Julia Gillard is creating history for Australia and the Labor Party, as well as fashioning a noble legacy for herself, by offering Nova Peris a gold-plated parachute into federal Parliament. The Prime Minister’s ‘‘captain’s pick’’ is a symbolic gesture but holds national political significance in allowing Labor to play catch-up – the Coalition and Democrats have had indigenous MPs but not the ALP, despite its long history and platform.
Gough Whitlam poured sand into the hands of Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari, symbolising the handing back of land to Aborigines. Bob Hawke handed back Uluru. Paul Keating took up the Mabo and Wik decisions and delivered the powerful Redfern speech. Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generations. Throughout those changes, the Labor caucus had no Aboriginal members.
It is a rather sad reflection on Labor’s state of affairs when Ms Gillard has to trash the preselection process to achieve something so long overdue. She has abruptly ended the career of a Labor MP despite that senator apparently being prepared to leave and already looking for an indigenous successor. Ms Gillard’s women-empowering decision to install a female speaker was much less controversial.
Party members have a right to be infuriated that their views are being ignored – at the same time as Ms Gillard has vowed to be more inclusive of the grassroots and expand the party’s membership base.
However, Ms Gillard – who has now been Prime Minister longer than Mr Rudd, whom she also dumped – has engineered a political win with her hard-nosed decision to dump a Rudd ally and parachute a celebrity into a safe seat. She has brushed aside the internal dissent and is unlikely to face criticism from the Coalition.
Although Ms Peris is not yet an ALP member, her place in the Senate to represent the Northern Territory looks assured. The nation can be pleased with this development, which appears timed to coincide with the national birthday, and not only because Ms Peris is set to make history as the first Aboriginal woman in federal Parliament.
There’s also the fact that she promises to bring to Parliament, and to Labor, some much-needed life experience beyond the shallow gene pool that produces many ALP MPs from the ranks of student politics, union officials, political advisers and other colourless political careerists. While she has minimal experience as a political operative, Ms Peris displayed grit and determination as an athlete and can be expected to bring that to the political arena. Despite her nervousness before the media this week, Ms Peris made clear her disappointment in the territory Labor government for taking ‘‘their eye off the mark’’ and criticised the implementation of the federal intervention.
‘‘I believe in hard work,’’ the former Olympian said, to the surprise of no one who has watched her career so far.
Correction: This article initially said Julia Gillard installed a female governor-general. Kevin Rudd installed Quentin Bryce.