Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs? Hardly

Chris Graham ABC 'The Drum' 12 Sep 2013

The political process - and the election - has not worked for First Nation Australians - (AAP: Alan Porritt)

If the swing against the Coalition in Aboriginal communities was replicated across Australia, Tony Abbott would be leading a minor party, writes Chris Graham.

One of the features of a modern democracy is that apart from getting the government we deserve, we're also supposed to get the government that the majority of us want.

Like Communism, it's great in theory. But also like Communism, it's often not so good in practice. At least, it's not if you happen to be a minority group who has long been denied the right to elect your own leaders.

And that explains how Aboriginal Australians awoke on Sunday morning to find they had a new "Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs", a pledge Tony Abbott delivered during the 2013 election campaign.

One problem: no-one, including within the media, ever stopped to ask Aboriginal people if they actually wanted a "Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs", and in particular whether or not they wanted Abbott.

As it turns out, they apparently don't.

Believe it or not, there is a simple way to get a broad feel for Aboriginal voting aspirations. All you need do is look at booths around Australia that are identifiably Aboriginal.

That mainstream media are too lazy to invest the time to do this (it took me just four hours to analyse 48 identifiably Aboriginal booths) speaks some volumes about how effectively the rights and interests of Aboriginal people are served by that other pillar of democracy - a free and informed press.

In any case, here are the facts.

The average vote directed to Labor in identifiably Aboriginal communities outside the Northern Territory (we'll come to the NT seat of Lingiari shortly, because it's a whole other train wreck) was 71 per cent.

The swing against the Coalition in some booths climbed as high as 40 percent, and averaged around 12 percent. That’s more than three times the national average (a 3.51 percent swing to the Coalition). And that’s in booths that overwhelmingly already voted Labor in the first place.
To put that into some perspective for you, if a swing of 12 percent were to occur against either party in mainstream Australia, they would have been reduced to around 25 seats in a 150-seat parliament, aka “minor party status”.

One of the most interesting seats - at least from the black perspective - is Leichhardt, the electorate that takes in all of the Cape York Aboriginal communities.

Cape York, of course, is home to Noel Pearson, another self-styled "Aboriginal Prime Minister" who has for more than a decade been advising government directly on Aboriginal policy, whilst repeatedly claiming that only a conservative Coalition government can deliver real change.

If you look at the Coalition's election statement on Indigenous Australians, most of its policies come from Pearson. But it seems the good citizens of Cape York don't share Pearson's views on the way forward, due in no small part, I suspect, to the reality that after more than a decade of Pearson dominance, their lives have not improved.

The tiny community of Lockhart River saw a two-party-preferred vote to Labor of almost 90 per cent, with a swing against the Coalition of 40 per cent. Kowanyama saw 87 per cent of the vote directed to Labor. Bamaga and Napranum both delivered 72 per cent to Labor.

The only Aboriginal community which actually voted in favour of the Coalition was Pearson's home town of Hope Vale, and even then, it was only by a margin of 4 per cent while still delivering a 7 per cent swing against the Coalition.

The booth at Aurukun - a large community where Abbott visited last year to help build a school library - also saw a swing to the Coalition (10 per cent). It sounds encouraging for Abbott ... until you understand that 76 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote went to Labor.

In communities outside Queensland, the result was the same, and sometimes worse.

In Toomelah on the NSW border, 82 per cent of the vote went to Labor, despite the fact that across the rest of seat of Parkes, the Coalition member won 72 per cent of the two-party vote.
At Wallaga Lake Koori Village in the seat of Eden-Monaro on the NSW South Coast, 94 per cent of votes on a two-party basis were directed to Labor.

In the seat of Farrer, Wilcannia - a town where 20 per cent of the community is non Aboriginal - 62 per cent of the vote still went to Labor, with a 14 per cent swing against the Coalition.

Of the 48 identifiably Aboriginal booths surveyed, only eight of them bucked the trend and delivered more than 50 per cent of the two party vote to the Coalition, and six of those were in Northern Territory bush booths.

And that's the other train wreck.

The seat of Lingiari takes in all of the 73 Aboriginal communities affected by the Northern Territory intervention.

At the 2007 election, there were massive swings against the Coalition, amid promises by Labor to water the legislation down. When Labor won office and then sat on its hands, there were massive swings back to the Coalition in 2010, with swings against Labor in Aboriginal booths of up to 70 per cent.

