Profile: Tom Calma AO

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Professor Tom Calma AO is a Kungarakan and Iwaidja Elder from the Northern Territory.

In recognition of his important advocacy work in human rights and social justice, Professor Calma has been named the 2023 Senior Australian of the Year.

For nearly four decades, Professor Tom Calma has put his voice and himself at the gates confronting Indigenous Australians.

He worked with others to establish the Aboriginal Task Force at the Darwin Community College, which provided second-chance education programs for Aboriginal and Torres

Strait Islander people. His leadership would translate onto the world stage, improving our relations with some of our closest neighbours.

He then became a senior advisor to Australian government ministers, a role that would see him sit alongside Australians from all walks of life.

“We, as Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people, will be able to, you know, be active participants in our own future instead of being passive recipients of government policies and programs, as has happened too much into the past.”

Tom became Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. His work through this period saw him guide Australia through pivotal conversations about our identity, such as the racism that followed the Cronulla riots and the Bali bombings. Most importantly, the initiation of the Social Justice Report, which was the catalyst for the Close the Gap campaign.

“By 2030, we wanted to have health equality, where Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people enjoyed the same outcomes as non-Indigenous people. And our challenge is really for the rest of the nation to come with us and understand who we are. Understand that, not only are we the first people, we're the longest surviving continuing culture in the world.”

It was his voice that was selected to be the voice of Indigenous Australia from across the country on the National Apology.

“Through one direct act, the parliament has acknowledged the existence and the impacts of past policies and practices of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families.”

His passion for this country and for the marginalised peoples of this country is unwavering to this day. These issues consume his mind, like few other Australians. He has now lent his voice to the campaign for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

“What I try to do is just to, keep people informed, to help develop their knowledge and let people make their own decisions.”

“Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the nation recognise that is one form of getting a voice.”

A man of Tom Calma's calibre must be celebrated by all Australians for his service to improve the lives of many people around this country.

In his work with the Australian Human Rights Commission, he has served as both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, and the Race Discrimination Commissioner. His work on the 2005 Social Justice Report, which focused on Indigenous health inequality, was the catalyst for the Close the Gap campaign.

He is currently Chancellor of the University of Canberra, leads the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program, has been the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia for over a decade.

In 2021, Tom was co-chair of the Senior Advisory Group responsible for developing the Final Report on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, and he continues to play an important leadership role with this initiative.

As a member of the Council of Elders, he helps ensure Older people’ views about ageing and aged care are heard by the Australian Government.

We have an increasing sector of our community who is having early onset dementia which requires very specialised care. We have many people who live at home who want to care for the elders, but need the support to be able to do that, to be able to be trained up, to have a good workforce that is able to deliver services but also do it in a culturally meaningful and culturally caring way.

We will all grow old. And so, you know, what we can do now to invest in our future and in the future of all of our elders is really what drives me and why I'm so passionate in this area.

It's about justice and it's about equity and it's about a fair treatment for all Australians.

“We will all grow old, and so what we can do now to invest in our future and in the future of all of our elders is really what drives me, and why I’m so passionate in this area,” he said.

Congratulations Tom for being named Senior Australian of the Year and thank you for your continued commitment to represent First Nations Australians, and older people in Australia.

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The Department of Health and Aged Care acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia, and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to them and their cultures, and to elders both past and present.