Aunty Sue honoured with OAM for service to the community

AUNTY Sue Bulger is the recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) as one of the outstanding Australians recognised in this year’s King’s Birthday Honours List.

The award has been made for “service to the community of Tumut.”

From a 33-year career in teaching to 17 years serving the Tumut community as a shire councillor where she made history as Tumut’s first Indigenous mayor, to being a much-loved and respected advocate for her people and a positive role model who leads by example, Aunty Sue’s substantial contributions have had a significant impact. 

Aunty Sue said she was very happy to learn she was the recipient of an OAM, as well as grateful to whoever nominated her for the honour.

“I’m very glad that somebody nominated me and very thankful that the award has been given to me,” she said.

In civic office Aunty Sue made a huge contribution to the community through her role as a Tumut Shire and [after amalgamation] Snowy Valleys councillor, with her tenure spanning almost two decades and where she was also a member of 16 council committees.

She was first elected to Tumut Shire Council during a by-election in 2000. 

“I was going to stand as a candidate before that, but other things got in the way of me doing that and I wouldn’t have had the time. The time seemed right to put my hand up when the by-election came around,” Aunty Sue said.

In 2016 she became Tumut’s first Indigenous mayor, blazing a trail for which other Aboriginal mayors and councillors could follow.

“Through the decades to come, it may be an incentive for other Aboriginal people to put their hand up to become involved in local government,” she said. 

“Being elected to council for a start was a big thing for me, then finding out how things work. You realise that you can’t achieve all that you want to because there are certain things that get in the way, but you find out about how a community works, you look at the needs and hopefully make life better for the community.”

Aunty Sue began her teaching career in 1976 at St Jude’s in Canberra. From there she would go on to teach at Cootamundra (1977-1978), Boorowa (1978-1980), St Brigid’s in Tumut (1980-1981), St Patrick’s in Gundagai (1981-1994) and McAuley Central School (1994-1996).

She resigned from teaching in 1996 but took part-time positions until 2009 and today still visits schools around the district with her sister, Aunty Winnie Bulger, where they teach Indigenous culture and Wiradjuri language.  

“I love seeing children learning, seeing the happiness in them when they find out that they can do something or when they find out that they’ve been successful,” Aunty Sue said.

As a strong leader who nurtures her community, Aunty Sue believes these qualities to be something she learned from a young age, being the eldest girl in the Bulger family and having a sense of responsibility for her younger siblings. 

“Being part of that family was also a secure place for me to be, as well as a great support network,” she said.

Aunty Sue was a member of the Aboriginal Liaison Committee from 2008 to 2017 and Chief Executive Officer of the Brungle Tumut Local Aboriginal Land Council from 2014 until her retirement from the role last year.

“I phased out my retirement from full-time to part-time so that somebody else could job share and get to know the running of the Land Council so they wouldn’t be thrown in at the deep end and struggle,” she said.

As an executive member of the Recognition in Anthem Project, founded by Peter Vickery and which proposes a more inclusive national anthem, it is something Aunty Sue is particularly proud to be a part of. 

The new version makes a one-word change to the first verse to recognise that Aboriginal people have lived here for more than 60,000 years.

“It was actually in Tumut where I met Peter Vickery who was instrumental in changing the word ‘young’ to ‘one’ in the national anthem,” Aunty Sue said. 

“It was Peter who came to me to talk about that, and I said I could mention it in my Welcome to Country on Australia Day which I did. From there we just kept going and a lot of other people helped along the way.”

Another thing Aunty Sue is proud of is the younger generation, saying the future of local Aboriginal culture, heritage and language is in very safe hands. 

“They are absolutely stepping up at the moment and are building that capacity to be able to be the knowledge holders of the future,” she said.

When asked what motivates her to be involved in community life, Aunty Sue believes that if you see a need and there is something you can do to help, then you should do it. 

She remembers her parents always been part of a sharing community, sharing what they had, which in turn inspired her.

Her father, Uncle Vince Bulger, and his sister, Aunty Agnes Shea, were also both recipients of the Medal of the Order of Australia.

Uncle Vince was awarded his OAM for service to the community of the Tumut Shire through activities promoting Indigenous culture, tradition and reconciliation, teaching appreciation of the natural environment, and through support for elderly and infirm people. 

Aunty Agnes, a Ngunnawal woman, was a highly respected senior Elder and a leader of the movement for justice and reconciliation. 

Another inspirational influence in Aunty Sue’s life was her paternal grandmother, Violet Josephine Bulger (née Freeman), who was among the first Aboriginal children to be forcibly removed from their families as part of the Stolen Generation. 

“My grandmother survived many things in her life; she has become our symbol of resilience,” Aunty Sue said.

“When things are tough, we think of the generations before us that had it tougher. 

“We need to remember that and keep trying to do what we can to help others.”

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