Trish Crossin’s 15 years as a Labor Senator came crashing down in January when, in one of the more dubious preselection parachutes of 2013, then-prime minister Julia Gillard whipped out her captain’s ice pick and installed former Olympic sprinter Nova Peris in Crossin’s prized No. 1 Northern Territory Senate spot.
In the third instalment of Crikey‘s MP exit interview series, we roll deep with the ex-National Tertiary Education Union industrial organiser and mother of four, a 30-year ALP veteran who won three separate grassroots preselections and remains miffed as to the real reasons behind her political execution.
Crossin reveals Peris was actually Gillard’s third captain’s pick, and while she didn’t name names, Crikey understands that former AFL footballers Michael Long and David Wirrpanda were approached first by Labor to assume the position (Wirrpanda went on to run for the Nationals in WA).
In a wide-ranging, no-holds-barred chat, the long-serving chair of the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee isn’t shy about airing views on the NT Intervention, Jenny Macklin, George Wright, Mark Textor, George Brandis, Don Farrell, Bill Shorten, Kevin Rudd, Joe Bullock, Craig Thomson, Barack Obama and of course her direct assassin. Oh, and the surprising revelations that flowed at a recent London meeting with Mike Rann …
What were the political highlights of your time in office?
Obviously winning preselection the first time when [predecessor] Bob Collins resigned, there were 10 people in that preselection. It’s rather ironic as all this bravado is currently flying about with Richard Marles and co wanting directly elected senators … since the mid-’90s in the NT we’ve had directly elected representatives. It’s one member, one vote, right around the Territory. Those who want to control the outcome hate it. I’ve been challenged three times — this year would have been my fourth time with Marion [Scrymgour] and there’s around 300 members … but not everyone votes and not everyone’s in a faction.
And then actually getting into government in 2007 … I’d spent 10 very, very long years in opposition wondering if the thousands of questions you ask at Estimates, the thousands of questions you put on notice, the thousands of letters you never get answered because the government doesn’t have to, the thousands of kilometres you travel, was ever going to pay off.
Another highlight was meeting Barack Obama in 2011 … I met him in Canberra and then we got on a plane and followed him up to Darwin. It was a great to see more of the great man and interact with him. And having an opportunity to walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the National Sorry Day in 2000, that was a great memory pushing [youngest daughter] Katie in the pram!
What were the policy highlights of your time in office?
I got to know members of the Stolen Generations very, very closely. And I had pushed [John] Howard for many years to apologise. So a highlight for me was was the apology that Kevin gave and the work some of us did in the lead up to that. Unlike Steve Gibbons, people like myself actually went around the Territory to Alice Springs and actually consulted with Stolen Generations members about what they wanted in the speech and we were able to feed that into Jenny and into Kevin.
I also managed to convince Robert McClelland that after 25 years the Sex Discrimination Act needed a major review. I said I’d really need to do that through my Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which we did. And through that review we came up with three major changes. After that report was handed down, Robert actually implemented some of the changes … so now breast feeding isn’t grounds for discrimination for example. And the changes to the industrial relations legislation we made in government that allowed pay equity cases to be heard before the Fair Work Commission were also important. I’d been on the party’s Status of Women committee for 10 years in opposition and we did a lot of work on violence against women … and Tanya Plibersek to her credit implemented those initiatives.
“You have a look at the Tampa affair, and there was no Tampa in 2007, so what do they pick? They picked appalling lifestyle conditions in indigenous communities.”
What were the policy or political lowlights during your time in Parliament?
The Intervention in the Territory which happened in June of 2007 was a huge lowlight. We went to an election in 2007 and won and despite the feedback that I was giving to my party there was still a perception on the eastern seaboard that somehow people needed to intervene in the lives of Aboriginal people, that Aboriginal people couldn’t control their own outcomes even if they made mistakes.
We should have moved to change the Intervention much more quickly than we did. We took two-and-a-half years to do that and it was too long … Peter Yu, his team of three, did a review in early 2009 and we should have moved immediately. I just don’t think people in the senior executive of government got it. I just don’t think they understood indigenous people and unfortunately that would include the minister [Macklin].
Yes, we committed $2 billion to building housing; we focused on fixing the Alice Springs town camps. But Aboriginal people were embarrassed and ashamed over the big blue signs that went up in communities, the alcohol and pornography restrictions, the income management … they were shocked about the way their lives were being totally controlled. You don’t learn about managing your money if it’s income managed for you all the time.
