Monday, 27 August 2012
I think you will find that for the first time in this nation’s history, in any state or territory, the outcome has been decided by people in the bush, indigenous people.
ALP NT Senator, Trish Crossin on Saturday
It’s almost axiomatic in Australian political commentary that whenever there is a political event that doesn’t fit comfortably into the politicos’ world-view, it is dismissed as “they do things differently up/over there”.
For those caught up in the two party system, this has usually been applied to the state where it has long been at its weakest, Queensland. But the rot has long since gone south of the Tweed, so now the erosion of Labor’s heartland is put down to those effete inner city elites, the Nationals’ heartland with sea change hippies on the North Coast and the Liberals’ heartland with doctor wives in Toorak. Indeed, if you add in the weird religious mass murderers of Adelaide and that permanent State of Excitement further west, it seems the only “normal” part of the Australian electorate these days is western Sydney and Gerard Henderson’s road to Geelong.
The Northern Territory has long fitted into the “off-the-wall” camp, spiced up with a few whacky croc headlines from the Northern Territory News, which, let’s face it, but for the absence of aggressive wildlife, could just as well appear on the cover of a trivia-driven daily of any major Australian metropolitan these days. Nevertheless it’s no surprise that Saturday’s election result has got short shrift from the nation’s media. But it doesn’t deserve it.
The overall trend in Australian politics over the last decade has been the draining away of the politics from government, especially at the state level, but after a tedious last gasp, soon to arrive at the federal sphere as well. In the Northern Territory, that process has been especially sharp as the draining away of the politics has been on the only real ideological issue to have impacted an otherwise non-ideological Australian polity over the last century – race.
The change on Saturday was summed up by former NT Chief Minster, Clare Martin, on election night when she noted that when she entered NT politics, Labor had largely been confined below the Berrimah line and kept outside of Darwin. Now, after Saturday, that has been reversed.
While Labor’s relatively good showing in Darwin was partly because of the large swing it suffered last time, it also appears to have been helped by the success of Labor’s campaign to remind what is already happening to government jobs from new Liberal governments in Queensland, NSW and Victoria (just as an aside, it is remarkable how enthusiastic has been the opposition to job cuts in the public sector, compared to the fatalism over job losses in the private sector, confirming the on-going politicisation of the IR scene).
But the real change happened outside Darwin. Underpinning the traditional division in Northern Territory politics had been the attitude to land rights compromise: with Labor supportive, helping its indigenous vote in the regions, and the CLP more antagonistic (although never totally opposing). It was the election of Martin’s government in 2001 that marked the dissolution of race as a politicising issue between the parties and saw the Territory move in line with the technocrat, apolitical governments elsewhere in the federation, usually led by Labor as best able to represent the state. In a government town like Darwin, it underpinned the breakthrough to an almost clean sweep by Martin in 2005.
The end of racial division between the parties was reinforced by them both coming together, at least federally, over the intervention into the indigenous communities, which these days can be truly described as Labor’s intervention. If it seems unfair to call it Labor’s, given that it was initiated by Howard, it isn’t really. It’s not just that Federal Labor supported it from the word go, nor even that it has now run it for four and half years against Howard’s six months. It was also Labor, specifically NT Labor, that commissioned the report that claimed mass sexual child abuse that kicked the whole intervention off.
The authors of the report were unhappy with Howard’s response to send in the military, but actually Howard was doing what he always did – take the left up on what it was unwilling to take to a logical conclusion. Just as the left agreed to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (just ask a former Labor foreign affairs spokesman at the time), so leaving Howard free to draw the obvious conclusion – support the only major power capable of going in and dealing with it – so Howard responded to charges from the left side of politics of mass child sexual abuse across NT indigenous communities as a grave enough crime to justify an appropriate law and order response.
While the intervention has been criticised, Labor’s report that initiated it,All Children Are Sacred, has not. This is surprising, as while it is chock full of social workers’ prejudices, it was, as the report admits itself, light on any proof to back up its lurid claims. Needless to say, despite five years of social workers, health officials and the military crawling over indigenous communities, there has been no evidence that mass sexual abuse of children had actually happened, nor indeed has there been, as far as this blogger is aware, a single arrest made [update: see comments below].
This is a scandal: either children are still being sexually abused on mass scale unhindered or, as more likely, it was a beat up and an unparalleled slur on the indigenous parents of the NT. It certainly wouldn’t be the first, since the ABC’s Lateline had already done a trial run shortly before on the parents of Mutitjulu, in a shoddy piece of journalism for which it was later forced to apologise.
For those who complain of the racially discriminatory measures that have been put in place, it’s probably best to pause first and think about the type of assumptions that lie behind the report that set it off.
If it seems extraordinary that so-called friends of indigenous communities could set up one of the most outrageous slurs against them (even those who took kids away years ago didn’t claim their parents were fiddling with them), it should be understood that the All Children Are Sacred report was merely in line with the special pleading for additional funding, on which the report concluded, and that was in the tradition of the approach taken by indigenous affairs at that time. The problem was that in this report it went too far. The seriousness of the claims could have hardly been justified by inadequate resources but only done so within the straight-jacket of cultural relativism that underpins land rights.
It was understandable, then, that the intervention has sent indigenous politics into disarray and undercut the indigenous support for Labor as seen on Saturday – as the politics of land rights, the framework by which indigenous politics had been conducted, has been turned against the very people it was meant to benefit. The disarray with politicos has seen them split three ways; those like Marcia Langton who have taken up the protection of women and children as paramount and supported the intervention, those like Dodson, seemingly oblivious to the charges that had been made still defending land rights and, finally, ones like Noel Pearson who claims this highlights the need for more rights and responsibilities for indigenous people.
As you would expect, it is Pearson’s response that is the most incoherent as, of course, if the claims were true, as Pearson appears to accept, the response would be the opposite of what he proposes for the perpetrators, namely the withdrawal of rights and responsibilities by locking them up.
Nevertheless, Pearson has become the conservatives’ favourite because his message is what they want to hear as Abbott (along with Rudd/Macklin, although Gillard appears less keen) looks to translate this to a broader approach to welfare to be applied to the non-indigenous population (presumably without the charge of child abuse attached). Abbott isn’t taking the shadow cabinet up to Aurukun (another child abuse “test case” in Queensland) just to play cricket with the kids.
It’s a reminder that race maybe depoliticised between the parties but, as we saw with the Bolt case, it remains embedded in the body politic as a whole. From that angle, far from being “out of it” some politicians have been working hard to make the remote communities in the Northern Territory and Queensland practically avant-garde.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 27 August 2012.Filed under State and federal politics