Australia’s first Aboriginal woman elected to federal parliament would swap her gold medals for equality for indigenous people.
Nova Peris delivered her first speech in the Senate on Wednesday, wearing white ochre face paint and a gold silk outfit featuring dancing brolgas.
A trailblazer for indigenous people in sport, she was the first Aboriginal woman to win an Olympic gold medal as part of Australia’s victorious hockey team in 1996.
Switching to athletics, she won gold in the 200 metres and 4×100 metres relay at the Commonwealth Games in 1998.
She said her sporting achievements were “virtually meaningless” compared with her grandparents and mother’s struggles to survive.
“I would swap all of that in a heartbeat. I would forgo any number of gold medals to see Aboriginal Australians be free, healthy and participating fully in all that our great country has to offer,” she told the Senate.
“It is my dream to see kids from Santa Theresa, from Gunbalanya, from Kalkarindji and the Tiwi Islands all with the same opportunity as the kids from the eastern suburbs of Sydney.”
She was elected after former prime minister Julia Gillard intervened to put her at the top of Labor’s NT Senate ticket, ousting long-serving Labor senator Trish Crossin.
The first Aboriginal MP elected to the House of Representatives, Ken Wyatt, was in the Senate for Senator Peris’s first speech.
Senator Peris paid tribute to her Aboriginal heritage as a descendant of the Gija people of the east Kimberley, Yawuru people of the west Kimberley and the Iwatja people from western Arnhem Land.
Her grandmother Nora Peris, a member of the stolen generation, was one of her biggest sources of inspiration.
“She was torn from her mother’s arms and lived on the Mission of Moola Bulla in the east Kimberley,” Senator Peris said.
“A river separated her and her traditional Aboriginal mother who was still living on country … they were so close – yet so far apart.”
Senator Peris spoke of her mother Joan’s forced removal from her family as her mother watched from the public gallery, alongside the Senator’s husband, Scott Appleton, children Jack, nine, Destiny, 11, and eldest daughter Jessica, 23, and four-year-old grandson Isaac.
Senator Peris urged her parliamentary colleagues to champion moves to recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution, and attacked the former Labor government’s decision to locate a nuclear waste dump on Muckaty Station in the Barkly region of the NT.
Senator Peris ended with an anecdote about a man who gave her a piece of paper to read before the semi-finals of the 4x400m relay at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
It read: “Nothing is impossible to those who see the invisible.”
The man explained the cryptic message after the team broke an Australian record.
“He simply replied: `It was my ticket to freedom. I thought about it every day that I was held captive.’ It turned out he was a former prisoner of war,” she said.