Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Precious pragmatism: Aboriginal public policy and the Northern Territory government


In the long ago, dear Reader, Miss Eagle knew the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Paul Henderson, when he was an electorate officer.  He was young, bright, and a breath of fresh air in NT Labor.  After Paul led NT Labor to electoral disaster by whittling away a safe government majority down to a one seat margin, one has to wonder where the bright young man went - or was he never there.  

In addition to bringing the ALP in the NT to the brink of defeat, he is now treading the well-worn path of so many ALP leaders both State and Federal.  The well-worn path where things like justice, fairness and equity have been thrown into the weeds at the side.  And does he have as well, the attitude of those walking the well-worn path?  You know the sort of thing.  It's my way or the highway.  Not only has Paul led The Territory to a pretty pass, he is taking Aboriginal people in particular into a future in which their tide seems to be ebbing and nasty and dangerous reefs are being exposed to bleach and die.  

Of interest is the prospect of political turmoil laid out by Bob Gosford to-day.  Now, I don't know Marion Scrymgour but I have watched her ministerial career - particularly at the time of the disgraceful dark of night McArthur River legislation.  Marion Scrymgour has gone through some tuff stuff in her ministerial existence.  Stuff that can drive a wedge between career and family; pragmatism and clan.  Scrymgour disappeared during the McArthur River drama and came back strong.  To me, it seemed like a blooding.  She could have walked away.  She didn't.  She sorted herself out and walked back into the fray.  That's why I don't go along with Gosford's description of her earlier role in the ministry.  I believe there is another perspective.  

However, it is about time that someone called ALP governments on their precious "pragmatism".  It appears the first call is in The Territory on Aboriginal policy.  It is a pity a similarly effective stand-off could not have been achieved with the Federal Government over workplace relations.

And one more thing, Paul.  Mind the company you keep.  Just as all that glistens is not gold, all that claim Aboriginality do not necessarily operate in the best interests of Aboriginal people as a whole.  All Aboriginal people do not need to speak with one voice nor sing from the same song sheet - but they all should be transparent, ethical and supportive of sound policy not act as  mouthpieces for ineffective pragmatism or the mouthing of Opposition policy.

How Scrymgour and homelands might undo NT Labor
Bob Gosford writes from Yuendumu in Crikey 2.6.09
Marion Scrymgour was Australia’s most powerful elected black politician -- that is until illness got the better of her and forced her resignation from her several Ministries back in February this year and that mantle was handed to her arch-political rival and enemy -- Labor member of Macdonnell, Alison Anderson.

Since then Scrymgour has undergone treatment in Adelaide. The accepted wisdom was that she would sit quietly on the backbenches until August this year when her parliamentary pension matured and would then retire.

But it seems that sometime during her treatment and recovery that she has had a Damascene conversion that recent NT government policies on blackfellas have been built on lies and deception.

As the ABC News website reports, "I feel strongly because we have lied to Aboriginal people," she said. "We have said we would go back and talk to them before we made that policy."

"That policy" is the recently announced "Working Futures" [sic] policy that will withdraw essential services from the many small homeland communities across the NT and force residents to move or travel to larger "hub" communities to receive those services.

And it seems that Scrymgour has also changed her mind about her own rushed and fundamentally flawed policy that would gut the remnants of the once proud bilingual education system in the NT, a policy that Scrymgour saw fit to vigorously defend here at Crikey from the views of a "cabal of self-important whitefellas".

Working Future dates back to the decision in September 2007 by former Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough to hand responsibility for homeland policy and funding to the NT Government.

Scrymgour was responsible for developing the NT government policy on homelands and remote community development and commissioned a discussion paper and a team, led by Pat Dodson, to take submissions and conduct community consultation.

Dodson’s "Community Engagement Report" was given to the NT government in January and was publicly released late last month.

Following Scrymgour’s sudden resignation in February, Alison Anderson inherited the Indigenous Affairs Ministry.

On 20 May Anderson released a policy, a ghost-written op-ed piece in her favourite paper, The Australian and a bare-bones website.

The recommendations in Dodson’s report have been effectively ignored and the promises of a further consultative process with affected Aboriginal people living in remote towns in the NT, following the development of a draft policy, have been abandoned.

If Working Future is ever implemented, as Lindsay Murdoch reported in The Age it will mean that:

Thousands of Aborigines living on their remote Northern Territory homelands will be forced to move to larger communities to receive key government services in a radical shake-up of indigenous policy. The NT Government is set to announce that 20 communities will be developed into regional economic hubs with a wide range of government services such as housing, schools and clinics.

But about 580 smaller communities will be deprived of many government services, threatening the fruits of what became known in the 1970s as the homelands movement when thousands of Aboriginal people moved back to their ancestral lands.

Scrymgour’s electorate of Arafura contains a large number of homeland communities -- small hamlets deep in the heart of traditional Aboriginal lands occupied by family and clan groups that have chosen to live a simpler, safer and healthier life away from the babylonian chaos that typifies many of the larger Aboriginal townships scattered across the NT.

Now, as Murray McLaughlin reported on The 7.30 Report last night:

Marion Scrymgour has thrown the Territory Labor government into crisis over her complaint that the outstations policy was announced prematurely ignoring the process that she had laid out when she was Indigenous Affairs Minister. Marion Scrymgour has told Chief Minister Paul Henderson that she’s prepared to go to the cross-benches over the issue.

Scrymgour: I’m not discounting anything but I’m saying very clearly that I will do everything in my power as a member of the government to make sure that government meets its responsibilities to Aboriginal people.

As Crikey noted back in February:

There is a long history of mutual antipathy between Scrymgour and Anderson, including a stoush in late 2007 that followed Scrymgour’s description of the Howard/Brough NT Intervention as a ‘black Tampa’ motivated by naked political opportunism.

And, as Henderson well knows, it is Anderson and Scrymgour who may well hold the fate of his "crumbling", one-seat majority government in their hands.

Anderson, who, as evidenced by her vocal support for the Brough/Howard Intervention and outspokenness on matters sensitive to government, is widely regarded as a loose cannon perhaps more closely aligned to the CLP Opposition than to the centre and left of NT Labor. While she may be happy with her Ministerial appointments for now, there is the very real threat that she could jump ship, either as an independent or to surface as a member of the CLP, and force a change of government.

Crikey understands that Scrymgour warned Henderson of her concerns with Anderson’s policy soon after it emerged but that he chose to ignore her.

Since Henderson’s Labor government was re-elected with a single seat majority in August of last year an informal book has been running on just how long his government will last -- the best money was that he might be lucky, very lucky, to make it to August -- when a number of Labor members are eligible for their generous super payouts.

But this latest fight changes the odds substantially -- Crikey reckons you’d be lucky to get much better than evens on Henderson’s government surviving the month.

Henderson’s failures are all his own doing, led by a poor set of policies that attack his electoral heartland and a supine surrender to the Federal government’s directions -- but he hasn’t been helped by the loose cannons rolling around the deck of what passes for the sinking ship of state in the NT.

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