05 July 2023
The yarn covers the work that has gone into the Voice, the challenges Bridget has faced and the reason why she decided to follow her Dad’s advice and pursue a career in law.
“I was very fortunate to have a family that always supported me, always valued education. From a very young age, my dad said to me, if this is something you want to do, just go for it. Despite all the barriers that existed in front of me, he was very driven and focused on supporting me to get an education.”
Hello and welcome to ESG Matters At Ashurst. This is the first episode in our special Let’s Yarn mini-series presented by me, Trent Wallace. I’m a Wongaibon person who was raised on Darkinjung Country – and I’m the First Nations Lead here at Ashurst. In today’s episode you’ll hear my yarn with Bridget Cama, a Wiradjuri and Pasifika Fijian woman who was born and raised in Lithgow. She has been working with the Uluru Dialogue since March 2019, is an associate of the Indigenous Law Centre at UNSW and legal support team to the Uluru Dialogue. Bridget is also the Co-Chair of the Uluru Youth Dialogue, which provides a national platform for First Nations youth voices to be heard in the Uluru movement and in First Nations affairs more broadly.
But before we start, it’s important to explain that, here in Australia, we acknowledge at the start of podcasts that we are speaking to you on the country of First Nations people who are part of the oldest continuous living civilisation on earth and who never ceded sovereignty. We acknowledge First Nations Peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work in Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging and to the youth who are working towards a brighter tomorrow.
And so to today’s episode…
In this episode you will hear Bridget talk with such passionate about the work she is doing with Professor Megan Davis and Aunty Pat Anderson around the upcoming referendum and the work behind the scenes including the legacy and sacrifices that our mob has endured, that has set the platform for us to see the Voice go through parliament. We talk about the work that has gone into the Voice, the challenges she's faced and the reasons why she decided to follow her Dad’s advice and pursue a career in law.
Let's get into it!
Bridget, I want to welcome you to our Let's Yarn podcast. Firstly, I want to ask how are you going?
I'm really well, thanks for asking and thanks for having me. Keen to have a deadly yarn with you today.
Oh, I'm so excited for this. I've been looking forward to this yarn for such a long time and I think it's going to be really valuable for our listeners to understand your work on the Voice, where you come from, who your mother are, where you were raised. So if you could go into some of those details, that'd be deadly.
Yeah, so I grew up in Lithgow, New South Wales, but I'm a proud Wiradjuri and Pasifika, Fiji and woman. My connections are to the Cudgegong River just outside of Mudgee, and my pop kind of was born in Wellington and then made his way to Lithgow for work where he met my nan and they started their family. So I grew up in Lithgow, went to high school at Lithgow High School, and then during that time realized that I wanted to pursue a law degree. I saw the law as a black and white instrument before I took a elective in year nine called commercial law. But my law teacher actually taught it from a social justice perspective and kind of tweaked the curriculum a little bit. That kind of made me realize that the law wasn't in fact just a black and white set of rules, that it was actually a whole spectrum that can change over time, that there was a lot of gray there, that the law is actually meant to change.
That laws that existed 100 years ago don't necessarily exist today and things are constantly changing in the law. And that also made me realize it is something that can affect people differently. And so my lived experiences and what I was experiencing within my family and community started to fall into place a little bit more for me understanding why certain things affected our community or our family. That's when I really decided that I think this is what I want to do. I want to pursue a law degree. I was very fortunate to have a family that always supported me, always valued education. From a very young age, my dad kind of said to me, if this is something you want to do, just go for it. Despite all the barriers that existed in front of me, he was very, I guess driven and focused on supporting me to get an education.
And I think that's really where my work has come into it now, because the whole reason I wanted to do this law degree was to be able to give back, to make some positive change. And as I pursued my law degree at the University of New South Wales, everything started to fall into place. And I realized that all of the issues that a lot of our mob face are symptoms of the system. And as part of my work throughout my uni degree, a paralegal at Gilbert & Tobin spent some time in the pro bono team. And again, you still see clients coming in with legal issues that are results of the system.
