The Country Liberals (CLP) have swept to power in the Northern Territory elections, after 11 years of Labor rule. Aboriginal voters in remote NT electorates played the decisive role, electing four Aboriginal CLP candidates, delivering the party a majority of 16 seats in the 25 seat parliament.
The CLP ran a cynical, yet devastatingly effective campaign in bush electorates. Their election platform here had two components, both central demands of the campaign against the NT Intervention.
First, the break-up of the hated Super Shire councils, which the Henderson Labor government introduced in 2008. These Shires have profoundly disempowered and further impoverished Aboriginal people, usurping the authority and assets of locally based Aboriginal Community Government Councils. Their head offices are in regional centres sometimes more than 800kms away from the communities they are serving. Second, an end to the “Working Futures” policy which has seen investment focussed on 20 “growth towns”, at the expense of the hundreds of smaller communities and outstations on Aboriginal land.
Conservative commentators and The Australian freely admit the impact of anger at the Shire reform and neglect of outstations, but deny the role of the Intervention, pointing to the pro-Intervention stance of successful CLP candidates such as Bess Price.
But NT government policies and the federal implementation of the Intervention have been inseparable.
The Intervention seized compulsory five year leases over Aboriginal township land, granting the Commonwealth control over all township buildings. The Commonwealth granted permission for the new Shire councils to evict local Aboriginal bodies and move into administrative offices and staff accommodation.
The new Shires employ less local Aboriginal people and deliver a lower level of services. But the old community councils relied on the Commonwealth funded Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). The Intervention has cut more than 4000 CDEP jobs.
In September 2007, Howard stopped Commonwealth funds being expended on outstations and introduced the “growth towns” concept. Federal Labor has also demanded agreements forcing “voluntary migration” for Aboriginal people to access basic services.
Newly elected member for Stuart Bess Price has championed these Intervention policies. That’s why her own Warlpiri people overwhelmingly rejected her. Despite chartering a plane to reach the remote Warlpiri booth of Lajamanu, Price could only muster 38 out of 180 votes. Similarly, in the town of Yuendumu where she grew up and has a strong family base, she received 54 of 225 votes.
Price won in the Katherine region, where the popular CLP candidate Larissa Lee did most of the campaigning. She could not have won without the new anti-Intervention First Nations Political Party (FNPP), who preferenced the CLP due to their promise to break up the Shires.
When the Greens connected with the anti-Intervention campaign in Alice Springs for the 2010 federal election, their candidate Barbara Shaw outpolled both Labor and Liberal in remote polling booths in Central Australia. Sadly, this election, The Greens campaign based out of Darwin badly dragged its feet, preselecting only a handful of Aboriginal candidates two weeks out from the poll. Their decision to preference the CLP in Arafura handed them the seat.
The FNPP polled well where it had a base. Anti-Intervention leader Maurie Ryan easily won the booths in his Gurindji region. They worked hard to register a party and field eight candidates. But they had literally no money to travel out to remote electorates or print material.
In the major town centres, the CLP’s anti-Aboriginal policies were on full display. The FNPP led a protest rally at CLP leader Terry Mills’ office in Darwin after he announced plans to privatise Aboriginal-owned town camps in Darwin. The CLP’s call to lock up more people for drunkenness will simply mean more Aboriginal people are jailed. Mills has already started recruiting an extra 120 police officers.
While the CLP may reshuffle the administration of local government, establishing “regional” councils in place of the Shires, there is no way they will provide the level of funding needed, even to restore the meagre employment and asset base that existed in community councils prior to 2007.
Amoonguna, just outside Alice Springs, is one community that has gone on the front foot to fight for change. Their 5-year Intervention lease expired on August 17, meaning the Shire has no legal right to continue occupancy in their community.
Amoonguna has sent a letter demanding the Shire leave, or face a trespass order. A major meeting on September 5 at Amoonguna will put forward demands to re-establish the community council. Plans are being made to target the CLP and force action on their election promises.
Other communities, such as Daguragu and Ampilatwatja are also refusing to sign leases with the Shires.
The CLP was the electoral beneficiary of anger with racist policy. But winning change will require an uncompromising stand from communities—and reinvigoration of the national campaign that has stood alongside Aboriginal people fighting the Intervention.