Indigenous representation in the Senate

The upcoming 47th Parliament is set to include 11 Indigenous parliamentarians. This will bring the total number of Indigenous parliamentarians since Federation to 17 and break the record set by the 46th Parliament, which included 8 Indigenous parliamentarians—2 members of the House of Representatives and 6 senators. Of the 11 Indigenous parliamentarians in the 47th Parliament, there will be 3 members of the House of Representatives and 8 senators. 

The Senate has outperformed the House of Representatives when it comes to Indigenous representation. This difference in representation between the Houses can in part be attributed to the method of election used in the Senate, known as proportional representation.

Introduced in 1948, proportional representation ensures that representation in the Senate reflects the proportion of votes received by the political parties. Unlike the House of Representatives, for which one candidate is elected per electorate, in the Senate multiple candidates are elected for each State and Territory simultaneously. As voters come from a larger, more diverse population across a larger geographic area and parties may nominate multiple candidates for each electorate, proportional electoral systems tend to facilitate the selection of a more diverse range of candidates by political parties and consequently provide greater opportunity for the election of diverse candidates.

Most of the significant firsts relating to Indigenous parliamentary representation have occurred in the Senate. Senator Neville Bonner in 1971 was the first Indigenous man elected to parliament, and Senator Nova Peris was the first Indigenous woman elected in 2013. Senator Aden Ridgeway was the first person to use an Australian Indigenous language in Parliament in his first speech on 25 August 1999. Similarly, a Senate President spoke in an Indigenous language for the first time in 2016 when, in the opening of Senator Patrick Dodson’s first speech, then President of the Senate, the Hon Stephen Parry, and Senator Dodson spoke to each other in Yawuru, the Indigenous language of the Kimberley region where Senator Dodson is from.

Since 2010, both Houses have made an acknowledgement of country along with the prayer at the start of each sitting day in the following terms:

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia's Indigenous peoples.

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