The Indigenous Liberal candidate standing against Tanya Plibersek has some strong words for Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, who has held the seat of Sydney since 1998.
Geoffrey Winters, a 27-year-old Gomeroi man, says Plibersek has failed to adequately represent the large Indigenous population in her electorate.
“I frankly feel that to date in the seat there hasn’t been enough engagement, because of the local member,” Winters told NITV in his first full-length interview.
“She’s the deputy leader of the Labor Party and the representative for a very large Aboriginal community in parliament – so to say that since 1998 there hasn’t been significant engagement locally nor at the national level policy-wise in the Labor Party, probably points to the fact that she has a little bit of responsibility in that failure,” Winters said.
“I honestly cannot point to the last time there was a concerted effort to really engage with that Aboriginal vote and really understand what are the pressures facing you, what are the issues, what are the hopes and aspirations you have,” he said.
In an email response, a spokesperson for Ms Plibersek said, "in a bit over two years, the Liberals have cut $534 million from Indigenous programs, cut $15 million from the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, and cut $13 million from Indigenous legal services."
The government's cuts to a range of programs were announced in May 2014.
Why the Liberal Party?
Winters, who works for Indigenous legal firm Chalk & Fitzgerald, joined the Liberal Party when he was just 16, and says he was strongly motivated by Indigenous issues.
The candidate's father, an Aboriginal man from the town of Walgett, met his non-Indigenous mother in Orange after moving there to play rugby league.
Winters, bullied as an ‘Abo’ in school, has a strong connection to his Indigenous heritage.
“It’s probably one of the greatest motivators for me to have joined a political party, and ultimately the Liberal party – because of their view and their commitment to it,” he said.
Having moved to Richmond for school, Winters now lives in Forest Lodge, Sydney, with his partner Tyler.
Plibersek has held the seat of Sydney since 1998, which Winters feels is a massive lost opportunity.
“That’s the best part of a young adult’s life, and I can’t see what’s been done with those years,” he said.
“With such a progressive, outward-looking, open and inclusive view generally in the community, [Sydney] should be the sort of seat that has huge leadership coming from it on these issues.”
Appointed to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies under the Abbott Government, Winters’ passion for Indigenous issues has remained strong, and he’s unambiguous about which side of the aisle has performed better.
“It’s been the last few governments, and even historically Liberal governments, that have done the most,” he says,
“I think the biggest failure of the Labor party is just to assume that it has a monopoly on doing the right thing in Indigenous policy.”
Winters cites Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s commitments to flexibility in community programs, economic growth and preservation of Indigenous culture as key strengths of the Liberal party’s approach.
Winters also rejects any suggestion that his identity as a gay Indigenous candidate is tokenism on the part of the Liberal Party.
“I can easily listen to those views and understand why an outsider might come to that conclusion, but it’s pretty baseless,” he told NITV, “if we’re going to spend some time in this election talking about a huge part of the Sydney seat that historically hasn’t been engaged in, then I’m fine for them to hold that view.”
“The country, the seat, is so much better for the fact we’re having that conversation,” he said.
Constitutional reform takes priority
Winters also has firm views on the way forward for Indigenous recognition, seeing constitutional reform as the best way forward. He doesn’t want to see that shelved in pursuit of a treaty.
“I think the fact that so many people feel strongly about it [a treaty] indicates it’s something that should be considered, but I think we’ve identified the constitutional reform path as the most agreed on way that we can go about bringing that unity,” he said.
“I think the treaty idea is in such an infantile stage and is such a hypothetical – I’m about how we can practically unify the country and get on with building a great society and lift everybody up,” he said, “good sound legally tested constitutional reform that’s both inclusive and does away with those blatantly discriminatory provisions that exist is the best way to do that.”
Echoing Liberal policy since the Howard years, Winters believes that while recognition is hugely important, so too is practical reconciliation.
“I’m a practical man,” he said, “I think the greatest symbolism of the commitment to healing that rift is to provide good schools, good health and a stronger society.”
When asked what he thinks the prospects for a successful referendum are, he hedged, “I don’t think you can answer that question until you see what the question is.”
“I cannot wait to see, the question we ultimately get, and the question that we ultimately get to give an answer to in a referendum,” he said.
You can read our full profile on Geoffrey Winters here.