Peris not the patsy they expect
Nova Peris with her children Jack (left) and Destiny (right), at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Nova Peris is a good woman, a champion athlete and an indigenous person uncontroversially admired by most Australians. Almost all Aboriginal people of higher profile, apart perhaps from a few who, like her, became famous from sporting achievement, have public enemies as well as friends, and critics as well as admirers in Aboriginal communities.
Those others are polarising figures because they have taken public positions, have pushed ideas and policies from which some gain and others lose, because they have criticised policies, programs and parties and people behind them, and have themselves done things which have brought critical scrutiny from others.
That scrutiny, often cynical, is never more knowledgeable or intense than from within Aboriginal communities. These have their own politics, as intense, divisive, divided, judgmental and as affected by interest as anywhere else, the more so because things done by government often have immediate and direct effects on how people live. And, as anywhere, these politics are pervaded by family, community, education, religion and other aspects of an individual or family's background, which can differ as much in Aboriginal societies as in the wider Australian society.
The Northern Territory has scores of high-profile Aboriginal activists, brokers, politicians and administrators. Many with backgrounds of involvement in their communities and regions going back decades. It goes without saying that not one of these has fewer enemies than Peris - who lacks that history. Peris has been able to retain essentially uncritical respect because she has not done much mucking in at politics. She's been above the fray, even as she has often, generously, done some uncontroversial good works that have capitalised on her good name and her sporting achievements.
This is not necessarily to say that she will make a bad politician, or to suggest that she is no politician at all. She has calm. She has charm. She has grace. She's no fool. She knows where she comes from. She knows where her bread is buttered. Her achievements have come from discipline and focus as much as raw talent. And she will have many people of goodwill, white and black, looking out for her, if as much out of their own (or the ALP's) self-interest as from hers.
And she knows what she is doing, what it involves and what the upsides and downsides are. Some of the patronising commentary would seem to suggest she is some sort of myall being seduced, manipulated and abused by Julia Gillard, with no idea what she is letting herself in for. Nor should one assume that she, having been given an inside run by the Prime Minister, will be an uncritical yes-woman, or, as Alison Anderson, a Luritja woman from Papunya, put it with lamentable unkindness this week, ''a maid for the Labor Party … fetching tea and changing the sheets for Labor''.
Alison Anderson is a good example of an experienced Northern Territory politician - having been a minister in both Labor and Country Liberal Party territory governments, a person as respected for the quality and calibre of her enemies as of her friends. Her agility, wiliness and success is as much a function of a salty tongue and readiness to make enemies as of her ability to organise outcomes for her key constituents. (In another life, I think I gave her her first job.)
But it is not the naivety of Nova Peris that people should be worrying about. It is Labor's. It does not want Nova Peris as a politician, let alone as an articulate contributor to the making of policy in indigenous affairs. Labor doesn't listen even to skilled and expert Aborigines who know what they are talking about; why would it pay attention to the necessarily less well-informed ideas of Peris?
Labor's interest in Aboriginal achievement or milestones is nearly always like this. It is Labor which hopes and expects that Peris can remain above the fray - if not as a maid then as some sort of Queen smiling benignly on all Labor's efforts to seem to be the friend of Aboriginal people, especially in the Northern Territory.
Labor's efforts have very little to do,
directly at least, with the politics of symbolism or a sudden burst of energy about becoming the third Australian political party to have an identifying indigenous representative in Parliament. (The Liberals did this 40 years ago; the Democrats nearly 15 years ago). Nor does it have anything much to do with the achievements or non-achievements of Trish Crossin, or any efforts to save ''her'' Senate seat.
It's really only about Warren Snowdon, although whether the tactics will do him any good are far from clear. Snowdon is the member for Lingiari, which is to say about 96 per cent of the Northern Territory, apart from Darwin. Before the territory was divided into two House of Representatives seats in 2001, Snowdon had represented the whole territory since 1987, bar a sit-down period during the first Howard term from 1998. He was back in 1998.
Snowdon, born and educated in Canberra, is an able and tireless local member, with one of the biggest electorates in the world. (I have toured it with him several times.) Before he went into politics, he was a teacher, worked closely with Nugget Coombs, and was an adviser at the Central Land Council. He has long been closely involved with Aboriginal affairs. He is also a member of the ALP Left, and has been particularly close to Julia Gillard, for whom he has long done the numbers.
