It’s a startling fact, that here in NSW, in the oldest Parliament in Australia, there has only even been one MP who publicly identified as Aboriginal. That was Labor MP, Linda Burney and she has now moved onto Federal Parliament. While Parliaments around Australia may gradually be making progress in seeing more women, young people and people from diverse cultural backgrounds enter our political system (albeit far too slowly), the reality is we still have a very long way to go ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a voice at our decision-making tables.
This is not a new conversation. In 1998, a NSW Upper House Standing Committee examined ways to increase Aboriginal representation in the Parliament, including dedicated Aboriginal seats, a model that has been adopted in New Zealand since the 19th Century, the state of Maine in the USA and some other countries. Unfortunately, the committee recommendations were not acted upon by the Labor Government at the time and there has not been any progress on the issue in NSW since.
Lessons from Aotearoa
We can look to our nearest neighbour for ideas and models to increase Indigenous political representation. New Zealand has had dedicated Māori seats since 1867, which has resulted in a proliferation in the number of Māori MPs, and now become an accepted part of the political landscape. Part of the success of the dedicated seats model is evident by the fact that the number of Māori MPs has increased over time, both in general and Māori seats and at the 2002 National Elections, New Zealand achieved parity between the proportion of Maori in its population and the proportion of Maori representatives in parliament for the first time.
The New Zealand Greens continue to champion measures to enhance Māori political representation. The Party currently has a Member’s Bill that, if passed, will enable better Māori representation at a local government level by ensuring that the establishment of both Māori and general wards on district and regional councils follow the same legal process and that discriminatory provisions in local electoral laws are removed. New Zealand has a treaty with its Indigenous peoples, yet in this country, we are still dealing with the consequences of 'Terra Nullius'.
While dedicated seats may or may not be a suitable option in Australia, we need to reopen the conversation in order to address the need for genuine reconciliation. When I called for greater Aboriginal representation in our Parliament, one of the most common responses was “the Greens can do that right now by preselecting more Aboriginal candidates into winnable positions’. That’s a fair criticism that our Party should take on board, however it also misses the point that greater Indigenous representation shouldn’t be a partisan issue left solely to political parties. It’s unfinished business for our Nation and something all our political leaders should work to address.
Needless to say, we must deeply engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a renewed conversation on ways to enhance their rights to self-determination and political representation in all levels of government and other decision making roles. Aboriginal people should also be enabled to lead in the development and implementation of public policies, programs and services that affect them.
I would like us to resume the discussion, both as a Party and in the wider community about facilitating Aboriginal representation in our political system to ensure that Aboriginal people and their communities have a direct voice in our democracy. I intend to consult and work with Aboriginal people about this and will work in Parliament to put this conversation firmly on the agenda.
My local Aboriginal community has supported me so patiently and with great care by sharing with me their stories and wisdom and giving me a space to start to understand the rich, living Aboriginal culture that is going on around us every day, despite the best efforts to dispose of, suppress and destroy these ancient and resilient first peoples. It’s time they got a seat at the table.