This feature story about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO, was written by Victoria Laurie and featured in The Australian on Friday 13 October 2023
June Oscar's white father refused to recognise her, but her white siblings have embraced her
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar says her white father, Bob Skuthorp, would probably have voted no in Saturday's voice referendum.
Skuthorp, who died in 2012, was a gruff Kimberley pastoralist who kept the existence of his three Aboriginal offspring secret from his three white children for his entire life. He never acknowledged that Oscar was his daughter.
For years, Oscar tried to muster the courage to ring one of her three white siblings, all total strangers, and tell them “your father is my father”.
Seven years ago, she made the call to her half-brother, Bill Skuthorp. Today, on the eve of a referendum in which they will both vote yes, the siblings believe they've closed the gap within their own family, one divided for decades by prejudice and lies. Now Bob Skuthorp's six children - June, Kevin and Selina on the Aboriginal side, and Bill, Rosemarie and Veronica whose mother, Pat, was white - are firm friends.
Bill, who runs his own airconditioning installation company in Perth, says he's never forgotten that day when the bombshell hit: “I admit it was a huge shock when June rang.” She introduced herself, told him she'd got his number from a mutual acquaintance and they chatted for a while before Bill said: “What can I do for you, June?”
“I'm not sure how you're going to take this,” she told him, “but your father is my father too.” He replied: “Where are you? Can I come and see you?”
Their first meeting spanned a cultural chasm that, more than a half-century ago, separated a black girl and a white boy who were blood siblings. Bill thinks he was about two years old when his father drove baby June and her mother, Mona, off his cattle property after Pat - Skuthorp's wife and Bill's mother - had threatened to shoot them both.
Mona had worked as a domestic labourer on Brooking Springs Station, near Fitzroy Crossing. Everyone in the close-knit town knew Skuthorp had fathered Aboriginal children, and Oscar says they knew she was his illegitimate daughter, “but nobody dobbed on anyone else”.
“Somehow people never spoke about it, although an old Aboriginal man told me when I was about 12,” she says. “I remember I looked at myself and thought, ‘You are half-white'. But my whole world up to that point was my mother's Bunuba world.”
“I can remember Aboriginal people working on the station and not being paid,” Bill says. “I remember them coming up to the house and getting flour, meat, sugar and salt.” Equal pay for Aboriginal pastoral workers would not arrive until 1968.
Says Bill: “It was a huge shame, not that we had Aboriginal siblings, but that we didn't spend our youth together and that they didn't get to share a father who should have been more of a father to them as well.”
At a family wedding and on rare trips up to the Kimberley or in Perth, the six siblings have embraced each other in a way their father never could. “I'm proud of June, Kevin and Selina,” says Bill. “I find June amazing, and we have terrific discussions. She's opened my eyes to a lot of things. Kevin is probably more like my father than I am! He spent time working with Dad and, from what he's told me, they shared a lot of views on raising cattle and horses.”
Oscar says the fact she has white relatives has given her a different perspective. “There's so many common ways of thinking and new learnings that Bill and his sisters have shared with me ... I'm looking at it as an Aboriginal woman that's been at the receiving end of racism and discrimination in my own family, and by white Australians.
“The strengthening of my relationship with Bill and his siblings is about embracing all their families, and them becoming a part of a First Nations family. We have opened up that secret that Bob kept from them, and it's sad he isn't around to see how beautiful and wonderful his entire family is.”
The referendum is a talking point in the extended family. Oscar suspects their father would have voted no.
“White Australians of his era came from a way of thinking that for them (was), ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it'. But it is broke, that's what they can't see. It's about uniting us, embracing and bringing us into Australian democracy as part of the Australian story. This will narrow the gap between them and us, closing the gap on racism and discrimination.”
She's been told several family members will be voting yes. “I didn't need to sit and convince them - they made that decision and shared it with me. They said, ‘This is the right thing to do'.”
“The voice is about trust and respect,” says Bill. “I've got friends who are negative about it, and it's driven mostly by fear that we'll end up with Aboriginal people controlling our parliament. Some people are saying ‘They'll go for a treaty'. So what if they do? At the end of the day, we're all Australians, and the fearmongers need to do what's right.
