It’s Christmas Eve, and a three-year-old girl lies in her grandmother’s arms. It’s not a silent night -- Nova Peris is listening to the howl of a tropical cyclone ripping apart her home.
“My first memory is of being absolutely terrified,” said Peris of that night in 1974 when Cyclone Tracy ravaged Darwin, destroying 70 percent of the remote north Australian city and killing 65 people. “I still have the teddy bear I was holding. It’s a reminder of how I survived.”
Nearly four decades later Peris, 43, was caught up in a different storm. Then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered her the chance to become the first female Aboriginal member of the federal parliament, ordering an incumbent senator to stand aside so Peris, who battled poverty and racist taunts on the path to becoming an Olympic Games champion, could run.
While Peris won the seat for the now-opposition Labor party in last September’s election and has since been tasked with a lead role in helping convince Australians to approve the recognition of indigenous people in the constitution, the furor over her candidacy threatened to overwhelm her. It came just months after her former husband and father of her two youngest children was killed in a car accident.
“Tracy was a category five cyclone, and this felt like I was in category six,” she said. “For months I felt sick. I’d wake up at two in the morning and have to put my head down the toilet bowl. In sport you are in charge of your own performance but in politics there’s so many other factors from outside.”
Aboriginal art adorns the walls of her office in Canberra’s Parliament House, where she’s four months into her job representing the Northern Territory. On a bookshelf is her autobiography, which depicts her playing barefoot as a child in Darwin’s dusty streets and becoming a young mother, before winning gold for Australia at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as a member of the women’s field hockey team.
Aborigines are among Australia’s most marginalized people, with infant mortality rates twice that for non-indigenous people and life expectancy about a decade lower. Both Labor and the Liberal-National government have pledged to improve their lot and empower them in corporate and political life.
Even so, there were divisions within Labor over Gillard’s move to make history by getting Peris into parliament. To give Peris the best shot at becoming a senator, Gillard bypassed the party’s internal pre-selection process. Then-incumbent Trish Crossin protested, saying Peris was not a Labor member when tapped.
In her departure speech from parliament, Crossin said: “Do we need more women in parliament? Well of course we do. But not at the expense of each other. Do we need indigenous representation? Most certainly, but not in a vacuum without a plan or without a strategy.”
“The start of her political career has been extraordinarily tumultuous,” said Andrew Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research at the Australian National University in Canberra. “Her appointment seemed to many like a desperate move by a flailing government to deflect attention away from its poor performance by parachuting in a celebrity candidate. That means she’ll have to work doubly hard to prove that she’s up for the job.”
Adam Giles, now the territory’s chief minister representing the Country Liberal Party, said at the time that Peris would be Labor’s “pet Aborigine” in parliament. Asked about Peris’s performance since she joined the Senate, Giles said March 12: “It’s been a shaky start. I congratulate Nova Peris on her electoral success and look forward to seeing if she can start to make a constructive contribution to the future of the Northern Territory.”
In Peris’s office the red, black and yellow flag of indigenous people stands next to the red, white and blue national pennant. Giving her first speech to parliament, her forehead adorned with white clay as a traditional Aboriginal blessing, she said she would “not stand by in silence” should she witness racism.
Peris was appointed in December as deputy chairwoman of a non-partisan committee of lawmakers which seeks to persuade Australians to allow the recognition of indigenous people in the country’s charter. A referendum is planned to be held at the next election, due to be called by 2016.
“It’s been a tough start, but I’m here now and I’m hitting the ground running,” Peris said. “Aboriginal people have the solutions, but they need to be empowered to put them in place. I’m sick and tired of policies that come from a great idea but aren’t practical.” Governments expect a quick-fix, one-stop solution and they “don’t work.”
Indigenous people are spread over a wide area that ranges from city suburbs to remote bush camps. This diversity means they should be able to make decisions at a local level, Peris said. Resources have been wasted and government funds mismanaged on programs that don’t work, such as Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plan to hire more truancy officers for schools instead of improving education standards, she said.
Constitutional acknowledgment of indigenous people as the country’s original inhabitants would be a step toward revitalizing Aborigines, who have been denied opportunities in education and employment, Peris said. It’s a major task given 82 percent of the 44 referendums held in Australia have failed.
Peris is also calling for indigenous people convicted of alcohol-related violence to be banned from buying liquor. She said Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory are 80 times more likely to be assaulted than non-indigenous women.
“The problems all go back to white man’s poison: alcohol,” she said. “It’s killing our people.”
The kind of taunts that Peris endured over her pre-selection for Labor were nothing new. She recalled that during her sporting career, opponents hurled racial epithets and she received abusive letters.
Peris was born to a single mother who was one of the “stolen generations” -- indigenous Australians taken from parents to live in Caucasian communities. Her mother later married a strict, white policeman. Peris discovered her sporting talent at a young age, according to her aunt, MaryAnn Bin-Sallik, who is herself an example of minority success.
“She was a marvelous ball of energy, running here and running there,” said Bin-Sallik, who was a professor at Charles Darwin University, the first indigenous nurse in Darwin and Australia’s first Aborigine to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. “She was very competitive, and joined little athletics as soon as she could. She came from a poor family, but it had very strong female role models with strong work ethics.”
Peris’s sporting dreams were put on hold in 1990 when, at the age of 19, she had her first child, Jessica. After returning to competition to share the Australian hockey gold in Atlanta, she switched to short-course running, winning two gold medals at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.
Retiring from sport after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Peris found herself in Canberra helping train her then-second husband, Olympic sprinter Daniel Batman. There she got her first exposure to politics, hired by the government as a health ambassador for remote indigenous communities. In 2012, a year after becoming a grandmother, she founded the Nova Peris Girls Academy in Darwin.
“For Nova, going into politics was inevitable,” said Dion Devow, a friend of Peris since childhood. “She’s always been a leader and she’s a political animal. Once she’s in the zone, she will immerse herself in whatever she’s doing.”
“She’s aware that there’s more pressure on her to perform now than there was in her sporting career, but she will deal with that.”
“I’m pleased with her performance as a senator so far,” said Warren Mundine, a former Labor party president who was hand-picked by Abbott to be the chairman of the Indigenous Advisory Council. “While she obviously has to take some direction from the Labor party caucus, she has a bipartisan, pragmatic approach. She’s already provided the council with good, sensible advice on indigenous issues.”
Peris, who has drawn inspiration from the successful 1967 referendum which ended constitutional discrimination against indigenous people and allowed them to be counted in the national census for the first time, said she harbors no illusions about the expectations for her.
“I’m well and truly aware about how difficult this will be,” she said. “It’s about the right thing to do. And change is possible -- it wasn’t long ago that we were regarded not as human beings but as flora and fauna.”