Few and Far Between, Aboriginal Candidates Try to Break a Stereotype

Charmaine Clarke was once ashamed of being a descendant of the original Australians.

Now, she is proudly seeking to be the first Aboriginal woman elected to the Australian federal Parliament in the contest on Saturday.

"At school I was taught that indigenous Australians were close enough to apes - people with no intellect, no vision, no sense of innovation," says Ms. Clarke, who was taken from her mother as a baby to be raised by a white foster family, under a government assimilation policy. "It was only after I went back to my real mother when I was about 14 that I started learning the truth about my history and my heritage."

Clarke and at least seven other candidates are trying to become the second indigenous person elected to the federal Parliament after Neville Bonner.

"I think it's imperative that we have another representative in now," says Mr. Bonner, who served from 1971 to 1983 as a Liberal Party senator, the main party in the current conservative coalition.

The Liberals' experience with Bonner should have taught Australian political parties a lesson about choosing candidates, observes Brian Costar, professor of political science at Melbourne's Monash University. "However, for many years the parties have persisted with very stereotypical views of what sort of person is a good candidate - usually male, with a certain socio-economic status, and of European stock," he says.

Making up 2 percent of Australia's 18 million population, Aborigines did not have full voting rights in federal elections until 1962. But today, even with compulsory enrollment and voting, the Australian Electoral Commission says "many thousands" are unregistered.

In 1996, the Indigenous People's Party put forward 27 candidates, all in Queensland. (The One Nation Party, which opposes special rights for Aborigines, drew one-quarter of Queensland's vote in June.) In Australia, a party receives government payments to cover campaign costs if it gets at least 4 percent of votes. But the IPP scored poorly. "We have not recovered financially from the last election," says IPP president Norman Johnson. "Many of our people are trapped in poverty our will to participate in the political arena has been devastated."

With the backing of a more established party, Clarke remains enthusiastic - despite polls rating her chances as slim. She is standing in Victoria as a senate candidate for the environment-focused Greens party. "I wouldn't be going for it if I didn't think I had a chance," she says.

Polls indicate that Aden Ridgeway, an indigenous candidate for the centrist Democrats in New South Wales, is more likely to follow Bonner's footsteps.

For more than five years, he has been involved in negotiations over Aboriginal land rights. A heated debate was prompted by a High Court ruling that a form of land ownership, known as native title, could co-exist on land covered by "pastoral leases" granted by state governments. The leases allow cattle and sheep grazing on about 40 percent of Australian land.

"Before the court ruling, we thought land under pastoral lease was quarantined from native title claims," says Wendy Craik, executive director of the National Farmers Federation.

Amended legislation, passed in July, allows attempts at native title claims on leased land, but weakens the right to negotiate on land use. "A change was needed to give certainty back to the leaseholders, who felt they were taking the blame ... for 200 years of dispossession of indigenous people," Ms. Craik says. "We're pleased the issue has been moved off the agenda for the campaign."

Nevertheless, indigenous candidates say that if elected, their priorities will include the issue of land rights - along with the stalled process of reconciliation between indigenous and other Australians.

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