Of 3087 questions asked during question time in the lower house of Parliament this term, only 10 referenced indigenous issues — a telling statistic on indigenous representation in Australian government.
A spokesperson for Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin pointed to “unprecedented efforts to close the gap on indigenous disadvantage” during this 43rd Parliament. But academics are not happy about indigenous representation and coverage of indigenous issues. Is a key part of the problem a dearth of Aboriginal MPs?
Indigenous people make up 2.5% of Australia’s population; proportionally, there should be three indigenous House of Representatives members and one senator. But there is just one indigenous federal politician: lower house Liberal Ken Wyatt.
“There are issues that relate to indigenous people, such as native titles, that are getting passed without much input from them,” said associate professor Alexander Reilly from the University of Adelaide’s School of Law. “We don’t have politicians putting indigenous issues forward or making sure these are in the ministers’ ears.”
Graeme Orr, a professor of law at the University of Queensland, conducted an audit of Australia’s electoral systems in 2004 and identified the typical parliamentarian as a 35- to 60-year-old white man. He suggests the voting system in the Lower House poses an additional challenge to indigenous representation. According to Karina Anthony’s 2006 report on political representation of racial minorities for the NSW Parliamentary Library Research Service, the need to gain the majority of votes to secure a seat in the lower house favours large parties. The upper house, however, is elected through preferential proportional representation, allowing greater representation of minor parties and minorities.
Dr John Chesterman, a professor at the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences, writes that above-the-line voting reduces direct voter discrimination. But even with a more accessible voting system, the Senate is still largely made up of major parties, which Chesterman says don’t do enough to preselect indigenous candidates. He suggests an affirmative action policy to encourage indigenous representation.
Reilly concurs, calling for dedicated seats for indigenous MPs, as happens in New Zealand. “White males will not be able to run for those positions.” The main argument against dedicated seats is that they are undemocratic, he notes.
But NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, the first indigenous leader of a state or territory, says participation in politics is a matter of personal choice. “There is nothing standing in the way of indigenous people seeking to enter politics; like everything else, one needs to be prepared to start at the bottom, to work hard and to demonstrate one’s potential value in the role.”
Reilly says increasing indigenous representation is essential to bringing a variety of views to public debate. “If you only have people looking at the world the same way, you’re going to get the narrow, same decisions all the time,” he said.
Alison Anderson, the Territory’s state MP for Namatjira, says her Aboriginal heritage informs some of her point of view, but it is not the only characteristic that shapes her decisions in state Parliament.
“I am indigenous, I am a woman, I am also a mother and a grandmother. All of these have helped shape me as a person. I am also a committed Territorian,” she said. “What I bring to this is my history, and my story and that of my people.”