An Indigenous Political Activist’s Case Against Voting In Australian Elections

Why take part in a political system you never consented to live under?

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Black people have a complicated relationship with voting and elections. We are in the middle of NAIDOC Week and have just experienced an election, I can’t help but think about this complicated relationship.

There is a popular misconception that black people didn’t have the right to vote until the 1967 referendum. This isn’t true; we were voting before then. Voting rights were rolled out in a patchwork manner, with black people in South Australia voting as early as 1895. The White Australia Policy had an impact on our ability to vote and in many cases we were discouraged from voting or were excluded from voting by electoral officials.   

Over the weekend my newsfeed, and to a lesser extent my Tinder, was flooded with snags, #ausvotes, anxiety over not knowing immediately who we had voted in and then Pauline Hanson-related hysteria. I expect the latter to continue for at least a few years.

Among all this, though, I saw many statuses from my black family and friends either stating who they were voting for or that they were straight up not voting. This may come as a surprise to some people – that a people who have historically been denied the right to vote would then not exercise it.

But in this case, not voting shouldn’t be confused with apathy. For many black people, not voting is a political act in itself. The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that 58% of black people are enrolled to vote. Anecdotally, government bodies and prominent black figures estimate that the percentage of black people who do vote is at around 25 – 30%. There are a number of reasons for political voting abstention.

Like many people, some Indigenous people don’t vote out of disillusionment. Politically we are not a priority. We are around 3% of the population, which means we rely almost entirely on the goodwill of the Australian voter to find our issues compelling enough to generate political will. In recent Vote Compass data with 174,123 respondents, Indigenous issues ranked 19 out of a possible 20 of issues voters care about. I think it’s fair to say that our issues don’t get politicians elected and an election will never hinge on black affairs.

Even when non-Indigenous people do care, they are not necessarily on the same page as us. A good example is constitutional recognition. Of the approximate 20,000 Vote Compass respondents who responded to the Indigenous Issues questions, the majority were in favour of constitutional recognition. In Victoria, over 50% of respondents were in favour. This is in a state where black people have been quite vocal about our support for a treaty instead of constitutional recognition and are in discussions with the state to negotiate one. Not only do we rely on the greater population’s goodwill, we also rely on their understanding of nuance.

Beyond this, like much of our greatest failures as a nation, a lot of black issues on a federal level have bipartisan support. Whether it was the Northern Territory Intervention or constitutional recognition, both major parties take a bipartisan approach, which makes it for us to differentiate between the two. This forces us to ask ourselves: why vote in a system that generates the same outcome?

This is also a system that lacks representation of black people. In the new Parliament, we will have a total of five black-identifying politicians at one time; the most there have ever been. Obviously elected politicians represent their electorate, but when you look at a sea of mostly white faces representing the country, it is hard as a black person not to shut down and think that maybe it isn’t for you.

It makes it even harder when you do see black people, particularly black women in politics, frequently cop racial abuse. You might recall the recent abuse Sentator Nova Peris this year. Or in May when white chiropractor Chris Nelson trolled Peris’ Facebook page calling her a “black cunt” and telling her to “fuck off” and “go back to the bush and suck on witchity [sic] grubs”, who then said his computer was hacked and that he wasn’t racist because some of his friends are Aboriginal and then to everyone’s utter surprise it was actually him.  

In addition, for those of us who identify as sovereign, not voting is resistance. If we accept that at no moment in our history did we negotiate the arrival of white people and also accept because we have not been wiped out, nor did we cede our sovereignty, then we are still sovereign peoples. If we are sovereign, forcing us to participate in the election of a state that we haven’t agreed to be a part of is a little bit weird.

This view is not new. Prominent Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell says he hasn’t voted for decades, and was taken to court for this by the federal government. His reason for not voting is that he believes that he is not entitled to vote because he is “not Australian”, but a “member of the Aboriginal nation.”

It’s not surprising that our relationship with voting is so complicated. For many of you, it is seen as the ultimate civic duty. For many of us, it is a reminder of our position in this country.

At this stage you are probably wondering whether or not I voted. Well, I did. But I absolutely understand why so many of my people don’t.

Nayuka is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman working in the youth sector. Nayuka writes about black politics and feminism. She tweets @nayukagorrie.

Feature image via JAM Project on a Flickr Creative Commons licence.