Australia’s first Muslim, Aboriginal and youngest ever members of parliament come to Canberra

By Rod Mcguirk, AP
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Australia’s new crop of lawmakers meet in Canberra

CANBERRA, Australia — Among the newly elected legislators who congregated for the first time Thursday at Parliament House were Australia’s first Muslim lawmaker, its youngest-ever at 20 years old and the first Aboriginal in the House of Representatives.

The new lawmakers came to the capital Thursday for their first meetings with party leaders and colleagues since Aug. 21 elections. The polls failed to deliver a clear majority for any party for the first time in 70 years.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard addressed the depleted ranks of lawmakers from her center-left Labor Party, two days after she finalized deals with three independents and a Greens party legislator to form a minority government and keep her party in power for a second three-year term.

A single defection could bring down the government, and Gillard appealed for loyalty and discipline in the ranks.

Present at the Labor meeting was Ed Husic, a former union leader from a Bosnian family who is the first Muslim lawmaker elected in the country’s 109-year history.

While he did not campaign on his religion, his conservative Liberal Party opponent David Barker had targeted him as a “strong Muslim” and had urged Christian church leaders to back the Liberal campaign. The Liberals dumped Barker as their candidate a month before the election after national media reported his anti-Muslim views.

On the other side, Aboriginal lawmaker Ken Wyatt walked into his Liberal Party meeting alongside university student Wyatt Roy, 20, who was elected in the first federal elections in which he was old enough to vote.

Wyatt is the first Aborigine to serve in the House of Representatives, although two Aborigines previously have served in the Senate. Neville Bonner served in the Senate from 1971 to 1983, and Aden Ridgeway served from 1999 to 2005.

Wyatt, a 58-year-old former school teacher who won his seat in one the closest contests of the election, has said he has received racist hate mail since the election, some from people who said they would not have voted for him if they had known he was indigenous. But he doesn’t plan to focus on the messages too much.

“I’m humbled and privileged to represent people in Hasluck,” Wyatt told reporters outside Parliament House on Thursday, referring to his electoral division.

“As an indigenous Australian, it’s great to be walking into the House of Reps,” he added.

Roy, who is studying political science, said Thursday that he was nervous to be in parliament.

“But I’m looking forward to getting started,” he said.

Thursday’s meetings were the first for Labor lawmakers since before Gillard ousted former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in an internal party coup in June. Her election campaign was marred by a series of damaging leaks to the media that were suspected to be from Rudd loyalists.

Rudd, who has denied any responsibility for the leaks, attended Thursday’s meeting to hear Gillard’s address.

Gillard referred to the coup, but told colleagues that “it needed to be a one-off event and that people needed to be loyal,” a government spokesman said on the usual condition that he not be named.

Gillard also said that the bitter divisions within the party over Rudd’s ouster and the election campaign tactics that cost Labor 11 seats should not be discussed outside the privacy of the party room.

She said her Labor colleagues “had acted with discipline and dignity” since the Aug. 21 elections, “and that would need to continue,” the spokesman said.

Gillard did not say when she would name her Cabinet, but she said she had a “difficult job” choosing her ministers.

She has announced that Rudd, who led Labor to victory at the previous election in 2007, will be given a senior job. One of the independents who handed Labor power, Rob Oakeshott, has been offered a Cabinet post, but has yet to say whether he will accept it.

Parliament will sit on Sept. 28 for the first time since the election.

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