Australia’s newest female Aboriginal senator grew up in poverty in a family of Stolen Generations – before going on to work as a police officer, pushing back on child removals.
Dorinda Cox, 45, became the seventh Indigenous politician in the current federal parliament when she replaced retired Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert last week.
In an interview with Daily Mail Australia, she described her modest upbringing in Fremantle, Perth and explained how her service in the WA Police has left her with harrowing memories she can never forget.
Senator Dorinda Cox (pictured as a youngster in Perth) recalled growing up in poverty as a descendant of the Stolen Generations
Dorinda Cox, 45, has become the seventh Indigenous politician in the current federal parliament. She is pictured making her first speech in the senate on Tuesday
Tough but happy upbringing
Senator Cox, a proud Noongar Yamatji woman, was born into a family where the five generations before her had been removed by government officials.
Her parents, who are both Indigenous, met when her mother was a tea-lady in a roadhouse and her father, who became a truck-driver, was trying to make a name for himself as an aspiring footballer.
They moved to Perth from regional WA when she was a baby and lived with extended family before being allocated social housing.
Despite living on the breadline, Senator Cox remembers her childhood fondly.
Pictures show her hanging out with her mum on the front porch and showing off a toothy smile for the camera in her back yard.
‘I always had a great time as a child, I was actively involved in sport and played basketball and netball until my early 20s,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.
‘My parents had to ferry me to and from sport as most parents do. My dad was a basketball coach and played and refereed. My mum and I even played in the same netball team,’ she said.
Senator Cox is pictured visiting Parliament House in 1994 aged 17, when her interest in politics began
Senator Cox, who joined WA Police as a cadet aged 17, said she never knew her distressing family history as a child.
‘I didn’t know that until I was much older. I am the first generation to be raised by my parents,’ she said.
Senator Cox’s mother was taken to an orphanage run by Benedictine monks and nuns at New Norcia, north of Perth.
‘My mum was taken into the mission and five generations previous,’ she said.
‘My grandparents went and lived close to the mission which allowed them to see their children when they needed to.
I was asked to standby while children were removed from First Nations Families and I pushed back on that quite a bit
Senator Cox on her time as a WA cop
‘The Government of the day told them that they were taken for education purposes. It wasn’t about neglect, the Government used education as a thing to ”save” children,’ she recalled.
Senator Cox’s passion for politics was ignited when aged 17 she read former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s famous ‘Redfern speech’ about the Stolen Generations, children who were separated from their parents under Government policies to promote assimilation into ‘white society’.
‘It was at that moment that I felt he understood the impact of my and my family’s story – one which, shared across many families and communities, is etched in our past but also in our present,’ she said in her maiden senate speech on Tuesday.
‘In particular, when he said, ”We took the children and we smashed the traditional way of life,” this, as I reflected recently, was a significant moment that sparked my interest in politics.’
Harrowing life with police
That same year she joined the WA Police as a cadet where she worked her way up to become a First Class Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer.
‘My dad encouraged me and a family friend was already a police officer. I was fit and healthy and thought that would be a great opportunity for a great career at 17,’ she said.
But not all of Senator Cox’s relatives were happy with her career choice.
‘The history of police in the lives of First Nations People is not a good one, it’s a very negative one in fact,’ she said.
‘My grandmother asked me if I would be removing children and I told her that I wouldn’t because that’s not what police do.’
But soon she realised she had been ‘naïve to think that’.
‘I was asked to standby while children were removed from First Nations Families and I pushed back on that quite a bit because I don’t believe that’s the role of police,’ she said.
Senator Cox explained she wouldn’t refuse to do her job but would wear a T-shirt over her uniform to make the experience less confronting for the child being removed.
She told her superiors: ‘If we turn up in a blue uniform and we’re going to remove a child, what do you think that looks like forever for that family and that child?’
Senator Cox being sworn in on Monday
‘We are placing a memory which cannot be erased about a child being removed by police. That’s a memory that children will carry forever.’
