The Labor Party has hosted a meeting of federal, state and territory Indigenous politicians to discuss ways to boost the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians not only within its own ranks, but across the political spectrum.
Speaking ahead of the first Indigenous caucus in Brisbane, federal opposition leader Bill Shorten said the two major parties can do more to make this happen.
“For over a century there has been an underrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the parliaments and decision making forums in this country. There can be no way that we can make good decision about our first Australians unless first Australians are involved in the decision making. The rule should be that first Australians get asked first about anything affecting them and what Labor is doing is we’re practicing what we preach and we’re saying to Aboriginal Australians that the process can work for you and we want you to become involved.”
Labor senators Malarndirri McCarthy and Patrick Dodson, as well as MP Linda Burney, are members of the new caucus.
So is the Health Minister Ken Wyatt, who this year became the first Indigenous Australian to oversee a federal government department by taking on the Indigenous Health and Aged Care portfolio.
Senator Dodson says getting more First Australians to vote is a major goal.
“The fact is we need to get more Indigenous people on the rolls and that means us getting out on the rolls. That really means us getting out in those electorates, talking to people letting them know what Labor stands for and encouraging them to trust I suppose in their faith in the direction that Labor is trying to go particularly in Indigenous affairs. We are trying to pick up the promise that Kevin Rudd enshrined in his apology about writing a new chapter and overcoming the old tried and failed ways.”
At last year’s election Linda Burney became the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the lower house of federal parliament.
“There is some very practical things we can do. Look at the way in which membership operates. Look at the way in which paying for memberships operates and does that suit remote communities. Having a look at what’s going on at local government, there are a lot of very good Aboriginal people at local government. But, also most importantly creating a permanent forum within the party for Aboriginal people and Aboriginal issues.”
Dr William Sanders is a Senior Fellow with the Centre of Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University in Canberra.
He says low electoral enrolment rates among Indigenous Australia may, in part, be due to voting only being compulsory for Aboriginal people since 1983.
Dr Sanders says countries have applied different strategies to increase political participation within Indigenous populations.
“In New Zealand, of course, they’ve got a dedicated Maori role and dedicated Maori seats, so they’ve gone a very different path to us in Australia. But you could guess in general representation in any country a minority of the size we’re talking about, three per cent will struggle. Party organisations can do a lot by pre-selecting people in winning positions in senate seats and lower house seats.”
The Electoral Commission estimates only about 58 per cent of Indigenous Australians were enrolled to vote before the 2016 federal election.