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Remembering Pat Dixon

Senator Tim Ayres

This article contains images and names of people who have since passed away.

Pat Dixon was a Thunghutti woman who served as a Labor Councillor on Armidale City Council from 1983 to 2001, becoming the Deputy Mayor of Armidale.

She was the first Aboriginal person to be elected to local government in New South Wales, and the first Aboriginal woman to be preselected as a Labor candidate for a federal seat. Pat died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2001.

This is an edited version of a speech given at a NAIDOC event in 2018 remembering Pat as part of the “Because of her, we can” NAIDOC celebrations.

Many of the things in the official record of Pat Dixon's contribution to politics in the Armidale community have been said. And I've spent a little bit of time over the last couple of weeks talking to people who knew Pat and worked with Pat and I've reflected on that and I'll make a few comments about that.

I grew up in Glen Innes just up the road from Armidale. I knew Pat when I was a very young man. My mother, Roberta Ayres knew her much better than I did and worked with Pat from the Department of Education regional office in Armidale for many, many years.

When I told my Dad that I had to come and speak at this event at Sydney University about Pat Dixon he was very emotional because he said: “You know that your mother thought the world of Pat.” And he told me that he still has a very vivid recollection in his mind - he often wandered 20 feet behind Mum when they went down the shops and he said he still remembers Pat and Elva and Di and my mum would sometimes bump into each other in the central mall in Armidale and he couldn't stop them talking. He said he’d just hang around for a while and observe these great women really, really getting into it.

And I remember vividly what an important figure she was not just in the Labor Party organisation in regional New South Wales, but across all of New South Wales. And people talked about Pat, as a future parliamentarian - as a future member of the Federal Parliament. And she was terrific and she would have been, if her life wasn't cut so short, I'm convinced that she would have been in the federal parliament with Linda Burney, in the federal parliament with Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Senator Pat Dodson as well, really making this country a different place.

Bellbrook in 1943 if you just imagine what a place that was. For those of you who haven't been to Bellbrook, you should go. It's a beautiful, a beautiful place. But in 1943 Bellbrook, Thungutti land, wasn't too far away from the brutal history of that region.

I'm from Glen Innes so country music fits like an old shoe for me. As Troy Cassar Daly sings, there's Shadows on those Hills. There's a history there that the people where I come from - great, great country people, good people - a history that's been so carefully and completely forgotten. That history must have been living over the top of Pat and her sisters and that family as they grew up in that region.

Imagine Pat's life at the age of 14, being forcibly relocated to Sydney to live as an indentured servant in somebody's else’s family house. 14 is the age my daughter is today. 14 is a terrible age for a person to be separated from their family - the anguish and pain that must have caused. I read over the course of the last week, Pat's Mum’s account of that separation. And what that mean to her and she just said, she said 'Pat went away. I didn't want her to go away.' The poignancy of those words, this woman being interviewed in the early 1980s. The immense pain and complexity and the difficulty of that experience.

Pat had a long struggle, and I won't go through the history – of her being in Sydney than going back to Armidale and commencing work. But when I talked to the former mayor of Armidale, Herman Beyersdorf, who's a Labor party guy who worked with Pat when she was deputy mayor, he said, 'you know, she worked so hard.' From struggling with literacy to dragging herself up, step by step, to be in a position where she was absolutely skilled and capable and learned and able to lead in her community and run for council in 1983.

Tell you what, Armidale in 1983 was not a very progressive place. Armidale in 1983 was not a place where you would automatically think an Aboriginal woman running for council would win, but she really brought it home. She served on that council as a Labor representative from 1983 through to 1991. And she left the council not because she wasn't elected again, she left the council to come and work in Sydney and Canberra. She worked with some of the Labor greats in Aboriginal Affairs, people like Robert Tickner and others. And she made a real difference to policy outcomes but also to the Labor Party.

She came back and she was the deputy mayor with Herman Beyersdorf and Herman just said to me: 'she lit up a room. She was a remarkably warm and funny person.' And then he paused a bit and he said, 'but she was terrifying'. And he said, 'You know, sometimes she would just explode’ and he said, it was a funny turn of phrase, he said ‘she would explode with righteous anger at the leadership of the Council’ – his phrase not mine.

She was the Labor candidate for New England in the election in 2001. And Labor doesn't pull a big vote in New England these days, but in 1987 the state seat had been held by the Labor Party for decades. There was a strong Labor infrastructure in those country towns, we've got to rebuild it again. As I head towards a political life myself, I would have loved to have worked with Pat and others to rebuild that country infrastructure and actually make up a sort of policy platform and a political organization that serves the interests of Aboriginal people and country people in those country towns because we've got so much work to do. We've got so much work to do.

She was brave, and she was tough and she was principled in ways now that we will probably never know. Imagine how much she might have contributed had she had the chance. I've spoken to many Labor people about Pat and I'm glad that I have. I'm glad that I've had the opportunity to do it over the last couple of weeks. They all spoke of her courage and tenacity.

In 2016 New South Wales Labor put her portrait on our New South Wales membership card. It's a small token, but there's thousands of people walking around New South Wales today who've got a picture of Pat in their wallet. Because Labor Party people are weird, right. We keep our membership cards, and you just put an extra one in and the wallet gets sort of fat - not with money - but with Labor Party membership cards. Everybody's got a picture of Pat in their pocket, and it's just a measure of how much she was regarded as a political leader, as a future political leader, and how much she was loved, really loved, by the Labor Party and the labour movement.

She symbolized the best of Country Labor, the best of the social justice traditions of the Labor Party and we're very proud, all of us, to have known her. This is a beautiful event and I am deeply honoured to have been invited to speak to you on behalf of the Labor Party.

Tim Ayres is a Senator for NSW representing the Labor Party. Twitter Facebook


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