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Tom Calma AO

University of Canberra

Episode Notes

In our final episode of Seriously Social, we bring you a special interview with 2023 Senior Australian of the Year, Professor Tom Calma AO. A Kungarakan and Iwaidja Elder, educator, human rights campaigner and academic, Professor Calma has spent decades effecting positive change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In this interview, Professor Calma reflects on the things that drive him and the hopes he has for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, and all Australians, in the wake of the Voice Referendum. Don’t miss this important message of truth and hope from one of Australia’s most significant changemakers, in conversation with host Ginger Gorman.

Watch the full interview on YouTube.


Professor Tom Calma AO (00:00): 

I have got a very positive attitude towards the future. We saw this during the referendum where the young voters were all positively disposed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and understanding why we need to have a voice. Unfortunately, some of our older cohort, who don’t experience racism themselves, can’t really appreciate what it means to be either vilified or discriminated against. 

Ginger Gorman (00:25): 

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman, and that’s Professor Tom Calma. For decades, Tom Calma has been a force for good in Australia. He has been a diplomat, an anti-smoking campaigner, an advisor to several governments, and he also co-authored the proposed model for the Voice to Parliament. He’s the 2023 Senior Australian of the Year, a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the first Aboriginal man appointed chancellor of any Australian university. All the while, he has remained a tireless campaigner for justice, better health, education, and equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 


We wanted to sit down with Tom Calma to talk about his life’s work, what he makes of it now, the forces that shaped him, where he thinks Australia is now, and what he hopes for the future. We met two weeks after the Voice referendum and within days of Tom arriving home to Canberra from a quick trip to the US. Tom goes back almost every six weeks to Darwin from where he now lives in Canberra. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (01:34): 

Kungarakan on my mother’s side. I was brought up on her Country, which stretches from Adelaide River down through Batchelor, Litchfield National Park, down to where the salt water and the fresh water meet on Darwin River, which is Berry Springs. That’s a woman’s side. I grew up on Mum’s Country till I was three and we moved to Darwin. Dad is Iwaidja, which is on the Cobourg Peninsula just north of Kakadu. 

Ginger Gorman (02:00): 

Do you still feel connected to that Country? 

Professor Tom Calma AO (02:02): 

Very much so. Still visit Country whenever I can, although business often takes me away from being able to do that, but it’s great to be back there and to catch up with family and also to reconnect with Country. 

Ginger Gorman (02:17): 

How do you think that has influenced you, that connection to Country? 

Professor Tom Calma AO (02:22): 

I think it’s having the relationship with Country and Culture and a little bit of language, although I’m not proficient at all in that. Over the passage of time, we’ve now seen a lot of our Elders pass on, and so we’ve got a different generation coming through, but there’s still the connection to Country and to Culture that I think is very important. And I find that I see myself as very fortunate because I’ve been able to do that, whereas many people across the nation have been moved off their land away from their Country, haven’t been able to practice Culture or language. People are still going back and reestablishing connections with Country. So being grounded in what we call Country, our own traditional lands, is very important. 

Ginger Gorman (03:12): 

He credits his parents for giving him stability and says his father’s life was a strong influence on the career path he took. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (03:20): 

My father had to look after his mother and his sisters in growing up. They were very poor, and so he had to leave school early to go and work to provide for the family. So, it’s always been that association with family and Dad’s influence. The importance of education to him was paramount, and we all went through and had a good education. His philosophy was, “You get a good education, position yourself, and then help others.” 


He started off as a road worker patching roads and progressed through self-education up to becoming a senior supervisor. He employed about 80 people, half Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the other half non-Indigenous Australians. He always strove to be able to make sure that everybody was treated equally and fairly and looking at it from a social justice lens. When I did work experience with him and also working within the public sector, there’s always a very positive attitude towards my father and the way he conducted his business. I guess that’s what rubbed off. That’s had a lot of influence over the way that I’ve conducted my life, and our children are the same, and family. As we’ve been able to progress through stable employment and having education opportunities, we’ve all been able to give back to the community. 