Now, in 2013, there have been wild swings all over the place - some to Labor, and some to the Coalition. But the underlying trend in Lingiari has been to retreat back to Labor.

So what does it all mean?

A couple of things. Firstly, the wild swings over the past few elections in Aboriginal communities show that while black voters favour Labor, they are not wholly wedded to any single party.

Secondly, any suggestion that most Aboriginal people LIKE Labor is nonsense. They don't. On most fronts, the ALP's policies virtually match the Coalition's - bipartisanship is only ever a good thing when you actually know what you're doing.

Thirdly, by any reasonable analysis, Aboriginal people overwhelmingly do not want Tony Abbott as the "Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs", and at a punt the Coalition's stated election policies probably helped solidify that view.

Only two of those policies ever got serious mainstream airing in the course of the election campaign.

The first was Abbott's plan to appoint a new National Indigenous Council, a policy tried and failed the last time the Coalition was in power. The NIC is a group of hand-picked blackfellas who will advise the Prime Minister directly on Aboriginal policy. It will be headed by former Labor Party president Warren Mundine - a man who has never been elected to any Aboriginal leadership position - with support from Pearson and Professor Marcia Langton.

Pearson and Langton, in their defence, are formidable intellects. But they also happen to be possibly the only two people in the nation less popular than Mundine among Aboriginal people.

So much for a love of democracy from a group of people - conservatives - whose synapses would start misfiring if you ever threatened their basic rights.

The only other policy to get any mainstream coverage - and only then by accident in the dying days of the campaign - was incoming Treasurer Joe Hockey's admission that more than $40 million would be cut from Aboriginal Legal Aid.

The area has been grossly underfunded for two decades, and Labor continued that during its first term in office. It finally lifted funding marginally a few years ago - at a time when jailing rates reached stratospheric dimensions - and now the Coalition is planning to axe it again.

It's puzzling how this fits Abbott's mantra of "ruling for all Australians", unless of course you accept that managing a population of blackfellas is much easier if you can confine most of them to penal institutions.

To sum it all up, the political process - and the election - has not worked for Aboriginal Australians. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn't, and in fact most didn't - half the Aboriginal population eligible to vote is not enrolled, which speaks some volumes in its own right.

But not all volumes, because the parliamentary system is currently working no better than the white one.

During the election campaign, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples - the new body which is elected by Aboriginal people and aims to represent the views of Aboriginal people nationally - released the results of its own biannual elections. Of the 6,000 eligible members, just 809 cast a vote.

It's a bitterly disappointing result, by any measure, and proof that Aboriginal people are increasingly disengaging from any political process, not just the mainstream ones.

There's a simple reason for this. Aboriginal people want self-determination, and every step Australia takes - from an Abbott hand-picked council to constitutional recognition within a document designed to deny Aboriginal sovereignty - is a step further from where Aboriginal people want to be.

Genuine self determination - where a distinct people choose their own leaders, make their own laws, govern their own lives - never comes easily, nor quickly. It took Australia more than 100 years to even make a dent in it. It is, however, the only solution that has ever worked for nations facing the same problems we face - the displacement and brutalisation of a First Peoples.

In New Zealand, Maori have seven seats (10 per cent of the parliament) which sit over the entire country which anyone can contest, but in which only Maori can vote. There's also a variety of models that have worked successfully in Canada and the US, where First Nations people have varying degrees of autonomy over their communities.

These other nations, of course, have not collapsed into civil war. Indeed, by comparison to Australia, First Nations peoples in Canada, the US and New Zealand are way ahead in every single social indicator.

They don't have world record rates of curable diseases, such as trachoma and rheumatic heart disease. They don't have suicide rates that are the highest on earth. They also don't jail their First Peoples at world record rates.

Those honours, of course, are reserved for Australia, a nation that continues to stray further and further from the only real solution - self-determination.

Tony Abbott can quite rightly claim to have a mandate to govern Australia. But he has nothing even closely resembling a mandate to claim to be "Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs".

For some reason, I doubt that's going to stop him claiming it, nor prevent the mainstream media circus from blindly embracing and reporting it.

Democracy, it seems, isn't necessarily for everyone.

Chris Graham is a Walkley Award- and Human Rights Award-winning journalist, and the former managing editor of Tracker magazine. He's now a freelance writer based in Glebe, Sydney. View his full profile here.