It’s not often that Doug Cameron, anonymous Coalition sources and Julia Gillard are all right.

Cameron called the Prime Ministerial intervention — sorry, “captain’s pick” — to install Nova Peris on the NT Labor Senate ticket a “short term fix that belies a deeper problem”. Coalition sources quoted in The Australian said it revealed Labor’s fears about their position in the NT.

But some days everyone can be right: none of that means the knifing of Trish Crossin and the installation of Peris is a bad move.

Crossin might have been a diligent grassroots senator or a dud lifelong backbencher, depending on whom you talk to, but Labor was plainly concerned that business as usual with Crossin going to the next election was risking a repeat of the NT election last year, where Labor was dumped amid a big swing away from it in indigenous communities.

That Peris entering the Senate would finally address Labor’s shameful long-term lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation at a federal level — which has seen the Liberal Party and the Democrats chalk up firsts with Aboriginal MPs and senators — was a bonus but, one suspects, not the main game.

Marion Scrymgour, a Labor veteran in the Territory and former deputy leader in the Henderson government, had put her hand up just two weeks ago to take on Crossin. But Scrymgour comes with, shall we say, a little baggage, and not just the community bitterness occasioned by her bilingual education reforms. She made life difficult for Kevin Rudd before the 2007 election by indicating her unhappiness with Labor’s support for the intervention, which she condemned utterly. And in 2009 she left the party for the crossbenches, complaining Labor had lied to Aboriginal people, only to later return.

From Canberra, the political novice Peris probably looks an altogether more acceptable bet than a woman as independent-minded as Scrymgour.

“… the most sensible way to address Labor’s lack of indigenous representation is to attract Aboriginal people to the party and make it relevant to them.”

There’s been a few potshots at Gillard from the Coalition, trying to portray her as a serial assassin — because as we know, no previous politicians in Australian history have knifed colleagues. That’s just standard-issue hypocrisy: Dennis Jensen, who sole contributions to public life have been vociferous climate denialism and boycotting the apology to the stolen generations, is only in Parliament because John Howard led the way in overturning the decision of his electorate preselectors to dump him in 2007.

As Cameron noted, however, the most sensible way to address Labor’s lack of indigenous representation is to attract Aboriginal people to the party and make it relevant to them. Take out the word “Aboriginal” and that’s the broader problem vexing Labor as it debates — in a decidedly half-hearted and haphazard fashion — the balance between trying to make party membership more appealing and relevant, and what party head offices and factions want. The intervention of Gillard and George Wright is exactly the sort of thing that makes party membership meaningless and unattractive.

One of the problems of trying to find that balance is that grassroots members often produce outcomes that party hierarchies don’t like. That’s why Wyatt Roy is in Parliament. Roy was in a three-way contest with two, shall we say, more traditional Queensland conservative candidates, but outperformed them (and strongly so) at preselection, and thus got the nod. The LNP has the most democratic preselection processes of the major parties — one of the reasons Peter Dutton’s effort to change seats came a cropper. Roy’s preselection attracted plenty of critical comment from Coalition figures and the media, but it stood, and there he is.

In short, more party democracy is messy and will often produce results that mean more headlines and tut-tutting from the pundits, who view politics solely through the prism of messaging and branding, but it needn’t necessarily be politically disadvantageous.

The decision to install Peris might turn out to be successful; the problem is that it really only makes complete sense if, while accepting the need for a short-term intervention in internal party processes, the party leadership was committed to making the sort of longer-term reforms that would create greater links between communities, grassroots party members, and the party hierarchy, consistent with the sort of proposals made by John Faulkner, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks in their 2010 election report.

And on that front, the Gillard government has been very busy doing nothing.

Peter Fray

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