In two days, Bill Shorten has done a great deal to significantly lift indigenous representation in federal politics — which has been far too low on both sides for far too long.

Yesterday, Shorten announced the recruitment of NSW Deputy Opposition Leader Linda Burney — a woman with an impressive CV both before and in state politics — for the seat of Barton. And today Shorten announced that Pat Dodson would replace departing right-wing WA Senator Joe Bullock. Dodson is one of the most important indigenous figures in modern Australia, with a strong commitment to social justice and reconciliation. His decision to enter the Senate is an important moment in politics, and his decision to join Labor is a coup for Shorten.

As Burney said yesterday, neither she nor Dodson should be defined by their Aboriginality. Both have the experience and skills to offer much to public life. But lifting the level of indigenous representation in Parliament is critical to closing the persistent gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and improving economic, social and health outcomes for indigenous communities. That cannot be achieved by non-indigenous Australians dictating policy, no matter how well-intentioned. Indigenous Australians must be at the centre of power and must be involved in decision-making.

Both the Liberal and Labor parties have in recent years improved the representation of indigenous Australians within their ranks, in essence off a zero base. Shorten’s announcements this week are further and welcome steps forward. Indigenous Australians need to be in power, not merely the subjects of it.

Peter Fray

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