Deputy New South Wales Opposition Leader Linda Burney is currently contesting the marginal seat of Barwon in inner-south Sydney. From 2003, Burney has represented the seat of Canterbury, and held many portfolios in the both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet. After rising to become Deputy Opposition leader of the state, she has taken the logical next step to contest a federal seat – with one twist.
In doing so, she could become the first Indigenous woman to sit in the House of Representatives.
So few Indigenous women have become Australian members of parliament that the pressure of “being the first” remains a significant barrier, according to research commissioned by EMILY’s List Australia. While there were 69 women in the 226 Commonwealth parliamentary seats, only one of them was an Indigenous woman. That woman, Nova Peris, was the first Indigenous woman ever to be elected to a federal seat.
The first woman to be elected to the federal parliaments was Edith Cowan in 1921; Nova Peris was elected 92 years later, in 2013.
Since 2003, EMILY's List has been part of a coalition of women's groups working to encourage and skill Indigenous women to take their place on Australia’s parliament benches. The new research will be promoted around Australia by the organisation’s Partnership for Equity Network (PEN), which was established at the urging of Australia’s first ever Indigenous woman MP Carol Martin (MP for the West Australian state seat of Kimberley 2001-2013 and now candidate for Durack).
All of the four current Indigenous women MPs interviewed for the research recalled the additional pressure they felt in coming “first”.
The first Indigenous woman sitting in any Australian parliament was Carol Martin, elected to the West Australian seat of the Kimberley in 2001. The last fifteen years have seen Linda Burney (NSW), Kathryn Hay (Tasmania), Marion Scrymgour (NT) and Leeanne Enoch (QLD) also break through to become the first Indigenous women representatives in their respective states and territories.
We have also seen the first Indigenous woman, Nova Peris (NT), be elected to the Australian Senate. However, there is still much work to be done.
In order to combat this massive oversight in representation, political parties and communities seeking to increase the number of Indigenous women in power will need to develop strategies to overcome barriers identified by the study.
There are many challenges that face these women in their rise to political power. Many women interviewed for the study reported distrust in their communities for the “white man’s parliament”. This was partly in response to such interactions with government as the Stolen Generations and the Northern Territory Intervention, which would seriously impact whether Indigenous people would engage with traditional politics.
Furthermore, while there are many electorates with a majority Indigenous constituency that could be sites of political power for Indigenous voices, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not registered on electoral rolls due to an historic distrust of the Australian government. Leeanne Enoch stressed the need to have more Indigenous people registered to vote and engaged with the whole political process if Australia is to see stronger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices in parliaments.
There is even a common expectation that Indigenous MPs will serve all Indigenous people and not just those in their constituency. This means that, from day one, Indigenous MPs have a daunting workload and an expanding constituency, which can prove overwhelming if they are not properly prepared and supported in their additional roles.
While all in the study expressed hope that their experiences will encourage others to follow, there are still a great many political firsts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to overcome: the first Indigenous women in the Victorian and South Australian parliaments; first Indigenous woman in the House of Representatives; first Indigenous woman in the Federal Cabinet; as Speaker of the House; Premier or Prime Minister.
All the women interviewed expressed their support for affirmative action targets to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation, much in the same way that EMILY’s List-driven targets have worked successfully to transform the Labor Party for women. Peris, in particular, talked about the work of the National Indigenous Labor Network (NILN) to achieve support for 5% affirmative action targets at the ALP 2015 National Conference.
This article is based on research undertaken by Zoe Moorman, as part of a 2015 University of Melbourne Public Affairs Internship placement with EMILY’s List Australia. Indigenous Australian Women in Power: Barriers to and opportunities for better Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in state and national politics is available at www.emilyslist.org.au/publications.
Image: Linda Burney campaigning with supporters. Source: @LindaBurneyMP/Twitter