It’s an old American adage that says any child, regardless of their colour, or gender can become President. The reality is of course far removed from the rhetoric. The United States has only ever voted in one black head of state.
But nevertheless, it is telling that the adage has never found a home in Australia, the ‘lucky country’ of opportunity. In Australia, Aboriginal kids are not told they will grow up to be Prime Minister, or a Senator or Member of Parliament. The statistics say they will end up either in jail, or victims of the horrendous life expectancy gap that even Tony Abbott admits is not closing.
In the absence of a solid representative structure like ATSIC, they aren’t even told they can be voted in to lead their own people.
Aboriginal kids in this country are saddled with the burden of low expectations.
Which is what made Billy Gordon’s victory in the seat of Cook, a vast electorate spanning Cairns, Cape York and the Torres Strait, so important for not just black Queensland, but First Nations communities across the country.
The fact he was elected to a seat with a sizable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population – one of the only seats where the views of our people can have any real impact in the political process outside of the Northern Territory – made it even more significant.
As Aboriginal voters, we are used to casting a ballot for people who have no understanding of our life experience, or for people whose policies are directly in competition with our interests.
To have an Aboriginal man pre-selected to a winnable seat is pretty rare.
There had previously been only one other Aboriginal person elected to Queensland Parliament – Eric Deeral in the 70s. But this year’s election was even more significant – Billy Gordon shared his historic election with Leanne Enoch, who became the first Aboriginal woman in Queensland parliament.
Their election was hailed throughout black Australia as a rare positive in an arena where black voices are routinely drowned out.
But when Aboriginal people are elected to public office, they are held to a higher standard of accountability.
They are not just members of their party. They are also, whether they like it or not, the guardians of the reputation of Aboriginal Australia, in a country where racism remains institutionalised.
They shoulder a responsibility to our people that no other Member of Parliament has to deal with. It becomes a tug-a-rope game of competing loyalties.
The rare novelty of electing a blackfella also brings with it the more common sport of bringing him or her down.
Only a few months on from the Queensland election, the fate of Labor’s tenuous minority grasp on power hangs in the balance, along with the political future of Billy Gordon.
This week he resigned from the Labor party after allegations of domestic violence by a former partner emerged. The ex-partner wrote to several Labor MPs, alleging the violence, and claiming that Billy Gordon had failed to lodge tax returns in a bid to dodge child support.
Media have reported the ex-partner was aided by David Kempton, the Liberal candidate who lost to Gordon, and Warren Entsch, the federal Leichhardt MP who Gordon stood against at the last federal election.
Gordon firmly denies the allegations, and the matter is now the subject of a police investigation.
Gordon had also failed to tell the party of an AVO taken out against him by his mother in 2008. The Guardian journalist Joshua Robertson reported earlier this week “his mother rejects characterisation of this episode as evidence of his violent nature and insists she did not ask for the AVO police issued against Gordon as a result of [violence]”.
It also was revealed that Gordon failed to disclose two break and enter charges which occurred when he was a teenager, charges for which he was under no legal obligation to disclose.
While the domestic violence charges are undeniably serious, as are the child support issues, and should be handled with sensitivity, it is now a matter for the police. It should not be one thrashed out in the court of public opinion. As Gordon puts it, he is entitled to “natural justice”.
If the allegations are proven, it is obvious that Billy Gordon should resign. No man charged with domestic violence should be a member of Parliament, especially when family violence is crippling Aboriginal communities today, and the cries of Aboriginal women and children are largely flying under the radar, even in a time when domestic violence is finally making the front pages of newspapers. I don’t think anyone is denying this.
But to judge Billy Gordon for the break and enter charges is unfair given the history of disadvantage he inherited, and spent a lifetime overcoming.
These offences committed by a teenage Billy Gordon are a sad norm for many Aboriginal kids growing up in communities today.
The entry points into the juvenile justice system for Aboriginal kids often involve property related crimes such as burglary, break and enter and other forms of theft, public order and violence-related offences, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The reasons behind this are complex and multi-layered, but all are founded on the social and economic disadvantage that is endemic in Aboriginal communities, and for which state and federal governments have engineered over many decades. Put simply, successive state and federal governments have all had a hand to play in the situation in which Billy Gordon found himself in his early years.
A federal parliamentary inquiry into Aboriginal youth in juvenile detention found that the issues include over-representation in “family and community violence, child abuse and neglect, alcohol and drug abuse, inadequate housing, poor health, low educational and training achievement and a lack of employment opportunities”.
This was also exacerbated by the loss of culture and social norms, as well as the background of dispossession, colonisation and the high rates of forced removal of Aboriginal children.
Queensland is a state which, in the earlier 20th century, forced Aboriginal people off their homelands and into reserves and missions, assigned under the “care” of a protector, who exercised enormous control – and cruelty – over their lives.
It is a state which hides its hidden history of removal, like in the case of the Cape York community of Mapoon in the 60s, whose houses were demolished and the residents removed from their traditional lands to make way for a mining operation.
It is a state with one of the highest rates of Aboriginal child removal in the country, a horrendous situation because children who come into contact with the child protection system are highly likely to end up in jail.
It is also a state which refused to pay equal wages up until the 80s in some areas, and which never properly compensated Aboriginal workers for the loss of a lifetime of stolen money.
Billy Gordon inherited the legacy of a black history and grew up in circumstances far removed from his non-Indigenous counterparts.
The fact he was able to overcome circumstances that pave the pathway to jail instead of Parliament should not be overshadowed by the current political posturing over his future.
Writing in Fairfax media today Alecia Simmonds said, “Hypothetically speaking, if Billy Gordon is exposed as having a criminal past then it is not the same as a privileged white politician being exposed for similar offences.
“Gordon’s culpability is likely to be less than someone whose formative years had not been marred by social disadvantage. I would argue that the fact that he has grappled with these problems and overcome them makes him a much better representative for these communities than your usual pale-faced ALP or LNP member with lily-white hands and a manufactured working-class accent.
“Someone who has experienced the problems first hand is much more likely to be able to consult with communities about how to fix them.”
It is worth noting that Billy Gordon received overwhelming support from Aboriginal voters in remote booths like Cape York and the Torres Strait. He won the black vote, and now that vote is being taken out of the hands of the people who, for so long, have waited for the chance to elect someone with their own background, someone who understands their own problems intimately and thus has a better chance of devising appropriate solutions.
For a people who have been disenfranchised from the current political process for so long, and as a consequence, on the losing end of the policies it spits out, the rise of Billy Gordon and his potential downfall must not be taken lightly.
For Aboriginal kids who grow up without seeing their faces in the halls of power, the treatment of Billy Gordon could have unintended consequences.
They deserve to believe they can one day be an MP or Senator, regardless of their race, and that when they overcome their circumstances, they will be hailed for it, not punished or judged.
Or have the fate of a government on their shoulders.