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Blazing a trail: Peris, Burney and the legacy of the first Indigenous women in Australian parliament

For the majority of Australian parliamentary history, the corridors of power have been hostile territory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – in particular, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Until very recent times, Indigenous women were only seen protesting on the lawns of parliament – from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to the opening of New Parliament House in 1988. While protest remains a feature of Indigenous involvement with Australian politics, 2013 marks the year that an Aboriginal woman finally crossed the Parliament House threshold to take her elected seat.

A former Olympian who had represented Australia in hockey and sprinting, Nova Peris was an accomplished and high profile Gija, Iwaidja and Yawuru woman when she became a Labor Senator for the Northern Territory. Personally invited to run for election by the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Peris’s entry into the Senate was not without controversy. It must be noted, however, that until that point the ALP had never had an Indigenous person – man or woman – successfully take up a seat in Federal Parliament.

Prior to Peris, three Aboriginal men had been elected. In 1971, Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal politician when he was elected as a Liberal senator for QLD. He was followed 28 years later by Democrats senator for NSW Aden Ridgeway. In 2010, the Liberal Party’s Ken Wyatt became the first Aboriginal person to be elected to the House of Representatives as a Liberal in the WA seat of Hasluck.

Nova Peris’ election therefore marked not only the first time an Aboriginal woman was elected but also the first time an Aboriginal person from the progressive side of politics was elected. Gillard’s personal invitation may therefore have been a necessary intervention to finally achieve this milestone. After all, men still dominate the chambers and cabinet as they have done since Federation. In an institution which greatly remains both masculine and white, Aboriginal men gaining preselection and becoming elected prior to Aboriginal women achieving the same feat makes sense, particularly if these men were conservative in their political outlook.

From her maiden speech where Peris; wearing ochre on her face; described being descended from Stolen Generations children and the work she had done elevating Aboriginal girls, to her continual strong speeches recognising the work, struggles and achievements of Indigenous people, Peris blazed numerous trails in her time in the Senate.

Yet Peris also faced adversity in her term of office. Targeted racist harassment was rife. Later in her term, Peris went public to highlight not only the copious amounts of hate mail she had received for daring to be an Aboriginal woman in the senate. She additionally was the victim of a particularly vicious online campaign which required legal proceedings.

In addition, shouldering the expectations of parliamentarian colleagues to be a spokesperson as the only Indigenous senator is one thing. Ensuring that she did right by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people while acting as an ALP representative is quite another. At a time bipartisan support was for undefined constitutional recognition for Indigenous people only with no talk of treaty, it is to Peris’ credit that she spoke to a grassroots Indigenous survey on this topic. This assisted in breaking the hegemonic understandings contained within the chambers, leading to a more collaborative consultation process with Indigenous communities.

When Peris decided to retire from politics in 2016 after one term, her decision attracted a gendered and racialised derision in the media that no other retiring politician has ever had to endure. Yet to many in the Indigenous community, this announcement was met with understanding. The need to focus on family was relatable to many of us but it was Peris’ statement in response to the media of “until you are an Aboriginal person, don’t criticise me for the decisions I’ve made” which speak to the pressures she had been continually exposed to. Peris had blazed a trail and on her exit, Labor gained two more accomplished Indigenous senators in Malarndirri McCarthy and Pat Dodson.

The only first which remained to be achieved was the election of an Indigenous woman to the House of Representatives. This was achieved in July 2016. Wiradjuri women, former teacher and political veteran Linda Burney entered the House of Representatives after successfully winning the NSW seat of Barton. Linda had already blazed a trail through politics – she was the first Indigenous person to be elected to the NSW parliament and then became the first Indigenous Deputy Leader of the NSW Labor Party. She had a wealth of ministry experience from her time in the NSW Labor Government. Her preselection in Barton appeared almost to be a recognition of her credentials and fortitude as an Aboriginal woman in politics.

Since her election, Burney has been appointed Shadow Minister for Human Services. Again though, Burney’s period in both state and federal politics has not been one without adversity. During her time as the NSW Community Services minister, she faced criticism from Aboriginal community members for the rates of child removal by the department. In 2015, Burney took the brave step of publicly stating that she had been a victim of domestic violence – a feat which is difficult for any woman due to societal perceptions and stigma, let alone an Aboriginal woman who knows only too well how often racism and misogyny can impact how Aboriginal survivors are perceived. In 2016, Burney had a complaint raised against her by two white men claiming she had been racially discriminatory against white people for her stance against changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. It’s trials like these that make the experiences of Indigenous women, in Parliament unique compared to what their colleagues face.

When it comes to the representation of Indigenous women in Federal Parliament, there is a long way to go. To achieve population parity rates, the number of Indigenous women in parliament would need to at least double. Indigenous women’s representation is not just a numbers game though. The pressures on Indigenous women, and indeed all Indigenous politicians, to toe Party lines and navigate systems of governance whilst also being true to who they are and working to advance the situation of our people is difficult in a parliamentary system which remains privileged, male and white in the majority.

Yet through taking their seats, these women have shown other Indigenous women that there is a place for our voices in Parliament. Slowly, but surely, more will follow in their footsteps.

Celeste
Liddle

Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, Australia. She is an activist, opinion writer, trade unionist, and public speaker whose work has been published in The Guardian, New Matilda, Daily Life and Tracker Magazine. Liddle's writings have additionally been featured in Black Inc's "Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia" and Pan McMillan's "Mothers and Others", amongst others.