Condolence Motion for Rosemary Lester

In Parliament, Speeches

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:31): I rise to support this motion of condolence, and to take a moment here in this council to honour the contribution and the life and work of Rosemary Lester, who will after this be Kunmanara Lester. She was an advocate, a leader and I believe a soft but strong voice for justice. I knew her well and I knew her from my time in this place. I met her first in the Balcony Room of this parliament, where she and her family came down for an event with regard to that legacy of the black mist, that legacy that is this parliament’s shame. She herself has left a proud legacy, and, living through those memories of all of those who knew her, that legacy will shine.

The contributions she made not only to our country but to the global and broader world for a world free of nuclear weapons was extraordinary. Born a Yankunytjatjara Anangu woman, and the daughter of a prominent antinuclear campaigner, Yami Lester, Rosemary and her sister Karina worked closely with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). She was driven by the experience and stories of her father and other family members and herself. She taught the power of lived experience of those who were directly affected by the nuclear testing at Maralinga.

When she spoke, most notably at the launch of the iconic mural on Wurundjeri country, which commemorates her father, she noted how the courage of her family members gave her courage and strength and gave her strength and provided her great lessons in life. Like her father and her sister, it was her vision and advocacy that helped develop understandings of the impact of those who were impacted by the testing of nuclear weapons on a national and international scale. She took on that battle that her father left behind.

Rosemary and her sister Karina also helped ICAN win a Nobel peace prize. Her powerful testimony at the Black Mist White Rain speaking tour in April 2016 demonstrated her intelligence and the influence that her words can have on the triumph of cultural survival. Her story was painful but fundamental in nuclear justice and allowed her to be a very forceful voice during that South Australian royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle and, of course, the subsequent citizens’ jury back in 2016. I commend that video to those in this place who wish to learn more.

She was not only a vital advocate in her campaign to ban nuclear weapons but also, as has been mentioned, involved in the wonderful Paper Tracker. It was a program that was launched in mid-2007 to monitor the promises that this state government of all colours made to the Anangu. It was implemented to improve the lives of South Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities through the timely delivery of key infrastructure, services and programs.

As we know, politicians make many promises, but Paper Tracker held those politicians’ promises to account. The main objective of Paper Tracker was for First Nations to receive information in their first language, to be able to talk with governments as equal partners and make decisions from a position of knowledge and strength and more equal power, to participate in the broader debates and to participate in creating their future.

I fondly remember many times going in to talk to Paper Tracker with whoever the host was. At one point it was Jonathan Nicholls who was well known to many in this council, but, with her skills in language, it was with Rosemary as well. My fondest memory is when they asked me to play a song and I picked Eminem. I do not think Rosemary was up for translating Lose Yourself, but I like to think that Eminem transcends all language.

Unfortunately, Paper Tracker lost its funding, and in June 2020 it was announced by Uniting Communities that they would step out of that advocacy work in that particular role. That does not take away from their role in supporting Aboriginal communities. Indeed, Rosemary’s continuance to do that work and her courage and determination in the face of adversity is what will certainly shine through, not just through that work but in her broader contribution.

Our state’s community and all South Australians will rarely have in their midst a gentler, kinder or more patient soul, certainly in my experience of her. On behalf of the South Australian Greens, I extend my condolences to her family and all those who loved her. May she rest in peace now after a life of goodwill and love, born of pain and trauma, and may we carry that lasting legacy of her work in our lives.

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing) (16:37): I would like to thank the Hon. Kyam Maher for moving this motion giving the council the opportunity to reflect on the life of Rosemary Lester. Ms Rosemary Lester, who passed away last month at the age of 51, was a highly skilled Yankunytjatjara interpreter, a passionate advocate for Aboriginal self-determination, a lifelong opponent of nuclear testing and the nuclear industry, a skilled horserider and stockwoman, and a much-loved daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, aunty and friend.

Rosemary—or Rose or Rosie, as she was known to her family and friends—was born in 1970, the second child and oldest daughter of Lucy and the late Yami Lester. When Rose was just eight weeks old, the Lester family moved to Alice Springs, where Yami, who frequently worked as a court interpreter, helped establish the Institute for Aboriginal Development, an organisation that played a pivotal role in Aboriginal community development and the recognition and strengthening of Aboriginal languages.

