Ahead of Reconciliation Week, Cheree Toka tells SBS News about where her long-fought battle to see the Aboriginal flag flying year-round is up to and what motivates her to keep going.
Kamilaroi woman Cheree Toka, 29, is feeling impatient.
On National Sorry Day, marked each year on 26 May, the Aboriginal flag is hoisted up to fly above the Sydney Harbour Bridge alongside the Australian flag. It stays there for Reconciliation Week, then is taken back down to gather dust.
For the last three and a half years, Cheree has answered the same question, again and again: how does it make you feel when the flag is taken down, folded up, put away?
She’s told politicians, councillors, journalists, and anyone who’d listen: she’s heartbroken and disrespected.
But now, impatience has taken over.
“I’m sick of telling them how I feel,” she tells SBS News. “I’ve made every argument there is to make. Let’s just get it moving.”
Cheree has fought a dogged campaign since she started a Change.org petition in 2017 for the Aboriginal flag to fly above the bridge permanently rather than the “insulting” 19 days it currently flies, temporarily replacing the New South Wales flag.
She has now amassed more than 140,000 signatories, some of whom have also taken actions she has given them, such as lobbying selected state MPs.
She admits she was “naive” when she started out. “I thought, this’ll be easy, it’s the right thing to do - an Aboriginal girl representing her people - the government is bound to say yes,” she says.
But party lines were drawn quite clearly on the issue: NSW Labor made it a key election policy; the NSW Liberals opposed it.
But Cheree hopes her activism can change that.
Campaigning during coronavirus
While COVID-19 restrictions have made traditional campaign work during Reconciliation Week a challenge, Cheree says her work online can continue.
“Change.org gives me the online tools to direct my supporters with campaign actions. And there are new ministers to lobby, which I’m pleased about,” she says.
“So we can campaign with social distancing.”
The first minister to target will be the new NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister, she says, following Don Harwin’s resignation after being fined for breaching COVID-19 restrictions. Mr Harwin is challenging the fine.
It looked like there would be another new hire to lobby too after NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced his departure from state politics to run for the federal seat of Eden Monaro - but he recently pulled out of the race.
The NSW Transport Minister is the person who ultimately has the power to, logistically, make the flag change happen.
While recently retired Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones railed against the “divisive” idea, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has consistently said, “we’re satisfied with the current arrangement”. But Mr Constance has taken a different line.
The issue was debated in the final NSW parliamentary session of 2019 - one that happened solely as a result of Cheree’s activism. She’d collected the 10,000 paper signatures needed to compel a debate.
“I felt like a big woman that day,” Cheree says. “I felt empowered. I thought, 'yes, this is it, we gave them what they want, it’s going to happen!’”
In that debate, Mr Constance mentioned members of the NSW Government were “keen to see this change happen” but cited “technical difficulties” of erecting a third, or third and fourth, flag pole.
The claims were rubbished by Labor, while Cheree called it a slap in the face.
“They want me to give up so I shut up,” she claims. “That’s not going to happen”.
She believes opposition to the Aboriginal flag flying permanently is “racism”. “What else can it be?” she says.
Cheree appealed directly to Mr Constance in February with an open letter after watching him breakdown in parliament over his personal experience of the bushfires. She thanked him for the leadership he’d shown to affected communities and expressed her deepest sympathies for everything his constituents had lost.
“People have lost everything. The family homes they knew have gone. The community they knew has vanished. It’s awful” she wrote.
“It’s as awful as what happened to my ancestors, the Kamilaroi people. As Aboriginal people, they, too, lost everything after colonisation: homes, children. They had nothing left.”
“What can we do to ensure these tragedies, these families who’ve lost everything are never forgotten? Honour them.”
His response, sent privately to her in March, read: “To construct a third flagpole would require major structural upgrades. This would be very costly and unfeasible with the new arch gantry project now underway.”
“I’ve heard every argument against it from them now,” Cheree says.
“First it was getting enough support to get a parliamentary debate, then it was flag protocol, then a technical issue and now a financial issue? I just thought: it’s evident you don’t care to show the respect to want to fly the flag.”
But undeterred, Cheree has a plan. “If cost really is the issue, I’ll do a GoFundMe [fundraiser] and raise it myself” she says.
Her immediate strategy is to keep the attention squarely on the NSW Liberal and National parties, to build a groundswell of support from within government.
A new supporter has also come on board recently.
Presumptive Liberal candidate for the Lord Mayor of Sydney Christine Forster told SBS News exclusively ahead of Reconciliation Week 2020: “I understand there’ve been some engineering issues associated with the installation of a third flagpole, but I hope these can be addressed so we see the Aboriginal Flag flying permanently above Sydney Harbour sooner rather than later.”
The birth of an activist
Cheree’s connection to her Aboriginal roots focused on one woman who, incredibly, lived to 110 years old: her grandmother, who died four weeks ago.
“I wanted to make a documentary on my grandmother’s life,” she says. “But she was from the Stolen Generation. I wasn’t really allowed to ask her questions about it so as not to re-traumatise her.”
Cheree, who is also the co-owner of a facilities management company and lives in Sydney's inner west, says she’s keen to keep learning about and connecting to her Aboriginal history and culture.
She has also recently accepted an opportunity to run for pre-selection as a Labor councillor Sydney’s Inner West Council, as a result of her flag campaign.
For her 30th birthday in August, if travel restrictions allow, she wants to go to Uluru; her first time.
“I want to sit and reflect on my ancestors but also the campaigners who recently successfully banned climbing over the rock,” she says.
“They inspire me that if I keep going, I could make change too.”
Ms Berejiklian and Mr Constance did not respond to a request for comment.
Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist based in Sydney
National Sorry Day is marked on Tuesday 26 May and Reconciliation Week begins on Wednesday 27 May with NITV airing a selection of dedicated programming this week to mark it.
On Monday 25 May at 8.30pm, a special episode of Living Black will feature the ‘father of reconciliation’ Patrick Dodson. On Wednesday at 8.30pm, The Point will explore how COVID-19 has brought a new dimension to Reconciliation Week this year, and on Thursday at 7.30pm, Living Black will mark the 20th anniversary of the Walk for Reconciliation.