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Arrogant Indigenous policies that toppled NT Labor is a lesson for Feds

Country Liberal government leader and Chief Minister Terry Mills has pledged to visit Northern Territory’s remote communities. AAP

The remarkable feature of the Country Liberal Party’s win in the Northern Territory is how it presents two completely opposing aspects, with dramatically contrasting results between the towns and remote bush communities.

In the urban seats in Darwin, Palmerston and Alice Springs and the seats of Nhulunbuy and Barkley (centred on mining towns), the status quo has prevailed. Labor retained all of its existing seats and indeed even achieved swings towards it in a couple of seats.

Labor’s campaign strategy was to pour resources into limiting an expected anti-Labor swing sufficiently to retain its own marginal Darwin seats, while targeting the northern suburbs Country Liberal seat of Sanderson.

The Gillard government maintains the federal implications of the NT election are minimal.  Indeed, a swing of that magnitude probably reflects federal factors to a limited extent, as well as a muted local “it’s time” factor after 11 years of local Labor rule, but does not suggest the Labor “brand” has been irretrievably damaged.

The picture in remote Aboriginal community-based seats seats could scarcely have been more different.  The ALP vote was decimated, with a general anti-Labor swing of around 16%.  The seats of Daly and Arnhem have certainly been won by the CLP, while the north coast and Tiwi Islands seat of Arafura will almost certainly go the same way and the sprawling bush seat of Stuart remains too close to call.

These results flow from particular local factors with very little immediate partisan relevance to federal politics, although clearly Warren Snowdon will struggle to retain the seat of Lingiari at next year’s federal election.  

Snowdon sustained huge anti-Labor swings in many remote mobile polling booths, but retained the seat largely because the ALP vote in the towns remained strong.

However, this weekend’s election outcome encapsulates an arrogant official mindset which has long bedevilled Indigenous policy in Australia. The emphatic rejection of that mindset by Aboriginal Territorians may well mark a decisive moment in Australia’s political history.

It now appears that very little was actually done by Labor to arrest the evident increasing hostility in its erstwhile Aboriginal heartland.

The sources of Aboriginal resentment toward Labor are not difficult to identify:

  • Residual hostility flowing from the heavy-handed paternalistic measures of the Howard government’s federal Intervention which the Rudd/Gillard government adopted, tweaked and re-badged as Stronger Futures;
  • Territory and federal government withdrawal of funding to many remote Aboriginal outstation communities and an associated embryonic plan to concentrate funding and resources in 20 designated “growth towns” in the larger Aboriginal communities;
  • The Territory government’s amalgamation of previous small community-based local councils into much larger “super shires”.
There probably wasn’t much the Henderson government could have done about Stronger Futures given that its influence over the Gillard government was clearly quite limited. But its failure to address the problems surrounding outstations, growth towns and super shires is more difficult to understand.

Aboriginal attitudes towards the Intervention/Stronger Futures are more complex and ambiguous than many southern commentators acknowledge.  For example, the controversial income management policy, whereby 50% of social security benefits are quarantined to be spent only on food and clothing at designated outlets, is quietly supported by many people, especially women subject to “ humbugging” by aggressive male kin.  

High profile Country Liberal candidate Bess Nungarrayi Price, who has been a vocal supporter of income management, looks likely to win the seat of Stuart.

Nevertheless, in a more general sense the Intervention aka Stronger Futures is experienced by Aboriginal people as a grossly insulting and indiscriminate official condemnation of the entire community as pedophiles or gambling and porn addicts, or at the very least irresponsible people incapable of taking care of their own children or finances.

Labor’s stubborn pursuit of withdrawal of funding from remote outstations, despite evident hostility, has also been puzzling. The decision was belatedly reversed when the federal government announced resumption of funding in May, and the Henderson government eventually promised to match a CLP campaign promise to restore NT government funding, but by then it was far too late to undo the damage.

It is certainly true that some outstations were little more than publicly funded fishing or hunting holiday camps, but in general outstations demonstrably provide a far healthier environment for families than the chaotic, violent, dysfunctional larger communities.  

Moreover, the de-funding of outstations was in part an initiative of controversial Labor defector Alison Anderson when she was the ALP Minister for Indigenous Policy.  It was consistently opposed by other Indigenous Labor MLAs, but it appears that Chief Minster Henderson failed to listen.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Anderson has easily retained her central Australia seat of Namatjira as a Country Liberal MLA, partly on the back of local community resentment towards the very policies she previously championed.

The associated Territory government policy of concentrating resources and funding in 20 designated growth towns has not really begun in any meaningful sense, but initial implementation appears to have been botched. The central concept was to create secure land tenure in town areas on Aboriginal land, to encourage both home ownership and development of productive private enterprises. However, protracted negotiations with government for long township leases engendered considerable community resentment.

Indeed some communities are refusing to sign new leases with the federal government in the wake of the recent expiry of the initial five year Intervention period.

Veteran NT Aboriginal Affairs bureaucrat Bob Beadman was initially put in charge of the program, but resigned in despair after less than two years. In an official report to the NT government on the program, Beadman observed that the form and duration of leasehold being negotiated did not meet commercial bank lending criteria, and therefore “do not create the legal environment for economic development”.

One might also doubt whether quite a few communities even possess the inherent location and other attributes for viable commercial enterprises in any event, irrespective of the legal framework.

Lastly, the Territory government’s local council amalgamation program several years ago has also engendered deep resentment and also appears to have been botched.  

Levels of nepotism, cronyism and even outright corruption were certainly high in some of the former local community councils, but it should surely have been evident that stripping away local autonomy and self-determination was unlikely to prove a viable solution.

In any event, devising and implementing solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of remote Indigenous communities is now the big challenge facing Terry Mills’ Country Liberal government.

Relationships based on mutual respect, honest dialogue, partnerships between government and local communities, and genuine local “ownership”  of programs are the obvious keys to success. Aboriginal people have spoken through the ballot box, eloquently underlining their political power and agency.  

No government from now on will be able to afford to neglect their interests or take their support for granted.  The “top down” paternalism which has characterised the approaches of successive federal governments as well as the outgoing Henderson regime simply has not worked on any level.  

You would wonder how anyone could ever have imagined that it would.

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