As it turned out, the Lester family’s relocation to Alice Springs coincided with an era of enormous change in the way Australian governments interacted with and recognised our First Nations peoples. Rose grew up surrounded by Aboriginal people who were determined to call out injustice and the wrongs of the past, to fight for land rights and for the right to chart the course of their own lives.

It was an exciting time for a Yankunytjatjara girl to grow up. Before Rose was a teenager, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara peoples had secured freehold title to more than 100,000 square kilometres of their traditional lands, when this parliament passed the groundbreaking Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 put forward by the Tonkin Liberal government.

That success was followed in quick succession with the passing of the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act in 1984 and the ceremonial hand back to Anangu in October 1985 of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Land rights was only one of the campaigns the Lester family got involved with during those years. Another was the battle to have the British and Australian governments recognise the cost and consequences of the British testing of nuclear weapons on Anangu lands in the 1950s and 1960s. That was a very personal battle for Rose’s father, Yami, who had gone blind after a black mist—the fallout from a nuclear test—drifted across his family’s camp site.

The early 1980s, with the support of the Pitjantjatjara council, Rose’s parents, Yami and Lucy, travelled to London to draw attention to the legacy of those nuclear tests. Their advocacy and the advocacy of others led to the establishment of the royal commission and, in time, the expenditure of more than $100 million in an effort to clean up the lands that had been affected by the testing. Given Rose’s lineage and the period in which she was raised, it is hardly surprising that, as an adult, she fought with such determination and focus for particular people and courses, including antinuclear campaign work.

Another way that Rose advocated for change and a better world was through her work as a Yankunytjatjara interpreter, following in her father’s footsteps. In that role, she helped Anangu understand and navigate their encounters with government agencies and services. With her sister, Karina, Rose helped to train the next generation of interpreters and lobbied successive governments to not only properly fund interpreting services but to establish viable career paths and full-time careers for Anangu who wished to work as interpreters.

Their advocacy included speaking with the Premier on a number of occasions about the importance and long-term ripple effect of creating a sustainable workforce of Aboriginal interpreters. The passion and advocacy of the Lester sisters is leading to real change, albeit much slower than Rose would have liked. The government’s Aboriginal Affairs Action Plan 2021-22 includes an explicit commitment to ‘Support Aboriginal Language speakers to undertake training, gain qualifications and be employed as interpreters’.

On a broader level, Rose worked to ensure Anangu had access to key information in their first languages. From 2011 to 2019, she co-hosted an award-winning weekly radio show that examined the way governments interacted with Anangu communities on the APY lands and the Maralinga Tjarutja lands and in Yalata and Coober Pedy. The Paper Tracker radio show provided listeners on the lands and in Adelaide with up-to-date information in Yankunytjatjara, Pitjantjatjara and English.

For the first three years of the show, Rose’s co-host was Jonathan Nicholls, an adviser in my office. Jonathan attributes the success of the show first and foremost to Rose’s extraordinary interpreting skills and her unwavering belief in the right of Anangu to make informed decisions for themselves. Over the course of the eight years the show was on air, Rose interpreted for literally hundreds of guests, including, I am advised, half a dozen Aboriginal affairs ministers; quite a number of members of the Legislative Council, past and present; and a broad range of public servants and service providers, each of whom was asked to explain in simple English how their projects and ideas could benefit Anangu communities.

It was not easy work. Not all politicians, bureaucrats and service providers are good communicators—present company excluded. We tend to rely on jargon, acronyms and buzzwords—words and expressions that were often difficult for Rose to interpret into Yankunytjatjara. Guests on the show might want to focus on terms like ‘strategic outcomes’, ‘key performance indicators’ or ‘restraint on resource allocations’. At times, it must have been very frustrating for Rose, who I am told was a straight talker and a deep thinker and somebody who enjoyed a good story and clear communication.

This Friday, Rose’s family and friends will gather for a funeral service at Walatina, a homeland on the eastern side of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands—a homeland that her father got back in the early 1990s and where, for a time, she managed its cattle project. Again, I thank the member for moving the motion. On behalf of the government and myself, I offer my sympathies to Rose’s family, particularly her mother, Lucy; her brother, Leroy; her sister, Karina; her children, Kiah, Robert, Carlin and Leesha; and her much-loved grandchildren, Lucy and Dylan.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.