There were better ways to deal with people who were chronic alcoholics in those communities. I don’t think the issue of pornography was ever really out there. Child abuse? Well, I remember saying in 2008 in the Senate that I thought it was more about child neglect not child abuse and I got a phone call blasting the hell out of me for going off message. But I’ve noticed that in the last 12 months people are talking more about child neglect, that it’s really about neglecting health and education rather than physical or sexual abuse. I’m not saying it doesn’t occur in communities, it does, but not to the extent it was made out. I just think the rhetoric and approach was very top-heavy and top-down.
The history of this is that people like Mark Textor have always used some sort of racial connotation in the lead-up to elections to create an “us and them” scenario. I knew Mark Textor from the Territory, he was born and raised in the Territory, and the CLP [Country Liberal Party] continually won elections in the Territory because people like Textor were on their campaign. And he’d run campaigns like “don’t vote Labor, they support black people and you’ll end up losing your backyard under land rights”. So I wasn’t surprised Textor was behind the Intervention and I suspect he’s also behind the continual rhetoric around asylum seekers. So Mark Textor’s tactic has always been to target the race element because you always push a button with people in Australia. If it’s not indigenous people it’s refugees, it always works, always has, always will, if that’s the kind of game you want to play.
You have a look at the Tampa affair, and there was no Tampa in 2007, so what do they pick? They picked appalling lifestyle conditions in indigenous communities.
I also amended over 100 pieces of legislation to allow equal rights for same-sex couples. And the work I did on marriage equality to get a bill drafted … I tabled that bill in the Senate which was co-sponsored by Gavin Marshall and Louise Pratt. It was my idea; I managed to convince caucus to throw the bill into the Senate before the Greens had a chance to do so. And that’s the bill we voted on.
How would you rate the effectiveness of the 43rd Parliament?
I think back to the period of the Howard years, and that parliament was pretty effective, particularly between 2001 and 2004.I just remember dealing with a lot of legislation that we didn’t agree with, but if you look at the agenda he was trying to set he was quite successful. I also think our first three years in parliament was a busy time as well.
Were we effective in the last three years? Well, I think we were, but I know everyone says this is because of the minority situation in the House of Reps … but lots of countries have minority governments so I think we should stop being fixated on how unusual and fantastic we were as a result of that. Other parliaments have to deal with that 24/7, year after year after year.
We had some fantastic reforms, but I think we introduced them too quickly. I clearly remember one day we had a major announcement on the Tuesday and another major announcement on the Friday. It might have been paid parental leave and changes to the Industrial Relations Act, but I remember sitting down with my staff thinking, “how are we going to get this great announcement out?” and the next day there was another announcement, and it was like, well, we haven’t even planned how we’re going to get the first one out! It was a chronic mistake that we never really cemented each major reform or great announcement … so people didn’t remember them.
I remember taking on George Wright one day, and I said to him, “what does ‘benefit of the mining boom’ mean?” So I stood up in caucus (probably one of my fatal mistakes, never ask questions in caucus if nobody knows the answer, that’s the rule. You’ll soon know that if you want to get promoted, never ask a question … but I’m not one of those shy petals).
“So what exactly are the benefits of the mining boom when I’m in downtown Palmerston and I’ve got four children and my husband works but I’m on the bones of my arse because I can’t afford to buy the kids new shoes to go to schools next year — how do I get the benefits of the mining boom?” He couldn’t answer it. So I said, “what I am supposed to say to people, how to I sell this rhetoric?” And I remember about three weeks later I got this email from him, that I’ve kept to this day mind you, where he gives me some sort of suggested “lines” as a comeback.
And I also remember saying to caucus, “why do we keep calling it the ‘Gonski reforms’?” Like, what the fuck is a Gonski? Everyone went “orrr, no he’s a person”. And I go like, “der, I know that, idiots”. But when I went to a school council and I talked about the Gonski reforms, one parent asked me if Gonski was an educational method. So we’ve got to stop using language no one relates to.
As a backbencher in parliament you have very little influence and very little power. Unfortunately you don’t get listened to. One of the frustrating issues is that you keep hearing this feedback and you try and feed it back into caucus and people look at you like, “oh my God, she’s asking a question, like, errgh, she’s going to embarrass the leader”. And they never accept that what you’re trying to say could have some relationship to reality.
Which of your parliamentary colleagues on the other side of the chamber did you rate highly?
