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Biggest problem facing Scullion as shadow indigenous affairs? His boss

The news that Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion has been appointed to the shadow indigenous affairs portfolio is bitter sweet. Sweet because Scullion is not a bad bloke. Bitter because he was put there by a nutter.

The Country Liberals Senator for the Northern Territory is perhaps most famous for admitting to being handcuffed to a pole at a Russian nightclub in his underpants during a “lovely night” out with some “lunatic fishermen from Newfoundland” in 1998. I play ice hockey with a ‘Newfie’ in Canberra. I sympathise.

Of his transgression, Scullion added: “This was 10 years ago and I was a fisherman. Everybody has a colourful past, I think most Territorians do.”

Except, of course, Scullion is probably going to have a colourful future as well. But that’s not to suggest he’s the perennial parliamentary clown. Porn moustache aside, Scullion is quite a bit brighter than he looks and sounds, even if he is deputy leader of the National Party (the Country Liberals in the NT align with the Nationals federally).

A knock-about sort of a bloke whose more at home in a jeans than a suit, Scullion grew up in Canberra before heading north to the “other territory” to carve out a life as a professional fisherman. He went on to hold various senior positions in the industry, including chair of the Australian Seafood Industry Council.

Scullion got himself elected to federal parliament in 2001, and considered one of the young rising stars. He eventually notched up a year’s experience as a minister in the Howard government in the community services portfolio. Of course, that’s a walk in the park compared to a stint in the indigenous affairs round, either in Opposition or in government.

The upside for black Australia is that Scullion is one of very few politicians in parliament — perhaps the only one on the conservative side — with any genuine understanding of Aboriginal people. Even better, Scullion actually has an affection for blackfellas, ordinarily a political liability.

He knows how to talk to them and he knows how to reach them.

By way of example, Scullion and the Member for Braitling, Adam Giles, drove out bush in Central Australia earlier this year and shot a mob of roos, then delivered the carcasses to Hoppy’s Camp (one of the poorer Alice Springs town camps). They did it purely to build trust and a relationship. It’s hard to imagine Tony Abbott, for example, exercising such creativity, let alone being allowed anywhere near a firearm.

Of course, on the downside, Scullion will be the shadow in an Abbott opposition. Which makes it rather ambitious to suggest that any real progress will be made in the portfolio. Abbott is not only a man with zero understanding of Aboriginal people and even less affection for them, but he has his own very black past when it comes to indigenous affairs.

When Abbott was the Minister for Health (2003 to 2007), he presided over massive underfunding of the indigenous component of the Budget. Indeed, Abbott oversaw four Budgets that grossly short-changed black health services to the tune of about $1.5 billion. This at a time when Aboriginal people in Nigel Scullion’s electorate had an average life expectancy of about 46 years of age.

One wonders what Scullion had to say about it at the time?

Abbott also sat on his hands as health minister for two years while petrol sniffing raged out of control in Central Australia, and beyond. Abbott welcomed the arrival of the non-sniffable Opal fuel in February 2005, then proceeded to actively oppose suggestions the Howard government should pay for its roll-out.

That’s despite the fact that numerous coronial inquests called for it as part of a broader strategy, and despite an annual windfall of more than $1 billion in increased fuel levies as a result of the GST.

By mid-2007, the government eventually capitulated at a cost of a few tens of millions of dollars.

And on that front, Scullion himself has form. In September 2005, Greens Senator Bob Brown called a Senate inquiry into the benefits of a roll-out of Opal. According to Brown, Scullion moved amendments to the inquiry to remove any reference to the Howard government having to pay for it.

Which leads us to nicely to the two biggest challenges facing a shadow indigenous affairs spokesperson in an ultra-conservative Opposition.

Scullion’s second biggest problem is the sins of his party’s past, most particularly the Northern Territory intervention, which lumbers on in all its glory. Or not.

According to the government’s own recently released review, school attendance has actually dropped under the intervention. Grog and drug incidents have sky-rocketed. Child health check follow-ups have ground to a halt. Publicly funded computers haven’t been checked for pornography. No houses have been built under the $672 million SIHIP program (while more than $50 million has been spent). Paedophiles aren’t being caught.

Compulsory welfare quarantining continues, despite the fact it breaches international law. Worst of all, attempted suicides and self-harming incidents went from 97 before the intervention to 131 a year after it was launched, and 181 two years later.

Oh, and Australia has been branded as racist by the United Nations and Amnesty International.

Scullion is hopelessly compromised on this policy. If he confines himself to platitudes about how “it was a great idea but Labor stuffed it up”, then he will look like a complete idiot. Not that it stopped his predecessor, Tony Abbott. Despite having two years to come up with an original thought, no one yet knows what Abbott stood for as shadow minister for indigenous affairs, other than, “The intervention is really neat,” and “Noel Pearson has all the answers.”

Which leads us nicely to the biggest problem facing Scullion. His boss.

Developing good policy in the face of an ignorant Opposition leader is no mean feat. And worst of all, he’ll have to do it in an election year, traditionally a time when working in indigenous affairs gets really, really weird.

Scullion has a genuine opportunity to make meaningful progress for the nation’s most disadvantaged citizens. Let’s hope he doesn’t succumb to his poll dancing past.

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  • 1
    jungarrayi
    Posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been watching our political leaders and opposition from within a “prescribed area” under the Intervention (like a mouse watches a cat).
    Tony Abbott’s moment of glory has to be that during the discussions about whether to bring back the permit system or not he warned of the danger that the “Barons of Porn” would come swarming back into these communities!
    Nigel Scullion on another occassion suggested that removing the permit system would allow free enterprise to flourish and for example “we could get Vietnamese market-gardeners to establish themselves on these communities”.
    Why not go the full hog and have Central Asians grow Papaver somniferum? Two problems solved at once.
    I can’t wait for these geniuses to get back into government!

