ON the eve of being formally declared the Northern Territory’s new Labor senator, Malarndirri McCarthy, like many Australians, sat watching television transfixed and appalled at images of cruel and haunting abuse in youth detention centres.
“When Australians can sit and watch a young child be brutalised in the fashion that we saw on Four Corners, Australians right across the country were moved in horror, in disgust, in deep sorrow and shame,” Senator McCarthy said.
“It steeled my sense of purpose and responsibility for what I need to do.”
Senator McCarthy was voted in at last month’s Federal Election – an Aboriginal woman succeeding retiring Aboriginal and former Olympian Nova Peris.
Senator McCarthy draws on a lifetime of Catholic faith and a sense of hope.
She is a Yanyuwa Garrawa woman from the Gulf of Carpentaria, raised with a deep respect both traditional indigenous and Catholic values.
She is also an accomplished TV journalist and politician with the acumen to know how to seize an issue and run with it.
“These are our children, Australian children. They are in there to be rehabilitated for things they may have done wrong, and the system must be about rehabilitation not brutalisation of our young Australians,” she said.
Senator McCarthy lays the blame at the feet of Northern Territory Government, because many of the claims of child abuse in detention had been raised by the legal fraternity in the Territory, and by the NT Children’s Commissioner.
In the Northern Territory, 80 per cent of prison inmates are indigenous.
In youth detention the figure is 97 per cent.
On a population basis the figures are just as shocking in every mainland Australian state.
Senator McCarthy had already set her sights on using her new political power to push for an overhaul of Aboriginal juvenile justice and a cause she has long advocated – preserving indigenous culture and language.
She is determined to see that lowering the rates of incarceration are included as a target in the annual Closing the Gap report that is presented to the Prime Minister each February.
“Growing up in the Northern Territory, our young people were forever in trouble with the law and they would pass through a system which was cyclical really. It was a revolving door in and out of prison,” Senator McCarthy said.
“But even now, it is a deep social issue.
“We see far too many young people incarcerated and certainly far too many indigenous people incarcerated nationally. And we have to ask ourselves why.”
Senator McCarthy was born in Katherine and grew up in the Gulf community of Borroloola, the daughter of an indigenous woman and an “Irish Catholic” father.
She said her father had been “the driving force in my life”, but because of the attitudes of the time towards black and white relationships, it was incredibly difficult for her father and mother to live together.
“But dad did everything he could as a single parent living in Alice Springs to provide for me and my brothers and sisters,” Senator McCarthy said.
“I just wouldn’t be the person I am today without his dedicated support, encouragement and friendship.”
Senator McCarthy attended a Catholic primary school in Alice Springs, then at age 12 to undertake six years of boarding school at the Good Samaritan Sisters’ St Scholastica’s College in Sydney.
It was an experience which she said shaped her future and opened up the world.
“It was a massive change in direction in my life and one I’ve always been grateful for,” Senator McCarthy said of her time at St Scholastica’s.
“It gave me the opportunity to explore a world far bigger than my own and I do look back on my time there as an important defining of character for me, not only as an Aboriginal woman but as a woman of faith.
“But it was an incredibly difficult time, if I reflect back on it.
“It required adjustment and support. And when I think of the people who supported me all the way through, and beyond, it’s amazing.”
That support was both academic and pastoral.
In Year 12 she became school captain and was encouraged to apply for a cadetship under the ABC’s Aboriginal journalist cadet program.
“My first reaction was to laugh,” she said.
“But then I did write a letter of application to the ABC. I was called into interviews and I got the job. I spent the next 16 years working at the ABC.”
From a reporter behind the camera, she became a newsreader, the “face” of the national broadcaster in the Northern Territory, and an instantly recognisable figure across Northern Australia.
This was a springboard for Senator McCarthy’s political career.
She entered politics, representing the Labor Party as a member of the NT Legislative Assembly from 2005 to 2012, and served as a minister in various portfolios, including child protection.
In 2006, she controversially crossed the floor to vote against a proposed mine expansion near her home community of Borroloola.
After six years in Territory politics, Senator McCarthy returned to journalism, working for SBS TV’s National Indigenous Television, based in Sydney.
Along the way Senator McCarthy, a single mum, was busy raising three sons.
Her oldest son, CJ, recently moved to study in the United States after winning a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball for the University of Texas.
Since 2010, Senator McCarthy worked part-time at St Ignatius’ College at Riverview in Sydney – where her boys attended.
She lived on campus and helped develop a First Nations’ Unit program and teaching in a cross-cultural program in an Ignatian context.
Senator McCarthy said it was during this time that her faith strengthened.
“I started taking St Ignatius boys to the Territory – back to my country. It became a deeply spiritual experience for me,” she said.
Senator McCarthy said her traditional beliefs were rooted in Li-anthawirriyarra – which means “our spirit origins come from the sea”.
“It guides everything we do,” she said.
For Senator McCarthy, these beliefs fit comfortably beside the Ignatian pedagogical paradigm – a 450-year-old way of Jesuit learning that takes a holistic view of the world incorporating the three main elements of experience, reflection and action.
“I am sharing the learning of both these worlds, and I have been doing that at Riverview,” she said. “This inspires me an gives me hope. I am thankful for Christ in my life and for each and every sunrise.”
By Mark Bowling