I had a lot of time for the late Jeannie Ferris and Judith Adams … I also had lots of time for Bob Brown, believe it or not. I like Bob and the Greens — whether you love them or hate them they work very hard. I think Simon Birmingham has a lot of talent; I have time for Marise Payne … when she chaired the legal and constitutional committee she put a recommendation on terrorism that was completely against Howard’s wishes. The laws were not fair, and I think she agonised about that. Maybe she paid the price for that by not being promoted.
George Brandis and I have fought like cat and dog since 2007, he once called me one of the worst committee chairs the parliament has ever known. If George can’t get his own way then everyone around him is bad and hopeless and incompetent. But I have to say after January, believe it or not, he’s the one person that rang me a number of times to see how I was coping and to see how I was. Do I admire his work? Not particularly. But he’s one character I will always remember having to deal with. I think I may have conquered him at the end of the day.
Which of your Labor parliamentary colleagues did you rate highly?
I’ve got a lot of time for people like Kim Carr, he’s always been a very strong political strategist and performer, and I’m disappointed he’s not leader in the Senate. But having said that, I admire Penny Wong, I loved her first speech you just knew she was someone to look out for.
Other people I’ve worked with who have a good policy brain and know how to use it are Tony Burke and Jason Clare. And Tanya Plibersek has always been a strong and steady policy person, and over time she’s really refined her delivery of that message.
The people who were hopeless didn’t really stay that long really. They were in and out in within six years or they were relegated to the backbench. The two predicable ones that came into the Senate were Don Farrell and Alex Gallacher. Don Farrell was on my legal and constitutional committee for the first three years of parliament, and he rarely showed up to public hearings and didn’t put in any effort or time with reports. It’s just that mentality of “I’m owed it, I demand to be there because of who I am”. And I mean, Joe Bullock, oh God.
I suppose people just demand the Senate because of the work they’ve done in the trade union movement or because of some perceived influence they’ve had in the party, that they have a right to have a passage into parliament. Our best people coming in are those who’ve had some community experience, or broader life experience, that haven’t been party hacks or trade union officials all their life.
I mean Nova, I think she was Julia’s third captains pick. I have to say to you that that during the territory election last year, [former Labor chief minister] Paul Henderson said to Nova, “can you help us with Kenny Vowles’ campaign in the seat of Johnston … Can you go on his endorsement pamphlet?” and she said to Paul in April, “no, no, I don’t want to get involved in anything political like that”.
Somebody in the territory must have known these calls were happening and that this was going down … I guess the one question for me is I want to know why. Gillard said to me in my meeting in Canberra “that this is all about me, I want my legacy to be that I put the first indigenous female in parliament”, well that was a lie, she’d already approached two males, she wanted to put the first indigenous Labor person into parliament, female was a bonus. But she will never be remembered for that.
So what was the real reason? I don’t believe this was something she thought of herself. I think this is something other people manipulated her to do. I guess for me the question is “why did you let yourself be manipulated to the point where I was national convener of EMILY’s List at the time, we were both founding members of EMILY’s List?” What female politician removes a female for another female? Given your values about getting more women into parliament, equality, equity, what made you do that? What was the price, Julia? What was the deal you made to sort of go “uh, OK, we’ll replace Crossin for Nova”. Why me?
Chris Evans was going. So I asked Gillard to put the announcement off, to consult the branch about this. To have a look around at what happening in terms of preselections. Of course, I didn’t know that Nova was in Canberra and the announcement was going to be the next day. So I still really want to know what was the price, what was the bargaining chip for Gillard to make her move on me? And if she continues to say, “I wanted to the first person the put an Aboriginal woman in parliament”, I don’t believe that for one minute.. There were fantastic Aboriginal members of the party in the territory, there wasn’t a reason to pick someone who was not a member.
I don’t know who was behind this. But I do know that in 2001 and 2007 I was challenged by indigenous people. Clearly a couple of people in the territory have always been driven by the fact that thought that the top Senate spot should belong to an indigenous person. Under our rules those people challenged me and I’ve won the ballot, and clearly they don’t like that. But if people had spoken to me I would have said “this will be my last election and then I’ll go”.
And I had actually been mentoring somebody , and if someone spoke to the branch, they would have known that. So the indigenous people I’d been mentoring were shocked and angered as well. And the party membership were just like, “oh my God, how can you do that?”.
