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June 23, 2024

Storylines – First Nations votes

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This article is made possible by the support of Ninbella Gallery.

♦ Budgeram means story in Bundjalung language.

As a First Nations woman I have a complex approach to voting. I acknowledge that the right to vote was hard fought and won for both my race and my gender so I feel an obligation to those who came before me to participate in the electoral system. Every election comes around and I feel the rise of deep conflict, for this one chance to have a voice, to vote in a system that is fundamentally at odds with traditional governance structures that existed for thousands of years to protect Country.

Indigenous Australians’ right to vote image.
Jason McCarthy, National Museum of Australia

I know many First Nations people who refuse to participate at all, who feel that voting implies consent and refuse to enrol at all. Ultimately, refusal to vote provides no absolution from the policies and laws created by government. I have respect for the position of the mob who make this commitment but saddened that their voices remain silent in the conversation of how Country, community, and culture are managed by the government.

First Nations culture is based on a sovereign people of over 500 nations, with complex governance through kinship systems that held the lore. Lore could not be changed; it was enduring, it came from Country herself. Elders in the hierarchy earnt their place of leadership from a life devoted to serving Country, community and culture. Decisions were made that considered generations of knowledge and considered impacts generations into the future. It’s a difficult process to align to the prevailing system that is currently in place.

I spoke with Bundjalung man Dave Kapeen about voting in the foreign governance system. He said, ‘Yes I do vote. I’m not a believer of the process; the system that is used marginalises our people. Where is the system we used before the boats came here, who are our leaders that the system keeps referring to? We didn’t elect them. Which one of them is from the Bundjalung Nation? When was the last time a politician met with Aboriginal people on our land to discuss our future and issues of concern to our people?’ Dave Kapeen raises some important questions and issues that make our systems incompatible, exposes the complexities of attempting to place Aboriginal voices within a foreign framework without an attempt to understand what existed successfully for thousands of years.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 granted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the option to enrol and vote in Federal elections. Photo www.nationalapology.org.au/pivot-points

Hard-won right

The right to vote was hard fought and won for First Nations people. Many activists such as Joe McGinness, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker), Dulcie Flower, Doug Nicholls, Pearl Gibbs, Faith Bandler, and George Abdullah (and many more) set up political associations such as the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) to fight for political and other civil rights.

In Australia, each colony could determine who was allowed to vote; as a result Aboriginal women in South Australia were able to vote in 1894. In Queensland and Western Australia our people were excluded from voting in elections until the 1960s.

By 1961, as a result of the campaign by activist groups such as the FCAA, the federal government convened a Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines. It was estimated that approximately 30,000 people in the Northern Territory, Queensland, and Western Australia were excluded from voting. The Commonwealth Electoral Act was then amended in 1962 to give all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults the right to vote in federal elections. This means First Nations Australians have only been able to vote for 60 years of the 234 years of occupation.

Talah Laurie, Gumbaynggirr, Yaegl with Birripi connections, is a young dubay with a passion for politics, for her a blak existence is a political existence in this country.

‘To me having the right and privilege to vote is something that my past elders fought so hard for. I will use opportunities like this to acknowledge a strong line of First Nations activism and advocacy and continue that resiliency throughout my lifetime as an enrolled voter,’ Talah explained. Yet Talah acknowledges the complex sociopolitical landscape for young First Nations people.

‘Not only is it important to vote but it is also vital to remain diligent in seeking to understand different types of knowledge. Politics just happen to be one of the most important to me.’ Talah prioritises climate change and action, funding for First Nations-led initiatives, and community capacity-building opportunities. Importantly she says it is not only the inclusion of a First Nations voice in government, but to be recognised in the Australian Constitution – for her that is a key issue in the upcoming federal election.

The Federal Election is taking place on 21 May 21 difference. Photo Tree Faerie.

Your voice matters

Ngurungaeta Brown is a young Arakwal man who votes because his voice matters as much as anybody else’s. He says, ‘Even though some would say “It is only one vote in a pool of millions”, each and every one of those votes is a single person putting their voice forward. It’s important to be heard in that. Look at our history; my people fought tirelessly for generations for us, for me, to have the same rights as any other Australian. I would feel disgusted with myself if I ignored this future and these rights my ancestors and elders fought so strongly for’.