Ginger Gorman (04:45): 

So, it all came from your dad? 

Professor Tom Calma AO (04:47): 

Yeah, I’d credit a lot to Dad and to Mum. Mum was a homemaker, so she was able to make sure that we did our homework. That was always one of the things. You can’t go out and play until you’ve done your homework. It’s a discipline that we tried to practice with our kids as they went up, and fortunately, they’ve all now completed university. We’ve all been able to give back. 

Ginger Gorman (05:11): 

I did see one comment where you made yourself sound like you were a bit of a ratbag when you were young, and you didn’t focus on your studies. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (05:18): 

Yeah. Well, I was never really good. There was a lot of other distractions in growing up in Darwin, which is a great place to grow up. And Dad always had the philosophy, and I didn’t appreciate this so much until I was much older and actually found his old cheque books where at the end of every fortnight there were zero balances. That’s why we went out and he always encouraged us to go fishing, supplementing our lifestyle through the products we were able to harvest from the sea, and also from hunting, and sharing any excess with other family members. So yeah, that was a good distraction for me. Yeah, I studied. I still did what I needed to do, but there were too many other distractions. 

Ginger Gorman (06:05): 

But it’s interesting because you’ve done so well academically since then. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (06:10): 

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a really important observation because when people are given the opportunity, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are given the opportunity, they will respond positively, and we will see greater outcomes. We see this all the time when environments are culturally conducive, that people are in a safe place and given the opportunity to take on challenges, they’ll do it and do it very positively. 

Ginger Gorman (06:34): 

He says there were a couple of turning points that made him want to focus on improving education and literacy outcomes for First Nations people in Australia. One was seeing how few kids from his community finished high school. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (06:49): 

Most dropped out at year 10 or 11 and went on to employment and other trades, which was also very important. Very few actually took the academic stream, and that was one of the turning points. 

Ginger Gorman (07:04): 

The other was Christmas Day, 1974, when Cyclone Tracy ripped through his hometown. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (07:09): 

Darwin was pretty much destroyed, and there were no tertiary education provisions available, not much choice anyhow. 

Ginger Gorman (07:17): 

University places were only just opening up for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, so Tom went south to what was then known as the South Australian Institute of Technology and studied social work and community development. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (07:31): 

It was a national program, so we had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the nation there. I think that was really the turning point that allowed me to get a national perspective, which I hadn’t really appreciated when I was in Darwin, but it also gave the opportunity to be in a supportive environment for education. Also, it was exclusively Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through this program, but it was an enclave within the school of social work. In fact, that’s where I met my wife. She was also a student way back in ’77-’78. 

Ginger Gorman (08:06): 

And you’re still married all these years later. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (08:08): 

Still married, yes. Still hanging in there. 

Ginger Gorman (08:12): 

And Tom, I understand that work that you did in Adelaide eventually spread. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (08:14): 

Yes, it did, and that was a great opportunity for me. On returning to Darwin, by coincidence, I saw one of the senior professors out at the, then, Darwin Community College was holding a public meeting to look at how they could get Aboriginal students into the Darwin Community College, as it had resurrected after the cyclone. 

Ginger Gorman (08:35): 

Tom joined the college to help establish that program, and within a year, he was the coordinator and a lecturer. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (08:42): 

We started off in 1980 with one course of 25 students. And by the time I left in 1986, we had five full-time courses, a number of articulation programs, and over 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled. It grew very quickly, and it lasted for quite a number of years until the decision was, when it became a university, to just make a provision for students to go straight into the various faculties. 

