A column about Barack Obama

Where were you when Australia II won the America’s Cup? When the World Trade Centre collapsed? And the day Barack Obama was elected President? The answers to these questions are sometimes fairly dull – in my case, sofas feature prominently, and a fortnight ago, Doritos as well. But I’ll never forget those experiences of watching history unfold live before me, and I’ve no doubt that the 2008 US Election will live on in our memories for as long as the moon landing. Because Barack Obama’s victory was so moving that even Karl Rove said one or two nice things about it.

As I sat and watched a skinny, youthful-looking, biracial man address the world whose free bits he’d just been asked to lead, I’m not ashamed to admit I had a tear in my eye. Of course, that may have been because my mind was addled by seven straight hours of CNN and Fox News. But I’d like to think that at least one of the droplets that ran down my cheek was because a country that fought a civil war over slavery only 150 years ago had come so far as to elect an African man President. And even more movingly, as far as I was concerned, to not elect Sarah Palin Vice-President. The beacon of democracy was shining so brightly the other night that even John McCain stopped implying that Obama was a terrorist long enough to make a genuinely honourable concession speech.

But as I sat and watched the faux hologram of will.i.am on CNN, I got to wondering how long it will be before our own electoral barriers were overthrown. We have our first female Deputy PM, and Julia Gillard has shown she’s more than competent enough to be entrusted with the big job if Kevin falls under one of John Howard’s hypothetical buses. But I doubt we’ll see a black Prime Minister in this country anytime soon, and Obama’s election provides an opportunity to take a good look at our own country, and ask ourselves why not.

Only two Aborigines have ever been elected to our Federal Parliament – Neville Bonner, who became a Senator in 1977, and Aden Ridgeway, who had as minimal an impact as only a Democrat could. In the NT, the Deputy Chief Minister is Marion Scrymgour, who has served as Acting Chief Minister and thus became the first Aborigine to lead any state or territory. But perhaps the most likely indigenous Australian to hold a high Parliamentary office is Warren Mundine, who served as Labor’s National President until last year – and since Labor has never elected an Aboriginal candidate to the Federal Parliament, one can only hope they seriously consider it.

While the structure of the Parliament means that parties can effectively appoint Aboriginal candidates to safe Senate seats anytime they like, an Aboriginal Prime Minister would need to commit to party politics for long enough to earn preselection to a safe seat – and it would be understandable if most potential candidates were deeply cynical about getting involved with either party. There are many Aboriginal leaders who are widely respected, from the Yunupingu brothers, Galurrwuy and Manduwuy, and Lois O’Donohue, all Australians of the Year, to Mick and Patrick Dodson. And Cathy Freeman certainly has the popularity to win votes. But it’s understandable if they value the freedom to speak their mind openly and honestly in representing Aboriginal people and stay well clear of the parties that have generally served Aboriginal people poorly.

Just electing one or two members of a disadvantaged group is not sufficient to reverse centuries of discrimination, of course. Obama’s election has enormous symbolic importance, but it’s worth noting that his resignation from the Senate left that body without a single African-American among its 100 members. Still, his victory shows millions of black kids that with talent, determination, luck and Oprah behind them, they can win the White House as well. And I’ve no doubt that means a lot.

But indigenous Aussie kids have no reason to believe that similar doors are open to them. Unlike the US, we’ve never had a black High Court judge, or Foreign Affairs Minister (or Federal Minister of anything, in fact), or head of the Armed Forces. So perhaps we should redirect a little of the enthusiasm we feel about Barack Obama back to Australia. And then perhaps one day we will see delighted members of the Aboriginal community chanting “Yes We Can” in unison with the white community, like tens of thousands of Americans of every colour did the other night in a field in Chicago.

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