Gillard is usually loyal to her friends. Her use of the phrase ''Captain's pick'', in relation to Peris this week, might suggest it was her first such exercise. But she insisted on a ''Vice-Captain's pick'' in 2010 to save the political hide of another of her close friends, Laurie Ferguson, and did a captain's pick - one she must now be inclined to regret - in reviving Bob Carr when Mark Arbib deserted a then sinking ship a year ago.
Snowdon's getting a ministry was also very much a captain's pick. This is not to suggest that he is without ability, but he would not have emerged from a caucus or factional ballot. But, if giving him Veterans Affairs was a safe decision, Gillard did Snowdon no favours by giving him an additional token role in relation to Aboriginal health, or, indeed, in directly associating him with the regime of Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin. It has been a mistake of the order of Gough Whitlam's making the member for the ACT, Kep Enderby, minister for the Capital Territory in 1972.
Snowdon was an early, if muted critic, of intervention, from the time John Howard and Malcolm Brough imposed it on his constituents without any consultation in 1997. Snowdon had to be muted, because Kevin Rudd decided, tactically, to support it, but there were few in Aboriginal communities in any doubt about where Snowdon stood. Nor were his criticisms focused only on the lack of consultation or discussion, or the lack of fit between the supposed diagnoses (child sexual abuse and general community dysfunction) and the supposed cure - grand scale intervention into every aspect of Aboriginal lives.
When Snowdon was but a humble, if very active backbencher, those many of his Aboriginal constituents who were angry and bitter about intervention could forgive him and understand his difficult position. They believed he was doing his very best, inside the tent, behind the scenes, to ameliorate the worst of what was occurring. This is much more difficult when one is presented as an executive member of the team, invited, indeed, to stand alongside ministers, and prime ministers, as they trample over local sensibilities.
There are some in the government who believe that a silent majority of NT Aborigines, particularly women, secretly like the intervention, even if they hardly dare say so in public. (Even Peris, directly asked about the intervention on Tuesday, said it had been horribly managed.) But even if this were true, there's a secondary problem: most of those who want intervention-style activities have decided they prefer the CLP approach to Labor's, even as many rusted-on Aboriginal Labor voters, deeply hostile to the intervention, have decided that Labor has taken the Aboriginal vote for granted for too long. Voting CLP makes no practical difference, but it might give Labor a wake-up call.
This is what happened at the Territory election last year, when an ALP government was heaved out by a wholesale rejection of Labor in Aboriginal electorates. ALP members - not a few of whom were white - were replaced by indigenous members, some of whom, such as Bess Price and Alison Anderson, were nationally known figures.
If there is a swing against Snowdon of territorial election proportions, he is doomed. If he loses, it will not be because his friends and admirers in Aboriginal communities have come to dislike him. It will be because they are voting over his head to ''send a message'' to Labor, no longer confident that Snowdon can do much to smooth their pillow. Few think that his personal touch in his indigenous ministerial responsibilities achieves anything special.
As it happens, though, some of the friends, if still friends, have been getting critical. Snowdon has long talked of wanting to be replaced, when his time comes, by an Aboriginal representative. At various stages, different people, including Tracker Tilmouth, a former chairman of the Central Land Council, and Marion Scrymgour, a former health administrator and later NT minister, have been groomed. But Snowdon, like Hawke, has not been ready to go. In due course, some of those waiting in the wings have offended people in head office - usually for being ''erratic'', which is to say putting up ideas that come from below rather than parrotting the ones that have been imposed from head office.
Marion Scrymgour might be a good example. She was loudly critical of the intervention, and, later of Labor's weak-kneed decision to persevere with it for public relations purposes. Loudly critical of how a luvvy group of lefty latte sippers living in Darwin's western suburbs rode to power on the back of votes from the bush then consistently let the bush down. Unwilling, after a while to stomach it much more, so inclined to become an independent until when, after the defection from Labor of Alison Anderson, she couldn't quite bring herself to vote Labor down. Scrymgour has a lot of street smarts, but has made many political mistakes, not least (when she was a Labor minister) over bilingual education and the creation of supershires. But she has had skin in the game, which is more than Peris has ever had.
Alas Scrymgour has no coat tails. Even if (and it is only an if) extra Aboriginal electors lined up to vote for her as a Senate candidate because she was an Aboriginal, albeit from a different community) it is unlikely that those who did so would then, incidentally, put a number one beside the name of Warren Snowdon.
But the tactical geniuses who run Labor (and who, of course, understand Aborigines so intimately) calculate that the silly old blackfellas might be more inclined to include Snowdon if an apolitical Aboriginal ''personality'' is the candidate.
That's the insult, to Peris as much as to Aborigines generally. Even to whitefellas, actually.