Minister for Indigenous Health and member for Lingiari Warren Snowdon at a recent press conference with Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin. Snowdon’s seat takes in every one of the 73 Aboriginal communities affected by the NT intervention, and the new Stronger Futures legislation. The policies have caused Aboriginal voters to abandon Labor in unprecedented numbers.
And with that in mind, it’s worth noting the politicians who sat on the Senate committee inquiry into the consultation process.
They were Claire Moore, (Chair, Queensland, ALP); Rachel Siewert, (Deputy Chair, Western Australia, Greens); Judith Adams (Western Australia, Liberals); Mark Furner (Queensland, ALP); Bridget McKenzie (Victoria, Nationals); Sue Boyce (Queensland, Liberals); Trish Crossin (Northern Territory, ALP); Carol Brown (Tasmania, ALP); Nigel Scullion (Northern Territory, CLP).
Despite their damning report, which noted “serious concern about the degree of confusion” over the laws, with the exception of Greens Senator Rachel Siewert (who strongly opposed the Bills) and Senator Adams (who died of cancer in March), every single committee member voted for the legislation when it reached the Upper House three months later.
Indeed at least one of them voted for it, even though she believed the laws had major flaws. While generally supportive of the Stronger Futures bills, Trish Crossin, the Labor Senator for the Northern Territory, canned the income management provisions – a key plank of the laws – telling parliament, “I do not particularly like the model.”
But it was on the removal of customary law from considerations in NT sentencing when she really opened up: “There is one part of this legislation I strongly disagree with and I am toying with the idea of asking the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee to inquire into the provisions relating to customary law.
I think we are making a very big mistake in not accepting the fact that the customary law provisions need to be removed from this piece of legislation.”
Of course none of this – neither the consultations, nor the Senate inquiry – should really matter.
Because we didn’t need a Senate committee inquiry, or a Stronger Futures consultation report, to establish that Aboriginal people overwhelmingly opposed the Northern Territory intervention, and all the laws and regulations that flowed from it. All we needed to do was apply the same test to Aboriginal aspirations that we do every three years to mainstream ones. How you vote in a federal election.
On that front, Aboriginal people have twice made their views known on the NT intervention in terms that are unmistakeable.
When the Howard government introduced the Northern Territory intervention, the 2007 federal election was looming. The policy was actually one of the Liberal Party’s key re-election strategies, a fact acknowledged by former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on ABC television the day after his party was punted from office.
“Look, to be honest with you, I’ll tell you one thing retrospectively, my view through this year was that it didn’t look to me as though we were going to win the election…. When we intervened in the Northern Territory in the Indigenous communities, the actual initiative was very popular with the public but it didn’t shift the opinion polls,” Downer told the Insiders program.
It may not have shifted mainstream opinion polls, but it sure shifted some votes, although not the ones intended by the Liberal strategists.
With widespread claims by Aboriginal people that the intervention was racist, Liberal Party officials took to describing the 2007 federal election in the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari as a “referendum” on the policy.
Why Lingiari? Because the seat – held by Labor member and Minister for Indigenous Health, Warren Snowdon since its creation in 2001 – includes every one of the 73 communities affected by the intervention.
Party officials argued Aboriginal people in Lingiari would vote for the Liberals because they actually liked the intervention; it was the ‘east coast academics’, the ‘urban elites’ and the ‘out-of-towners’ who opposed it.
Support for the Liberals was already traditionally low in Aboriginal communities in the NT, so there was, in theory, plenty of votes to pick up. In the 2004 election, for example, Labor captured around 78 percent of the Aboriginal vote. That historical voting pattern is due in no small part to the overtly racist rule of the Country Liberal Party during its preceding 23-year reign at the Territory level. So how did the Liberals fare in the 2007 election in Lingiari?
Snowdon’s voter base in Aboriginal communities climbed to around 87.5 percent, and that’s despite the fact the Liberals rang a strong Aboriginal candidate against him.
But while almost nine out of every 10 black voters cast their ballot against the intervention, even that doesn’t reveal the full scale of the rejection of the intervention.
In the 2004 election, almost 12,000 people cast their votes in bush communities. In 2007, that climbed to over 13,000 – Aboriginal voters fulfilled their civic duty and turned out in spades to make their feelings known. But with more votes on offer, the Liberal vote actually declined by almost 1,000.
When you look at the results from individual communities, it’s even more telling. Wadeye, a remote Aboriginal community in the north west, is one of the largest towns in the Territory, black or white. Of the 740 formal votes cast there in 2007, Snowdon won 684 of them.