“We have fantastic Aboriginal leaders like June, and we need to seek their advice and heed their view. That's a healthy thing. I strongly hope it's a yes vote.”
Bill's daughter, Isabella Skuthorp, 34, says she too will vote yes, but worries that Western Australia as a whole may not.
“People my age are a real mix,” she says. “Almost every house in my street in North Perth has a Yes sign outside, including an elderly Italian lady. But it depends where you are in Western Australia - there's been a huge conflation between the referendum and the recent controversy over WA's Aboriginal heritage laws.”
Isabella says a work colleague told her she would vote no because of fear sparked by the introduction of new state heritage protection laws - since scrapped by Premier Roger Cook - that were perceived to negatively impact on landowners. “She insisted that a voice to parliament would mean land rights would be attached (to private land). I said it had no connection with what we're voting on.”
“My Aboriginal family has taught me a lot in the short time we've known each other,” says Isabella. “What I love about Aunty June and the others is they are so positive, so resilient. But what they don't want to do is pass on this fight to the next generation. If it's a no vote, June will continue striving for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. But I'm scared for my family, half of which is potentially at a disadvantage simply by way of their birth.”
Aboriginal-led decision-making of the kind proposed by the voice model is June Oscar's stock in trade. As co-chair of the national Close the Gap campaign, she has worked with First Nations and mainstream bodies to jointly improve health outcomes.
In the Kimberley, she is renowned as a battle-hardened leader who crossed swords with her own kin in Fitzroy Crossing over alcohol restrictions she and senior women fought to have introduced in 2007. It was their practical response to extreme rates of domestic violence and 50 funerals in less than 18 months, including 13 suicides.
“We wrote to the liquor licensing authority, we approached the commissioner for police to say ‘Work with us', we reached out to politicians to say ‘These are the health statistics and we have to change this',” recalls Oscar.
She was at the forefront of the next battle to reduce the region's tragically high incidence of babies born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, by tracking its occurrence in world-leading research and encouraging women to stop drinking in pregnancy.
Called the Lililwan (“little ones” in Kriol) Project, it achieved an extraordinary participation rate of 95 per cent and a health plan was developed for every child diagnosed with FASD to ensure they received suitable ongoing care.
“It enabled women and their families and community to participate in change. They had to be part of it,” Oscar says.
“I'm thinking of those people who will sit back and say ‘Look, people like June Oscar can drive change through her voice and others'. But the problem is that's never guaranteed - with the alcohol restrictions, we were pleading with people, and their support was based on goodwill. There need to be guaranteed mechanisms to make our voices heard.”
Oscar was awarded an Order of Australia in 2013 for services to her people. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission (a role she leaves in April), she travelled the country for two years, conducting face-to-face interviews with more than 2000 First Nations women and girls.
“It was the first time in a generation that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls have been heard from as a collective on their terms,” she says.
Oscar's landmark report, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women's Voices), was tabled in federal parliament in December 2020; it remains the most comprehensive survey of Indigenous women's aspirations and challenges.
“Women would always finish by saying to me, ‘We need guaranteed mechanisms to ensure our voices are heard across all areas of our life'. At the bottom of countless butcher's papers and at the end of many presentations, the call rang out - ‘Voice, treaty, truth!'.”
So what would Oscar say to non-Indigenous Australians who, unlike her own cross-cultural family, may view the referendum as unconnected or even hostile to their own interests?
“I would say whether they have Aboriginal connections or not, as an Australian citizen in a democracy they have an opportunity to help right some of the wrongs that have affected the lives of other citizens over generations,” she says.
“It's about uniting us, embracing and bringing us into our democracy as part of the Australian story. We can have all the positives - which I'm experiencing by closing the divide between me and my white siblings.
“They are part of me.”
'The strengthening of my relationship with Bill and his siblings is about embracing all their families, and them becoming a part of a First Nations family. We have opened up that secret that Bob kept from them, and it's sad he isn't around to see how beautiful and wonderful his entire family is'