Aboriginal politicians

There are not many Aboriginal politicians in Australia's history. Proportionally Australia should have at least 6 Aboriginal federal parliamentarians.

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There are not many Aboriginal politicians in Australia's history—yet. Their numbers are increasing. Below is a selection of Aboriginal politicians (for a full list check out Wikipedia).

How are Aboriginal politicians different?

Ngarrindjeri elder Major "Moogy" Sumner, who once ran for the South Australian seat of Mayo, explains why he stood for political office:

"We live in two worlds, us Aboriginal people. There’s the Aboriginal world and the Western world. I feel it’s time to go out in the Western world and have a say. People are always talking about reshaping your country and changing this and that, and they never ask us. I decided to represent the Greens because they want to look after the land and the water and make sure the country is healthy. My people have been doing that for thousands of years."

Some Aboriginal politicians, especially those living in smaller communities, find it hard to switch off. While others can go home at the end of the day and shut the door, they might have to face their communities' issues.

Cynthia Lui – 2017

Cynthia Lui was born on Thursday Island and raised on Yam Island in the Torres Strait. Her grandfather was a community teacher and both he and her father served as Chairperson of Yam Island Community Council.

For more than 12 years Cynthia has worked in health, child protection and family support services throughout far north Queensland. In the Queensland state election in November 2017 she won the seat of Cook (Cape York/North Queensland) for the Australian Labor Party, becoming the first Torres Strait Islander elected to office in Australia.

Linda Burney – 2016

Former New South Wales deputy Labor leader Linda Burney is a Wiradjuri woman who became the first Aboriginal person to serve in the New South Wales Parliament after winning the southern Sydney seat of Barton in the federal election in 2016. With her win she also became the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives.

Before running for Barton, Burney was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly representing Canterbury for the Australian Labor Party from 2003 to 2016. She was also Shadow Minister for Education and Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (after the 2019 federal election Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians).

During 2008 and 2009, Burney was National President of the Australian Labor Party.

Yingiya Mark Guyula – 2016

Yingiya Mark Guyula is an independent member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, and was elected at the 2016 Territory election, where he narrowly defeated the Labor member for Nhulunbuy and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Lynne Walker.

Yingiya was born and raised in Mirrngadja, and went to school at Galiwinku. His people are the Liya-dhälinymirr Djambarrpuyŋu of Arnhem Land. He worked in aviation as an aircraft mechanic, and gained his private pilot licence. He also worked as a senior lecturer at Charles Darwin University in its Yolŋu Studies program.

Yingiya is an elder and spokesperson of the Yolŋu Nations Assembly and campaigned for a treaty between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Malarndirri McCarthy – 2016

Malarndirri McCarthy is a Yanyuwa woman from Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria. She worked as a senior presenter and journalist for NITV News and host of Week in Review before in July 2016 becoming a Senator for the Northern Territory with the Australian Labor Party.

From 2005–2012, Malarndirri represented the people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory Parliament. She was a Northern Territory Minister in 2008-2012 and held numerous portfolios including Children & Families, Indigenous & Regional Development, Women, Tourism and Local Government.

Malarndirri spent 16 years presenting and reporting for ABC News and Stateline in the Northern Territory, Sydney and Canberra. Malarndirri is passionate about seeing young Aboriginal people stay at school through to Year 12, and on to tertiary study and work.

Leeanne Enoch – 2015

Nunukul-Nughi woman and Labor member Leeanne Enoch became the first Aboriginal woman elected to Queensland Parliament in February 2015.

Before her election she worked with the Queensland Council of Unions on its Indigenous Working Party to develop policy and strategies for Aboriginal people.

Billy Gordon – 2015

Billy Gordon in February 2015 won the far north Queensland seat of Cook, spanning Cape York and Torres Strait.

He was born in Innisfail and describes himself as a longtime local with strong ties to the far north Queensland community.

Nova Peris – 2013

Nova Peris became the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the Federal Parliament in September 2013.

The Olympic hockey and running gold medal winner took a place in the Senate representing the Northern Territory for Labor.

She is a traditional owner/descendent of and identifies with the Gija People of the East Kimberley, Yawuru People of the West Kimberley (Broome) and Muran People of West Arnhem land NT.

Nova was born and raised in Darwin and her mother, grandmother and grandfather are all members of the Stolen Generations.

Nova has extensive community experience addressing Aboriginal disadvantage, particularly in the Northern Territory. She helped deliver more than 100 health and education checks across communities Australia-wide and has worked to establish the innovative Nova Peris Girls Academy (NGPA), which focuses on keeping Aboriginal Girls’ engaged with education.

I climbed mountains in two different sports. I find in politics, you have to move the mountains that are put in front of you - and that is possible. Stone by stone, you can move a mountain.

— Nova Peris

Adam Giles – 2013

Adam Giles became the first Aboriginal person to lead a state or territory government within Australia in March 2013.

