Prime Minister Julia Gillard has appointed Indigenous former-Olympian Nova Peris as the lead candidate on the Labor Party’s Northern Territory (NT) Senate ticket for the September federal election. This virtually guarantees that Peris will be the first Indigenous Labor representative in the federal parliament.

This so-called “captain’s pick”, however, is cynical tokenism that will only add to Labor’s crisis. This turn to celebrity rides rough-shod over the local committed Labor members and branches and has increased the disillusionment with Labor. Labor leaders’ use of “star power” candidates like Peter Garrett, Maxine McKew and now Peris, is part of the general, long-term deterioration of Labor, desperate to find ways to try to maintain votes as it slides in the polls but remains determined to continue along its right-wing policy trajectory.

Labor in the NT

Labor has a particular problem in the NT. Its support plummeted in Aboriginal communities in NT government elections last year. The NT Labor government had smashed Aboriginal community councils, cut bilingual education programs and worked hand in glove with federal Labor to implement the NT Intervention, now re-badged as Stronger Futures.

Pre-selecting Peris is also an attempt to deflect concerns among Aboriginal rights supporters who have traditionally supported Labor, but are deeply concerned with Labor’s ongoing implementation of the racist NT Intervention. The appointment, however, will do nothing to deal with these problems. Peris herself has no history of opposition to the Intervention and has already displayed a shocking ignorance about Labor’s policies in NT Aboriginal communities.

In her first press conference in January, Peris mildly criticised the NT Intervention, saying it was forced on Aboriginal communities “without consultation”. But in the same breath she unequivocally supported Labor’s Stronger Futures legislation, saying she “looked forward to participating to make sure these programs are delivered in the right way”. But there is no “right way” to implement punitive welfare quarantining, discriminatory police powers or the denial of new housing or employment programs for the vast majority of communities.

The “consultations” meetings on Stronger Futures were a sham. Aboriginal people at the meetings opposed it and called for resources for community-directed development.

Even more shamefully, when pushed on ABC radio about criticism of the Stronger Futures consultations, Peris said: “To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not across that area so I probably couldn’t give you a good answer on that… but I’ll be speaking a lot with Minister Jenny Macklin”.

Labor members pushed aside

There should be no tears for the Trish Crossin, the Labor Senator displaced by Peris. Crossin has presided over the Intervention’s devastation of communities. She was a fierce critic of the Howard Government’s nuclear waste dump at Muckaty in the NT, but flipped over to support the policy as soon as Labor took office.

If Gillard was seriously concerned with better Indigenous representation in parliament, she could have supported prominent Aboriginal Labor politician Marion Scrymgour, who was already challenging Crossin for pre-selection. Peris has no history campaigning for Labor and was not even a member of the Labor party when picked. Scrymgour broke party ranks to condemn the NT Intervention in 2007, labelling it a return to the days of the Welfare Board, when Aboriginal people were second-class citizens. She has also criticised the Gillard government’s “Stronger Futures” legislation, which continues key Intervention powers for a further ten years.

Reacting to the Peris appointment, Scrymgour told SBS radio: “To not even consider NT Aboriginal [Labor Party] members shows this was purely a political exercise… to make her [Gillard] look good she selected a black face.”

Scrymgour however also bears some responsibility for the deterioration of Labor’s support. She was part of the recently defeated NT government. But she also temporarily resigned in 2009 over policies that restricted funding to Aboriginal homelands.

Recent calls to renovate the Labor party have focused on empowering the rank-and-file. But Gillard’s overriding of local branches has revealed the contempt that Labor leaders have for their own members. Similar concerns were expressed by party members when Peter Garrett was parachuted into a safe seat in Maroubra in 2004.

Garrett had been a lead singer in Midnight Oil, a leading member of the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the Australian Conservation Foundation. But in a sign of what we can expect from Peris, as Environment Minister, Garrett gave the green light to more uranium projects than were approved even under Howard.

Paddy Gibson

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