'The question is whether Gillard's political execution of Crossin brings her more costs than benefits.'

'The question is whether Gillard's political execution of Crossin brings her more costs than benefits.' Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Julia Gillard has been unambiguously ruthless in pushing out long-serving  Labor senator Trish Crossin in favour of high-profile Aborigine Nova Peris, who will become Labor’s Northern Territory senator after the election. But leaders are like that. The relevant test must be whether Gillard’s action is in the interests of the public and her party.

It is in the public interest, symbolically and substantially, to have more indigenous representation in our parliaments, especially in Canberra.

The challenges of improving the situation of many of Australia’s indigenous people are huge. It’s not primarily a question of money – there is enough of that available. The issues are complex; pathways elusive and complicated, and having Aboriginal voices in political forums must be helpful in identifying and pursuing solutions.

Having had to break her commitment to a referendum before or at the election to recognise indigenous people in the constitution, Gillard no doubt  wanted to make a significant gesture.

But she would not have risked a bitter party row if she did not believe  there could be some direct political potential gain in an election year.

The ALP got a big wake-up call when there were strong swings against it among indigenous voters at last year’s Northern Territory election, in which it lost government. The Country Liberal Party made good use of local indigenous candidates. Labor knows the days  when it could rely on the Aboriginal vote are gone.

Peris is a shoo-in the NT Senate contest – the proportional representation system ensures the territory returns one senator each from the ALP and the CLP.

But the lower house seat of Lingiari, held by minister Warren Snowdon, which covers the NT outside Darwin, is vulnerable (Tony Abbott tried to get NT indigenous politician Alison Anderson to run for the CLP – that ended in failure and sparked criticism of him from figures in the then new CLP government). Labor’s Lingiari margin is less than 4per cent. A notable indigenous Senate candidate might be helpful with this vote.

On the other hand, the indigenous community is fractured and there is the potential for the move to backfire badly. Peris was not a party member until Wednesday; there are many Aboriginal women who are. She is being portrayed by critics as compliant; worse, rumours are being spread to seek to discredit her. These have forced her to issue a statement denying  suggestions she had misused NT Education Department furniture.   

Snowdon is known to be concerned about how the whole thing has been handled. There is a good deal of blow-back in his electorate, which worries him.

Insofar as the move is about the Lingiari vote, it seems a lot of angst to stir for the sake of one seat. But remember that Labor is preparing to fight every contest as hard as possible at the local level.

When ALP candidates from across the nation gather in Canberra on Sunday week to hear from the Prime Minister  and ALP national secretary George Wright, the message will be ‘‘get active locally NOW’’. Given Labor’s overall vulnerability, the party is trying to put in place the sandbags seat by seat wherever possible.

The question is whether Gillard’s political execution of Crossin brings her more costs than benefits.

Does the positive perception of being tough and telling the factions who’s in charge outweigh the negative one that she’s a political assassin? Can the Rudd forces make mileage out of her trampling over party rules?

There won’t be a cost-benefit bottom line for a while but it has made for a messy start to Gillard’s year.

It would have been better if Crossin had been consulted earlier and talked into a gracious exit. But obviously the judgment was made she would have leaked the move and would have refused to play ball.

Crossin was already set to beat Aboriginal woman Marion Scrymgour, who was challenging her for preselection. Scrymgour, a former Northern Territory  MP who once resigned from the Labor Party, would not have been favoured by national Labor; her reliability was in question – risky in the Senate where the numbers are always close.

Crossin is a Rudd supporter, but that’s not the reason the Rudd forces are criticising Gillard (many anonymously). Rather, despite a modest revival in the ALP vote making a return of Rudd increasingly unlikely, his camp misses no opportunity to question the PM’s judgment.

The ALP is confident it  has done due diligence on Peris.  Assuming all is well, the conflict probably will soon blow over nationally, if not in the NT.

By next week the focus will be on broader issues as both leaders make their initial election year pitches.

Gillard has the advantage that her agenda is largely already in the public arena. The battle to get legislation through is mostly behind her. What she does face is the struggle to find the money to pay for her ambitious promises.

While Gillard is looking better than she did for much of last year, and Labor’s position has improved, the ALP still has very deep problems. New South Wales, with a heap of narrowly held seats and scandal galore relating to the former state government coming out of the corruption inquiry, is a disaster area.

The hospital bed closures in Victoria, with the state government blaming Canberra, are unhelpful for federal Labor.

On a policy level, Tony Abbott will be under a stronger microscope. His latest attempt to portray himself more positively began with a phone hook-up with candidates on Thursday  and will continue with advertising and a ‘‘mini campaign’’.

Goodness knows, he requires some repositioning. Indeed, even allowing for this era of presidential politics, Abbott actually needs to get attention off him and onto policy substance. But that brings dangers – details  to be rolled out as the election approaches will mobilise critics.

But Abbott is a lucky politician, and that luck has been with him as 2013 starts. Instead of Labor’s choice of an indigenous candidate being a PR coup, Gillard’s unilateral move on Peris has left Labor looking divided and fighting internally.

No wonder that, apart from anything else, some MPs were asking why she would choose this week to crash through her party.

Michelle Grattan is political editor.

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