And so I really started to think about that, well, what area of law do I really want to work in where I can live out my goal of wanting to make positive change to people's lives and realizing that if you don't create some systemic change, some systemic positive change, these clients or these people, our own family members, seeing them face these issues every day in their life, those things will still exist. And that really drew me to the work of Professor Megan Davis. And so in 2019, I applied for a research role with her and started to sink my teeth into constitutional law, public law, human rights law, self-determination of indigenous peoples and of women, of First Nations women. So it's been an amazing journey so far, and that's naturally led me into the work of the Uluru Dialogue and working on the constitutional reform for a First Nations Voice to Parliament.
Bridget, thank you so much for that. Can you please take me through this work? I'm really interested to know more about it.
I've learned a lot, I think, through this journey. I've learned that to successfully get up a positive law reform and a substantial one, it doesn't only require the brain's trust, it also requires all of these other elements. It requires leadership. It requires the people that it actually affects to be a key or core part of the reform. It requires strategic thinking, it requires advocacy and lobbying and all of that stuff. And sometimes I look at things and little things sit in their pockets, but it actually requires all of those things to work in unison to be able to get this up. And I think it's really significant that we, both of us are living through this moment now where all of those things have kind of come together and the stars are aligning. So I feel really privileged to work on this, and that was a key reason that drew me toward this.
I had other things going on in my life at the time and was working in different spaces, but when the opportunity arose to work full-time with the Uluru Dialogue to be a part of the legal support team and continue my role as the co-chair of the Uluru Youth Dialogue, I couldn't miss that opportunity. And so I just feel really, really privileged to be able to contribute to this moment at such an early stage in my career as well, and have people like Professor Megan Davis and Aunty Pat Anderson actually giving me the platform and giving me the opportunity to contribute to this moment, which I think is going to be probably the most significant moment in my lifetime. I hope there's many more to come, but I think in terms of my career, this is a huge moment and I've just learned so much up until this point. But I know that following the referendum, there's also going to be a lot more work to be done.
And just looking forward to all of that.
Thank you so much for sharing that, Bridget. I really appreciate hearing your kind of path to this work, and I definitely see the symptoms of the system, and I love that framing of it coming into law. I know a lot of mob, and I can imagine the same of you. They think that you're going to be able to come in and change the system and help them. And when you realize how many barriers actually do exist, it's really hard to make that promise. But I know that I've been held up a couple of times, mob holding my hand and saying, you're going to be able to change this [inaudible 00:06:49]. You've gotten this far and we've taken you this far. We've done all this work, now you can do it.
And so there's that huge responsibility and obligation. And whilst you're still quite new to the law that you have a community obligation, and I can see that deeply within your veins, and it kind of runs through your body and our DNA to assist mob where we can. You also became a mother during all of this too, so there was a huge-
You've got so much going on. Can you tell me some of the words of wisdom that you've been given by Professor Davis or Aunty Pat or mob in general? Because this is a really daunting, stressful time. This is not an easy time. Whilst I'm looking forward to seeing the results and outcome, I feel like we can be united and excited at that fact. But can you talk to me a little bit about the wisdom that you've been given?
Yeah, I think it's through their actions and leadership. They don't really have to say a lot because a lot is said through the way that they lead and have got us to this point as a nation. There's been so many pushbacks since the issuing of the statement in 2017, and I think if Aunty Pat and Professor Davis took the nose and didn't seriously believe in the mandate of the Uluru Statement and believe that the Voice could actually make practical and positive changes in our community, if they didn't believe so deeply in that, we wouldn't be heading to referendum right now. The resilience that they've shown, I think we always talk about resilience and us as First Nations peoples, we know what resilience is about and what it requires, but they've really shown that throughout the six years since the statement was issued and all of those nos for many, many years just saying No. Yep, they're going to say no to us, but we're going to keep going because we believe in this.
