Article sponsored by

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Evans, Associate Professor, The University of Melbourne

A record 11 Indigenous representatives recently took their seats in the new federal parliament – three in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate. Of these, nine are women and just two are men.

It’s worth recalling that after the 2001 federal election, there were no Indigenous members in the House of Representatives, and just one, Aden Ridgeway of the Australian Democrats, in the Senate.

Since then, we have seen the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives, Liberal Ken Wyatt, elected in 2009; the first Indigenous woman, Labor’s Nova Peris, elected to the Senate in 2013; and the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives, Labor’s Linda Burney, in 2016.

Ideally, the purpose of parliament is to represent the diversity of our nation, and ensure legislative decision-making is informed by representatives with diverse experiences. These Indigenous politicians bring their experience and cultural networks to parliament, and represent a people who have previously not had a voice in these proceedings. Indigenous representation has an enormous impact on strengthening democracy, and increasing the quality and standard of political life in Australia.

Liberal vs Labor

At state and territory level, there have also been increases in Indigenous representation, albeit less significant than the numbers federally. In 2001, there were only five Indigenous representatives around the country in state and territory parliaments.

Some 20 years later, by the end of 2021, there were 14. In that time, we also saw the first Indigenous chief minister of a state or territory, when Adam Giles of the Country Liberals took the top job in the Northern Territory in 2013.

Beyond this overall picture of Indigenous representative progress, there are significant differences between the major parties. The Labor party is currently doing far better than the Liberals.

As we reported in a recent study, while Indigenous candidates were put forward by the major parties on 143 occasions at state, territory, and federal levels between February 2001 and May 2021, over 70% of these were from Labor.

In total, over that period, the ALP fielded Indigenous candidates 102 times, over double the combined 41 of the Liberal Party and the Country Liberals. There was also a strong gender disparity among the major parties: while the ALP stood Indigenous women on 53 occasions and Indigenous men on 49 between 2001 and 2021, the Liberals and CLP put forward Indigenous men 33 times and Indigenous women just eight.

Made with Flourish

We also find clear differences in success rates between the main parties. Overall, almost two-thirds (61.6%) of Labor’s Indigenous candidatures resulted in an election victory, compared to just under one-third (32.5%) of those from the Liberals and Country Liberals.

This reflects the fact that 70.9% of candidatures for the ALP and 44.4% for the Liberals and Country Liberals were in winnable seats (that is, there was no more than a 5% difference in votes received, following the distribution of preferences, between the top two candidates at the previous election).

Made with Flourish

Read more:
Establishing a Voice to Parliament could be an opportunity for Indigenous Nation Building. Here’s what that means

The gender gap in Labor’s electoral success

Indigenous women and men in the ALP have run in roughly equal measures in winnable seats. However, from 2001 to 2021, Indigenous women had a much higher success rate than men (66.1% to 43.8%). Given these figures, it’s not surprising nine of the Indigenous representatives in the new parliament are women.

Two decades ago, this would have come as a surprise to many. The ALP’s new MP Marion Scrymgour, who represents the largely remote NT seat of Lingiari, certainly found this. Scrymgour recalled in an interview for our project, how she had been told before standing for the NT assembly seat of Arafura in 2001 that “only a man can win a bush seat”.

That is clearly not the case, either in remote or urban settings. In fact, as Scrymgour and Burney from Labor, Jacinta Price from the Country Liberals and Kerrynne Liddle from the Liberal Party have shown, Indigenous women from both left and right across the country have been consistently more successful than their male counterparts.

Read more:
You can’t be what you can’t see: the benefits for and the pressures on First Nations sportswomen

What our research found

Beyond election results, as part of our Australian Research Council project on Indigenous representation and involvement in the major parties, we were also interested in people’s pathways to parliament – whether they came through grassroots politics or other routes.

We spoke to 50 of the 62 Indigenous candidates who stood for the major parties at federal, state, and territory levels between 2010 and 2019. Of these, 34 were already party members when they first stood (or what we call “partisans”), while 16 were “parachutes”, meaning they had not been in the party before pre-selection.

The latter group includes high-profile figures like former Olympian Peris and Catholic priest and Yawuru Elder Patrick Dodson. As both told us in our interviews with them, they were persuaded to stand by the respective Labor leaders at the time: Julia Gillard in 2013 and Bill Shorten in 2016. Peris recalled how it’s hard to say no “when a prime minister taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘Will you serve?’”.

While Peris and Dodson duly became elected representatives, many less high profile First Nations parachute candidates, particularly at state or territory level, did not. For these, the experience of standing was often fraught and even traumatic, especially for those who spent a lot of their own money campaigning only to lose and, in some cases, never hear from the party again.

The disparity in the accounts we heard from the “partisan” and “parachute” candidates was evident, with the former holding clear advantages in terms of how they approached election campaigns and the resources they could draw on.

As Chansey Paech (now a minister in the Northern Territory government) recounted to us, his many years of grassroots involvement in the Labor Party meant his first pre-selection and campaign in 2016 went smoothly.

Overall, the story of Indigenous representation of the last two decades, is one largely of success, especially for Indigenous women and the ALP.

Greater numbers do not necessarily translate into policy advances, and challenges also remain in terms of encouraging Indigenous people to sign up as grassroots members of parties.

However, the fact our federal parliament contains more Indigenous representatives than ever before is nonetheless an important step for Australian democracy. All Australians have the valuable contribution of diverse Indigenous voices and experiences informing our national decision making.

The Conversation

Michelle Evans receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Duncan McDonnell receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

ref. Women in the Labor party are leading the way in increasing Indigenous representation –