Ginger Gorman (09:14): 

Twenty-five years after that Darwin College program began Professor Tom Calma, in his role as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, released the 2005 Social Justice Report. The report set out the terrible rates of preventable diseases and chronic health conditions among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, poor foetal and child health, high rates of smoking, cancer and diabetes, and poor access to primary healthcare. It influenced the Close the Gap Campaign, a collaboration of peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander as well as mainstream health bodies which lobbied governments to close the health and life-expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (10:02): 

It’s a human rights-based approach. That is where you make people the centre, and then everybody responds to that. It has a number of key features. One is that it’s non-discriminatory, which is important. The other is that it’s what we call the principle of progressive realisation where any initiative is, in fact, able to be monitored and reported against to make sure that we do progress. One of the key features of that is that there’s what we call needs-based funding, that adequate funding goes in to be able to achieve the outcomes that we’re trying to get. 

Ginger Gorman (10:40): 

In 2007, Labor campaigned on a Closing the Gap initiative and implemented targets when they returned to power. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (10:47): 

One of the major failures of the Closing the Gap Campaign has been the inability of government to hold a standard approach to what they’re doing. So, instability in Parliament has meant that the Closing the Gap initiative has waxed and waned. In fact, since the beginning of when I first launched it in 2006, the Close the Gap Campaign, we’ve seen nine prime ministers in that same period up until now. You’d have various ministers, hundreds and hundreds of bureaucrats changing, and so we haven’t had a consistent approach. Hopefully we’re at a position now where, through the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, that we will see a bit more stability and a bit more of an opportunity to realise what the main objectives of the report was. 


Part of the progressive realisation principles is accountability. That’s why we’re able to get the Prime Minister to report back at the opening of Parliament each year on what they’ve achieved in the previous year. Unfortunately, it then becomes an opportunity for the opposition to have a ping at the government, and so it becomes a political football again. So, we, as the Close the Gap Campaign, produced a shadow report, which talks about, from our perspective, from an Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander perspective, and also from the perspective of the non-Indigenous health peak bodies and human rights groups of what needs to be achieved and what has been achieved. 

Ginger Gorman (12:19): 

Essentially, my understanding is the idea is that, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we want the same health outcomes as for the rest of the population. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (12:30): 

Exactly right. That’s what health equality is about, and equity is the goal to be able to achieve that. Equality is about saying that we should enjoy the same life outcomes and health outcomes as the non-Indigenous population, but it is far, far from that at the moment. When I first launched the report, there was a 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, whereas in other countries, the other developed countries that we often measure against, New Zealand, Canada and the US, the gap was only seven years. So, my whole question was why is there such a profound gap here in Australia, a very rich country? And that needed to be addressed. 


People got a little offended because we said it should be non-discriminatory. That’s in part because the health systems themselves weren’t conducive to be able to support not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but minority people. So, we’ve seen, over the past decade plus, a change in the way that the health systems start to look at cultural competency, making sure that their services are non-discriminatory. Still a way to go, mind you, but we have seen improvements in that space. 

Ginger Gorman (13:47): 

Is the gap smaller now? 

Professor Tom Calma AO (13:48): 

The gap is smaller. It’s roughly about 10 years now, in part because of improved health services, but equally because of a different formula used on the same data, which actually brought it down quite significantly. But anyhow, it is an improvement. The important thing is that governments stay focused. 


We had, at one stage, what we call a statement of intent, in 2008, where the governments, all the governments of Australia as well as the Commonwealth Government signed off that they would work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They would have a comprehensive plan, strategy. They would fund it and so forth. 


Well, over the years, a change of government was a change of approach. That’s been the hallmark of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, and that’s what we’re still striving to achieve, some consistency. 

Ginger Gorman (14:42): 

Close the Gap continues to lobby the government of the day for better outcomes. In some ways, it’s a prototype for what the Voice would have been, but the Close the Gap isn’t funded by the government. Yet, it has made some strides towards self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (15:02): 

It comes under now the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. We have quite a number of targets that are still there, but now the targets are being developed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people rather than by government and imposed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That’s a significant change. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve out of the Voice, to make it a systemic way of going about business, but, of course, that didn’t get up. 