So I think that's one huge lesson that I've taken from this. There's going to be many pushbacks throughout our lifetime. There's going to be many more moments in our lifetime where we are going to have to say, well, if this is truly the right thing to do and we believe in the work and the work that's been done, especially by our own mob, then we have to fight hard for this. And I think as women leaders, I've really learned a lot from their leadership style, if not for a better word, I don't really want to box it into a style, but completely different leadership I've seen through them than I've seen before. The fact that they're leading a national campaign now, but before that in national movement, are both First Nations and non-indigenous Australians and bringing everybody along in this journey, the love, care and consideration that they take in every single decision that they make, no matter how small or how big, first and foremost at the front of their mind is making sure that they're staying true to the First Nations delegates that actually delivered us this work.
And so there's been a lot of hard conversations over the years and a lot of hard situations, many different meetings and many different rooms where they've had to stay true to that and fight for the mandate to the upheld and not compromise on what First Nations peoples have asked for through the regional dialogues. But in doing all of that, the really hard work, the strategic thinking, there's just always this love and care element to it. And it just goes to show that that doesn't make you any less of a leader, that you put those things front and center of your decision making or the way that you conduct yourself or your strategic thinking. This work hasn't really been done since the '67 referendum. We've had different huge national moments, but it is complex. This is a first time, first Nations issues have been front and center of our national agenda really since '67. And the way that you navigate that has to be strategic. You have to be on top of your game. You have to consider all of these different complex and nuanced elements.
Because of our shared history, we have to make sure that throughout this process we are conducting ourselves with respect to everyone and making sure that we are having these conversations respectfully whilst also doing a really hard groundwork, really, that's what it is, particularly with our Uluru Youth Dialogue. Every week we've got an event where our young First Nations people from across the nation are out on the ground in communities having genuine conversations with everyday people about the Voice and the upcoming referendum. And we've been able to do that work because of the leadership of the senior dialogue of Aunty Pat Anderson and Professor Megan Davis, as well as many of the other people that form the Uluru Dialogue.
It's people that were part of the regional dialogue process and the constitutional convention. It's people who have come along on the journey since then as well. I think as young people, we feel very grateful to be able to be guided by them, be mentored by them. And even though they're doing all of this high level work at the same time, they still have the time, the energy and the love to support us young ones as the up and coming next generation, I guess.
Absolutely. Our old people have created the foundation on which we can go and get an education and gain employment, but we are still not immune to the issues or the kind of symptoms of the system. And I see the Voice as a way of addressing that. And I see it as taking their leadership, their thoughts and their power, and how they got us here as a sincere obligation to us, our old people we owe a lot to. And I think about being the survivor of... I want to thrive coming from a Coota Girl Survivor with what she would've experienced and what my father told me about her experiences, my grandparents. And I think about all of those kinds of sacrifices that were made to get us here today. And I really want to thank you for all the work that you've done, all the young mob, Alana Reneman, who is one of my favorite people, I adore her, and all the work that I see the young ones doing to have these yarns.
I mean, this is going to be a difficult question, I think, because I guess in a couple of sentences, how would you describe the Voice and how it came to be? How did the Voice come to be for our listeners?
Yeah, I mean there's so much work that went into it, but I would try and simplify it. I think it's really important for the listeners to understand that this call for a Voice to parliament came from First Nations peoples through the regional dialogue process and the constitutional convention that ran over 2016 and '17, over 1200 First Nations peoples were consulted from right across the country. And there were 13 regional dialogues and then the constitutional convention at Uluru. So at each of those regional dialogues, there were approximately 100 people in attendance and they were determined by the local community themselves. So they had to be at least 60% of First Nations traditional owners or people who could speak for country and their people, 20% from local aboriginal community controlled organizations, and then 20% for individuals. So that includes young people, people living off country, members of the stolen generation and just everyday people, moms, dads, uncles, aunties.
So during that process, they considered what meaningful constitutional recognition meant to them. That was the question they were asked, and they considered various options, but it was the Voice that received overwhelming consensus that this was a pragmatic way to deal with the powerlessness and Voicelessness that they were experiencing in their own communities. It was about changing that decision making process to allow First Nations peoples to have a seat at the table.
That's amazing. It's amazing to hear that, and I already obviously kind of knew that history, but there's a lot of people out there who may not necessarily understand that this really was, as part of a grassroots effort, it wasn't a bunch of people sitting in a room in a fancy hotel talking about what should happen, what could happen. It was really on the ground dialogues that really called for this hearing mob from all different kinds of backgrounds. It's so important for people to understand that.
