23 July 2015

When Gough Whitlam poured sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hands in 1975 to symbolise handing back Gurindji land there were three elected Indigenous members in our nine parliaments. None were members of the Labor party.

Forty years later, there are 16 Indigenous MPs in state, territory and federal parliaments. Less than half are Labor MPs. 

This minority is despite moments we cherish in Labor iconography such as Gough and the Gurindji and Paul Keating steering the 1993 Native Title Act past bitter opposition. 

It is also despite my firm belief that the Australian Labor party is more in tune with Aboriginal Australia and more deserving of Aboriginal votes than ever before. We have a proud legacy from the former Labor government and have since led the debate around recognition of Indigenous Australians in the birth certificate of our nation, the constitution. 

But our ability to best serve Indigenous Australians remains hindered by the lack of Indigenous representatives in the Labor party. As the party not only of social justice and a fair go but as one that seeks to represent all Australians, we must address this matter. That is why I raised the need for Labor to increase Indigenous representation during the 2013 leadership contest. 

Indigenous Australians constitute 3% of the Australian population. If 3% of the 822 MPs across Australia were Indigenous, we would have 24 members, a third more than now. 

Dispersed Aboriginal communities and single member electorates are barriers to increased Aboriginal representation without some form of affirmative action. Of the 10 federal electorates with the most Aboriginal voters, the Labor party holds only Lingiari in the Nothern Territory. 

From the beginnings of Australian representative democracy, there were active efforts to exclude and oppress Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Queensland only followed the rest of the country and allowed Indigenous people to vote in state elections in 1965. 

Despite this history, it is Labor values, putting a better society at the centre of our moral purpose, that are tremendously attractive to Indigenous voters who have, since the 1970s, generally been strong Labor supporters. There are good reasons to push for more Indigenous Labor MPs, not just on equity but also for what they can contribute to Labor. 

Our seven Indigenous Labor MPs bring diverse skills and experiences to their respective caucuses. They are advocates for cultural capital, the idea that Indigenous social views can provide better ways to develop policy and deliver services for non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous Australians. 

For example, the Aboriginal medical services were founded over 40 years ago to provide comprehensive and holistic services to tackle the social determinants as well as the medical aspects of ill health. The development of super clinics and Medicare Locals mimicked this holistic Indigenous approach to health, linking up doctors, nurses, allied health care, and social services to help the community. 

Linda Burney, NSW deputy opposition leader, described the qualities she brought as an Aboriginal woman into the NSW parliament: respect, grace, a capacity for narrative and a desire for consensus. 

The Labor party’s commitment to reconciliation can be strengthened by reforming internal party processes to deliver more Indigenous MPs. Affirmative action policies have been very effective in engaging and promoting women in the ALP and, while there is more to be done, lifting the number of Labor women in the federal parliament over the last 20 years is something we can and should mirror for Indigenous Australians. 

The New Zealand Labour party’s nationally applied affirmative action pre-selection policy works within their single electoral system. It would be harder to apply in Australia, with our many single member electorates and our dispersed Indigenous population proportions. An alternative could be modelled on the US Democratic party where localised affirmative action plans are in place. 

Dedicated Indigenous seats in federal parliament, similar to the Maori seats in New Zealand, would require difficult constitutional changes and take a very long time to build consensus for, if ever. 

For these reasons I think the Australian Labor party should set a target to lift the number of Indigenous representatives by 2025. Backed up by party procedures and resources, I am confident this will deliver increased representation and build a strong Indigenous component within the ALP. 

A combination of defined targets, proactive recruitment and clear accountability are key ingredients for increasing the number of Indigenous Australians representing Labor. Only then will we be true to our values and live up to our commitment to reconciliation. 

This opinion piece was first published on the Guardian on Thursday, 23 July 2015