Ginger Gorman (15:30): 

I can hear the frustration in your voice there, but you have spent a lot of your life working on social justice issues for First Nations people. What turned you specifically towards that cause? 

Professor Tom Calma AO (15:44): 

Well, it’s a bit of what my father’s influence again. We can’t undervalue social justice and empathy and inclusiveness, being nondiscriminatory and non-racist. Nowadays, I talk a lot about people’s unconscious bias. That is that people may not believe that they’re discriminatory or that they’re racist, but they are, or what they practice is. Often, it’s through unconscious bias. It’s how they’ve been influenced through social media or mainstream media, which creates an attitude towards minority groups. 


And when you have politicians who help feed that uncertainty, it’s really disappointing. And I think there needs to be a big shakeup in the integrity and honesty of some politicians, and I’ve made that pretty clear post the referendum, so that they have a responsibility to feed accurate information, not misleading, not half-truths and so forth, to the population. 


That goes the same for some of our media commentators because all that does is feed the unconscious bias, and people’s attitudes do change. All of us need to address it. We’ve all got unconscious bias. 

Ginger Gorman (17:00): 

It’s an interesting point you’re making there because the racism online, especially during the lead-up to the Voice referendum, was frankly disgusting. I wonder how you reflect on that, especially given that you’ve got experience in the Human Rights Commission. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (17:18): 

Yeah. Yeah. Well, we’ve had a campaign within the Human Rights Commission, I still am actively monitoring what goes on, called “Racism. It Stops With Me”. If we’re not somebody who perpetrates racism or promotes racism, then it will stop. It’s incumbent on all of us to educate our future. 


I have got a very positive attitude towards the future through the work that we do at Reconciliation Australia, what many of the curriculums around Australia are doing with our young kids. And we saw this during the referendum where the youth and the young voters were all positively disposed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and understanding why we need to have a Voice. Because youth also become voiceless, so there is empathy there. And unfortunately, some of our older cohort who don’t experience racism themselves can’t really appreciate what it means to be either vilified or discriminated against. 

Ginger Gorman (18:17): 

What did you make of the referendum result? 

Professor Tom Calma AO (18:20): 

Look, it’s very disappointing because from a… I co-chair Reconciliation Australia, and we have what we call the Reconciliation Barometer. It’s a measure of the attitudes of the Australian population every two years. We’ve seen, probably for the last three barometers, a really positive attitude that the population has had. 


I think the key features are the bridge walks in 2000 where we had people walking for reconciliation. That lasted, and then we had the National Apology in 2008 by Kevin Rudd when he was Prime Minister. 

Kevin Rudd (18:58): 

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry. We, the Parliament of Australia, respectfully request that this apology be received. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (19:09): 

That was an opportunity for the whole of the population to really understand a lot more about what the Stolen Generations meant, what the impacts of colonisation meant. And what really came home to people was when there was a National Apology to the Forgotten Australians, those non-Indigenous people who were brought over from the UK, supposedly as orphans, and then also incarcerated. And they experienced very similar issues to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as in being abused in many different forms, but also being put into indentured labor, not being sufficiently recognised. 


So, people could relate more, and they felt maybe a bit more empathy and sympathy for the non-Indigenous people that it happened to, whereas they were being educated about the Stolen Generations. But maybe some of them… And we had politicians saying it was for their own good and so forth. I still can’t comprehend that sort of attitude, but that’s out there. 

Ginger Gorman (20:15): 

I’m only laughing because it’s so ridiculous when you- 

Professor Tom Calma AO (20:20): 

It is. It is ridiculous. And they said, in more recent times, when a politician is saying that there’s no such thing as intergenerational trauma and transgenerational trauma and that colonisation was only good because we got running water. And this is ridiculous because we don’t have running water in all communities. They still suffer. We still suffer from intergenerational traumas. 