Recalling the first time she had to attend a child removal, she said: ‘I remember standing back in this instance and I wore a T-shirt over my uniform so I was not identifiable as police to the child – and that was approved by the sergeant I was working with and he understood.
‘I didn’t refuse to do it (child removals) – but there are ways and means. I was very clear that it was the role of child protection and police intervention is not required unless there are circumstances that need it.
‘Responses to First Nations communities have to be trauma-led because the things that we do every day affect people,’ she said.
Senator Cox said her police experience helps inform her view that child removal should be a policy of last resort and is happening too often in modern Australia.
‘I don’t think we should be removing children at the rate that we are in Western Australia. It’s got the highest rate in the country. It’s particularly damaging,’ she said.
The lasting effects of police work
During her eight years of service, Senator Cox worked with traffic, child abuse, and juvenile aid teams as well as performing front line roles including dealing with domestic violence and stealing complaints.
‘I assisted investigations with detectives to bring that sense of cultural safety to people who were seeking help from police,’ she said.
The 45-year-old said there are some harrowing cases that she can’t shake from her memory.
‘There are cases that do affect you. What we don’t do is pay gratitude to some of the horrific cases that police see and what people who are victims of crime experience. From a human aspect they affect you and still affect you,’ she said.
‘I won’t go into details because they would identify people but there are instances which still affect you. I know that happens to a range of police officers not just me.’
Senator Cox, a single mother with two daughters aged seven and nine, said the child abuse cases she worked on were among the most distressing.
‘When you become a mother it magnifies that aspect,’ she said.
Senator Cox spent eight years in the WA police force. In November 2020 she received recognition at the Aboriginal Service Medal presentation (pictured) for her service
In a social media post last year when she received an Aboriginal Service Medal, Senator Cox described how she witnessed racism in the police.
‘I was proud to serve our community as a police officer for eight years but the racism I experienced in the police force is something I see everyday in both the justice system in this state, and as violence perpetrated against First Nations people,’ she wrote.
The mother of two told Daily Mail Australia she occasionally experienced racism personally.
‘It wasn’t a common thing. This is something that people often are not even conscious that they’re doing it but some people are,’ she said.
‘Being a First Nations woman is very difficult in a very, very patriarchal system like the police – it’s an institution.
‘I come from a matriarchal culture which comes up against the patriarchy in that institution and at times it’s a very male dominated career,’ she said.
However, the mother-of-two said she still has a good relationship with many of her former colleagues and the police generally.
‘I had great comradery and I still have to work with police and so I don’t think there’s any dislike about police and my experience has helped me gain a broader view of the world’s issues,’ she said.
Life in government and politics
After leaving the police aged 25, Senator Cox worked for the Commonwealth and Western Australian governments in various policy and management roles where she focussed on the impact of policies on people’s lives.
‘My line of inquiry was always ”how does this affect people who live through this every day” which can be quite confronting at a Federal level because people don’t often think about that,’ she said.
Greens Senator Dorinda Cox (left) attends an indigenous smoking ceremony at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Old Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday
After she was sworn into Parliament on Monday, Senator Cox attended a traditional smoking ceremony outside Parliament House.
On Tuesday evening she began her maiden speech in the Noongar language which she had to learn as a mature student because her ancestors were forbidden from speaking it by authorities.
‘I thank you, Mr President. My name is Dorinda Cox and I am a strong Noongar Bibbulmen Yamatji woman and I come from a long line of powerful matriarchs,’ she said.
The Greens senator told Daily Mail Australia her main priorities are tackling climate change and protecting cultural heritage.
‘Climate change is number one. We want the government to update emissions targets for 2030 and are pushing quite hard on that,’ she said.
‘Greens values are very aligned with mine as a First Nations Woman. It’s about caring for country, caring for the environment and when we do that we care for everyone at the same time.’
‘Another priority is protecting cultural heritage. We’re not anti-mining or anti-development but we want to make sure everyone’s cared for,’ she said.