CANBERRA, Australia >> Facing the prospect of becoming the first Aboriginal woman to win a seat in Australia’s Parliament, Nova Peris said today that she was targeted during her campaign by the worst onslaught of racial abuse she had ever endured.
After then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard hand-picked Peris in January to head the center-left Labor Party’s Senate ticket in the Northern Territory — an almost unbeatable position that virtually assured her place in Australian political history — she was bombarded with hate letters and emails that were so extreme she passed them to police.
“It’s not a nice feeling to be judged and looked down upon because of the color of your skin,” Peris said Sunday. “I had a string of letters and emails sent to me and they were horrific. And my husband was really, really upset.”
“They were pretty nasty. The worst I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said, declining to go into details.
But the threats did not deter her, and the 1996 Olympic gold medalist hockey player contested the Senate seat in elections Saturday. She appeared comfortably ahead in vote counting Sunday, but was not yet ready to claim victory.
“It’s like waiting for the result of a photo finish,” said Peris, comparing her anxious wait for the count to be finalized to her days as a world-class sprinter.
Aborigines are a minority of only 600,000 in Australia’s population of 23 million. The lack of Aboriginal representation in Parliament is a growing embarrassment for the leaders of major political parties.
No Aborigine had sat in Parliament before Neville Bonner arrived in 1971. The conservative Liberal Party senator, who had little formal education, was the only Aborigine in Parliament for the next 12 years before he was voted out.
In 1999, Aden Ridgeway, a senator from the minor Australian Democrats party, became the second Aborigine in Parliament, lasting for a single six-year term.
Liberal Ken Wyatt next won a seat in the House of Representatives in 2010, although a constituent later wrote to complain that he had not advertised his Aboriginality in the campaign. The constituent said he would not have voted for Wyatt if he had known.
Wyatt was re-elected Saturday to a second three-year term in his Western Australia state electorate, with an increased majority.
Adam Giles became the chief minister of Peris’ home state last year, and became the first Aboriginal head of a government.
Aborigines are the poorest ethnic group in Australia, suffer poor health and lag behind in education. They die years younger than other Australians on average and are far more likely to be imprisoned.
Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has promised to work for a week each year as the nation’s leader in an Outback Aboriginal settlement to draw attention to indigenous struggles. He failed last year in a bid to recruit an Aboriginal woman lawmaker from the Northern Territory government to contest a federal seat.
Peris, a 41-year-old who competed in two Olympics — as a hockey player in 1996 and as a sprinter in 2000 — said she experienced racism throughout her sporting career. But the racism was worse in Australia than when she traveled internationally to compete.
She said she was pleased, however, that Australia’s major sporting bodies no longer tolerate racism of competitors or spectators.
“Racism is just ignorance,” she said. “Australia certainly has come a long way when you look at the reforms that have happened in the highest levels of sports. There’s no place for racism.”
“We’re talking about human beings, and it’s all about how we contribute to society and what are we doing today to make Australia a better place for the kids,” she said.