Unfortunately though we are arriving at this critical juncture with all kinds of myths, salacious kinds of stories, all of those kinds of things that have culminated in the general public perhaps saying, well, I don't really know, or I'm not sure. Can you talk about some of the key things that you've heard that are simply not true, and can you kind of clarify those points?
I mean, you are on the front line, you would hear it daily. You would see it daily, and it takes a really big toll on mob, I feel, because you're constantly myth busting and you're constantly having to go back with this really formulate kind of evidence pathway to demonstrate that, hey, these are the actual facts, not these salacious narratives that belong on bookshelves. Can you talk me through some of those common misconceptions? And that's not to say that I'm dismissing, denigrating or denying any First Nations person's views on this. Obviously, as you've said, this is a respectful discussion, a respectful yarn, but it's more about dispelling those misconceptions that have occurred across the year. We've seen them grow in size, so I'm really hoping that you are able to kind of cast some light on those. So some of the common things you've heard that are not true and what is true, what is the counter to that?
Yeah, not a problem. I think if you think of anything, just jump in as well. The first one that I would say is about where the Voice will actually sit. So it doesn't sit inside parliament, it sits outside parliament, and it will provide representations to the parliament and the government on matters that relate to First Nations peoples. I just want to make it clear that it will respect democracy and it will respect parliamentary sovereignty. So the Voice will be able to have the ability to be proactive. So it doesn't have to wait until the government or the parliament is making a decision or passing a law or policy that affects First Nations people. The Voice will have the obligation to consult with its constituents, the first nations peoples that elected to say, well, what are the priorities for us as mob?What are our priorities that we want to make representations on?
And the Voice will make those representations. The parliament or the government will have to consider and listen to those representations and provide a response to those representations, whether or not they're implementing the recommendations, the representations that they made, if they are, why they are, if they're not, why they're not. And that's where the accountability and transparency comes from. That's probably one key aspect that we hear from both non-indigenous Australian First Nations mob as well.
The second one is around sovereignty. Will this undermine our sovereignty as First Nations peoples? And the simple answer is no. The only way that we can sit our sovereignty is that now because of our history, the fact that we never had the opportunity for treaty is to enter treaty negotiations, which is when we will have to consider compromising our sovereignty through those treaty negotiations. But establishing or enshrining of a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution will not undermine or cede our sovereignty in any way. They've been really clear legal advice on the ways in which we can cede our sovereignty and whether a reform like the Voice will cede our sovereignty. And the answer is no.
It's so interesting. Yeah, I know, because there's so many things coming through. I want to go back to that point of transparency. I think that as mob, we often get told how many things we get for free, or there's this misconception that we get kind of handed so many different things. In my view, my really humble view that the Voice department will actually provide transparency around those kinds of mechanisms and what actually does occur and what changes can be made from an evidence-based community-based approach. I think another thing I've heard about is that because it has no veto power, how's it going to make a change?
Now, as lawyers, I think people have to respect the fact that we've come from community. We've grown up in whilst different parts, regional New South Wales, I spent a lot of time out in community there out in... I grew up on Darkinjung Country, the central coast of New South Wales, my grandparents lived in Dubbo in Wiradjuri Country. So it's really important to think about those elements when people say, well, it doesn't have veto power, what do you say to that? How do you respond to that?
So as part of the regional dialogue process, there were a set of 10 rules of guiding principles that had to be followed when the referendum council went out to consult mob, and they included things like any reform put forward could not impact or cede sovereignty. It also included things like the reform had to respect democracy and parliamentary sovereignty. So that was made really clear through the regional dialogue process when people were deliberating over what kind of reform they saw fit for constitutional recognition. So there's a lot of conversations around this, particularly in our own communities, and ultimately we know that through the Voice, it is about political power. It's about allowing mob to have some political power to have some kind of say over our destiny essentially. It's about working within a system that exists so we can achieve better outcomes.
