Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


Lester, Ms Kunmanara

8:01 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation) Share this | | Hansard source

Until last night, I wanted to use this time to record the tragic death last month of Kunmanara Lester, a Yankunytjatjara Anangu woman who was an esteemed antinuclear campaigner. I phoned Kunmanara's sister, Karina, last evening to talk about the address, only to learn that their mother, Mrs Lester, had just died—a double tragedy.

I've known the Lester family for many years. Mrs Lester was a wonderful, strong woman, and I very much mourn her passing. Her husband, Kunmanara's father, was Yami Lester. He was a much respected antinuclear campaigner who went blind as a child after the British nuclear tests at Maralinga and Emu Junction in the 1950s. Yami fought for the McClelland royal commission into the testings, which eventuated in 1985. He died four years ago.

His late daughter, whom I will call Kunmanara, out of respect, was an ambassador of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The organisation was born in Melbourne in 2006 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Kunmanara had two siblings—her sister, Karina, who I spoke to last night, and her brother, Leroy. Kunmanara grew up in Alice Springs and then at Mimili community in the APY Lands, where she developed her renowned horseriding and cattle-handling skills. In the early nineties, she returned with family to their traditional country at Walatina Station in the far north of South Australia and managed the cattle project there, with the support and encouragement of her father, Yami.

An ominous black mist rolled across Walatina after the British atmospheric nuclear explosions back in October 1953. Kunmanara always believed that lingering contamination led to her acquiring a rare autoimmune disease, which was diagnosed in 2005. That diagnosis forced her to leave Walatina and move to Adelaide. For many years before, Kunmanara had acted as an interpreter for other Aboriginal people with disabilities, illness, cancer, and organ failure, which she believed were legacies of the British testing. She continued work as an interpreter in Adelaide and was stirred to action in early 2015, when South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill established the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. Fearing that the government was moving to develop a dump in South Australia for international high-level nuclear waste, Kunmanara was instrumental and influential in the formation of the No Dump Alliance. Kunmanara's illness drove her commitment to the anti-nuclear cause. Her campaigning required extensive travel, including to the APY lands. She was certainly effective. Her sister Karina, in The Sydney Morning Herald profile in June 2017, described her as 'ambitious, passionate, strong-minded and sometimes pig-headed'.

The international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, ICAN, has lauded the work and advocacy of Kunmanara. The organisation says she was a voice for nuclear justice, a carrier of stories and a powerful advocate for a world free from nuclear weapons. She maintained her drive even as her health deteriorated. In 2016, with a suitcase of medical equipment, she joined her sister Karina and others on the Black Mist, White Rain speaking tour in Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane. Kunmanara was a fighter to the end. Her funeral will be held at Walatina Station on Friday. It will be a doubly sad occasion, and I extend my sincere condolences to the family.