That represents 92 percent. In Angkarripa, in central Australia, there were 493 votes. Snowdon won all but 10 of them, with a 20 percent swing against the Liberals. At Yirrikala, home to former Australian of the Year Galarrwuy Yunupingu, key backer of the intervention, there were 363 votes cast. The Liberals picked up just four of them – one percent of the vote. And the story goes on, and on, and on.
In Gunbalunya (Arnhem Land), there was a swing against the Liberals of 15 percent, with Labor winning 94 percent of the vote. In Angkarripa, the swing against the Liberals was 20 percent, with Labor winning 98 percent of the vote. In Angurugu, it was 14 percent, with Labor winning 92 percent.
To put that into some sort of context, the recent landslide in Queensland – described as one of the greatest electoral wipeouts since Federation – saw the Liberals win 68 percent of the two-party preferred vote.
There is simply no precedent anywhere in the nation for one party receiving 90-plus percent of the vote, let alone 99 percent, across such a vast voter base. It just doesn’t happen. Or at least it didn’t, until 2007.
The upshot is that if the vote in Lingiari really was a referendum on the intervention as the Liberals claimed, the result was as clear cut as the national referendum in 1967, when 90 percent of Australians voted to include Aboriginal people as citizens.
And it’s worth remembering, outside the NT the 2007 election was fought on the Liberals’ WorkChoices legislation, a policy which assaulted the basic rights of workers. The Liberals lost that election after 53 percent of the Australian population sided with Labor.
That’s a margin of just three percent, which the Liberals accepted was an electoral mandate for the complete abolition of WorkChoices. At the same election, almost 90 percent of Aboriginal people affected by the intervention voted against it – a margin of almost 40 percent – and yet both major parties continue to support the policy today.
Now, fast forward to the 2010 federal election.
By November 2010, the Labor Party had served three years in government. In Opposition, they’d promised to radically reform the intervention. In office, they continued it virtually unchanged. If you thought the Aboriginal voting patterns in 2007 were spectacular, the swings in 2010 made everything before it look like a cakewalk. And this time, the electoral fury was aimed at Labor.
Every single Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory delivered a personal swing against Snowdon of double figures. And again, to give you some context, the swing in the Queensland election that installed the Liberals was 15 percent.
The swing across 23 communities against Snowdon was 28 percent. But that was just the average, and it was after the distribution of preferences.
On primary votes – that is, people who picked Labor as their first choice – one community in Central Australia delivered a swing against Snowdon of 69 percent, more than four times greater than Queensland’s electoral wipeout. Three communities delivered swings of more than 60 percent, and nine delivered swings against Snowdon of more than 40 percent.
To say that Snowdon’s popularity in Aboriginal communities nose-dived doesn’t quite describe what happened. What it actually did was reduce by almost half.
At the 2007 election – when Labor was in Opposition and promising to reform the intervention – Snowdon attracted 11,478 votes from Aboriginal booths. Come 2010, that vote was reduced to 6,685, a drop from 85 percent of the vote, to just 57.
At the same time, the Liberals increased their vote in black communities by almost 300 percent. After trailing Labor in 2007 with a margin of 35 percent, the Liberals will go into the 2013 election just seven percent behind.
Some might argue that Labor’s 57 percent still represents a majority, which means Aboriginal people want the intervention after all.
But that 57 percent is a two-party preferred result. In other words, our voting system ensures that unless a ‘third party’ candidate gets a strong vote, at some point you’re going to have to choose between one of the two major parties – Labor or Liberal.
But Greens candidate, Barb Shaw, actually won the vote in Central Australia on first preferences, a scenario that until 2010 was unthinkable.
And Shaw, of course, is perhaps the Territory’s most prominent anti-intervention activist.
The wash-up is that Snowdon’s seat was reduced from a safe one, with a margin of more than 11 percent, to a marginal one with a lead of just three percent.
Having been the local member in the Northern Territory for more than two decades, Snowdon now faces the very real prospect of losing his seat in 2013.
Indeed, the only reason Snowdon is still an MP today is because his electoral wipeout in Aboriginal communities was offset by the reality that white voters outnumber black voters by three to one, and the white voters delivered Snowdon a swing of almost one percent.
And that came despite the national trend in 2010 which saw a swing against Labor of 2.5 percent.
You can draw your own conclusions from that, but one obvious one is that white voters in Lingiari like the intervention, while black voters hate it.
So how did we all miss this? How did we get sucked into spending the last eight months debating the appropriateness of the Stronger Futures consultation, when Aboriginal people had already so clearly expressed their will at two federal elections? The answer is media spin.