And this gets, I think now to the point of, well, why the sequencing of Voice treaty and truth? We know in our communities there's always been appetite there for treaty, we're seeing now trade and territory treaty making processes happening. But it is a complex thing. Treaty making at a national level is a very, very complex thing. And in terms of state treaties or territory treaties, they are legislative in nature because of the way that our systems work, federation and a federal system, the Commonwealth can override state and territory legislation. So if we are looking at something like a national treaty, that's when we will look at what power we will have through that process. But that's not on the table right now. And national treaty is not on the table. Mob have been calling for a treaty for decades, and there hasn't been the political will there.
How many governments have come and gone, some have committed to a treaty process but haven't eventuated? So those at the regional dialogue said, well, we can call for a treaty for the next how many decades. Doesn't mean we're going to ever get there, but in the meantime, let's think about how we can make sure that our children and our grandchildren and future generations to come aren't continuing to face the issues that we are facing right now. And that's by using the systems that create the laws and policies that are imposed in our communities. Let's actually work with that to try and deliver better outcomes by informing those processes, by informing the decisions that are made. So I think there's lots of elements and working parts here that need to be considered, and the Voice isn't the end goal by any means. It's a pragmatic step to take to try and work towards better outcomes for our people by having us at the table.
Absolutely. Community holds the answers. I want to pay homage to the kind of various diverse communities that do exist within the spectrum, brother, boys, sister, girls. I look at our elders. We really have to trust the... I have faith in the wisdom that they know, and through these dialogues, it's been clearly established that this is needed. And also the legal minds, Professor Davis, you as a lawyer working on it, Gemma McKinnon, people like that who do have the expertise, Marcia Langton, you look at... Throwing all these names out, they have the lived experience, but they also have the expertise as well. So they know how to function in the Western world and the Western democracy and all of those kinds of Westernized processes. But they're also really well versed in community. And one thing I have heard that has troubled me is that the Voice will be divisive.
I disagree on that because there already is a huge divide that exists between us. When we look at the close the gap reports, for example, closing the gap, life expectancy, financial outcomes, mental health and wellbeing, all of those kinds of things. There's huge gaps, education. So no matter how hard we work and get our law degrees, we are still not separated from those disgraceful outcomes and very painful. When those reports are released, I almost feel a deep sense of shame, and I feel it's quite depressing actually, because I know that when I listen to mob and I yarn to mob and we go out and have those kinds of open yarns and frank yarns, they hold the solutions. They know what they need. And you would've seen that too out in your community.
I mean, my cousins, I think about them who may not necessarily have that. It's not just easy to get educated and go to these Eurocentric designed institutions. And so when you hear that it's divisive, it must be painful because you already know that we're living in the gaps despite our education, despite our employment status. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, it is disappointing because I think this is an opportunity, the fact that we as a nation are having these conversations. This is the first time really, that we've been forced to have these conversations because every Australian that the voting age will have to have a say on this. I personally don't agree that it's divisive, and I think running line that it will divide families based on race is very hurtful. A lot of us come from families that have a variety of heritages, and I do, and I'm so proud of all of that, and a lot of Australians do. But at the end of the day, I can be honest with myself and know that my first Nation's heritage experience, life experience laws and policies and pros in our communities disproportionately compared to the other side of my family. And that's just a reality. And there's nothing wrong with that's a part of this truth telling process as well, right?
There's nothing wrong with saying or recognizing that because it's the truth, it's fact. I think this is a really amazing opportunity that our nation has in front of us to have these conversations, to have any questions being asked respectfully, and being able to listen to each other and have those conversations so that we can work through it together. And for me, it will be a unifying moment. I think the fact that our founding document of Australia does not currently formally or legally recognize First Nations people who have a unique cultural and political existence on this continent for over 60,000, possibly over 80,000 years based on current carbon dating, we say from time in memorial. The fact that our birth certificate of this nation does not recognize that, how does that stand up on a national, international stage? We should be celebrating that we, as a nation, it doesn't matter who you are, where you've come from, if you are living on this continent, if you are living on these amazing, beautiful lands, country, our culture is in the soil, it's in country, it's in the waters, it's in the air, it's everywhere.
