This article is part of our focus on Cultural Shift and Human Rights. For more on this theme, click here.
By Isabella Royce
Forty-eight years after the last state removed restrictions on Aboriginal peoples voting in state elections, forty-six years after Indigenous Australians were first recognised in the national census and five years following the National Apology, the Australian Senate has welcomed the first female Indigenous politician into the national parliament.
Nova Peris,was born in Darwin in 1971 and is the immediate descendant of members of the “Stolen Generation.” Her career has been marked by a series of firsts. In 1996 she was the first Indigenous Australian to win an Olympic gold medal as part of the women’s Hockeyroos team. She was the first (and only) person to make consecutive Olympic finals in two different sports after she switched to athletics and competed in the 1998 Commonwealth and 2000 Olympic Games. And on the 12 November 2013 she was sworn into the Australian Senate for the Labor Party in the Northern Territory, becoming the first Indigenous female politician to hold a seat in Federal Parliament.
While her pre-selection by former Prime Minister Gillard was criticised by many as a last hit at Kevin Rudd and his in-party supporters (Peris replaced NT Senator and Rudd ally Trish Crossin) the importance of her presence in Parliament as a representative of our Indigenous minority cannot be disputed.
In her maiden speech, Peris signposted the issues she will target during her time in Parliament and assured she would work “for the betterment of Aboriginal people.” As a member of the Kiga and Yawuru people of the East and West Kimberly respectively and the Muran people of West Arnhem Land, Senator Peris understands the dichotomy inherent in belonging to a people recognised as the custodians of the country but who are its most disadvantaged minority. Her leadership role presents a beacon of positive social change in the slow but growing efforts to achieve a government truly representative of its citizens.
Eric Fejo from the Larrakeyah Nation explained at Peris’ inauguration ceremony, “Nova is not by herself. She’s got all our blessings from the Top End.”
Peris spoke with pride as she acknowledged her connection with “the oldest continuous living culture on the earth” and recognised the importance of remembering the ills of the nation’s past in order to understand the historical trail leading to the odds being “stacked against Indigenous people.”
While the Senator acknowledges that her Indigenous status does not act as an instant remedy for Indigenous people’s problems, she offers a promising beacon for social change that does not involve empty slogans or policy posturing. But Nova Peris’ presence in Parliament isn’t just symbolic. She has called for real confrontation with “uncomfortable issues” such as youth suicide, chronic diseases, subpar education and incarceration and is prepared to take the gritty road to social progression in order to tackle these concerns.
This marks an important cultural and political shift in Australian history. But the national conversation regarding Indigenous issues only begins here. If our Members of Parliament are elected to reflect the people of our states and territories then the representation of the Indigenous population in the Senate must surely be reciprocated in our Constitution. This issue of Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples is one of the Senator’s most sought-after goals. Yet Ms Peris appreciates the importance of timing, and as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice CommissionerMick Gooda explains, “we must educate the people to take ownership of the changes” and ensure that a referendum delivers a positive outcome for the sake of our Indigenous peoples and the reputation of our nation.