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Should there be an Indigenous seat in Parliament?

By Brad Saunders - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000

Pat Dodson, former chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, recently re-ignited the debate surrounding a dedicated seat in Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Like the republican debate, the call for a dedicated seat in Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is not new. This issue was included in a list of demands from an Indigenous representation to the then Prime Minister, the Hon Joseph Lyons, on 26 January, 1938, following the "Day of Shame" meeting.

In all of this the question to be asked is how would a dedicated seat in Parliament work for Indigenous peoples under the Westminster Parliamentary system, and will it be a step forward or will it be a token gesture?


Just over two per cent of Australia's population are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent. One seat in the Senate or the House of Representatives could not provide any significant influence in either House and is most likely to be seen as a symbolic or token appointment.

Another perplexing issue is how would the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative be appointed or elected. Currently Indigenous peoples elect Councillors in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. It is quite possible that the ATSIC Board of Commissioners would want to appoint the Parliamentary representative from within their own ranks.

The model most often used in this debate is the New Zealand model whereby the Maori people are provided with a separate electoral roll and dedicated Maori seats in the New Zealand Parliament. In New Zealand approximately 17 per cent of the total population are provided the choice to register on the Maori roll.

However, one Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative in either or both Houses of Parliament is most likely to be seen as a token gesture and that person may only be afforded symbolic influence on debates involving Indigenous issues. It would be far better for Indigenous peoples to involve themselves in the electoral system and this is certainly what is happening to date.

Currently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are participating in the electoral system at all levels. Senator Aden Ridgeway, recently elected to the Senate, is the second Aboriginal person to be elected to a federal seat. At state and local government level in all States and Territories, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are participating in the electoral system.

Around Australia, membership on a number of local government councils is comprised of an all-Indigenous representation. In Queensland the Aboriginal Coordinating Council and Island Coordinating Council have been established to provide additional support to Indigenous Councils in the northern reaches of the state. In local government, Indigenous representatives are being elected to leadership positions with Robert Blackley elected this year as the Chair of Palm Island following on from Pat Dixson, former Mayor of Armidale who is recognised as Australia's first Indigenous Mayor.


At the state level there are two Aboriginal members in the Northern Territory Parliament, Maurice Rioli, Member for Arafura and John Ah Kit, Member for Aarnhem. As well, former ATSIC chairperson Gatjil Djerrkura is to seek pre-selection for the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory. For every elected person, many more are working tirelessly behind the scenes for their chosen political party. A number of Indigenous people who are members of the Labor Party hold executive positions in local branches. Joyce Claque, former president of the Ashgrove sub-branch, ran for pre-selection in 1992 and today Warren Munroe is seeking Labor Party pre-selection for a NSW Senate seat.

Like the republic debate, a dedicated seat in federal parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is an issue that needs to be debated in public. The debate to consider whether the political interests of Indigenous peoples would be best served with a dedicated seat in Parliament or by the major political parties grooming Indigenous peoples for pre-selection in electorates.

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About the Author

Brad Saunders is a contributing editor to On Line Opinion.

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