And I think this is a really great moment for all Australians to reflect on that our culture is their culture. We can share this together and we will be a better nation for it if we can recognize that in our founding document, but more importantly, celebrate that as a part of our national identity and a part of all of our cultures. So I think that aspect of it is really unifying. Of course, there's going to be so much more work to be done. Like I said, this isn't a silver bullet. This isn't the solution to all of the issues that we face, but it's a really pragmatic step to take. It will result in practical outcomes, and then we will continue to do the work that we've always done and continue the advocacy we've done. But we have a legal formal mechanism there to allow us to begin to address the disadvantage, to begin to address the gap that exists.
Absolutely. We don't pursue marginalization or disadvantage. And to think that it's unfathomable to me to understand that concept. We don't actively pursue that. But unfortunately, the gaps do exist. And the Voice is not a unique concept to Australia. I mean, we've seen functions overseas where this is the norm and it's just been standardized. Do you have much kind of background on that or do you see it as Australia, this is our opportunity to stand up on a global stage and for us to platform prioritize First Nations Voices like other countries have done and continue to do?
It's really important that people do understand that it is quite common for liberal democracies that have a colonial history, to have some mechanism in place that allows First Nations peoples, their indigenous people, to have a seat at the table, to have a say over the issues that affect them. It's very, very common in those places. So the fact that we haven't done it is quite sad that we're still so many steps behind. For example, the Sami parliament in Aotearoa, they have Maori seats in Parliament. It is very common, and it's also very common for them to recognize their indigenous peoples in their founding document, whatever that may be. Usually a constitution. Those countries are still functioning, those countries are still thriving. Nothing bad has happened because they've got those mechanisms in place except for better informed policies, better informed laws, giving First Nations people some self-determination over their destinies and the issues that affect them. And that's another thing that I want to note is that the Voice proposal is consistent with international human rights laws. It's consistent with self-determination.
You've been so generous with your time, Bridget, thank you so much. I know that you've been battling a bit of a cold coming on. It's that season for it, and you're working so incredibly hard and balancing your personal life as well. I'm going to wrap up this with kind of two questions. How do we get in touch? I mean, you've done some incredible posts on LinkedIn. How do we get in touch? Where do we follow, what can we do? What can audiences do? What are the practical steps? And lastly, what is bringing you joy?
Okay, so if you want to learn more about the Voice, where it comes from, the regional dialogue process, all of that stuff, a lot of the detail, then you can jump on our website, ulurustatement.org. It's got so many resources on there, stemming right back from 2017. You can watch webinars. There's frequently asked questions, fact sheets, tools as well, training that you can just kind of absorb all of that information because this is quite a complex issue. There's such a history there that it is important to understand all of that. But you can also sign up to our newsletter to keep updated with what's happening currently. And those go out every few weeks, I think. But you can also follow us on social media. Our handle is @ulurustatement, and we're on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. And if you want to get in touch with me, then yeah, you can jump on my LinkedIn.
No, but yeah, if you want to get in contact with the Uluru Dialogue, you can just jump on our website and do it through there as well. And what brings me joy? I think I like to have a lot of balance in my life, and obviously working really, really hard that time is even more important. So bringing me joy is knowing that I'm contributing to a legacy for future generations and spending time with my own family and knowing that that is the future for my little boy. He's three now. And I think getting out on the ground and being in community, being with your family, it makes it all kind of come around in a nice little circle because whatever the result of this, we know that we have fought the good fight. I would say that we've contributed as much as we can. We're all super, super committed to this, but really at the end of the day, it's our families and our communities that are always going to be there no matter what. So spending time with them brings me a lot of joy.
Oh, that's deadly. And I'm so glad that you get to do that and finding that balance. Thank you so much for joining me with this yarn, Bridget. It's meant the world to me to have your time and to have this really frank yard about things. It's really important that we educate ourselves as allies. Their obligation is to educate themselves on these kinds of issues. And you've provided some great materials and resources alongside this deadly podcast. Thank you so much for joining me, and please take care and get better.
Thank you. I will. I'll take lots of care.
Thank you for listening and I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Bridget as much as I did.
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