Is this Australia's first president?

By Mark Daffey (freelance)

Ethan Taylor is a man on the move and it seems only a matter of time before we see his name on political ballot papers.

Ethan Taylor Trinity College

It’s safe to assume that anyone who publicly declares their ambition to one day become prime minister of Australia must possess a healthy dose of self-belief. When that person is still a teenager, it’s easy to be dismissive – until you learn what they’ve achieved already.

Ethan Taylor (TC 2018) was just 18 years old when, in 2017, he announced on ABC Radio his intention to one day run for PM. Three years on, however, even that exalted pinnacle might not satisfy the Warumungu man’s lofty aspirations.

‘I’d love to be Australia’s first Aboriginal president,’ he says from his temporary base in Alice Springs, where he spent a month working on the 2020 Northern Territory election.

Ethan is nothing if not driven, with a track record that backs it up. At high school in Geraldton, Western Australia, his peers recognised his leadership credentials when they elected him head prefect. Then, halfway through Year 12 and disillusioned with the formulaic approach to achieving an ATAR, he skipped the remaining two terms and went straight on to tertiary studies in Canberra, enrolling in online science, maths and arts subjects through Open Universities Australia.

Ethan was raised as a Warumungu boy, and says that  ‘as an Aboriginal person, you are politicised from day one; you’re born into it’.

‘Tell someone you’re Indigenous and it’s 50-50 as to whether you’ll then talk about normal things or whether they’ll have some kind of opinion [about us].’

But rather than shy away from his heritage, Ethan has always embraced it. In 2019, he joined Culture Is Life to help prevent Indigenous youth suicide through mental health initiatives. Earlier, he founded the Union of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students (UATSIS), which saw him travel around the country lobbying for a better go for Indigenous students in tertiary education.

‘It was about making sure there’s space for Indigenous students in our universities, so we get the same opportunities,’ he says. ‘Part of that is making sure that academics and university staff aren’t racist, and part of that is making sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge is understood and respected.’

After excelling in his studies in Canberra, Ethan was accepted into Melbourne University in February 2017. For the first 12 months, he boarded at Whitley College, before shifting to Trinity at the start of his second year.

It was there that Ethan felt like he’d found his place. ‘I haven’t come across another college that’s so firm on its values of students being able to access education equally and fairly,’ he says.

‘Trinity takes its students’ wellbeing seriously. It’s also the only college to have a full-time Indigenous liaison officer, which is so good when you want to have a rant with someone after a class.’

On a broader level, perhaps Trinity subtly sang to his political aspirations, given the College has produced three Victorian state premiers and numerous state and federal government ministers.

After briefly contemplating studying law, a Trinity counsellor steered Ethan towards the arts. He majored in philosophy with a focus on political theory and ethics, preparing a road back to Canberra.

For now, however, he’s building his skillset in a communications role at Seed, an Aboriginal climate justice network that is a thorn in the side of the mining industry. Ethan’s role is focused on the Northern Territory; in particular, on scrutinising Origin Energy’s efforts to harvest coal seam gas through fracking on land where the traditional owners haven’t given their consent.

Ethan spends much of his time researching and sharing ideas, all aimed at creating a better life for – and understanding of – Indigenous people. He lists Aboriginal self-determination as his main priority.

‘It starts with trust,’ he explains. ‘There are a lot of government investment projects that insist on co-design. But co-design is flawed, because it’s still two people with their hand on the wheel trying to steer it in different directions. It should be: what do you need?’

Listening to Ethan, you sense his frustration at having to deal with governments that value economic prosperity ahead of wellbeing. He’d prefer that Aboriginal communities be able to set their own economic agendas. Mistakes will be made, he admits, but that shouldn’t stop the process.

‘Economics is all about having people’s needs met,’ he says. ‘Some of the communities around Tennant Creek – Warumungu country – look like a slice of Brunswick in the desert.

‘The architecture and the services provided don’t fit the climate and I don’t think anyone’s asked the traditional owners how much productivity or how many jobs they think they need in their towns to provide food. None of that makes sense.’

‘Change is slow,’ he adds. ‘But being a part of that is what matters.’

And the future? What does that hold?

‘I want to live a life in service, making sure my people have what we need,’ he says.

Sounds presidential, don’t you think?

By Mark Daffey

This article first appeared in issue 89 of Trinity Today.

02 Dec 2020
Category: People