THE RESIGNATION of Aboriginal identity Nova Peris — three years after being controversially shanghaied into an unloseable Senate seat by Julia Gillard — brings to a tasteless end what was always an abuse of Parliament. The ALP has form for treating elected sinecures as baubles for trade, and the Peris fiasco is just one of a long list of cases of Labor wiping its backside on Parliament and on voters. This time, it has been left to carry the can.
It does rather seem that in the runup to the election to be held on 2 July, the usual spate of comings and goings promises to be rather “special” — and I use the term sarcastically — this time around; yesterday we wrote the deserved political obituary of Clive Palmer, with a few equally justified barbs lobbed at his onetime protegé Jacqui Lambie for good measure, and it also emerged yesterday that perennial candidate and division pedlar Pauline Hanson seems primed to make yet another comeback attempt 18 years after she last represented anyone except herself.
But news that former Olympic champion and prominent Aboriginal figure Nova Peris — shoehorned into an unloseable Labor Senate seat three years ago by then-PM Julia Gillard, who unilaterally dumped the sitting Senator in the process — has quit her seat should outrage anyone with a care for such quaint notions as the commitment of elected representatives to their constituents, or cling to the faint but forlorn hope that politics might yet be a vocation for individuals and parties genuinely committed to public service and to the public good but who are repeatedly proven delusional by the cynical antics of the so-called political class and its flat disregard for any of the aforesaid concepts.
First things first: when Gillard’s “Captain’s Pick” was unveiled in January 2013, this column was affronted by the undemocratic and dictatorial manner in which the Prime Minister made it her business to dump a sitting Senator (the plodding Trish Crossin) and the insultingly patronising token it made of the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal community. Indeed, one indigenous elder at the time remarked that Gillard has seen to it that Peris would be the “pet Aborigine around Parliament House,” and given the invisible nature of her service ever since, the barb was probably not too far wide of the mark.
One of the things I found most offensive at that time was that for all the hype and bullshit from Gillard that she was giving an opportunity to an Aboriginal woman to serve in Parliament, there was already an Aboriginal woman, in Labor’s ranks, with a depth of experience in public life and intending to stand against Crossin for her endorsement: Marion Scrymgour, who had acted as Chief Minister in the Northern Territory Assembly, and who was a veritable heavyweight as a candidate for high office compared to Peris.
It is to be hoped that Scrymgour might be persuaded to stand for the unexpected vacancy now, and not least because media reports suggest the mediocre (but understandably aggrieved) Crossin may by weighing the prospects of a comeback.
Peris announced yesterday that she was quitting her Senate seat after just three years — failing, apparently, to tell her staff before the announcement was made publicly — and whilst there was some suggestion it was to take up a role at the AFL as Head of Diversity, conflicting reports last night indicated she was by no means a certainty for the post.
Even so, and with the exception of the lack of grace shown by not giving her staff the courtesy of prior warning, the most difficult person to blame in this episode is Peris herself; at the time of the so-called “Captain’s Pick,” there was plenty of anecdotal evidence and scuttlebutt to indicate she was far from an eager recruit, and that some degree of cajoling and “persuasion” had been necessary to convince her to accept Crossin’s Senate spot in the first place.
I said at the time that it was an insult to Aborigines, that it stank of tokenism and paternalism, and that the histrionic rhetoric the appointment was couched in — that Gillard was “righting a wrong” — was nothing more than melodramatic twaddle and with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think I was wrong.
But what it also was, on a more sinister level, was just another example of the ALP exhibiting such disrespect for the voting public and the institutions of elective office as to be little more than a contemptuous exercise in the party wiping its backside on Parliament, and on the voters of the Northern Territory.
Labor has form for this kind of thing. The Peris appointment wasn’t the first time the ALP has done something like this and it won’t be the last.
Former Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett was parachuted into the (then) safe Sydney seat of Kingsford Smith in 2004; as an eventual minister he was an abject failure.
Disendorsed Senator David Feeney was parachuted into the safe — for now — Melbourne seat of Batman; Feeney is a machine thug and a union hack who adds nothing to either the national debate or to constructive outcomes of governance.
Former NSW Premier Bob Carr was parachuted into a casual Senate vacancy on Gillard’s watch specifically to replace Kevin Rudd as Foreign minister; the calibre of his performance in that role was debatable. Yet having stood for and secured a fresh six-year term at the 2013 election, Carr quit Canberra in land speed record-breaking time once the trappings of government had been displaced by the drudge of opposition.
All over the country, Labor’s factions (and in recent years, militant unions like the CFMEU) have divided the spoils of the electoral map between themselves as if they are baubles and trinkets for trade; it is an appalling one-fingered salute to the notion of representative democracy for which the ALP makes no apology.
Indeed. the party’s current federal “leader” — having lost a leadership vote of the Labor rank and file by more than a 60-40 margin to Anthony Albanese — occupies his position today only on account of union dictates to individual MPs to support Shorten in the ALP caucus: or else.
But Labor in its “modern” incarnation has never much cared for democracy: the wild frenzy to destroy the Abbott-Turnbull government within a single term, and the unprincipled gutter tactics with which that effort has been prosecuted over the past three years, far exceeds what might ordinarily be described as a “vigorous” opposition to the government of the day, and represents merely the culmination of an increasingly anti-democratic trend that has taken root at the ALP over the past ten years.
For once, however, Peris’ sudden resignation has left the ALP carrying the can.
Less than six weeks from polling day, it must now find a replacement Senate candidate, and quickly; Scrymgour would be the obvious (and most credible) choice, although Crossin’s musings ought to alarm Labor hardheads hoping some good might come of yesterday’s bombshell by replacing Peris with a much more substantial figure.
And there is, of course, no chance whatsoever that that candidate — whoever it is — will fail to be elected: with just two Senate berths to fill and the quota required identical at a double dissolution to that for a half-Senate election (for the uninitiated, the territories elect Senators for three-year terms that are synchronised with the House of Representatives) the only parties with a realistic chance of winning them are Labor and the NT’s Country Liberal Party, and neither is ever dominant enough to win both.
But just for once, one of these “smart” appointments by Labor has blown up in its face, which is no less than the party deserves.
It delivers a politically posthumous slapdown to any lasting belief (if there ever was any) that Gillard was possessed of an iota of sound judgement: the appointment of Peris should never have been made and we said so at the time.
Labor will continue to carve up the spoils of power for as long as it remains an unreconstructed morass of factional appetites and union prejudices, but this time at least the ALP has been made to look very silly indeed, and voters across the country are entitled to question just how poorly it might perform in office if they are inclined to elevate Bill Shorten to the Prime Ministership in a backlash against what has been a disappointing Coalition outfit to date.
And speaking of Shorten, a recent similar adventure in exercising a “Captain’s Pick” to install an Aborigine into a Senate vacancy over the heads of the local rank and file — this time in WA, with the endorsement of Pat Dodson — offers a chilling parallel for ALP strategists to ponder over the next few years: if, that is, Dodson is even elected, for he wasn’t even given a high enough position on the WA Senate ticket to make victory certain.
Shorten would want to be damned certain in his judgement of Dodson, and sure that he had backed the correct candidate where Gillard blundered badly: but if Dodson fails to enter the Senate at all, the embarrassment will be considerable, and point only to an insidious culture of preferment that should be stamped out at all costs, and which flies in the face of any sanctimonious blather about merit.