Torres Strait Island Elder, Aunty McRose Elu, has won the 2021 Queensland Senior Australian of The Year Award for her tireless advocacy for Torres Strait communities and climate change.

In a statement, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Aunty McRose Elu’s award recognised her decades-long contribution to Queensland as a campaigner and a strong family advocate.

“Since 1980 Aunty McRose Elu has been drawing attention to the impact of climate change in the Torres Strait, speaking at the United Nations and to business and political leaders,” the Premier said.

Reconciliation Queensland’s guest writer Jeaun Lewis spoke to Aunty McRose after her well deserved win.

Out of all of the troubles facing the modern world, the largest is climate change which threatens to do irreversible damage to the world, cultures, and lives.

As these problems continue to go unsolved and unresolved by nations around the world, the risk to low laying island regions is high, with some islands expected to disappear completely under the water within the next 5-10 years.

It is this issue, among others, that Torres Strait Islander Elder Aunty McRose Elu, known by the name Aunty Rose, has made a focus of much of her work, alongside advocating for communities and bringing change to the way that the government views the traditional practices of the Torres Strait Islander communities at a local, state, and federal level.

“I have been in this team and we have been negotiating with the government for 35 + years,” says Aunty Rose.

“There’s a whole lot of us on this team…who have worked tirelessly to lobby the government to recognise and legislate our cursory practices of sharing the children. Earlier this year the bill was passed that recognised the child rearing practices of Torres Strait Islander people.”

The Meriba Omasker Kaziw Kazipa (Torres Strait Islander Traditional Child Rearing Practice) Act 2020, recognises the child sharing custom of Ailan Kastom, which includes the sharing of responsibility for raising children among trusted extended family and friends, and the transferral of the parental rights over to the child’s cultural parents.

Another one of the issues that is important to Aunty Rose is climate change, which is a personal issue for her due the dangers facing many low-lying islands in the Torres Strait and their inhabitants.

Before her father, Mugai Elu and resettled his community from Saibai Island to Red Island Point in 1947 with the support of the fist nations community of the area, Saibai had and has continued to suffer greatly from the effects of climate change, with difficulty obtaining clean water, materials for construction and land that was safe to live on.

“I come from the islands between Papua New Guinea and Australia which are part of Australia…there are 17 inhabited islands, 7 of them are inundated and one of them is mine,” says Aunty Rose.

“The rising seas, the monsoon seasons, the surging of waves…because of there are people living on those islands there is a big risk to the wellbeing of our people.”

Aunty Rose

Aunty Rose speaking at the launch of the Anglican Church Southern Queensland ‘Innovate’ Reconciliation Action Plan in November 2016.

Aunty Rose is also a member of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC), an organisation that focuses on bringing awareness and advocacy to the topic of climate change and social justice, through the viewpoint of those with a multitude of faiths.

Chair of Angligreen, member of the Anglican Church of Southern Queensland Social Responsibilities Committee and member of the ARRCC, Father Peter Moore believes that Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Elders being a part of the conversation about climate changes, as well as fostering reconciliation with them, is core to the beliefs of the Anglican Church.

“(Aunty) Rose is an Anglican, and the Anglican church has five marks of mission, one of which is to protect creation (the Earth and the environment), and another one is to work for justice and rights,” says Father Peter Moore.

“We have a reconciliation action plan for working with the Indigenous Elders towards a treaty or some recognition in the constitution.”

The Queensland Senior Australian of the Year award recognises individuals who act as role models and have made a difference to the lives of their communities.

“It is very exciting and very overwhelming…in my journey in life I came across many, many people that have been a part of my journey and in my career path” says Aunty Rose.

“This award is not for me, this is an award for everybody who came into my life. The people who gave me encouragement and gave me strength and have given me energy to be able to do what I do.”

Father Moore believes that this award is a great recognition of the work that Elders like Aunty Rose do in the community and on advocating for causes.

“We were overjoyed and encouraged her and I phoned her up to congratulate her,” says Father Moore.

“We were overwhelmed and encouraged by the great recognition of her personally, but also the contribution of the Indigenous members of the church.”