Mal Brough is the ostensible reason why the National Policy Commission on Indigenous Housing will now no longer be bipartisan.

“My great hope that this Commission might be bipartisan and include the Leader of the Opposition has not been realised,” the Prime Minister rather pompously declared yesterday. Brendan Nelson has been painted as taking his bat and ball and going home on this critical issue because of his insistence on appointing the architect of the NT intervention.

Perhaps. Mal Brough seems to have undergone a credibility transplant in recent months. Brough was rejected by his own voters last year, as was the Government of which he was a high-profile member. But now he’s a putative Queensland state Liberal president as well as a proposed expert on indigenous housing. There’s still talk of the benefits he could bring to the Liberal party should he return to politics at either Federal or State level. What a difference six months makes.

The Liberals should have known that the Government would baulk at Brough. So some responsibility for the failure of bipartisanship rests with them.

But most of it rests fairly and squarely with Rudd’s office. Right from the start, this issue has been as much about politics as it has been about a genuine desire to make a difference to indigenous housing. Remember that Rudd sprang this on Nelson during his apology speech. No notice or warning. In the purported spirit of bipartisanship – not to mention common courtesy — Rudd could have mentioned it to Nelson when they met privately to discuss the wording of the apology in the days leading up to the opening of Parliament.

Instead, Rudd decided to keep the pressure on Nelson. At that stage he was playing Nelson off a break, effortlessly wedging him on indigenous issues as Nelson struggled – successfully, in the end – to bring most of his party with him to support the apology.

Nelson agreed to the proposal. He couldn’t do anything else. But thereafter, Liberal sources say, his efforts to engage Rudd on the issue came to naught. The pair met once, in early March, but repeated efforts by Nelson’s office to meet again were rejected by Rudd’s office, or cancelled at the last minute. Rudd was busy, his office said. Well, fair enough. So Nelson wrote repeatedly to Rudd on the matter, without luck.

And, let’s be clear, the nomination of Brough did not need to be a dealbreaker. Both sides initially agreed that, should either side nominate someone the other objected to, they would negotiate. When Brough’s name was first mentioned, Rudd’s office indicated that they were unhappy with the proposal, on the ostensible basis that they didn’t want politicians involved – although at that stage Labor had themselves nominated a South Australian politician.

But all further attempts by Nelson’s office to meet on the issue were stymied. Rudd’s office even leaked a letter to Nelson on the issue.

Rudd’s office, it appears, has used Brough’s nomination as part of its ongoing effort to wedge Nelson on indigenous issues, which started pretty much the moment Labor came to power.

Labor accepted Nelson’s other nominations – Warren Mundine and Perth housing entrepreneur Dale Alcock. The nomination of the former ALP president by the Liberals looks a bit cute and a possible counterweight to Brough’s nomination, but Rudd’s acceptance suggests his “no politicians” rule is to be strictly interpreted.

And amidst all these political games, the point of bipartisanship is being lost. Achieving real outcomes in indigenous health and housing will take several terms. Continuity of policy, within a single Government, and across Governments, is needed to make a long-term difference.

Jenny Macklin has gained considerable respect for her handling of indigenous affairs. She is serious and devoted to the issue, as are her staff.

Rudd and his office, however, seem to only see the politics.

Peter Fray

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