And if it was the case that it wasn’t an issue, why have we got a Royal Commission looking at veterans and military people who have taken their own life because of the traumas that they’ve experienced? And we saw those traumas post the Vietnam War when our soldiers were not accepted back into society for a long time. 


I’ve had people say, “Oh, but we fought side by side. We should all be treated equally.” Yes, we all wish that was the case, but after World War I, World War II, we had no soldier settlements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They weren’t given the land grants and support. They weren’t even allowed to get into the RSLs. So, let’s not pretend that all was hunky-dory and there’s no issues out there. 

Ginger Gorman (21:27): 

I’m from a family of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and we know all too well that intergenerational trauma goes on and on and on. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (21:36): 

That was awful. 

Ginger Gorman (21:37): 

Tom, what about the referendum and reconciliation? Do you believe that reconciliation has been damaged by the referendum, or are you still hopeful that we can make change? 

Professor Tom Calma AO (21:50): 

It has been a bit of a setback because we were so positively… And I mentioned the barometer. That was showing the attitudes by Australians was very positive and supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having a greater say in their own affairs, supporting being recognised in the Constitution. I must say, I went into the referendum very positive, thinking that the Australian population understands, but have since realised that they don’t understand or they were very influenced by social media and some of the other disinformation. 


And there was plenty of disinformation out there. One of the ones that still irks me is this whole notion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people get $33 billion a year. So, where’s all the money going? And when you go and look at all the public records that are all open to the public to have a look at and disclosed, the majority of that $33 billion, less than half comes from the Commonwealth. The other proportion comes from the states and territories. But over 80% of that is for basic citizenship rights that all Australians are entitled to. 


So when we talk about discrimination, we have to ask ourselves, why is it only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have reporting against expenditure? No other population group gets it. So, the population of Australia is misled into believing that these are gifts and grants and free homes. 

Ginger Gorman (23:23): 

Are you talking about things like Medicare that everyday people are using… 

Professor Tom Calma AO (23:27): 

Medicare, childcare. When it comes to the Commonwealth, and I feel very embarrassed about this, the Commonwealth supported places at universities that is open for everybody, but when an Aboriginal person accesses it, it’s counted as a gift to Aboriginal people. Totally ridiculous, and the government needs to look at the way that they go about reporting on this. 

Ginger Gorman (23:49): 

Tom, in October 2023, you were at the White House. You were there for a welcome ceremony for Australia’s Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, and you were singled out by President Joe Biden for a chat. Now you’re the only Aussie that he spoke to, and I can see the big smile on your face there, reportedly about First Nations business. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (24:10): 

Yes, I was. I was the only person, Australian or otherwise, that he spoke with. Look, it was a real honor. In part, it was a reminiscence that we’d met in 2016 when he was vice president and visited Australia. There was a dinner at the Admiralty House in Sydney, and Heather and I were invited to that dinner, so we met Vice President Biden at the time. We reminisced about that. He actually recalled, and he said, “Oh, yeah, the dinner in Sydney,” which made me feel pretty good that he remembered that. 


But we did talk about First Nations businesses at the time. I hadn’t realised it because we were at that event, but he and the prime minister had actually put out a statement both confirming their respective government’s commitments to increasing the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses in Australia and also with the Native American businesses in the States. 


It coincided with a round table that was taking place soon after, and I mentioned this to the president that I was going to the round table. And yeah, he again mentioned his support. And yeah, and I think it’s going to be a great initiative as we develop with AUKUS on board. And we need to make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses also have a bite at that little exercise in Australia. Both parties, again, have agreed to defer the trade missions between the two, and we will see a delegation of Native Americans coming down here in the new year to talk about what they have on offer and what we have on offer. I think it’s a great opportunity. 


I should say that when you look at the support that the Reconciliation Action Plan companies provide to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through procurement of their services, but also through the scholarships and other support that they provide, it shows that we are pretty good. I can understand that their commitment has been a long time coming. That’s why they were so committed to supporting the Yes campaign for the referendum, because they could see value in it. 

