Congress Arrulenye looks back at elections

With the Federal election occurring this week, the Congress Arrulenye (History Project) shares these stories about strong Aboriginal leaders in the past.

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Throughout history, Aboriginal families in central Australia have had many strong leaders.  Some have stood for election as part of their fight to change the government systems.  In this post we remember some leaders who paved the way for other Aboriginal people to stand for and be elected to parliament.

In the 1974 NT elections, Mr HJ Nelson stood in the electorate of Stuart, to the north of Alice Springs, and Mr B Breaden stood in the MacDonnell electorate, south and west of Alice Springs.  Both men were nominated by Congress and supported by the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS, now part of NAAJA).  Both were leaders in their own communities and in Aboriginal organisations including Congress and the first Central Land Council. They were nominated as independent candidates but, after nominations closed, both were also endorsed by the Labor Party as candidates. Aboriginal men also stood as candidates in Victoria River and Tiwi electorates and an Aboriginal woman stood in Arnhem. Only the Tiwi candidate, Hyacinth Tungutalum who stood for the CLP, was elected.

This election in 1974 was for the first fully elected NT parliament. Before this time, the national government appointed some members of a NT Advisory Council, and some were elected. Only one Aboriginal person had stood as a candidate in the NT before 1974 and they were not elected.  In the national parliament, Neville Bonner had become the first Aboriginal person to be elected, in 1972.  He served as a senator for Queensland for more than ten years, representing the Liberal party, but going against the party line on some issues.

Aboriginal people had been granted the right to vote in 1962 but voting was not made compulsory for Aboriginal people then, unlike now.  In the 1974 NT elections, about half the Aboriginal adults in remote communities were enrolled to vote, and about half of those enrolled actually voted. Lack of education about voting meant that a lot of Aboriginal votes were not counted:  because the ballot paper was not completed properly, the votes were rejected as ‘informal’. Information from the Australian Electoral Office did not get to most Aboriginal people due to distance and language.  Congress and CAALAS worked together to educate Aboriginal people about voting. They prepared pamphlets, how to vote cards and assisted with voter enrolments.  They provided transport for the Aboriginal candidates to visit communities and talk with voters.

Congress acknowledges and pays respect to Mr Taylor and Mr Breaden, and their role in the struggle to have Aboriginal voices in parliament.

In the next NT election, in 1977, Neville Perkins stood as a Labor candidate in the seat of MacDonnell and was elected.  He stood down as Executive Director (CEO) of Congress to contest the election but continued to be a member of the Congress cabinet (Board).  During his term in NT Parliament, he was the deputy leader of the opposition and the first Aboriginal person to be a shadow minister.

Thanks to the authors of the following report for research and documents used in this post: Jaensch, Dean and Loveday, Peter. (1979) Election in the Northern Territory 1974-1977. North Australia Research Unit, ANU, Darwin, NT.