Thursday, 30 August 2012

NT Elections: Aboriginal voters get Labor where it hurts

[A subbed version of this article will appear at Green Left Weekly. The figures will need to be updated in some seats, as counting is expected to continue until Monday September 3 - Emma]

by Emma Murphy

Aboriginal voters in remote Northern Territory put themselves decisively onto the political agenda in the August 25 territory election.

Indeed, as commentators have noted, it was probably the first time in Australia’s history when this otherwise marginalized (by mainstream parties) section of the population decided an election.

For only the second time in its short voting history, the Territory changed its ruling party. After 11 years of Labor, voters in remote and rural areas opted for change, and – in very significant numbers – voted for minor parties, independents, and the Country Liberal Party (CLP).

In a 25-seat parliament, Labor had just 12 seats, forming government with the support of independent Gerry Woods. And while bookies had picked the CLP as winning, 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, in a remarkable twist, 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%.”

It looks likely the CLP will win 15 seats and Labor will be reduced to nine.

In the remote northern electorates of Arnhem and Daly, there were swings to the CLP of 30.7% and 14.2%, respectively. In the key northern seat of Arafura, with just over half the votes counted, the CLP’s Francis Maralampuwi Xavier leads Labor’s Dean Rioli 51.2% to 48.8% (at time of writing), and in the outback seat of Stuart, also with just 56% of votes counted, Bess Nungarrayi Price from the CLP is slightly ahead of Labor’s Karl Hampton, at 50.8% to 49.2% (after preferences). There was a 26.5% 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 last few years. The Coalition’s introduction of the widely hated NT intervention in 2007 was very quickly taken over by federal Kevin Rudd’s Labor when the party won the November election. Julia Gillard’s Labor recently extended the divisive policy for another decade, under the cruelly mis-named “Stronger Futures” legislation.

Meanwhile, in 2008, Territory Labor completely disempowered local Aboriginal leaderships by replacing 52 small community councils with seven “super shires” – some with headquarters not even located within 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, and 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); spend time listening to the people – something Labor has consistently failed (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 that would elect them. This was the case in all parties, and a look at the minor parties, and the preferences they directed, tells a slightly more complex story than a simple swing to the CLP – although that was also clearly the case.

In Hampton’s seat of Stuart, Maurie Japarta Ryan stood for the newly registered First Nations Party (FNP). He received an impressive 17.2% 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 explained: “I don’t support Bess Price … I gave my preferences to whichever political party … would remove the shires.”

While Price has been an outspoken supporter of the intervention, 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 campaigner – indicating that Territory Labor is also aware of the damage this has done to the Labor brand.

In the key seat of Arafura, Greens’ George Pascoe received 14% of the votes, with just 55.8% 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 now, in office, will it deliver? What can the people who voted for it expect from a CLP government?

There are certainly a few areas to watch. To start with, the CLP will have a number of strong Aboriginal candidates, 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 about more support for 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” (it is careful not to promise a return to community councils” – but these regional councils will only be established 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 supports 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 some MPs (such as Alison Anderson) history of crossing to the other side if their concerns are ignored force the CLP to positions it may not otherwise support?

Another area of concern will be the perceived differences/divisions between remote Aboriginal communities and urban Aboriginal populations, especially those living in town communities and the long grass.

In the lead-up to the election, CLP member for Fong Lim David Tollner angered Bagot community residents by promising to “normalize” 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 the 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, 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: like 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.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

This afternoon we  went to see a very lovely movie called the Sapphires. For two whole hours I didn't think about the fact the Country Liberal Party won yesterday's Northern Territory elections. Or the fact that right now in Darwin there are refugees in detention who have been told by the federal Labor government they will be sent to Nauru, for indefinite detention in a hellish island gulag, within a fortnight.

There is still much work to be done for we who believe in freedom.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Thursday night at the markets

On Thursday evening, fired up after a bit of healthy protesting with the Bagot community, I rode down to  the Mindil Beach markets, hoping to run into some friends, regular market go-ers, and give them their copy of Green Left Weekly.

