Indigenous Representation in the Australian Parliament

On Wednesday morning (23 January 2013), Alexander Reilly was interviewed by John Doyle on Radio National breakfast in response to the selection of Nova Peris to run on the Senate ticket for the Australian Labor Party at the next election. The story can be accessed here. In this blog, he provides some background to his comments.

I have previously considered Indigenous representation in the Australian Parliament in my article ‘Dedicated Seats in the Federal Parliament for Indigenous Australians: the theoretical case and its practical possibility’ published in Balayi: Culture, Law and Colonialism, Volume 2(1), 2001.

The article was heavily cited in a report prepared by Brian Lloyd for the Department of Parliamentary Services on Indigenous Representation in 2009. There have only been three Indigenous representatives in the history of the Australian Parliament, Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway in the Senate, and Ken Wyatt who is currently a sitting member in the House of Representatives. The Labor Party has never had an Indigenous representative. The fact that the Prime Minister played a direct role in the selection of Nova Peris as a Labor candidate for the Northern Territory at the next election, ignoring the regular pre-selection process and overlooking the incumbent member, indicates how important the Prime Minister believes Indigenous representation to be.

The small number of Indigenous members of the Federal Parliament and the apparent difficulty the major parties have in fielding Indigenous candidates in winnable seats raises the question whether there ought not to be a guaranteed place for Indigenous Australians in the Federal Parliament, not aligned to either major party.

In my article, I noted that dedicated seats are controversial because they seem to undermine basic liberal democratic principles of equality, represented in our electoral system by the principle of voting equality.

And yet special representation is not foreign to Australian democracy as the equal representation of the states in the senate bares testament. Anne Phillips suggests that the more diverse the gender, culture and class of our representatives, the more dynamic will be our experience of being represented [Phillips, Politics of Presence (1995)]. Phillips acknowledges that there is a danger that identifying and reflecting group difference in Parliament will entrench those differences, and that it is difficult to hold group representatives accountable because members of a cultural group may have divergent political beliefs. Iris Young is less concerned about political differences within groups, arguing that there are core concerns that unify the group. This is certainly true of Indigenous Australians. Young takes an even stronger line in favour of group representation, arguing it is fundamental to justice. Without it, the rules and norms of the majority and historically powerful are indomitable [Iris Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990)]. 

To conclude the Radio National interview, I was invited to comment on how Nova ‘would fare’ in Parliament. I noted that the Senate is a more appropriate home for an Indigenous representative than the House of Representatives. The Senate is able to take a broader policy view, unencumbered by electorate responsibilities. Within the Senate, it is arguably most appropriate for an Indigenous representative to be a senator for the Northern Territory given the high proportion of Indigenous Australians in the Territory. But Peris’ success will ultimately depend on the support she receives from the Parliament and her Party, and her ability to negotiate the many pressures she will face as a new Parliamentarian. And then there are the particular responsibilities and challenges faced by Indigenous representatives as the parliamentary careers of Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway illustrate. I wish her well.

Alexander Reilly is an Associate Professor at the Adelaide Law School.

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