It’s a commitment, when I say I am committed to helping you with that I mean it…I was brought up with a sense of service. We grew up in a community where children were stolen, where we took care of kids if we could, we didn’t let the government take them.  

I am distinguished because of my First Nations background, my commitment, and my integrity. It’s all out there for people to read about and I will walk my talk. I won’t promise if I can’t deliver, and I’ll do my best and say this is all I can do because other things impacted it. I hope that people accept my honesty. 

W: What do you see as the most pressing issues impacting students? And how will you advocate for students in parliament? 

 TGG: Students should have free education. There should be free education right from whenever parents want to send their kids to learn; preschool, kindergarten, right to the end of whatever degree you want to get, even if you want to get a second or third degree, by the end of your PhD.  

I benefited from having free education in the Whitlam era, I went to my first university in 1976. Up to the end of last year teaching at the university, I had [students] who had to work two or three jobs. Why should we put that on a young person straight out of school, this survival needs when actually they should be learning?

Also, universities need to be funded more to provide support services for anything a student needs. All those things need to be provided in the university, in the university town that you go to. Australia is wealthy right, why can’t we do this? We can. I reckon we need to all look after the kids until they’re ready to go to the workforce.  

W: What policies will you advocate for in parliament to tackle systemic racism in Australia? 

TGG: Yea let’s just get rid of it…I think in the education system we need to have anti-racism from the beginning. Children learn from socialisation, so let’s socialise them…to see that racism is something you should challenge. Linda Burney was one of the advocates of this when she worked in government, and I worked for her. Anti-racism in the education system creates transformation at least in that generation and then they can challenge the older generation. I mean look at climate action, all the young people have challenged the older generation not to be apathetic. I think that’s hugely important.  

Systemic racism allows people to get away with doing it, there must be checks and balances that have teeth in legislation. The human rights legislation, the civil rights legislation, the anti-discrimination legislation has to have teeth. We need a country that actually puts teeth into something. 

The reason the Royal Commission Deaths in Custody has not been implemented everywhere is because of systemic racism, because of the way the police and correction services are socialised, cultured and educated to be in their jobs. 

 Transforming systems is quite possible, it’s my work and it’s just a matter of bringing people along. Let’s not have Royal Commissions that tell corrective services officers you did the wrong thing and then we don’t charge them and send them to jail. Where are all the policemen that killed 441 Black fellas in custody? Where are they? They’re not in jail.  

W: Your platform has a strong emphasis on climate action and protecting our environment. What specific policies will you be advocating to make that happen?

TGG: We have to put First Nations knowledge and science into the management of our environment. So that means not just giving more funding, to caring for Country, but giving Aboriginal people the sovereign self determination to look after Country first and then let the white people come along and help.

So this is where you allow sovereignty and self-determination. Let us take care of Country because we actually know how to, and all you scientists can come and learn from us, not the other way around.

Then at the national level, we have to start implementing legislation that has very strong protection for the Country. So, you know, let’s look at Rio Tinto, they had the top level of a reconciliation action plan, and they blew up a 40,000 year old Juukan Gorge, and they didn’t even care. 

If heritage legislation and protection for Aboriginal Country was stronger, they would never have blown that up. They would have known that they would have a million dollar fine, or a billion dollar fine. They would have known that they would go to jail. 

Then at an international level, we really need to stop shaming ourselves in public. You know, we’re a beautiful country with a beautiful landscape. We should be going to people on the international stage saying we want to save this beautiful country. So let’s go to the world at COP-27 and say, we’ve completely transformed our policy on this. We are actually going to do it right. The Greens’ party policies are aligned with all of those things.

W: You’ve spoken publicly about sacred leadership, what does this mean to you and how will it inform your approach to leadership as a Senator?

TGG: That’s my passion besides politics. Sacred leadership; I did my PhD at ANU on it. It’s about the things I told you earlier, when you asked me about why I would do politics. Sacred leaders are at a higher level of consciousness, not higher than anybody else, they’ve just done more work on themselves, spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

And they are people who grow up in a system where other people teach them to take care of the whole system. That little beetle over there has an impact on that tree over there … we’ve got to look after the ecology as well as the people, as well as the animals, as well as the whole world.

Essentially sacred leadership is the highest level of leadership that a person who runs a company or runs an organisation or runs a political campaign or whatever. They’re thinking in a higher consciousness around taking care of everybody and everything. That’s it in a nutshell, and what happens in First Nations culture is that we have a long time to set that up. We actually have been doing it for a long, long time. This is something I aspire to.

W: How do you think your work history, such as  working in the universities, public services and homeless services prepares you for politics? 

TGG: It was important…When you’re growing up and you’re working in these places, you’re interacting with a whole lot of human beings, systems and ways of being, especially if you’re in a dominant culture where you are the less-than culture.

I wanted to learn as much as I could when I was 16. I wanted to do earth moving. I wanted to drive a truck. I wanted to be a builder’s labourer. I wanted to go and teach at a university. I just went and did these things because they interest me.

That all gave me background to be here because now I find myself in conversations with people and I think, I understand that, I know what that’s about. I think it was my education system, and it was also my transformation system, because you can’t go and work with a team of people in an organisation that you don’t know, unless you are able to teach yourself to be in a team.

The other thing I learned was to trust my ancestors, to trust that energy beyond me because it helps me intellectually on a daily basis to be present to the job I’m doing. And the only way I could get it was to trust my elders, but they trust energy beyond them. So I learned how to do that.

W: We have two questions to finish. What’s your favourite walk or place to spend time outside on Ngunnawal Country?

TGG: You might not know that Ainslie Mountain is the women’s mountain, so that’s my favourite place. It looks over at Black Mountain, which is the sacred men’s mountain. And then they both look at Capitol Hill, which is the sacred ceremonial ground of the Bogong moth. It’s my favourite place because the ancestors are up there.

My other favourite place is to be on the songline which goes through Mount Ainslie, all the way down through Old Parliament House, through New Parliament House, and down the mountains. To lie on the songline at the sacred fire at the tent embassy. It’s soothing, it’s like a massage. 

The other part is the water, just down near the boat shed restaurant where the terminally ill hospice is. I love that part of the lake because it looks over the place I used to live in when I first came to Canberra.

W: And the last question is what’s your favourite restaurant or cafe in the city?

TGG: Au Lac. The vegetarian Buddhist restaurant in Dickson. I have lots of favourites because I love food.

This article forms part of Woroni’s ongoing election coverage. Interviews with other candidates will be published over the coming weeks.