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).
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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.