Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard selected Olympic gold medalist Nova Peris to run for parliament, clearing the way for the field hockey and track star to become the nation’s first female Aboriginal federal lawmaker.
Gillard today said she will ask her Labor Party’s national executive to endorse Peris’s candidacy for a Northern Territory Senate seat in elections set for this year. Labor, which has held one of the region’s two Senate seats since 1975, has never had an indigenous member of parliament.
“I have been very troubled that we have never been able to count amongst our number an indigenous Australian,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra. “I’m determined that at the 2013 election, we change that.”
Gillard’s Labor, which trails in polls ahead of elections that must be held by Nov. 30, has pledged to narrow discrepancies between Aborigines and the rest of the population in health, education and employment. They remain the poorest and most disadvantaged group in society more than 200 years after Europeans settled in 1788.
Peris, 41, became the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal when the Australian women’s field hockey team was victorious at the 1996 Atlanta games. Two years later she won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in sprinting events.
“This is an amazing part of my life,” Peris said at the Canberra press conference. “Through my sporting successes I’ve always been in control of my own journey. Here, I’m all about being successful. I want to be the best person that I can possibly be for Australian youth and Aboriginal Australia.”
The Liberal-National coalition, led by Tony Abbott, has had two Aboriginal parliamentarians, including Ken Wyatt who won the lower-house seat of Hasluck in Western Australia in 2010. The decision to endorse Peris would force incumbent Trish Crossin to step aside.
Indigenous Australians populated the continent at least 50,000 years ago. About 2.3 percent of the population identified themselves as Aboriginal in a 2006 census.
Indigenous rights remain a contentious issue. Clashes between aboriginal protesters and riot police during last January’s Australia Day marking the arrival of white settlers forced officers to rescue Gillard and Abbott from a restaurant in Canberra, the nation’s capital.
Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, offered the nation’s first apology in 2008 to Aborigines taken from their families for assimilation with the white community, saying the policy was a “blemished chapter” in the nation’s history.
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