• Nova Peris became the first Aboriginal woman to enter the Australian federal parliament as a Labor senator ((AAP Image/Daniel Munoz))Source: (AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)
Six years ago, there had never been an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women in the federal parliament and despite current debate about a lack of female representation, more First Nations women are finding their voice.
14 Mar 2019 - 4:48 AM  UPDATED 19 Mar 2019 - 10:03 AM

Nova Peris has had a career dominated by firsts.

The former Olympian and senator was the first Aboriginal woman to win Olympic gold, and the first Aboriginal woman elected to the federal parliament.  

Her arrival in Canberra, in 2013, signaled a new era in Australian politics.

It came 112 years after the federal system of government was established in 1901.

“As a child growing up, I dreamt big,” she said in her first speech.

Peris would serve as a Labor senator for the Northern Territory until she retired in 2016. Although short, her stint in politics broke the glass ceiling of a predominately white, male-dominated establishment.

“I think it’s taken a long time because there haven’t been the champions around to make sure Aboriginal people get pre-selection in winnable seats and then get elected,” says Linda Burney.

Burney, the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives, says changing times and attitudes are seeing more Indigenous women run for public office.

“I’d like to think that people like Nova Peris… people like me and others are having an influence by saying to young Indigenous women that this pathway is open to you,” she said.  

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Ms Burney says it is imperative to have Aboriginal women in state and federal parliaments.

“Otherwise you don’t have an Aboriginal perspective in terms of legislation, and in terms of unintended consequences often of decisions that are made, but are going to have a bigger effect on Aboriginal people. Things like policing, and legal services, hospitals, education,” she said.

Since Nova Peris, there have been five Indigenous women enter federal politics, and more across the states and territories - women such as Lidia Thorpe in Victoria and Selena Uibo in the Northern Territory. Soon there could be more in Canberra too, as the federal election draws near.

Susan Moylan-Coombs, the granddaughter of prime ministerial advisor H.C Coombs, will as an independent go head to head with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the seat of Warringah in Sydney.

“I will strongly advocate to continue the conversation about treaty as the cause my grandfather H.C Nugget Coombs brought into the mainstream,” she said at her campaign launch, recently.

Elsewhere, family therapist and senior policy advisor to the Andrews Victorian Government, Jana Stewart, is taking on deputy Liberal Party leader Josh Frydenburg in the blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong in Melbourne.

In the Top End, the Country Liberal Party's Jacinta Price wants to unseat Labor stalwart Warren Snowdon in the seat of Lingiari.

While Wiradjuri elder and educator, Aunty Norma Ingram, is making her first tilt at state politics as Labor’s candidate for Newtown in the New South Wales state election on March 23.

The door was opened by Carol Martin, a former West Australian state Labor MP, the first Aboriginal woman elected to any Australian parliament back in 2001. 

For Joanna Lindgren, a former Queensland Liberal senator, there’s a very clear explanation for the rise in Aboriginal women in politics.

“I think Indigenous Australians are becoming more educated, they’re going to university, they’re becoming members of boards, they’re participating in jobs which require a voice, and I think that voice is now extending into politics,” she told NITV.

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Lindgren, the great-niece of the first Indigenous politician, Neville Bonner, was selected by the Liberal National Party in 2015 and is the only known Aboriginal woman to serve with the party in the Senate.

“I felt very proud to be one of the pioneers,” she said.  

Despite recent debate surrounding a lack of female representation in the parliament, Ms Lindgren said she doesn’t believe in quotas.

“The electorate wants the best person for the job and if they happen to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander men or a woman, [then] that’s a bonus,” she said.

But as more women run for office, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enrolled to vote is still far too low.

Indigenous Australians were given the right to vote in 1962, which was later made compulsory in 1984 under the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 76% of Indigenous Australians are enrolled to vote based on a combination of self-identified Indigeneity data and electoral roll data.

Between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2018, there was a 5.1 per cent increase in the estimated number of enrolled Indigenous Australians. Despite the increase, the rate is much less than the national average of 96 per cent.  

National Congress Co-Chair Dr Jackie Huggins says voting is ‘absolutely crucial.’

“Here in Queensland we have five marginal seats and if we can get our people voting in those seats I’m sure it can tip the election because some of those seats were only won by 36 votes,” she told NITV.

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Dr Huggins has dedicated much of her working life to empowering younger generations to continue to break those glass ceilings.

“I think it is totally imperative to get our people onto the rolls and really look at our forebears and what they did in terms of fighting to get us into the voting system and I think that should be respected and adhered to,” she said.  

Academic and advocate Michelle Deshong is currently undertaking a PhD on the participation of Aboriginal women in public and political life.

“Your choice to vote is a political act in itself… I think it is absolutely an honour from our ancestors to exercise that right,” she told NITV.   

She says there are challenges with the electoral system and processes of voting, like having identification and location of polling booths, which can marginalise Indigenous Australians from the process. 

Her work with Oxfam’s Straight Talk program encourages Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to engage in the political system. But she doesn’t want people to forget the importance of community action too.

“A lot of us have been born into politics straight up… inevitably that’s where we see that first piece of leadership, we see our elders," she said. 

"And even though we do talk about a deficit around representation, in fifty years Aboriginal women have done amazing things. We have people like Lowitja O’Donoghue, Pat Turner, Jackie Huggins… all of those things actually starts to form a really strong story of the resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and I think all we’re seeing now is continuation of that momentum.”