Ginger Gorman (26:28): 

Despite the setbacks, when I asked Tom what his proudest achievement has been, Close the Gap is top of mind. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (26:35): 

That has a long-term legacy that’s going to address not only health, but also what we call the social determinants and cultural determinants of health. It looks at education, employment, housing, mental health issues, as well as physical health. That’s very significant. 


My time as chancellor at University of Canberra, I’ve just seen 10 years as chancellor and another five years prior to that on council and what we’ve been able to achieve. I guess from there is to know that in 2021 and 2022, for two consecutive years, we were recognised as the number one university in the world for addressing inequality. That goes on all levels of inequality, not only Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people, but gender equality, addressing the needs of first in family going to university, people with disabilities, so is something we as Canberrans can be very proud of, and the university. 

Ginger Gorman (27:34): 

And he’s not sitting back resting on his reputation. Tom is excited talking about his current project. It’s an example of what can happen when First Nations communities have control of their own solutions. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (27:48): 

I think the third thing would be a program that I’ve managed since 2010 with the Commonwealth government, called the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program. It’s an initiative to talk to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about the benefits of not smoking. Why that’s so good is that we’ve practiced by allowing the community in all the 37 to 40 communities where our teams are located… They work with the community to develop up the strategies and the messaging that’s best going to have an impact on their community, and which is what we were trying to achieve out of the Voice. It’s having a clear say in that domain. 


What we’ve seen is that a reduction of over 50% of the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander population smoking down to about 37%, which is a phenomenal- 

Ginger Gorman (28:39): 

It’s huge. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (28:40): 

… shift in… And ANU has, in fact, done modeling which suggests that, in that period, about 50,000 people have either given up smoking or not taken it up. That’s saved about 23,000 lives, so it is a very, very significant health intervention program. 


We’ve also got to address vaping. That is also causing major havoc for communities. But the government’s responded very positively to that, and we’ll see some measures coming up in the coming year to address that through funding and also some regulatory controls on importation of vaping devices, et cetera. 

Ginger Gorman (29:19): 

When I asked Tom Calma, as the 2023 Senior Australian of the Year, if he could get a message into the ears of young people, what would it be, this is what he said. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (29:30): 

Get involved. You all have a part to play in democracy. Understand how we govern. Understand the mechanisms of how legislation gets through Parliament, the roles and responsibilities of Parliament. Understand your citizenship rights and also your human rights, what you are entitled to and what you should be demanding. But also, at the same time, understand who we are as a nation. I can say, through the Narragunnawali program through Reconciliation Australia, that we’re working across the nation in all the curriculums to present an understanding of our history from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective. We’ve started addressing truth telling. That’s a really important one. 

Ginger Gorman (30:16): 

Tom had something to say to older people too, where education has failed us and the work we still need to do. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (30:23): 

I’m on the Aged Care Council of Elders, which is a group of people from across Australia who are looking at monitoring and working with the government on the implementation of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aged Care. From the older person’s perspective, I think what they need to do is also understand a lot more about our youth, understand how they can still contribute effectively to society, and try and get a bit of an understanding about our history because too many older people were denied a good education about the history of Australia. It was very distorted when I went through, and I’m turning 70 in a couple of weeks’ time. It was all about Captain Cook discovering Australia and forgetting about that 65-70,000 years of pre-history when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people survived on this continent. 


And to understand and to celebrate and really give life to the longest continuing surviving cultures in the world, our Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people. Nobody’s ever going to pass that. But we’re here. We were here. We will still be here into the future. So it’s really important for all of us to understand that and to try and have some empathy and understanding about why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want to have a bit of say in the way that we’re going about it. 