The other thing is you should know is that I’d been party president for the last three years and I took over from Warren Snowdon when the branch was in a significantly bad place in terms of money. We were two years from an NT election and we had barely $30,000 in the bank. So over the course of the three years (and this was never public knowledge), I restructured the branch, got rid of the secretary, put a new admin structure in place and we raised $1.2 million in time for last year’s election. Five months later the Prime Minister says to me, “fuck off”. I mean, everyone in the NT branch was going, “wow, is that your reward?” That’s the untold story here, it’s why most branch members went “fuck, Jesus, Trish did so not deserve this after the work she’d done”.
I look at January and I say “what did I do wrong?” To be honest with you most of the feedback I’ve got is it was about race. People just say to me either Gillard was bribed or manipulated to do this, or it’s “Trish, it’s just because you’re not indigenous”. I don’t wear that, I think there was something more political in this. “You have to do this Gillard or we’re going to withdraw this support from you,” was more like it I think. But someone needs to get to the bottom of it because I’ve never had an answer.
I’ll tell you something very funny. When I was over in London in July I walked into see Mike Rann … I let him know I was coming and I got a phone call to say he’d love to have morning tea with you … and it was the funniest thing. Mike embraced me and he gave me a big cuddle and goes, “Oh my God, Trish, I had been following your demise in January, sit down, let’s talk about this … was it [Mark] Butler and Farrell? Did they do you over like they did me over?” So we compared stories and they were very similar. They went in and said to him, “You’re gone, you’re fucked, that’s the end of your career”. They sent Peter Malinauskas, the little state secretary of the Shoppies, to deliver the message, and Mike said “at the very time I was meeting Malinauskas, those two were out there backgrounding the media saying I was about to resign”. So it was quite funny that I share a similar story to bloody Mike Rann.
It was a bizarre three years … I’ll never criticise Julia Gillard, she had been the prime minster and Kevin’s been the prime minister. I mean hello, Kevin’s the guy who actually got us into government after 10 years, he actually deserves some kind of status, I would have thought. I don’t believe for a minute that Julia didn’t have problems as well. I think what happened is her office wanted to control the media and wanted to feed the press in a very of bizarre sort of way.
I didn’t vote for her in February 2011, and I rang her and had a half an hour conversation with her … I was honest enough to tell her why I wasn’t voting for her and I never made the content of that conversation public … and I would have thought I’d have got a bit of respect for that. And out of all my colleagues, out of all those conversations, I never publicly repeated what I said to her in that conversation.
The last two terms were like a dog-eat-dog world in a way that I’d not experienced in opposition. And when I look back there were certain people that come in to the parliament in 2008 and things became very different then … They’re the Feeneys, they’re the Farrells, they’re the Arbibs and they’re the Shortens. And what role they played and how they played it, I don’t know intrinsically, but things changed, when certain personalities entered the caucus in 2008 the atmosphere changed.
I mean, on the night Kevin Rudd was deposed my caucus colleagues were apparently texting Sky News … but was it caucus colleagues or Julia’s office? It was like Caesar with 13 knives in the back, it was such a public assassination of Kevin, he had no choice the next day but to resign, I just thought that the way it was all executed was something I’ll live with forever. We should have gone to the election and lost rather than humiliate the prime minster who had led us back into office. I will never agree with the way Kevin was treated, and we never recovered, never recovered.
People would stop me in Darwin after my demise this year and say “Trish oh my God, I can’t believe what happened to you, I just don’t think I can vote Labor at this election”. And I’d go “well, I’m bigger than one party”, trying to run the line. And they go “it’s Gillard, first it was Kevin, now you, nup, not doing it.” I got over 14,000 emails, messages, flowers and cards. There was just a massive response to what happened, and it’s never been publicised, and I’ve never produced any of those emails. I was just overwhelmed and I just thought “wow”.
I don’t think people understood that. I’m not a Craig Thomson, I’m not a pisshead. To be honest with you I don’t fuck around, I’m happily married, I’ve got four children, I just went to Canberra and did my job.
How did you balance your constituent work against your obligations in Canberra?
Being one of only two senators from the territory, it was one of the hardest jobs anyone had ever done and anyone could ever do. There are 73 Aboriginal communities, Christmas and Cocos Island and six major centres. To be honest with you I only got to some of those communities once every three years, because with the committee work and your parliamentary work you just physically cannot do it and we’ve only got four staff and one office. I’ve got the same number of staff as Maria Vamvakinou, for example! But every community is different and has its own problems. And it’s fucking hard.