Comment: It’s a knockout
How the Aboriginal vote won the NT election
By October 2012
In the recent Northern Territory election, Barbara Shaw was the Greens candidate for Braitling, one of the electorates in Alice Springs. She is Aboriginal and strongly opposed to the Northern Territory intervention.
To southerners, this may well seem a natural arrangement. Shaw won friends on the east coast by helping to contest Jenny Macklin’s housing intervention in the Federal Court, and thus stopped the building of houses in the Alice Springs town camps for several years on the grounds that residents had not been properly consulted. Shaw’s activism also saw her play a role in the Australia Day melee in Canberra earlier this year.
Her efforts did not go unnoticed in Alice Springs. On 25 August, Shaw received just 9% of the vote. The swing against the Greens in Braitling was almost 6%. Territory-wide, the Country Liberal Party (CLP) gained 56% of the two-party preferred vote, enough to win 16 of the legislative assembly’s 25 seats.
Few commentators picked the conservatives’ victory. It had been assumed the Aboriginal vote was rusted on to the ALP. Yet it was Aboriginal voters in the bush who threw out the government that had ignored them, delivering victory to the Country Liberal Party. This extraordinary outcome challenges mainstream perceptions of the marginal power of the Aboriginal vote. The voter turnout across the Territory was an unusually high 77%; three in ten Territorians are Aboriginal. Clearly, they wanted to make their votes count.
In Braitling, they wanted Barbara Shaw and her white friends to shut up. She did not speak for the bush communities, nor did she speak for the residents of the Alice Springs Aboriginal town camps. Elsewhere, too, Aboriginal people were fed up with left-wing causes imposed from down south, be they live cattle–export restrictions, opposition to mining or rolling back the intervention. And so the 11-year-old ALP government was blown to the four winds.
Once the party of the frontiersmen and spruikers, and rabidly opposed to Aboriginal rights, the Country Liberal Party has changed its colour – four of its members in the new NT assembly are outback Aboriginal leaders. Larisa Lee, the daughter of the man who fought for the Katherine Gorge area and won it back as Nitmiluk, claimed the seat of Arnhem with a 30% swing. Francis Xavier Maralampuwi won the previously safe Labor seat of Arafura, which stretches west to the Tiwi Islands and includes the towns of Oenpelli, Jabiru, Maningrida, Milikapiti and Nguiu. To the south, Bess Price, the butt of vicious mockery for her unwavering support for income management and other intervention policies, won her seat with an 11.5% swing. Then there was Alison Anderson, the pro-interventionist who stood down in protest from Paul Henderson’s Labor government three years ago over its apparent misdirection of Commonwealth funds intended for indigenous housing. She retained her seat with 65% of the vote.
So what’s going on here? A desire for local empowerment and local leaders was key to the CLP’s victory. More than that, though, the election reflects a fundamental shift on the conservative side of politics. The new Chief Minister, Terry Mills, ran with a “unity” theme, thereby refraining from the CLP’s traditional race-based campaigning on land-rights issues. It seems the Territory’s rural conservatives have finally figured out – as Bob Katter and others in Queensland have long known – that they have more in common with Aboriginal people than either have with city folk. Both groups need land-based industries to support their economies and way of life. Both share a deep disdain for greens, animal liberationists and bureaucrats, whether from Darwin or Canberra.
In 2008, the Territory’s Labor government disbanded Aboriginal councils to create “super shires”. This enraged Aboriginal powerbrokers in hundreds of townships and homeland communities, now managed from afar by white town clerks. Perhaps the NT branch of the ALP thought it could get away with the usual game of spending the Commonwealth’s Aboriginal dollars centrally, mostly in Darwin, and depriving the bush communities of their entitlements. This time they had gone too far. By disempowering the communities – shutting down their councils and, in effect, shutting them up – they betrayed them.
State and Territory governments have long used untied Commonwealth grants for ‘Indigenous Affairs’ as a general purpose slush fund for everyone except the poorest of the poor, the remote Aboriginal populations. In the same way, the vast sums committed to the intervention have been soaked up by the bureaucrats and consultants. The caravans of high-end, late-model white Toyotas returning from the bush to Darwin and Alice Springs on Friday afternoon, and the young, shiny, well-fed members of the helping class alighting to enter their homes and hotels, are evident for all to see. The gap between this high-income group and the desperately poor Aboriginal people they purportedly serve is played out in all social relations in the Northern Territory. The whites-only revelry along Mitchell Street in Darwin on any Friday night is a jarring sight. Evident too are the regular small plane charters unloading teams of bureaucrats in the communities for endless consultations: it may be just talk, but it sure isn’t cheap.
Aboriginal people voted to end this conspicuous waste. The perception that the NT Labor government was indifferent to the remote areas was exacerbated by the effective dismantling of bilingual education in schools. Aboriginal women also voted for continued income quarantining. The re-election of Alison Anderson and the support for Bess Price suggests that Aboriginal women in remote communities, long ignored by anti-interventionist campaigners and their media cat’s paws, came out in force at the polls. It was confirmation that the tri-state NPY Women’s Council’s successful push for voluntary income quarantining in the adjoining lands in South Australia and Western Australia had come from the bottom up, rather than being imposed from above, as the southern media had misreported.
But the most significant factor was the Aboriginal body politic itself. Strong local leaders have worked hard to bring economic development to indigenous communities where welfare has turned residents into perpetual mendicants reliant on the state. Time and again, native title groups have spent years getting an agreement with a resource company over the line, negotiating income streams that might shift indigenous people from the margins to the centre of regional economic development in return for land access, only for a ragtag team of ‘wilderness’ campaigners to turn up with an entourage of disaffected Aboriginal protesters to stop development at the eleventh hour.
While the federal Labor government likes to feign shock at the more flaky antics of its coalition partner, Aboriginal people have known for years that the Greens are no good in bed. Their notions of economic development in remote Australia, which chiefly involve employing Aboriginal people as wilderness caretakers, are inspired by children’s books and anarchist tracts. As I’ve been saying for 20 years, this concept of wilderness is nothing but a new incarnation of terra nullius. With luck, the NT election represents a tipping point. The time of dismissing Aboriginal aspirations for economic development is over.