In politics you can justify almost anything. But being an Aboriginal member of the Labor or Liberal Party is no longer one of them.
At least, that’s the case in the Northern Territory, and it’s all thanks to Marion Scrymgour, the former NT Deputy Chief Minister who yesterday walked away from the Labor Party and, in the process, changed the face of black politics in this country forever.
Scrymgour will now serve out her term as an Independent for the seat of Arafura. And there’s not a damn thing Labor, infamous for drowning “rats” that desert the sinking ship, can do about it.
Until yesterday, Labor held 13 of the NT parliament’s 25 seats, the minimum number to govern in its own right. Today, it must negotiate with one of two independents to retain power: Gerry Wood, a former deputy speaker of parliament who was screwed out of the job by Labor, and, of course, Marion Scrymgour.
In politics, you reap what you sow. Scrymgour’s desertion has left NT Labor Chief Minister Paul Henderson so powerless, so impotent that this morning he was reduced to issuing a flapping press release headlined, “STRONG STABLE GOVERNMENT CONTINUES”.
Sure it does. Just not in the NT. Up there, government is paralysed. Pure and simple. And note to Paul: writing the headline in capitals doesn’t make it any more convincing.
Scrymgour by all reports is taking no comfort in her “betrayal”. It has been a gut-wrenching, distressing period of her life. Regardless, it’s being celebrated around black Australia. Press releases are pouring in from black institutions all over the nation offering their support and admiration. I’ve never even heard of some of the organisations.
Scrymgour’s resignation came about two months too late. As Minister for Education, she presided over the axing of bi-lingual education in NT schools, a no-brainer policy which has outraged Aboriginal people around the country. A wealth of international research shows that it’s vital young Aboriginal children learn in both their native tongue and English. But that’s another story for another day.
The issue at hand here is the latest Labor treachery that tipped Scrymgour over the edge — her party’s recently announced “Homelands policy”.
There’s not much difference, morally at least, in this stinking albatross of a policy and Labor’s bi-lingual betrayal. Again, a wealth of international (and in this case local) research shows that Aboriginal people “living on country” — that is on their remote outstations — are much healthier than Aboriginal people who live in larger cities and towns.
So why would Labor withdraw future support for homelands? Because in the short-term it’s the more expensive option, even though in the long-term it’s obviously the cheapest (not to mention the most moral). In the Territory, you don’t win government by being moral, nor by spending money on the blacks. That’s how you lose government.
And therein lies the quandary not just for Labor, but for the CLP as well.
From this point forward, that doesn’t matter anymore. Everything has changed. It might not be politically popular to afford black people equal rights and equal access, but it’s what you’ll have to do if you want to win office.
I don’t imagine for one minute that things will improve overnight for black Territorians. But irrefutably Scrymgour has re-shaped the political landscape in one of the most desperate regions of this country.
Aboriginal people now hold the cards, not to mention the balance of power. Indeed, they have for some time, but have either not realized it or been too scared to accept it.
Aboriginal Territorians make up almost 30 percent of the population in the NT, and their birth rate is about 60 percent higher than the white population. That sort of voting base (now, and into the future) can make a government and break it as well.
The NT is the only jurisdiction in Australia where Aboriginal people have any realistic chance of flexing any significant political muscle. Yet over the last 30 years, black Territorians have still been repeatedly screwed by the NT parliament.
Under the CLP and Labor, Aboriginal communities have been starved of housing, education and health funding. They’ve missed out on any significant investment in their towns, save for communities that have appeal to white tourists.
The fifth largest town in the NT (Wadeye) has no road access five months of the year (it’s cut off in the wet season). It only recently got a high school, despite having a school-aged population of more than 1,000 kids.
This sort of criminal government neglect could only be inflicted on an Aboriginal community in Australia. And it’s not just the starving of resources, politically, Aboriginal people have been fodder for generations of the Territory’s Labor and Liberal politicians desperate to curry favour with the redneck masses. What better way than to beat up on the blacks?
In the late 1990s, then CLP Chief Minister Shane Stone publicly called on Territorians to “monster and stomp on” homeless Aboriginal people. That was shortly before he described Australian of the Year Galarrwuy Yunupingu as “just another whinging, whining, carping black”.
His predecessor, Paul Everingham told media that Aboriginal people would still be “bashing their babies heads in with rocks” if the white man hadn’t arrived. And that was the just the CLP.
At almost every election they’ve fought, the CLP has played the race card. Over to Labor, where Clare Martin in the first hour of her first ever re-election campaign as Chief Minister promised to lock up Aboriginal people who begged for money.
The Australian political process — both in the provision of resources and the promotion of its citizens has failed Aboriginal people miserably, in particular in the Territory. Since 1974, 13 Aboriginal people have been elected to the NT parliament through the two-party process, and yet despite all these atrocities, we still feign faith in the process.
Exactly which part of “This sh-t ain’t working?” aren’t we getting?
So it’s time. There are currently five black faces in NT parliament — Scrymgour, Malarndirri McCarthy, Alison Anderson and Karl Hampton for Labor, and Adam Giles for the Country Liberals.
The question now becomes who else will follow Scrymgour’s lead?
McCarthy, the member for the neighbouring seat of Arnhem, is close to Scrymgour and built of the same stuff. She has defied her party in the past on issues like the McArthur River Mine. Her cultural ties are as strong as they come.
Karl Hampton is no shrinking violet, neither is Alison Anderson. Giles is an impressive young leader. So it’s time to join forces, either as a new black party, or as a loose coalition of independents.
Combined, the “NT Black Five” have an historic opportunity to change not just governance in the NT, but the Australian political process forever.
Can you imagine a jurisdiction in Australia where Aboriginal people have a chance not just for a seat at the table, but for a seat at the table as equals? Can you imagine a parliament in Australia where people can win more than just concessions?
The question is, do the black elected members of parliament have the courage to turn a political process on its head which has kept them and their families down for generations, a process which still to this day treats them like dogs and human detritus?
They well have sworn an oath to a political party, but if it requires them to abandon their own, to turn their backs on the ancestors who fought and died so that future generations might enjoy at least some of the rights other Australians hold dear, then it hardly seems an oath worthy of keeping.
It’s an exciting time for black politics in Australia. The genie is out of the bottle and her name is Marion Scrymgour.
Chris Graham is editor of the National Indigenous Times