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AUSTRALIA: Campaign Continues for Parliamentary Seats for Aborigines | Inter Press Service

AUSTRALIA: Campaign Continues for Parliamentary Seats for Aborigines

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Australia, Oct 24 2010 (IPS) - Ken Wyatt stood, draped in a traditional kangaroo-skin shroud. In a voice wavering at times with emotion, the only indigenous Australian ever elected to this nation’s lower house of Parliament presented his inaugural address.

Referring to the landmark apology made to the members, families and communities of the ‘Stolen Generations’ by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008 in the House of Representatives, the Aboriginal man of Noongar, Yamitji and Wonji heritage said that the apology had led him to “shed tears for my mother and her siblings.”

They, along with many others, were Stolen Generations members — those indigenous Australians forcibly removed from their families by the state and its agencies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Wyatt, who is preceded by two indigenous senators in the federal Parliament, said that Rudd’s widely welcomed words “would have meant a great deal” to his mother and her siblings had they been alive to hear them.

Explaining that he “felt a sense of relief that the pain of the past had been acknowledged and that the healing could begin” upon the apology being made, Wyatt noted that at the time “the standing orders (of Parliament) prevented an indigenous response.”

These rules meant that not until Wyatt’s first speech in Parliament on Sep. 29 – after he was elected in the August general election – did an indigenous person get to reply to the apology in either the same chamber in which Rudd spoke or in the Senate.

This would not have been the case if seats were reserved in Parliament specifically for indigenous Australians, a system currently being advocated by high-profile lawyer and activist Michael Mansell from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

“If you’re going to have representative democracy it’s got to be real, not imagined. And the best way to do that is to allow Aboriginal people to elect our own people to represent us in the federal parliament,” Mansell told IPS.

The concept is not a new one. As far back as the 1930s, Aboriginal leader William Cooper petitioned King George V for indigenous representation in Australia’s Parliament and similar calls have continued to be made over the intervening decades.

While opponents of the proposal have always held sway in Australia, supporters point to other countries that have some form for indigenous representation in their legislatures as examples from which to learn, including New Zealand, Fiji, Malaysia, Norway and Canada.

Mansell is dismissive of the argument that establishing reserved indigenous seats in Australia’s parliaments would be too problematic. “Under the Australian Constitution, the Parliament can simply change the electoral laws,” he says.

The veteran campaigner for indigenous rights says that eight seats – one from each of Australia’s states and territories – could easily be set aside in the federal Senate for indigenous people. He is calling for three seats to be reserved for Aborigines in the next Tasmanian state Parliament.

“You can’t tell me that an all-white parliament, whether it be at the federal level or the state level, can possibly stand up with any credibility and say it represents all people in Australia. Because that means there are 500,000 Aborigines who are not represented,” says Mansell.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ estimates the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population at 517,000, some 2.6 percent of Australia’s total population, based on data collected in the 2006 census.

Currently, indigenous Australians are nominally represented by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (NCAFP). Established in May 2010 but still in its formative stages, the NCAFP “will create a national and collective voice, conduct research, be a partner for government and industry, (and) a think-tank for our issues and our peoples,” according to the Congress’ website.

The NCAFP is the successor organisation to two failed indigenous representative bodies, the National Indigenous Council and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which were disbanded in 2008 and 2005, respectively.

Mansell describes these organisations as “just ‘Mickey Mouse’ bodies,” arguing that reserving parliamentary seats for indigenous Australians would provide “direct access to the decision-making process for Aboriginal people.”

Patrick Sullivan, a Canberra-based researcher with extensive experience working with Aboriginal organisations, particularly in Western Australia’s Kimberly region, supports the concept of reserving parliamentary seats for Indigenous Australians “in principle.”

He told IPS that with Aborigines being a widely disbursed minority, albeit with areas of significant concentration, “their electoral clout is small indeed.”

“The result of this is that Indigenous affairs policy is largely produced for non-Indigenous Australians. Because however the indigenous Australians feel about it, they’re unable to make those feelings felt through the ballot box,” argues Sullivan.

He regards the controversial Northern Territory Intervention as an example of this. Implemented under the conservative government of John Howard in 2007 ostensibly as a means to counter widespread child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, the intervention has been dogged by criticism that it is a top-down measure imposed by Canberra without sufficient community consultation.

But while Sullivan believes that reserving parliamentary seats for indigenous Australians could play a part in bridging the divisions between indigenous people and the broader Australian society, he opines that significant difficulties remain in implementing such a measure.

“How does that person manage to be representative of the diversity of indigenous views, indigenous experiences, and indigenous histories and cultures throughout the country? I see that as the major problem of the proposal,” he says.


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