Aboriginal voters in remote Northern Territory put themselves decisively onto the political agenda in the August 25 territory election.
As other commentators have noted, it was probably the first time in Australia’s history when this otherwise marginalised section of the population decided an election.
For only the second time in its short voting history, the NT changed its ruling party. After 11 years of Labor, voters in remote and rural areas opted for change, and voted for minor parties, independents and the Country Liberal Party (CLP) in very significant numbers.
Before the election, Labor had 12 seats in a 25-seat parliament, forming government with the support of independent Gerry Woods.
Bookies had tipped the CLP as election winners, but the results still surprised many. It was assumed that the key seats to watch were in Darwin’s northern suburbs, which is where Labor put much of its energy.
But remarkably, Labor retained all its urban seats. The rural areas, however, were a different story. Writing on The Conversation on August 27, Ken Parish said: “The picture in remote Aboriginal community-based seats could scarcely have been more different. The ALP vote was decimated, with a general anti-Labor swing of around 16%.”
With 76.9% of the vote counted, the CLP had won 15 seats, and looked likely to win 16, with Labor reduced to 8
In the remote northern electorates of Arnhem and Daly, there were swings to the CLP of 30.3% and 14.2% respectively. In the key northern seat of Arafura, with votes still being counted on September 1, the CLP’s Francis Maralampuwi Xavier led Labor’s Dean Rioli 51% to 49%.
In the outback seat of Stuart, with 63% of votes counted, Bess Nungarrayi Price from the CLP (53.4%) was ahead of Labor’s Karl Hampton (46.6%) after preferences. There was a 27.7% swing against Hampton.
So where did this massive swing against Labor come from, and why did it take so many by surprise? Perhaps it should have been predicted, given federal and Territory Labor’s complete disregard for Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal people in the NT have had a lot to be angry about over the past few years. The Coalition’s introduction of the widely hated NT intervention in 2007 was continued by Kevin Rudd’s new federal Labor government. Julia Gillard’s Labor recently extended the divisive policy for another decade, under the cruelly misnamed “Stronger Futures” legislation.
Meanwhile, Territory Labor completely disempowered local Aboriginal leaderships in 2008 by replacing 52 small community councils with seven “super shires”. Some of these shires were headquartered outside the shire boundaries.
Through the dismantling of their councils, and the whitewashed “Stronger Futures consultations” in 2011, when articulate, angry voices fell on a federal government’s deaf ears, Aboriginal people got the message loud and clear: Labor wasn’t listening.
Unfortunately for Labor, Aboriginal people make up a large percentage of the NT population outside of urban areas. On August 25, they found a way to fight back.
In many ways, the opposition CLP had an easy job in the bush: slam the bungled super shire policy (no need to give too much detail about how you would change it) and spend time listening to the people – something Labor has consistently failed to do (listening is easy – no need to commit to anything beyond that).
There were also many impressive, strong Aboriginal candidates, who lived in the remote communities. This was the case in all parties, but a look at the minor parties, and the preferences they directed, tells a more complex story than a simple swing to the CLP — although the swing is undeniable.
In Hampton’s seat of Stuart, Maurie Japarta Ryan stood for the newly registered First Nations Party (FNP). He received an impressive 16.4% of the vote. Ryan, a fiery anti-intervention campaigner preferenced Price — a woman he’s described as “the face of the intervention”. When asked about this on Radio National’s Bush Telegraph on August 27, he said: “I don’t support Bess Price … I gave my preferences to whichever political party … would remove the shires.”
Price has been an outspoken supporter of the intervention, but other CLP members have been careful to distance themselves from their federal counterparts’ support for Stronger Futures.
Incumbent CLP MP Alison Anderson told Bush Telegraph: “The CLP’s position is that, even though our federal politicians supported it, we’ve already listened to Aboriginal people, and we will take the voice of the Aboriginal people back.” She accused federal Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin of not listening to Aboriginal people: a sentiment that would have rung true for many.
Labor’s Hampton was also careful to state his opposition to the intervention while campaigning — indicating that Territory Labor is also aware of the damage this caused Labor.
In the key seat of Arafura, the Greens’ George Pascoe had received 14.1% of the vote, with just 58.1% counted.
The CLP’s “listening tour” of remote communities, where it tapped into anti-shire sentiment and concern for homelands and housing, certainly worked as a campaign strategy. But will it deliver in office? What can the NT’s people expect from a CLP government?
There are certainly a few areas to watch. The CLP will have several Aboriginal MPs who ran because they believed that was the party listening to their people. Hopes have been raised about changes to the unpopular shires policy and for more support to the homelands.
But while the CLP has been quick to tap into anger at the shires, details about what it proposes to do about them are scant. It’s “Shire reform” paper, released before the election, pledges to establish “regional councils”, not a return to the community councils. But these regional councils will be established only where modeling shows “financial sustainability”. The document speaks of “Shires and Regional Councils”, indicating the shires may still remain.
Similarly, the CLP Homelands policy says the party “support[s] the federal government initiative to invest in homelands services” — but doesn’t mention any investment at a Territory level.
How the CLP will balance this against the strong concerns of its Aboriginal MPs — some of whom will surely become ministers — remains to be seen. Will they be sidelined? Were they deceived during the election campaign? Or will MPs threaten to cross the floor if their concerns are ignored, forcing the CLP to positions it may not otherwise support?
Another area of concern will be the perceived differences and divisions between remote Aboriginal communities and urban Aboriginal populations, especially those living in town communities and the long grass camps around Darwin.
In the lead-up to the election, CLP member for Fong Lim David Tollner angered Bagot community residents by promising to “normalise” Bagot by turning it into “Darwin’s newest suburb”. Similarly, the CLP has promised the predictable “crackdown on crime”, saying “drunks will be taken off the streets” and Darwin’s parklands “cleaned up” — blatant dog-whistling to drum up fear and racism against Aboriginal people living in the long grass.
So it was with surprise that I noted Chief Minister-elect Terry Mills’ tribute to Aboriginal people in his victory speech on August 25. And then, with apprehension, I noticed his persistent use of the word “traditional” to describe them.
“I'm saying tonight, traditional people, we respect you, and we will work with you”, he said. He vowed to visit remote communities, saying, "My first trip will be to demonstrate to traditional people that we will work with you.”
Will we see a playing out of the “good black, bad black” politics of the likes of Price, who recently described Rodney Dillon, an Aboriginal activist and Amnesty campaigner as “a physically white English-speaking Tasmanian”?
It is fairly safe to assume there will be no “listening tours” of the long grass in Darwin or the Alice Springs Riverbed. It’s much more likely to be 100 extra police visiting those areas. And Bagot, or other town communities will probably respond to any visiting CLP MPs with extreme caution given Tollner’s election promise.
The CLP has a lot of bad policy and offensive comments to explain if it is to show it can really listen to, and take direction from, Aboriginal people. It has been more than a decade since the party had to really show its true colours to Territorians, but the missing details in its policies and its “law-and-order” focus in urban areas don’t bode well.
But one thing was certain on August 25: as in the two federal elections since the intervention was announced, Aboriginal people voted in strong numbers against the incumbents, in protest against their racist policies and their refusal to genuinely engage with Aboriginal people. We can only hope they won’t be so easily ignored or taken for granted in the future.