Suggested to Pete he might want drive  down later and have dinner there (code for I don't want to ride home up those hills, will you come and get me?). Arrived at the markets, Anja and Michael weren't in their usual spot, realised I'd left my mobile at home - oh no! How would Pete find me! I'd have to ride home afterall....?!

Anyway it all worked out fine, of course. Yummy food was eaten as the sunset over Mindil beach and fire performers did their thing. We ate very early, looking forward to an early, quiet night at home.

Headed back to the car. To find that we were surrounded on all sides by other parked vehicles. None of this  two-neat-lines of car parks rubbish for the wild Territory. No, people park on traffic islands, verges, footpath, the beach... wherever they can fit their wheels, pretty much. Which, on Thursday, meant all around our Patrol, thus blocking our escape on all sides.

So much for a quiet evening at home.

Fortunately it is Darwin Festival time, and one of the Festival Parks happens to be in the Botanic Gardens, just opposite the markets. So we went over the road, lolled around on the outdoor furniture, among the palm  trees, under the fairy lights, beside the spiegeltent, drinking  cider and trying to estimate at what time drivers of a certain (very funky) purple ute might be leaving the markets that evening.

Got back the car park, and yay! Purple ute is gone! Only to be replaced by another car. Sigh.

Some highly skilled and very patient manouevring  finally had us squeezing out, much to the disbelief of some passing rather intoxicated lads.

And that was our Thursday evening.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Assange in the Ecuadoran Embassy...

Thank heavens fiscal conservatives are in power, or else money would be spent improperly.

"the operation is rumoured to be costing up to £50,000 a day."

Bagot community takes on Tollner

Up to 200 Bagot community residents and supporters rallied outside CLP MLA Dave Tollner’s office on August 16, in anger over his plans to ‘normalise’ their home.

In June, Tollner, the incumbent for Fong Lim in the August 25 territory election, released a “Special Ludmilla edition” of his Tollner Telegraph, which said “Both the Country Liberals and Territory Labor have committed to normalising Bagot and turning it into one of Darwin’s newest suburbs”. The CLP plans to encourage long-term Bagot residents to buy their own homes: those that refuse will have their homes handed over to Territory Housing.

Bagot Council currently holds the lease for the land at Bagot, and the housing is managed by the  Yilli Rreung Housing Association. Tollner hasn’t explained how his plan would effect the leasing arrangement, or what would happen to Yilli Rreung. In fact, he hasn’t spoken to the community about his plans at all, which is why the community attempted to come to him.

This isn’t the first attack Tollner has launched on Darwin’s unique town communities. In May, he called for One Mile Dam to be closed down. ABC Online reported on May 3 that Tollner said “"Every feral across Darwin sort of bases themselves at One Mile Dam ... It is just full of filth and disease, and degradation."

Tollner wasn’t in when  the Bagot crowd gathered at his office, his secretary announced he was “out in the electorate speaking to constituents”. But that didn’t stop people making their feelings about his announcements clear.

Holding placards that read “Normalise – please explain”,  “I love Bagot” and “Bagot Community, our past, present and future”, the fiery crowd took turns to speak about the importance of Bagot, and their outrage at Tollner’s presumptuousness.

Bagot Council president Helen Fejo-Frith told the crowd: “This is about saving our home. Our children were born here, their parents were born here ... We’ll still be her when [Tollner] is gone. Politicians  come and go. They call us  itinerants – but they’re the itinerants.”

The council has collaborated with Yilli Rreung and the University of Melbourne to create a Bagot Village Development Plan, which is already in the early stages of development. Fejo-Frith had hoped to present the plan to Tollner, to show that the community had its own ideas.

Larrakia musician Ali Mills referred to Australian governments’ long history of moving  Aboriginal people around; Bagot was originally a residential facility for Stolen Generations children. “How long is the government going to keep moving us mob on for?” she demanded.