  • 2
    Dr Strangelove
    Posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I’d never align myself with his politics, but I’ve seen Senator Scullion talk on a few occasions and he is a clever bloke who seems to have compassion - just hope its not squeezed out of him by the mad monk sitting above him.

    Guess I will just have to quietly hope that he effectively holds Macklin’s inadequacy to account without relying on racist populism…

  • 3
    Bob Gosford
    Posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I think you are far too easy on Scullion - he is an amiable boofhead at best but learning on a very steep curve.
    And you’ve been far too easy on Abbott - who was the most disinterested and lazy Ab’l affairs shadow in years - if not ever.
    And saying that Scullion has an enhanced understanding of blackfellas because he and his local mate go and shoot a few roos is like saying that Warren Snowdon (or whoever) understands small business because he stands in a shop for a few hours one day once a year.
    Dig a little deeper on Nige (see my 2007 piece on the CLP booze cruise if it helps) and you will find a different critter than here described. If anything his elevation will/should ensure his pre-selection next time around - and he may be the best of a bad lot if current CLP form in the lower house is any indication: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/northern/2009/12/09/nt-house-of-reps-election-fever-gets-underway-sorta-kinda-maybe/
    PS - sorry about this but in the fifth para “A knock-about sort of a bloke whose more at home in a jeans than a suit…” shouldn’t it be “who is”?

  • 4
    Posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    An interesting piece. But is it appropriate to use ‘black’ pejoratively as in ’ … he has his own very black past … [in] Indigenous affairs’? Does this not give the unfortunate impresion tht it is bad to be black? Similarly other pejorative uses of ‘black’ should be eschewed such as blackmail, blackban, blackball, etc.

  • 5
    RaymondChurch
    Posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    This is yet another reminder of the ‘evil’ that lurks within the refugee from the priesthood. Abbott has a side that so far we are only getting a minute glimpse of since his elevation. In his interview on Lateline last night there were times he was having trouble holding back. Note the more he ummms, the darker his mood is getting as he searches for a way out of a situation. Tony Jones of course knows that full well and baited Abbott as a good interviewer in that situation should have. So far the Opposition Leader has controlled himself but underneath the leaden features, there lurks a Mr Hyde. In time he will emerge.

  • 6
    Chris Graham
    Posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Yes Bob, should be ‘who is’. Dammit.

    I understand we’ll differ on Scullion, and yes, the booze cruise with the perennial NT goose (Tollner) was ringing in my ears as I wrote, but faults aside Scullion genuinely does care… which sets him apart from his colleagues.

    As for Abbott, I’m not sure how I could have been much harder on him. I labelled him a “nutter”, attacked him for having no Indigenous affairs policies, suggested he shouldn’t be allowed access to a firearm, and called him both a “complete idiot” and “ignorant”. Short of accusing him of paedophilia (and given his background in the priesthood, I seriously contemplated it… although there’s no evidence to that affect) I think I was tough but fair… you must really hate the guy (although what’s not to hate!!!).

  • 7
    Bob Gosford
    Posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Chris, I suppose our tolerance of Scullion shows how low our expectations of our politicians has sunk - though I’ve had a few good exchanges with Scullion over the years - I just recall - and this is still below the radar - that prior to and during the early days of the NT Intervention that Scullion (and his office) ran as Brough’s point-man out and about on the ground - where else did he get all that anecdotal material that he used to such good (?) effect. And you are of course right about your vituperative treatment of Abbott - apologies. And I gave up on hate as a complete & utter waste of time a long, long time ago…but I can’t think I’d ever love Abbott.

  • 8
    Deodand
    Posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Looking at home politics from overseas is a bit of a challenge and the sad state of coalition politics, now even sadder, is perhaps a tad easier to understand through discussions as above. For which many thanks. But, what is this nonsense about banning “black” words? I had thought that Oz had got past such simplistic, indeed inane, political correctness. I hope it was a bit of a joke that I simply did not get.

  • 9
    Harvey Tarvydas
    Posted Thursday, 10 December 2009 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Chris, you seem to say you know him so I will trust you on Senator Nigel Scullion.
    I love your subtle courage in calling the Rhodes Scholar a ‘nutter’.

    RaymondChurch you may be detecting something but I will stay with the science.
    Psychologically speaking there is a growing and accumulating stack of signals (psychological signals) of significant concern about the scholar indicating he may need assessment with ‘nutter’ being quite inadequate.
    I have previously described on Crikey the occasion on ABC TV when the nutter, sorry, scholar (with a budgie) stared at the interviewer (and audience/camera) unflinchingly and audaciously repeating a lie about his own archbishop when in fact the story of the event had broken and many of us knew he was lying. I knew the psychological meaning of what I was seeing. The community and the media are either unaware or unable to bring such a person to account.

    The worry politically is the damage (and he repeats the threat to do damage politically for the sake of it) that such a scholar can do to our society when unleashed from accountability and encouraged.

    The Important psychological test question:
    What psychological nutter type do all the experts agree is the best or most convincing to the majority of ordinary folk (and this includes the majority of smarts and genii) when he wants to take you along with a lie or a con and have you eating out of his hand.

  • 10
    Chris Graham
    Posted Thursday, 10 December 2009 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Harvey, I’ll concede nutter is quite inadequate… I’ve always believed that the greatest act of hari kari the Liberal Party could commit would be to elevate someone like Abbott to leader. That said, there’s also a significant part of me that wonders just how stupid this nation is. I guess we’re going to find out sooner rather than later.

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