Embodying the notion of ‘nothing about us without us’, the Australian Labor Party’s First Nations Caucus Committee is elevating the voices and perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities from within the Canberra bubble.
The First Nations caucus is one of the Labor Party’s five caucus committees and was designed to inform the Labor Party around decision-making regarding First Nations peoples.
It was established in 2016 when committee Chair, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy first entered the Senate.
“We’ve had absolutely strong support from the get-go,” Senator McCarthy told NIT.
“One of our first moves was to move a motion to have the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags flying in the General Caucus every time we met and an official Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country.”
The caucus is open to all within the party and currently hosts 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous members.
Senator McCarthy said the Shadow Cabinet often has to bring incoming legislation to the First Nations caucus for advice.
“It enables us to have a voice on every piece of legislation that impacts First Nations people,” she said.
Two strong voices within the caucus includes Labor heavyweights, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney and Senator Pat Dodson.
Together, the three politicians led the way in establishing the caucus.
“We decided that there was an impertinent link that was missing when we all came to Parliament – Malarndirri, Linda and myself. There needed to be a First Nations Caucus Committee in order to assess issues that are going to affect First Nations, whether they are policy, legislation or internal party considerations,” said Senator Dodson.
“The effectiveness of us is the advice we give to our party, and that is an important thing in itself. It is keeping our antenna tuned in on what is happening in broad communities, in First Nations communities.”
With her role as Shadow Minister, Ms Burney relies strongly on the advice and guidance of the committee.
“It is enormously important to me, as the Shadow Minister there is very little I do without consulting the First Nations caucus,” she said.
She notes that senior leaders within the party often look to the caucus for whatever move they intend to make.
“It is a very powerful committee and a very respected committee,” she said.
“It’s not just a committee that is responsive to the Government, it is a committee that is proactive to what Labor’s decisions should be and obviously that is one of the things we will respond to.”
The establishment of the caucus and its heavy involvement in decision-making within the party sets a precedent for Labor – that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are heard, valued and respected.
“If we are talking about a First Nations Voice to the Parliament, we need to make sure we have a First Nations Voice within the practice of a party,” said Senator McCarthy.
“One of the real focus areas for me has always been systemic change … not only in the general Australian system of dealing with First Nations issues but also within the Australian Labor Party.
“Systemic change is something that I’m very passionate about in our process … ensuring we had a First Nations caucus, a First Nations voice in the process. Whether we won issues or lost issues was almost not really the point.
“It’s about acknowledging that we always had to be consulted.”
Senator McCarthy has a deep pride for the caucus she chairs.
“I am incredibly proud of our First Nations caucus members … and the contribution each and every Senator and Member of Parliament makes to our caucus,” she said.
“They come from all over Australia, remote regions, regional regions, from the cities, and all of them have a passionate desire to see the improvement of the lives of First Nations people in Australia.
“If we are asking First Nations people to vote for us, we have to show them a reason as to why. I want the people of Australia, and First Nations people to see, that we are a legitimate party that not only talks the talk but walks the walk.”
By Rachael Knowles