Giles was born in the Blue Mountains. After working in real estate he became a social and economic policy adviser for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

He first appeared on the national stage in 2004 when he stood as the Liberal candidate for the safe federal Labor seat of Fraser, then held by Bob McMullan, as one of the few Aboriginal candidates running.

After settling in Alice Springs, Giles stood without success as the Country Liberal Party candidate for Lingiari in 2007 before being elected the MP for Braitling in the 2008 territory election.

Bess Nungarrayi Price – 2012

Bess was elected a member of the Country Liberal Party in 2012. She is a Member for Stuart in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. She lives in Alice Springs in Central Australia with her husband David Price. She was born in Yuendumu, and her first language is Warlpiri. Bess also knows Luritja, Western Arrernte and Anmatyerre.

Bess holds several portfolios: Minister for Local Government and Community Services, Minister for Parks and Wildlife, Minister for Statehood and Minister for Women's Policy (since 2013), Minister for Local Government (since 2014) Minister for Housing (since 2015).

Ken Wyatt – 2010, 2017, 2019

Liberal candidate and Nyoongar man Ken Wyatt became the first ever Aboriginal person in the House of Representatives and the only Aboriginal parliamentarian at federal level after the federal election in August 2010.

Ken Wyatt is only the third Aboriginal Australian to sit in the national parliament. He held his maiden speech draped in a traditional ceremonial cloak of kangaroo hide ("bookha") and wearing the feather of a cockatoo. In a rare moment of Australian political history both sides of politics joined to give him a standing ovation .

In January 2017 Ken Wyatt was appointed Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health, making him the first Aboriginal federal minister.

Wyatt made history again in May 2019 when he was appointed Australia's first Minister for Indigenous Australians who was actually Aboriginal.

"I think it's important that Aboriginal people are in positions of influence in Canberra," he says, "because what I've found on my journey is that numerous young Aboriginal people have said to me, 'Uncle, what do I have to do now to take that journey?'".

Linda Jean Burney – 2003

Wiradjuri woman Linda Jean Burney is a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly representing Canterbury for the Australian Labor Party since 2003. She became the first Aboriginal person to serve in the New South Wales Parliament.

During 2008 and 2009, Burney was National President of the Australian Labor Party. In 2014 Burney was the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party in NSW.

Aden Ridgeway – 1999

Aden Ridgeway was a New South Wales Democrats Senator from 1999 to 2005. He is the first Aboriginal politician to use a First Nations language in the Federal Parliament. In his first speech to the Senate delivered on 25 August 1999, he stated:

On this special occasion, I make my presence known as an Aborigine and to this chamber I say, perhaps for the first time: Nyandi baaliga Jaingatti. Nyandi mimiga Gumbayynggir. Nya jawgar yaam Gumbayynggir. 

Translation: "My father is Dhunghutti. My mother is Gumbayynggir. And, therefore, I am Gumbayynggir."

Many of the remote mobile polls and the polling stations in larger centres did not cater for people who could not read or write, or who did not speak English. I witnessed this myself, seeing AEC [Australian Electoral Commission] staff struggling with Aboriginal naming conventions, illiterate voters and those who couldn't speak English.

— Deidre Finter, independent candidate for Lingiari

Ernie Bridge – 1996

Ernie Bridge (AM) was a member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly from 1980 to 2001, representing the electorate of Kimberley, first as an Australian Labor Party representative (1980–1996) and then as an independent Member of Parliament (1996–2001).

He was the first Aboriginal Australian to be a cabinet minister in any Australian government. He was married to Mavis Bridge until her death in March 2009 and has 4 children.

Ernie Bridge died on 31 March 2013, aged 76.

He was a stockman and a country music performer before serving in the Labor government of Brian Burke from 1986 as minister for water resources, the North West and Aboriginal affairs. He is survived by his 4 children.

Pat O'Shane AO – 1981

Patricia "Pat" O’Shane was appointed permanent head of the New South Wales Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs in 1981, the first Aboriginal person (and first woman) to become a permanent head of ministry in Australia. She left that position in 1986 when she became a magistrate.

Pat O’Shane was also the first Aboriginal Australian barrister (1976), the first woman to be appointed to the New South Wales Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board (1979), the first Aboriginal teacher in Queensland and the Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate, serving the Local Court in Sydney between 1986 until her retirement in 2013.

Eric Deeral – 1974

Eric Deeral was the first Aboriginal person to be elected to an Australian state parliament, representing the seat of Cook in the Queensland Parliament from December 1974 to November 1977 for the National Party.

Born at Hope Vale Lutheran Mission in 1932, Eric Deeral left school at the age of 13 and held down various jobs as a labourer, bush worker and stockman. In 1957 he became the Chairman of the Hope Vale Mission Community Council and then a liaison officer with the Queensland Aboriginal Affairs Department. In 1973, he was appointed as a consultant to the Queensland Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

In 1964 Elders of the Cape York and Torres Strait communities selected him to stand as a candidate for parliament. 10 years later he defeated 6 other candidates to win the state electorate of Cook, representing the National Party.

