By Elizabeth Minter

    Bidjara woman Colleen Marion has spent decades advocating for her people and has lost none of her drive and determination to improve the conditions for First Nations people. If anything, she is fighting harder than ever. 

    Raised in the small outback town of Augathella, in southwest Queensland, Colleen moved to Melbourne in 1971. A single mother, Colleen raised five children while working – first as a youth worker at the then Baltara Reception Centre, which provided accommodation for boys aged 10–14 who were wards of the state. 

    Colleen then worked with the Commonwealth Employment Service, before moving to the state Department of Human Services, developing Aboriginal service plans. And that’s where the idea for her crowning achievement, The Gathering Place Health Service, took hold. “I realised there was nothing in the west for Aboriginal people, no appropriate services, nothing.” 

    Colleen led the team that established The Gathering Place, which opened in 2003 out of Highpoint library before moving to its permanent home in Werribee. 

    For the next 16 years, The Gathering Place provided culturally appropriate medical and social welfare services to Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people throughout Melbourne’s West. It was a particularly important service because evidence shows that Aboriginal people are far more likely to seek health care if they feel culturally safe.

    Colleen was devastated for her community when, in 2018, The Gathering Place did not receive funding from the federal Health Department’s Indigenous Australians’ Health Programme under the Coalition government, and had to close. 

    Her hard work and determination to improve outcomes for her community, particularly the young, has been recognised by a number of awards, including becoming the first Aboriginal person in Victoria to be awarded Save the Children’s White Flame Award in 2005. 

    Colleen says she will never give up the fight to see a culturally safe service return to Melbourne’s West. She believes the fire in her belly comes from her mother. “She was a strong black woman. We lived in a tin hut with dirt floors, with the girls in one bed and my three brothers in another. Mum had to cook on an open fire, but all nine of us kids always had clean school uniforms and packed lunches.”

    Colleen’s father worked as a stockman and in those days of no social support, when he couldn’t find work, the family hunted for food in the traditional way, with echidna regularly providing sustenance. 

    When she moved to Melbourne, life was very difficult, but she had a lot of support from a mentor/friend in the community. “Without her, life would have been so hard. When I was about to be made homeless, she stepped in and really saved the family.” Colleen is determined to pay that support forward. 

    She says it is a travesty that the whole of the Aboriginal community of Melbourne’s West, comprising the council areas of Hobsons Bay, Brimbank, Wyndham, Melton, Maribyrnong and Moonee Valley, has no culturally safe health/medical service. 

    Colleen says the consequences are dire, including the non-treatment of chronic illnesses and life-threatening physical and mental conditions, and the ongoing risk of missed diagnoses. 

    Culturally safe health care has again been in the news recently, with Noongar woman and lawyer Hannah McGlade, an associate professor at Curtin University’s law school and human rights advocate, noting that “Aboriginal people are dying in this country because of racism in healthcare.”

    In 2020, one fifth of Indigenous Australian adults or their families reported being racially discriminated against by doctors, nurses and/or medical staff in the past 12 months.

    The Gathering Place created partnerships with specialist services, including optometry, cancer care, dental services and treatment for alcohol and other drug addictions. It also focused on maternal and child health, particularly important given the traumatic legacy of the Stolen Generations. 

    Nearly half (47%) of Aboriginal people in Victoria have a relative who was forcibly removed from family. Many mothers won’t attend mainstream services due to fears that they will be judged and/or reported (unfairly) to child protective services and lose their children. 

    In 2021, one in nine Aboriginal babies under the age of one in Victoria was taken from their family, more than double the national average. Some 368 Indigenous children in Melbourne’s West have been removed from their families.

    As Sue-Anne Hunter, deputy chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission has said recently: “A new Stolen Generation is happening before our eyes”. Indigenous children are now 11.5 times more likely to be placed in care than non-Indigenous children. In 2021 the figure was 11.1 times.

    Colleen says these figures highlight why a culturally safe place providing health care is crucial. The Gathering Place served as the central point for the community to connect to other culturally appropriate services, including the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency. VACCA and The Gathering Place provided vital advocacy and support for families facing the risk of their children being removed. 

    Elizabeth Minter is Daniel Mulino’s media adviser.


    Champions of the West is brought to you by Dr Daniel Mulino, federal Labor MP for Fraser.
    If you would like to nominate a Champion of the West, email

    Daniel Mulino
    Federal MP for Fraser

    (03) 9070 1974
    Shop 1, 25–27 Clarke St, Sunshine VIC 3020

    Your feedback

    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here



    Latest Articles

    Latest edition

    #96 May 2024

    Recent editions



    Become a supporter

    The Westsider is run on the power of volunteers. Your contribution directly contributes to ensuring we can continue serving and celebrating our community.

    Related articles