Newcastle Indigenous law student Taylah Gray says Australia needs a treaty

Determined: University of Newcastle second year law student Taylah Gray says Australia needs a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people as a way to move forward. Picture: Simone De Peak.
Determined: University of Newcastle second year law student Taylah Gray says Australia needs a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people as a way to move forward. Picture: Simone De Peak.

WHEN Taylah Gray sits in the front row for law degree lectures at the University of Newcastle she carries the spirit of her ancestors, memories of her father’s past and her hopes for the future.

The proud Wiradjuri woman brought people to tears during a speech at the university in 2016. She explained why Australian history, and the treatment of Indigenous people, resonates for a 20-year-old in the simple act of choosing a seat in a lecture hall.

Her father Mark, 53, was taken from his family and his Wellington community as a child and became a member of the stolen generation. He was educated in a majority non-Indigenous school.

“He was forced to sit in the back of the classroom every lesson. Each time he put up his hand he was ignored,” Ms Gray said on Monday.

“Every lesson I attend at the university I sit at the front of the class because my father wasn’t allowed.”

She spoke to the Newcastle Herald to strongly object to proposed Federal Government changes to university enabling programs, which would include the University of Newcastle’s Yapug program for Indigenous students.

But on the day that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce described one of the key proposals from the Uluru Indigenous constitutional convention as “overreach”, Ms Gray also spoke about why Australia needed to come to terms with its past.

In her speech in 2016 after completing the one-year Yapug program that allowed her to start a law degree, Ms Gray used a quote by American civil rights leader Martin Luther King that starts, “If we are to go forward we must go back”.

“I went back to the history of the people before me,” she said.

That history included the removal of Indigenous children, many who suffered appalling treatment in institutions. It included assimilation policies to address the “Aboriginal problem” by “breeding out the colour”, the training of Aboriginal people to be “dutiful servants”, curfews, special reserves and laws that segregated Indigenous Australians. It included the massacres.  

Ms Gray said proposals to enshrine an Indigenous “First People’s Voice” in the constitution, to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s views are heard on legislation that affects them, did not go far enough, despite Mr Joyce’s verdict that it was “overreach”.

“I can’t emphasise enough how much Australia needs a treaty with its Aboriginal people, its first nation people,” Ms Gray said.

“A treaty means reconciliation. It’s an agreement acknowledging what’s happened in the past but saying we have a future despite that. Kevin Rudd’s apology was a significant move but a treaty would mean a lot more, and we’ve never come close to it.”

Ms Gray is a talented sportswoman who plays representative touch football and division 1 women’s rugby league. She said she prioritised sport at the expense of classwork during her school years at Dubbo College where she completed her Higher School Certificate in 2014.

She completed the one-year University of Newcastle Yapug program in 2015 after realising sport was not going to pay the bills, and in part out of respect for her father and his siblings who were taken from their parents.

“I had a lot of family taken,” she said.

“The policies of the past saw Aboriginal people as dutiful servants. To achieve in Australian society these days you need to have a good academic record.”

She is angered by the Federal Government’s proposal to change enabling courses, including the University of Newcastle’s Yapug, Open Foundation and Newstep, on behalf of disadvantaged Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The proposals could put a charge of up to $3200 on enabling programs, a cap on places and open the tendering of programs to the private sector.

“These programs are free to give people who might have struggled in school or in their lives a chance to try. What is proposed will put up obstacles for people whose lives have been about obstacles,” she said.

“I think every Aboriginal child who’s completed school should be offered an enabling program year so they can have a chance at a university degree.”

She chose law after studying the shocking Indigenous incarceration rates in Australia, and plans to use her degree to help her people.

“It’s five years and that will be challenging, but the best things are challenging, aren’t they? There’s not a lot of Indigenous students in law.”

After Ms Gray wrote her speech, which she delivered at the 2016 graduation ceremony of her Yapug year, she phoned her father and read it to him.

“We shed a lot of tears,” she said.

Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon has invited Federal Higher Education Minister Simon Birmingham to Newcastle to see the impact of enabling programs.

“The University of Newcastle, which is the largest and oldest provider of enabling education in the country, has assisted more than 42,000 students to gain entrance into higher education and complete their degrees,” Ms Claydon said.

“These proposals will inevitably lock some of the most disadvantaged students out of higher education entirely.”  

He was forced to sit in the back of the classroom every lesson. Each time he put up his hand he was ignored. Every lesson I attend I sit at the front of the class because my father wasn’t allowed.

Taylah Gray.