All eyes turn to bush seats as NT election gets underway

BY AMY MCQUIREAUGUST 13, 2012

 Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson.

NORTHERN TERRITORY: The Northern Territory will go to the polls on August 25. Will Aboriginal people finally have a voice, asks AMY McQUIRE*.

Analysis

The interesting thing about the Territory is that it is one of the only places in Australia where Aboriginal people can have a genuine say in, and impact on, an election outcome, if not, the only place.

That’s pretty significant for a people most accustomed to being on the losing end of the political process. More often than not, this influence has flown under the radar. Until now.

On the day the writs were issued, the nation’s leading broadsheets began analysing the fight to take place in the NT bush seats, with several prominent Aboriginal candidates running for both parties.

With an election expected to go to the wire, all eyes are looking to the bush, and how Labor’s Aboriginal policies will play out to constituents.

There has even been mention in the news of the First Nations Party, lead by Kalkarinji man Maurie Japarta Ryan, and the impact it could have on Labor and CLP votes.

Many Aboriginal people in remote communities have already made their feelings clear on a federal level.

At the last federal election, the remote booths voted overwhelmingly for Greens candidate for Lingiari Barbara Shaw, a prominent anti-intervention campaigner.

In some booths, there was a massive swing to the Greens, against long-term Lingiari MP Warren Snowdon.

In the Territory elections this year, Aboriginal people may again be able to make their voices heard through the ballot box.

That’s on issues like the amalgamation of the shires, the axing of bi-lingual education, and the underfunding of homelands.

Which may explain why, earlier this month, Chief Minister Paul Henderson announced Labor would invest $300 million in 500 homeland communities across the Territory over the next 10 years.

This comes despite the controversial Growth Towns policy which sought to place majority funding in 20 growth centres, starving the homelands of proper investment.

Many considered this to be a death knell for the homelands movement.

The NT government says the new funding does not mean it will abandon the Growth Towns policy.

But the election promise could be targeted towards seats like Namitjira, which is held by CLP candidate Alison Anderson and other seats either CLP, or vulnerable to CLP.

Labor only holds government by one seat so they will be vying to hold all their seats, plus gain one more.

It’s one example of how Labor could be pitching to Aboriginal voters.

It’s a change from the days of the Martin government, with a central plank of then Chief Minister Clare Martin’s 2005 campaign focused on demonising Aboriginal people and stamping out black crime.

But during Martin’s tenure, there were also several instances where Aboriginal people were able to make a stand in the political process.

For example, in 2007, three of Martin’s Indigenous MLAs crossed the floor against the proposed expansion of the controversial McArthur River mine.

That’s one way Aboriginal MLAs in the NT can put pressure on government.

It’s true even of Martin’s successor.

Paul Henderson’s Labor government has had a tumultuous run since taking over the reins in 2007.

And often, it’s been in the area of Aboriginal affairs where the government has nearly fallen on its sword.

Henderson only won his first election by a one-seat majority. So when his former deputy Marion Scrymgour decided to resign from his government and become an independent in protest over the controversial Growth Town policy, it put Labor’s position in turmoil.

That turmoil continued when Labor MLA Alison Anderson, ironically the MLA who presided over Growth Towns, resigned from Labor after the devastating failure of the federal and territory government’s Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP).

That left Henderson scrambling and it was only after he signed a deal with independent Gerry Wood that he was able to stay in government. Scrymgour also promised to rejoin Labor.

Anderson and Scrymgour were both able to take a stand against real concerns for their Aboriginal constituents.

For Scrymgour, it was the prospect of the death of the homelands through the Growth Towns policy.

For Anderson, now a CLP candidate, it was the prospect of another decade of overcrowding and wasted billions in the form of SIHIP.

So who are the Aboriginal candidates hoping to make a change in the Northern Territory this time around?

One of the most interesting seats this election will be in Stuart, with Labor MLA and Aboriginal man Karl Hampton holds by a safe 15 percent margin.

Stuart takes in the Tanami desert and edges into Arnhem Land, taking in Yuendumu, Kalkarinji and Ti-Tree.

Mr Hampton has been in government since 2006 and holds a number of portfolios, including Central Australia, Climate Change and Environment and Heritage.

But his CLP opponent is the high profile Warlpiri woman Bess Price, a conservative activist and a prominent intervention supporter.

The other candidate which could attract votes is the First Nations Party’s Maurie Japarta Ryan.

Anti-intervention activist Barbara Shaw has told media that she has not decided what seat to contest, but it is likely she could run as a Greens candidate, and probably in the seat of Braitling, against CLP Aboriginal incumbent, Adam Giles.

Another interesting seat is Namatjira, which is held by the former ALP, then independent, and now CLP MLA Alison Anderson.

Ms Anderson has held the seat (formerly Macdonnell) since 2005 and in 2008 was re-elected unopposed. She has been both an opponent, and then supporter of the intervention.

In the past, she was a strident critic of the CLP but now has a strong dislike for Labor. Last year she told the NT News “I hate (the government) as much as they hate me and I’m quite open about that”.

Nevertheless, she is expected to win her safe seat against Labor’s Des Rogers, a former ATSIC regional chair and board member of Desert Knowledge Australia.

She is also up against the First Nations candidate Warren H Williams, who is a prominent country singer and ran on the Greens Senate ticket at the last federal elections.

The other interesting seat to watch is that vacated by Ms Scrymgour – Arafura, which takes in the Tiwi Islands and western Arnhem Land.

Labor has put up Dean Rioli, who is a former Essendon football star and the nephew of prominent AFL player Maurice Rioli. It is a safe Labor seat but one the CLP will be trying to pick up. There was a 9.6 percent swing against Ms Scrymgour at the last election.

The CLP’s candidate is Francis Xavier Maralampuwi, who was chair of Tiwi Islands Local Government in 2003 and now serves as deputy chair of the Tiwi Land Council.

Mr Maralampuwi turned his back on Labor because he felt the party’s policies were “condescending”, he told the Australian newspaper.

Former ABC journalist and current Minister for Indigenous Development, Malarndirri McCarthy is also expected to retain her seat of Arnhem against Country Liberal Party’s Larisa Lee.

The CLP’s only Aboriginal MLA, Adam Giles is expected to hold onto his Alice Spring’s based seat of Braitling against Labor’s Deborah Rock. He’s sitting on a comfortable 20.3 percent margin.

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