In parliament, Deeral made it clear he represented all members of his electorate. He pointed out that he considered himself an Australian from Queensland, as the Deerals had lived in the Cook electorate for over 20,000 years.

After losing his seat in the 1977 election, he became the first chairperson of the Aboriginal Coordination Council established in 1985 to advise the government on the wellbeing of Aboriginal people living on communities. He became the Chairman of the Legislation Review Committee that examined Queensland legislation and its impact on Aboriginal land rights during the early 1990s.

In 1995, he directed a project on the positive role Elders could play in reducing the number of Aboriginal people in Queensland prisons and youth detention centres.

In 2012, the Parliament’s annual Indigenous Youth Parliament event was renamed in his honour. Shortly afterwards, Eric Deeral passed away on 5 September 2012 in Hope Vale, Queensland at the age of 80.

Neville Bonner – 1971

Neville Thomas Bonner was a Queensland Liberal Senator from 8 September 1971 to 1983, and Australia's first Aboriginal parliamentarian.

He grew up in Queensland's Tweed River area as a man of the Jagera people. Unable to get an education because there was no segregated school nearby, his only schooling was a year at Beaudesert .

Bonner won elections in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1980. In 1978 a barmaid refused him service telling him "we don't serve darkies here", for which he demanded an apology.

In 1983 he attempted to run as an independent candidate but was unsuccessful.

The Griffith University of Queensland awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1993.

Bonner died of lung cancer in 1999.

How many Aboriginal politicians should be in Parliament?

The Lower House in Australia's political system is made of 150 politicians while the Senate has 76.

Assuming that Aboriginal people constitute 3% of the population, Australia should have at least 6 Aboriginal federal parliamentarians.

By comparison, New Zealand has 7 dedicated Maori seats in parliament.

However, this simple calculation assumes that Aboriginal politicians represent Aboriginal people, which they do not, as the next section shows.

Who do Aboriginal politicians represent?

This question is trickier than it appears: Aboriginal politicians represent Aboriginal people, don't they?

No, they don't, says Michael Anderson, Convenor of the Sovereign Union of First Nations and Peoples in Australia and Head of State of the Euahlayi Peoples Republic.

Australian political parties cannot claim that their Aboriginal members represent Aboriginal people as they do not have an Aboriginal mandate. "They were elected to serve the mandate of the political party of which they are a member," Anderson says, "and to serve the interests of that political party's policies. They are not representatives of their own First Nations and are MPs [Members of Parliament] in the broadest sense and are elected by the mainstream mainly non-Aboriginal vote."

Consequently these Aboriginal politicians cannot affect traditional law. "It does not matter how many First Nations people become MPs in the Westminster parliamentary system in Australia, because they will not and cannot undermine the Continental Common Law held by First Nations under our Law and culture across this continent."


View article sources (16)

[1] ''It's time to go out into the Western world and have a say': rainmaker, gatekeeper and now political candidate', SMH 11/7/2018
[2] ABC, Queensland election, electorate: Cook, www.abc.net.au/news/qld-election-2017/guide/cook/, retrieved 27/11/2017
[3] 'Linda Burney', Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linda_Burney, retrieved 4/7/2016
[4] en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yingiya_Mark_Guyula, retrieved 21/9/2016
[5] www.alp.org.au/malarndirri_mccarthy, retrieved 21/9/2016
[6] [6a] 'Labor's Leeanne Enoch to become one of two Indigenous MPs', ABC News 1/2/2015
[7] 'The fast track', SMH 22/3/2014
[8] [8a] 'Bess Price', Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bess_Price, retrieved 9/3/2016
[9] 'A 'measured' Wyatt is ready for challenges', Koori Mail 486 p.5
[10] 'Wyatt is our first federal minister', Koori Mail 643, 25/1/2017 p.1
[11] 'Indigenous Australian parliamentarians in federal and state/territory parliaments: a quick guide', Parliament of Australia 15/6/2021, available at https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp2021/Quick_Guides/IndigenousParliamentarians2021
[12] 'Election wrap up - it's a worry', Koori Mail 484 p.23
[13] 'Pat O'Shane', Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_O'Shane, retrieved 25/3/2015
[14] This is an edited extract from 'Everyone's Parliament, Fact Sheet 7.5: Biography of First Indigenous State Member', Queensland Parliament 2015, www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/explore/education/factsheets/Factsheet_7.5_BioOfFirstIndigenousMember.pdf, retrieved 19/1/2016
[15] 'Indigenous MP's quiet beginnings', Courier Mail 9/2/2009
[16] 'Time to pick up the pace for decolonisation – departing for London', media release, Sovereign Union of First Nations and Peoples in Australia, 4/10/2016

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Aboriginal politicians, <https://stage.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/aboriginal-politicians>, retrieved 25 July 2024

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