Election 2013: The daze of our lives

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd… or is that Prime Minister Abbott and Opposition leader Kevin Rudd.

Memory is always selective, particularly when it comes to politics. I’ll demonstrate.

I can only recall five decent things John Howard did during his time as Prime Minister.

1. The gun buyback.

2. The Do Not Call register.

3. That ‘delivery’ in Pakistan during an impromptu game of cricket with Australian soldiers.

4. His subsequent attempt to catch the ball and bowl another one.

5. Losing his seat in 2007.

They were Howard’s greatest legacies, the fifth being his best, and the second being the one that impacted on me most.

While I still get the occasional late evening call from some poor bastard trying to sell me something, the mere mention of the word ‘Do No Call register’ is the one sales objection that no call centre worker can overcome.

Every time I do it, I feel like I’m channeling John Winston Howard. It’s obviously a bitter-sweet moment for me.

I imagine that Howard possibly did other good things in office. But if he did, I can’t remember them, due in no small part, I suspect, because seeing through the haze of a xenophobic and mean decade of Howard politics is just too damned difficult.

I was reminded of my short memory recently, when that other annoying sales pitch hit my mailbox (if Rudd, or Abbott, can come up with legislation that stops email spam, they’ve got my eighth-preference vote after I put every other conceivable party before them).

Somehow, my email address has found its way to some party hack, and now daily I get bombarded with personalized releases from politicians I’d be inclined to name first in a refugee swap.

One of those spams was for the seat of Kingsford-Smith, which is currently held by the retiring Peter Garrett.

In case you haven’t made the link, Garrett is the former head of Midnight Oil, who somewhat prophetically sang ‘Short memory… must have a Shor-or-ort memory’ about the hypocrisy of politics.

I also received some spam about the seat of Lalor, held by the retiring former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

It led me to Google what was happening to her seat, which in turn led me to be assaulted by an ill-advised interview that one aspirational candidate embarked on, with Melbourne ABC radio host Jon Faine. Introducing Lisa Clutterham, a 20-something budding Labor hawk currently serving as a diplomat in Papua New Guinea.

It’s one of the most excruciating I can recall.

“I don’t have a connection to Melbourne, and that’s not something I’m shying away from,” Clutterham told Faine. 
First mistake right there. She should have shied away from it… a long way from it.

“As someone whose had a growing resolve over the last few years to pursue a career in politics…”

Oh God help us. Clutterham joined the ALP less than a month before nominating for Gillard’s seat. I think that’s more a ‘sudden bright idea’ than a ‘growing resolve’.

But bright idea it turned out not to be, because despite her claim that she had “been presented with an incredible opportunity” to seek pre-selection for Lalor, all Ms Clutterham had really been afforded was the chance to publicly humiliate herself, and on the national stage no less.

As it turned out, the sum total of Clutterham’s connection to Lalor – and the whole of Victoria – was that her partner sometimes visited Werribee at Christmas when he was a kid.

It begs the question, who was behind pushing her forward for pre-selection (she ultimately withdrew, by the way).

Enter the faceless men of the ALP, short memories, and the pre-selection of Nova Peris for the ALP’s Northern Territory Senate seat, a matter which has some striking similarities.

For those living under a rock, Nova is a former dual-Olympian, having represented Australian in both hockey and athletics. By any standard, she’s an impressive woman. Which is why, I suspect, earlier this year then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Peris would be the ALP’s NT candidate for the federal Senate seat.

Two problems: There was no rank and file vote on who should contest the seat, and there was already a long-serving incumbent who had no plans to retire – Trish Crossin.

Unlike Clutterham, Peris does have strong links to the jurisdiction she is seeking to represent. She grew up in the Territory. But like Clutterham, Peris has absolutely no experience in politics, and only joined the party shortly before winning pre-selection.

She had diddly-squat to say about politics and Aboriginal affairs prior to her pre-selection, and ironically she’s had diddly-squat to say since as well.

Gillard, of course, was bundled out of office before the election. Many expected her predecessor, Kevin Rudd to reverse Gillard’s decision, given that he’d also been knifed by the faceless men of his party.

Indeed, as soon as Kevin got his slippers safely back under the bed at The Lodge, he promised a major reform of the ALP. His goal, he said, was to break the power of the faceless men, the very folk who had removed him three years ago.

And so off he went, with a new set of party rules which allowed members a greater say in the appointment of the party leader. Like it really matters.

As it turned out, Rudd decided not to undo Gillard’s captain’s pick.

He moved to change party rules to protect himself from future assault, but Trish Crossin could be buggered. 
Same snake, different skin… with a short memory.

Here’s Rudd explaining why he chose not to save Crossin: “I’ve been consulting locally with members of the Northern Territory branch of the Labor Party. Since I’ve been here, I’ve spoken with the president and the secretary of the Northern Territory branch,” he said.

“I said this morning I wanted to consult with them and see what their views were, and they have told me, on behalf of the leadership of the Labor Party here in the Northern Territory, that despite all the difficulties that have happened with the national intervention in the pre-selection, that they want, here in the Territory, Australian Labor Party members, want us to get behind Nova as the Australian Labor Party candidate for the Senate. I support their local recommendation.”

Horsesh*t. The people Rudd spoke to ARE the people who helped install Peris.

Rudd’s waffle was only slightly less ridiculous than his call for the party to unite behind Peris because it would be a “tight Senate race”.

The only thing ‘tight’ about a Senate contest in the Northern Territory is the advertising budget, because the election is generally a walk in the park, courtesy of the fact that there are only two Senate seats up for grabs (States have 12 Senate seats, Territories have just two). And in case no-one has noticed, in Australia there are only two major parties. That would explain why, on every single occasion since the formation of the Territory, one seat goes to Labor, one seat goes to the Liberals.

So what does this mean for the political representation of Territorians?

Peris has a very limited history of public advocacy for Aboriginal people. She may well go on to do great things – indeed I hope she does – but so far she’s not used her substantial public profile to call Australia out in any meaningful way on its regular human rights abuses of Aboriginal people.

There’s no reason to believe that giving her a political platform within the Australian Parliament as a member of the Labor Party will change that.

If the pre-selection of Peris was only about getting a blackfella into parliament – and not really anything to do with genuinely representing the views of Aboriginal people – then you might still cut the ALP some slack.

But in fact the pre-selection of Peris was ALL about ensuring that the ALP didn’t end up with someone in the Senate who has a very long history of representing the views of Aboriginal people.

Marion Scrymgour, the former Deputy Chief Minister of the Territory, was lining up for a tilt at the ALP’s Senate seat. You’ll remember Marion from such exciting political events as ‘resigning from the party over their appalling policies aimed at Aboriginal people’.

She has variously dumped on the NT intervention, attacked the inadequacy of the health system (while she was health minister) and thumped Territory ALP over their plans to mine McArthur River.

Scrymgour isn’t superhuman – she didn’t always get it right. But she was a formidable black politician. By heading off her pre-selection – and party insiders say she was the front-runner to knock off Crossin – the ALP has lost a strong, articulate and impressive black advocate for Aboriginal people.

I doubt that’s going to have anyone at ALP headquarters rushing to undo what they’ve done, because Crossin was also a reasonably strong advocate for black rights.

Yes, she stood in parliament and attacked the NT intervention laws, only to vote to extend them for another 10 years through Stronger Futures. And yes, Crossin backed the NT intervention laws when they first came in.

But I know from personal experience that Crossin has also fought hard behind the scenes against the legislation, and she’s fought just as hard on many, many occasions for the broader interests of Aboriginal people outside the Territory.

As Senators go, there are much, much worse than Trish Crossin. Unlike many of her colleagues, her party was much more of a problem than she ever was.

Which leaves us what?

Not a heck of a lot, if you believe the latest polls.

In the return of Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party gambled on the short memories of the Australian people. They had hoped we would have forgotten what a gigantic pain in the arse he really is.

But just a few weeks of Rudd droning on and asking himself endless questions in the course of overly officious media interviews has reminded folk of why they disliked him so much in the first place.

So, enter the anti-faceless man, Tony Abbott, a politician so unconcerned by social mores that he’s strutted the Australian stage in Speedoes; openly admitted that you can’t believe what he says, only what he writes; railed against gay marriage in the face of overwhelming public support; and seemed so unconcerned by his frequent misogyny that he’s no longer making any attempt to disguise it.

Abbott is as transparent as the Labor Party is not. Sure, in one sense that’s refreshing, but what we see also happens to be terrifying.

And it’s not just Abbott’s race to the bottom on climate change and asylum seekers. Abbott has also been pursuing the lowest form of public policy in Indigenous affairs.

He reached that mark remarkably quickly with his announcement just a week into the election campaign that former Labor president Warren Mundine would head a new national Indigenous advisory body, with self-described non-conservative Noel Pearson by his side.

The policy is straight policy out of the failed Howard years, when they hand-picked the National Indigenous Council (of which Mundine was a member, but Pearson declined), an organisation that advocated the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land from Traditional Owners who refused to lease or sell their land to anyone in the market.

On the upside, it’s a recycled policy… maybe Abbott is starting to believe in climate change after all. Either way, he’s never understood that Aboriginal people want to elect their own leaders, and that a goodly part of the reason our First Australians remain mired in poverty is because Joe Whitey’s keep blocking that. Sad fact about us whitefellas – we are the problem, always was, always will be.

Abbott has also never understood that Aboriginal people would sooner elect a gum tree and a house brick to represent them than Mundine and Pearson.

It seems lost on Abbott and others (including many in the media) that Mundine, Pearson et al have never managed to actually get themselves elected to anything that blackfellas vote in. They only manage to get appointed to stuff, and then always by white folk. That’s something the great defenders of democracy might like to ponder some day.

But that’s another column for another day. Because after the longest election campaign in living memory, I’m spent. I intend to seek refuge in the relative luxury of ‘short memory’, where I don’t have to ponder the outrageous failures of the National Indigenous Council, where I don’t have to recall the six years of train wreck policy unleashed by Jenny Macklin, and where I don’t have to remember what life was like under Gillard, Rudd, Howard or any of the other bastards.

I plan to spend the remainder of the election campaign how I began it – dazed and confused. So I’ll see you all in a month, when we’re damned because we did, and damned because we didn’t.

* Chris Graham is a Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist, the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, and the former founder and editor of the National Indigenous Times. He’s now a freelance writer based in Sydney.