Unfortunately, with the bushfires that are happening around Australia now, we’re seeing another call from people, saying we need to look at issues like cultural burnings, land management that were practiced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, pre-colonisation, that meant that we won’t suffer as much in these devastating natural disasters as we currently do. We’ve got to bite the bullet and understand that, understand the impacts of climate change, and a lot of that’s got to be driven by many of our old people. There’s many on board for reconciliation. We just need to expand that out for others to have a bit more understanding, a bit more empathy. 

Ginger Gorman (32:32): 

As Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner back in the 2000s, he’s seen what empathy and understanding it means across our community. As we wrap up our chat, Tom even had a bit of theory about public celebration and openness to diversity. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (32:48): 

We are a multicultural society. We’ve got to understand that. We’ve got to live with it. We’ve got to work with it. And we should respect all cultures, all religions, and all peoples. We’ll only do that, and that’ll make us be able to achieve a future that’s going to be very inclusive of everybody. And you look at the statistics on the number of intercultural marriages. We are multicultural. 


And as the Race Discrimination Commissioner for five years, back in the 2000s, we saw some atrocious behaviour by governments and the lack of recognition. We need to now move further on that one and celebrate, as we do in Canberra. Canberra, we celebrate two big things that I reckon. One is that we have a public holiday to celebrate reconciliation, and we have our multicultural festival that is phenomenally supported by the population. That’s why we had a 60% vote yes in the referendum. 

Ginger Gorman (33:50): 

What comes next for a lifelong changemaker like Professor Tom Calma? 

Professor Tom Calma AO (33:56): 

I’ll still do all the things that I do. I do a lot of work in early years education and through the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, with the philanthropic approach to addressing engagement of not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but other people who are low socioeconomic or refugees, migrants. We run quite a number of programs like Breakfast Libraries, Books in Homes, these sort of programs, programs that use art therapy to engage with kids from a refugee background, and also an Indigenous background, where people can feel really comfortable in understanding and expressing their stories through a non-threatening environment, like art, and then start to work on language development. They’re all critically important. 


Another group I chair is the Living First Language Platform, which is now, by the end of this year, would have recorded 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia. These are languages being led by the community. And not only are they recording the languages, but they’re able to teach the languages back to their community. But they’re also used as an opportunity to then become familiar with your own language, and then develop your English language capacity. 


We’ve seen some brilliant outcomes. I think the government is now looking at one of our success stories working with the Gillen Primary School in Alice Springs, that when we started eight years ago, they were the bottom achieving primary school in Alice Springs, in NAPLAN. They’re now the highest achieving. So, where there is the right sort of approach that’s inclusive, that’s done in a way that people can relate to, that’s supportive, we will see an outcome. That’s not only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but that’s for all kids in the school. 


There’s plenty of good examples of good practice around the nation. We’ve just got to be able to exercise some of those. And language and culture are some of the most important for not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but people from minority ethnicities. 

Ginger Gorman (36:08): 

Thank you for your time today, Tom. 

Professor Tom Calma AO (36:10): 

Thank you. Appreciate it. 

Ginger Gorman (36:11): 

That’s it for Seriously Social. Thanks for listening. I’m Ginger Gorman, and this is the last episode of Seriously Social for 2023 and the last for the whole podcast series. It brings to a close six wonderful seasons of understanding our world through the social sciences. 


I want to say a special farewell and thanks from me as host and from the whole podcast team to all our guests over the years and to you listeners. Together we’ve explored some amazing ideas, research, and insights. More than 120,000 listens later, we couldn’t have done it without you. Seriously Social will remain available to download for a long time to come, so I do hope you revisit your favourites and find new favourites to share. 


This podcast is produced on Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Yuggerah, and Turrbal land, and we pay our respects to Elders past and present. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester, Chez Robinson, engineered by Mark Gageldonk, aka Baldey, and our executive producers are Bonnie Johnson and Clare McHugh. It is an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. To stay in touch for more developments as the Academy finds new ways to bring you stories and insights from the social sciences, visit


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