Did Julia Gillard act autocratically when she parachuted Nova Peris into Trish Crossin's Senate seat? What about the party democracy and Labor's long-suffering grassroots membership? What role did the factional warlords play in getting rid of Crossin, if any?
So many questions, except the obvious one: why does the party that prides itself on having advanced the cause of Aboriginal Australia, that gave us the Redfern speech and the Apology, not have one single Aboriginal federal member of parliament or senator?
As far as the Northern Territory is concerned, the answer is relatively straightforward — Crossin and Warren Snowdon, the MHR for Lingiari — are clogging up the system. Crossin filled Bob Collins' casual Senate vacancy in 1998 and has been there ever since. Snowdon had two non-consecutive terms in the division of Northern Territory, beginning in 1987, before it was cut in half, and has been parked in Lingiari since 2001.
There's been a concerted effort by federal Labor to get an Aboriginal candidate in for a long time. The opposition to such a push by the NT branch of the party has been stubborn enough to resist it until now.
In a November 2000 story in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled "The ALP ‘pet nigger' with no place to go", "Tracker" Tilmouth, an Alice Springs man who was the federal party's pick to replace Collins in 1998, slammed the "weekend warriors" of the NT party.
"For the last 20 years we've all voted Labor," the SMH article quoted Tilmouth as saying. "They just expected us to vote Labor. It's a plantation mentality."
Collins opposed Tilmouth's nomination, as did the "Darwin end" of the NT Labor party. He withdrew from the race. "Some in Federal Labor bitterly regretted the party's lost chance to get its first black face into the national parliament," the SMH reported.
In the same article, Snowdon was asked whether he was "keen to see a Territory Aboriginal politician in Canberra?" He thought it was inevitable, but he wouldn't support Tilmouth. "People needed to understand the legitimate political aspirations of Aboriginal contenders," the article paraphrased him as saying.
He was less enthused when it came to the prospect of giving up his seat for an Aboriginal contender: "Snowdon all but choked," the story continued.
"My time's not up," he said. "I don't intend stepping aside for anyone at this point. But there will be a time when I won't be contesting, and I'll be happy to endorse an appropriate person at that time."
That was over a decade ago.
A year later, Crossin was embroiled in a preselection battle with an Aboriginal candidate, Pat Anderson, who at the time headed a Darwin Aboriginal health centre and is now chairman of the Lowitja Institute and a staunch anti-Intervention campaigner.
Crossin originally won the vote 115-111, but the morning after the postal vote was counted, another six ballots arrived in the ALP's post-box. The local returning officer advised the NT party that they be counted, and the party's administrative committee voted to do so.
Crossin appealed to the federal party, whose returning officer, Tony Lang, ordered the NT to endorse the original count. A Sunday Territorian report on the preselection battle rumoured five of the six ballots were for Anderson — who had been supported by Snowdon.
Had her appeal not been granted by the federal party, the ALP could have had its Aboriginal candidate over a decade ago, and one with much more administrative and policy experience to boot. Instead they've been stuck with Crossin, who was deeply unpopular even back then, owing to a Commonwealth car scandal. 26-year-old Jennifer Byrne, the girlfriend of Crossin's son**, was driving the car when she was involved in an accident. Another motorist was killed, but questions of whether Byrne was authorised to drive the vehicle plagued Crossin and Kim Beazley, the ALP's federal leader at the time.
While her service to the party has been extensive — including co-convening Emily's List, the organisation that promotes the cause of females in the ALP — Crossin's desperation at being dumped is clear. She told the NT News that "indigenous NT Labor members that had 'already done the hard yards'" should have been chosen over Peris. "It is a shame that without consultation these people weren't looked at," she said.
No doubt this is the kind of dissembling that has gotten the ALP into its current position in the NT, where last election Aboriginal votes, especially from the communities, poured in for the Country Liberal Party. Both Crossin and Snowdon could have stepped aside for new blood years ago and walked away with their parliamentary pensions.
Northern Territory Indigenous Affairs Minister Alison Anderson, who defected to the CLP, has already slammed Peris, calling her a "maid", and saying "Gillard was dragged kicking to preselect an Aboriginal person". She can get away with those kinds of statements by merely pointing at the party's record. Regardless of whether Gillard's method was correct, Peris must now shoulder the NT party's baggage.
In its 2010 list of powerful Territorians, the NT News was unreserved in its mockery, dropping Crossin 43 places from 46th to 83rd:
"One of the biggest losers in The Most Powerful List. The Senator and NT Labor president has influence in the backrooms of the ALP, but little sway in the upper echelons of power in Canberra and little recognition in the Territory. What do you call a constituent in a Senator's office? Answer: lost. Surely it's time to retire, Trish."
Perhaps she should take their advice and bow out gracefully, instead of cruelling Peris' chances to undo the perception among Aboriginal voters that Labor is blocking, rather than supporting them.
**Correction: This article mistakenly said Senator Crossin's daughter was driving her commonwealth car. It was in fact Jennifer Byrne who was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. The author apologises for any offence caused.
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