Sheila White is a young woman who was born and raised in Bagot. Addressing the absent Tollner, she said: “You mob should be celebrating us [town communities]! We are unique. Where else in Australia do we have special places  where our people can gather together, yarn, celebrate? We’re going to be here for a long time yet!”

Bagot residents were encouraged to sign a petition demanding that Bagot remain a community and not  be re-zoned. The petition calls on the local member to support Bagot to keep the land, govern itself and build a stronger, healthier community.

Representatives from the progressive parties running in the territory elections  - the Greens, First Nations Political Party and Sex Party -  and progressive independents were also there to show their support.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

NIMAs: Indigenous music's night of nights

Last night, on a cooler than usual August Darwin night, we huddled under the stars for the 2012 National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs).

There was no red carpet, just the wonderful natural amphitheatre in the botanic gardens. Apart from Indigenous outlets, there was little or no media (in a Google search today, only  one short piece on ABC comes up).  The event is one of  the few where there are about equal numbers of black and white Australians in the crowd  - the other that springs  to mind is the football, when the  Tiwi Bombers are playing.

But over the course of the evening, the crowd was reminded of just how much we have to  celebrate, and seek inspiration from, the talent and creativity held within Aboriginal communities, urban and remote, across this enormous continent. “Mainstream” Australian society could do with more exposure to this stuff, rather than the endless reporting on the violence & dysfuntion that is supposedly tearing Aboriginal Australia apart.

Thelma Plum from Brisbane took out this year’s triple j NIMA Unearthed award: her voice took my breath away. A highlight of the evening was when Plum joined Queensland band The Medics (who took out best song, best album, and best new talent) and the legendary Bunna Lawrie from Coloured Stone for a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Blowin’ in the Wind.

Maningrida rock outfit Sunrize Band reminded the crowd that land rights are still an issue to be defended. Described by Rolling Stone as “a swinging Arnhem Land blend of Hendrix, Neil Young and didgeridoo”, Sunrize Band was inducted into the Hall of Fame, as was the Lajamanu Teenage Band and the late Jimmy Little, who mentored and inspired much of the talent on display at the award night.

A new Arnhem Land band, East Journey, mentored by Yothu Yindi’s Mandawuy Yunupingu, took out the NT Film Clip of the Year and the G.R. Bururrawanga Memorial Award for outstanding contribution to the NT music industry.

The young men of East Journey blend contempory and traditional instruments, English  and Yolŋu Matha, smart button-down shirts and body paint in a proud display of the two worlds they inhabit. Knowing the  shyness and awkwardness felt by so many  young Yolŋu, who so often feel so lost  in the ever-changing reality of their  worlds , just heightened the appreciation of this group’s bravery and pride.

Desert bands were also well presented on the night. Well-loved country musician Warren H Williams has recently released taken the bold step of releasing an album in his language, the language of the Waramungu people.  He was performing with the Waramungu songmen, showcasing his new fusion of two Indigenous languages and modern and traditional beats. Warren and the songmen shared the Traditional Music Award with Shellie Morris and the Borroloola  Songwomen.

Lajamanu Teenage Band were a local favourite when I lived at  Irrunytju Community in WA 14 years ago. No longer teenagers, the band still manages to speak straight to the heart of many of  the issues facing young people in Aboriginal communities:  drug  and alcohol use, family,  community and country. They were also  inducted into the Hall of Fame, and celebrated by closing the night with a rousing set, performed to countrymen  and women who had travelled from across the Territory to see them.

After the show, we caught the free shuttle bus home. We were pretty much the only whitefellas on that late-night bus, whose route takes in some of the larger town camps. We surrounded by people from different clans and nations – desert and saltwater – bursting with pride in family members who’d performed, singing along with snippets recorded onto smartphones, talking about who they might see on the stage next year. 

It made me think about how there is a huge part of Aboriginal Australia that most people just don’t see: the  family part, the successful, talented, professional and beautiful part.

If more of us did see it, would the mainstream media and the politicians be able to get away with their  racism as easily as they do?

Check out some great new music from Indigenous artists:
Gurrumul and Sarah Blasko: