“I still don’t see myself as a politician,” said Yvonne Weldon, glancing earnestly around the candlelit chambers of The Rose Hotel, where supporters in white shirts are packed shoulder-to-shoulder for her campaign rally, “but it’s starting to sink in.” Earlier last year the Wiradjuri woman, who grew up in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern, became the first Aboriginal candidate for Lord Mayor of any major city in Australia.
Weldon comes from a proud tradition of activists and change-makers. Her aunt, Mum Shirl, co-founded the Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Medical Service, and her uncle Paul Coe, campaigned for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in court, and as part of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. “I’ve always been a part of the movement,” Weldon reflected, “I was a child of the revolution, really.”
But after 30 years of engaging with politics from the outside as an advocate for First Nations communities, survivors of domestic violence and disadvantaged young people, Weldon made the decision to dive in. Campaigning as an Independent, backed by a diverse team of candidates, Weldon was standing to make the City of Sydney Council more inclusive, to bring back affordable urban living, and to take effective action on the climate emergency.
“I just couldn’t sit back and let things go on as they have been for the past 17 years. It’s time for change,” Weldon said, resolutely. While she was eventually defeated by returning mayor, Clover Moore, she won't give up on the fight to represent Indigenous women in the political sphere and she is one of a growing number of First Nations women who are stepping into Australian politics, at the Local, State, and Federal arenas.
There are now more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in parliament at a Federal level than ever before, including Labor’s Pat Dodson, Malarndirri McCarthy and Linda Burney, the Greens’ Dorinda Cox and Lidia Thorpe, and the Liberals’ Ken Wyatt. Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie is also named as an Indigenous Parliamentarian by the Parliamentary Library, though that claim has been disputed.
So far, at least 12 First Nations candidates have been pre-selected to run in the next Federal election, which will take place before June 2022. Two-thirds of these are women. Linda Burney – Wiradjuri woman, Labor Party stalwart and the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives as Member for Barton in 2016 – believes the progress is a result of affirmative action.
“I can only speak about the party that I’m part of, where we’ve had affirmative action for a very long time now,” she says. “It’s been very deliberate. So I don’t think it’s got anything to do with Indigeneity, I think it’s got to do with affirmative action – including quotas.”
Others, like West Australian Greens Senator, Noongar Bibulman and Yamatji woman Dorinda Cox, suggest that while systemic changes play a role, more First Nations women are rising to the challenges of modern politics. “I think it’s partly by virtue of the gender targets, which parties have adopted to make the parliament a lot safer, given what happened to Britney Higgins, and the findings of the Foster Report. But I also think that there are lots of strong women who have been the backbones of our communities and our families for a really long time.”
“Women are the leaders of our communities,” confirms Greens Senator for Victoria, Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman Lidia Thorpe, “They have led a lot of our struggles and our fights. Women have always had a very big part to play in Blak society, and in keeping our communities safe.”
But both Greens Senators are quick to emphasise that in Aboriginal culture, men and women share equal but complementary roles within the family unit, and in the community. “It works in a very complementary and harmonious way,” says Cox. “So there’s been an external influence on our communities that has enabled women to be elevated in the political space.”
According to Burney, mentorship also plays an important role. “Generally in politics, you have a mentor: you don’t make it on your own,” she explains. “If there’s someone with a commitment to you, a belief in you, who is senior in the party, who advocates for better representation – that’s really important. And for me, that person has been Anthony Albanese.”
There seems little question that opportunities for women in politics are evolving and expanding, and in ways that First Nations women have been quick to seize. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman Donisha Duff is standing as the Labor Candidate for Bowman in Queensland, after more than 20 years leading on policy and advocacy in the health sector.
Earlier in 2021, she took part in the Pathways to Politics Program for Women, which is administered by universities in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, to help women develop the knowledge and skills they need to run for public office.