This year’s NAIDOC theme is Get Up, Stand Up Show Up and it’s important to reflect on the importance of standing up to be counted. Everything First Nations people have in this system has been hard fought for; that is why we have come this far. We need to continue this work to make our voices heard for our ancestors and for future generations.

Belle Arnold. Photo Tree Faerie.


Belle Budden is a local dubay of Wakka Wakka descent. ‘Living off country I pay my respect to the Arakwal people and the wider Bundjalung people of this land,’ says Belle. 

Belle has worked in community for 15 years, Belle is an artist, dancer and weaver working across many other mediums. Belle is passionate about community and has committed to empowering women and young people through cultural practice. She has worked in government, arts and community organisation to advocate for improved access to land, culture and services. Belle is currently employed at Desert Pea Media as the Projects Manager.

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  1. With respect ,,I’m an old codger , 64.. I’d like to add. Yes register to vote . When I was young I didn’t want big brother officialdom to know about me. I didn’t think my one vote mattered that much . I figured the less they know about me the better plus I didn’t want to have to pay the $ Fine for not voting ..if I forgot ,, . ….. But as I got older I found out the Truth . ….. The lib/nat s automatically register their kids to vote . The kids have no choice in it. …. Where as the rest of us who don’t have conservative voting parents ,, , our oldies don’t force us to register .. …….. So here’s the thing , the Truth I discovered ….. The conservative politicians already know this , so they do what ever they can to make you scared and not want to register . They sow propaganda ( lies) like ,, “” one partys just as bad as the other so why bother voting “” They want you to feel like you’re on the outside . Like it’s better to lay low . , keep your head down …. Here’s the main one … They already know about you .. When you were born they knew about you . You’ve already had a number since you were born Every time you go to the doctor . When you went to school . Opened a bank account . Played a game of footy or netball . Got a car license . You not registering to vote doesn’t mean they don’t know about you . All the people that think like I did will not vote conservative . We’d vote for the other party . And the conservatives know that.. . And … A lot of the time it’s down to 100 votes difference as to who gets in…. Like that trump bull sh#t… That’s how important it is…. So please all you young people out there .. Register to vote .. It might be to late now for this one , , but now is the time .. Nothing to be worried about , I guarantee it… And everything to gain .. Good things ,,,, :). …….. Ps: hope I havnt put my foot in it ….. hahahaha,,,

    • With respect, as a white anglo, I feel it too from our Governments, pushed into corners of conformity. But hence I have been in the vein and flow of white conservatism and bias and can only imagine how the oppression imposed from white settlers and lawmakers must feel for the indigenous community first nations people. I hope Belles message will encourage more indigenous people to vote so that they can gain a position where they are represented well! To get the balance back in this now flogged but incredible resillient (hopefully) country. Its time to hear the voices and the stories from first nations people who possess an inherent stregth and wisdom that I have utmost respect for and would love to be included with.

  2. Thank you, Belle, for an enlightening article. Please, vote, and be encouraged to become active players on the political stage. We need you, the First Nations people, to sort out our mess. You are endowed with the kind of knowledge and wisdom that sees the very irritating disturbance we have created in the name of…well, progress, if you want. We are lost. Without your deep understanding of country and of the meaning of living together as one people, I don’t know where we are heading… I know one fine day you’ll have this country back, because you stay true to your colours which happen to be the colours of Australia. Meanwhile, I believe it would do us all good to see a little more of the oh-so-needed First Nations presence in parliament to assist us turn the nightmare into dreaming once again. Thank you.

  3. Thankfully we live in a country that enforces compulsory democracy.

    It is shameful that Aboriginal people were excluded from this for many years, even those who fought in wars.

    Let’s also start to include all citizens 16 years and older in this.

  4. Thank you so much for taking the time to write your take on voting Belle. I really enjoyed the read, learned a lot and know I got inspired to share Operation: Yes No Why Not , with you and dear Echo Readers. The Operation has 6 stands for our next government : 2022-2026 , including 50 % of the 2 million government work force being First Nations People? Yes, No, Why Not? see https://www.facebook.com/groups/operationvoteyes and note we shared your story there to INSPIRE all 25 million Australians to say YES x 6 times!!!! Peace and love to you all, Charles Crawshaw


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