“It’s an absolutely invaluable program and I commend it to women. More than anything, it was the other women – candidates, former MPs or current MPs, from right across the political spectrum – who were willing to give their time to talk about their experiences and challenges. You have so many questions about how you manage your life, the travel, the impact on you and your family, the exposure you get in public forums. It also just demystifies the whole process of party preselection, and running a campaign.”
As a woman, and as a First Nations person, you don’t need men making decisions that impact you, because they will be wrong.
Duff acknowledges that more needs to be done to carve out space specifically for First Nations people: “We need to have a critical mass of First Nations women involved – whether as staffers or candidates or party officials – if we’re going to change the climate of politics.
“As a woman, and as a First Nations person, you don’t need men making decisions that impact you, because they will be wrong,” Duff says. “They’re not informed by lived experience, and they’re not based on consultation.”
The challenges don’t end when First Nations women cross the threshold into political life. Research by PhD Candidate and Gomeroi woman Amy Thunig has identified that the labour of enacting commitments to ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity' is all too often placed on the shoulders of First Nations people in the workplace. Although Thunig’s research focuses on First Nations experiences in academia, her findings resonate strongly with politicians.
“I have said to my staff and my colleagues that I feel like the Cultural Awareness Advisor of the Parliament,” Thorpe quips, dryly. “You know – do your homework, people! Don’t be lazy. Get some information so that you’re part of the solution, rather than bombarding individuals with questions.”
“There are incredible resources out there, incredible Blak writers, social media accounts – the information is there. You’ve just gotta scratch the surface and find it - and ask other allies!” Thorpe points to Facebook group Allies decolonising as an example of “whitefellas educating whitefellas”.
Organisations like Blak Business, Common Ground, and IndigenousX also share knowledge and educational resources, while many First Nations activists, educators, and journalists keep their followers updated on key issues.
“It is a constant state of education,” agrees Dorinda Cox. “You’re constantly having to talk to people about First Nations knowledge, correct them, be sure representation is not an afterthought or a ‘side dish’.”
Labor’s Linda Burney acknowledges the extra work, but considers it part of her responsibility as a First Nations MP. “I don’t find it burdensome,” she says, “part of your job is to educate and bring people with you, and make sure that your party gets to a good place on some very complex and difficult issues.”
Senator for the Northern Territory, Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands Malarndirri McCarthy, a Yanyuwa Garawa woman, says the Labor Party established its First Nations Caucus so that all are responsible for finding a better way, especially in the decisions made in the Australian Parliament.
“While we have three First Nations people with Linda [Burney], Pat [Dodson] and I, the actual caucus has about 20 Members of Parliament from the Labor team,” explains McCarthy. “Those members have either high numbers of Aboriginal people in their constituency, or high rates of issues that impact Aboriginal people in their electorate - or they just wish to learn.”
Regardless of the challenges, each of these politicians view their experiences and identities as First Nations women as strengths, which lends them the power of purpose, resilience, and a clear-eyed view of the impacts that politics and legislation have on people’s lives. Burney credits her Aboriginality with making her a better politician - but she warns that anyone who thinks that their identity alone is going to get them somewhere in politics, needs to think again.
“You get somewhere in politics because you demonstrate qualities that people respect, because you demonstrate integrity, so that your reputation stays intact. These are the fundamental principles that make a decent politician. I see my Aboriginality as part of who I am. It defines me - but it doesn’t pigeonhole me.”
The distinction is crucial for Kerrynne Liddle, South Australian Senate Candidate for the Liberal Party. “What often happens to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is that they get pigeonholed. It’s the idea that somehow because they are Indigenous, that’s the only thing that they could or should be speaking about," she said.
"That’s just not the case, and I think that diminishes the contributions that people with a breadth and depth of experience can bring to the table, beyond their Indigeneity."
It’s a sentiment that Thorpe echoed in her maiden speech in the Parliament of Victoria in 2017, as the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the lower house, when she said, “being Aboriginal is not all I am, but it’s the centre of who I am.”
These women are some of the first from Indigenous communities to make their mark in their respective electorates, but with their fierce leadership already making an enduring impact, they surely won't be the last.