VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE: How black Australia rejected Tony Abbott

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott… he wants to be the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’.

TONY Abbott is the new ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’. One problem: no-one bothered to ask Aboriginal people if they even wanted him. It turns out they didn’t, if the most in-depth analysis of Aboriginal voting intentions ever conducted is anything to go by. CHRIS GRAHAM explains.

UPDATE: This article contains a significant error – the community of Wreck Bay is in the electorate of Fraser, not Eden-Monaro. Fraser is an ACT electorate (and Wreck Bay is actually part of land that takes in the naval base, so it’s part of the Australian Capital Territory). The booth results are correct, however the description of it in Eden-Monaro is wrong. Apologies to readers, and thanks to Joe for pointing it out. – Chris

SOMEWHERE in Wreck Bay – a tiny Aboriginal community on the NSW South Coast – a blackfella is hiding a deep, dark secret.

He or she voted Liberal at the recent federal election. I’m not kidding.

Wreck Bay is in the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro, an electorate which, since 1972, has always fallen to whichever party forms government.

2013 was no exception – it was held by Labor’s Mike Kelly (a rising star in the ALP) but by the end of counting had fallen to the Coalition’s Peter Hendy, a virtual unknown.

Hendy certainly doesn’t have the Wreck Bay community to thank for his success.

An analysis of the results from the community reveals that of the 62 votes cast, all of them bar one were directed towards Labor.

That stunning statistic earns Wreck Bay the distinction of the highest anti-Coalition vote of any Aboriginal community (and likely ANY community, black or white) in the nation, at 98 percent.

But Wreck Bay was by no means alone in its strong anti-Coalition stance. Tracker magazine analysed 23,515 votes from voting booths in 277 communities around the country.

We looked at communities which were ‘identifiably Aboriginal’ – towns with Aboriginal populations higher than 80 percent.

Wilcannia in the far west of NSW, for example, fits this profile. Other communities include Toomelah, Murrin Bridge and Wreck Bay in NSW, Woorabinda and Cherbourg in Queensland, and a host of discrete Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory which have populations close to 100 percent Aboriginal.

The analysis reveals that all but seven of the 65 booths returned more than 50 percent against the Coalition.

Nationally, 64 percent of Aboriginal electors directed their vote – either before or after preferences – to the Labor Party. But even that figure is likely to be understated.

There’s no way to discern the black vote from booths in, for example, metropolitan Sydney, where anecdotally at least, the anti-Coalition vote is even higher.

There’s also no way to discern the true voting intentions of black voters in remote Western Australia – the two leading candidates in both seats are on the conservative side of politics, and the AEC only provides a break down of figures at the time of press on a ‘two candidate preferred’ basis.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, pictured in Cape York while he was Leader of the Opposition.

WHATEVER you think of Tony Abbott, it’s grossly unfair to lump him squarely in the category of his predecessor and mentor, former Prime Minister John Howard.

When Howard sought office in 1996, a large part of his campaign was based around anti-Aboriginal sentiment. In short, Howard went out of his way to upset as many Aboriginal people as he possibly could, and pitch his vote to a wide redneck base.

Tony Abbott’s pitch to the Australian people – and to Aboriginal people in particular – couldn’t have been more stark in its difference.

In the course of his electioneering, Abbott – who participated in the 2000 Bridge Walk for reconciliation against the wishes of his leader – took to describing himself as the man who wanted to be the first ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’.

He spoke of respect for Aboriginal people, and of the need for whitefellas to stop marching into black communities and telling them how it should be.

The substance might prove to be something else altogether, but the sales pitch was certainly much better than we’ve seen from politicians – Labor or Liberal – in the past.

Once in power, Abbott made good on the promise, elevating the portfolio of Minister for Indigenous Affairs (held by NT Senator Nigel Scullion) to cabinet and moving the administration of Indigenous Affairs within the office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Irrefutably, it gives Indigenous affairs a status it’s never before enjoyed – a direct line to the Prime Minister, and a standing above all other portfolios in government. For this, Abbott should be heartily congratulated.

So what is it, exactly, that the Aboriginal voting population rejected so comprehensively?

In Cape York, the local Liberal member, Warren Entsch, provided an electoral post-mortem that definitely did not come from the Liberal Party playbook.

Prior to the election, Entsch was confident about his standing in Cape York Aboriginal communities, at one stage even boasting to the ABC about his strong following.

“I tell ya what, you know that things have changed. Like in Pormpuraaw I get over 77 per cent of the primary vote. And you know that every single one of those votes, those people ticked it themselves,” Entsch said in the midst of the election campaign.

At the 2013 election, Warren Entsch’s primary vote in Pormpuraaw (pronounced Pomp-er-ow) collapsed to just 28 percent.
No doubt it was due in part to a strong Labor candidate in Billy Gordon, an Aboriginal man with significant ties to the community and a long work history in the Cape.

But according to Enstch it was mostly a rejection of Tony Abbott, and his close friend Noel Pearson, a controversial Cape York Aboriginal leader well-regarded in mainstream Australia, but a virtual pariah among Aboriginal people, particularly within the Cape.

After the election, the ABC reported Enstch as saying “….there was widespread anger after Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott pledged support for Indigenous leader Noel Pearson’s policy ideas and referred to him as a prophet”.

Said Enstch: “There was a lot of anger, if you like, from the popularly elected mayors up there who felt that they’d been overlooked,” he said.

“There was criticism against me as the Member because they assumed I’d had some discussion with Tony and they didn’t feel that I’d argued against it, which I always have.”

The ‘it’ Enstch is referring to is Pearson’s ‘Empowered Communities’ model, a strategy adopted as Coalition policy which aims to cut through bureaucratic red tape and place power back in local hands.

It clearly has not won the hearts and minds of Cape York leaders.

Of the 65 Aboriginal booths nationally, only seven were won by the Coalition, and one of those was in Cape York – Hope Vale, Pearson’s home town. Even then it was only by a small margin (6 percent).

Ironically, for Abbott at least, it seems the more time he spends around Cape York blackfellas, the less they’re inclined to vote for him.

In 2008, Abbott spent three weeks working as a teacher’s aide in Coen (at the time, he claimed he ‘volunteered’ in the community, but it later emerged he claimed thousands of dollars in travel entitlements). That community delivered a 20 percent swing against the Coalition in 2013.

In 2009 and again in 2012, Abbott spent time working in Aurukun. There was a 10 percent swing to the Coalition (across almost 600 votes), but just over three quarters of the vote still went to Labor.

In 2011, Abbott worked in Hope Vale, which saw a 5.5 percent swing against the Coalition in 2013.

Even so, the Aboriginal vote in the Cape casts them very much at odds with surrounding mainstream communities. And that’s a feature of electorates
across the nation.

At the tiny community of Toomelah on the NSW-Queensland border – population a few hundred – 82 percent of the vote was directed to Labor. At the same time, the broader electorate of Parkes delivered 72 percent of the vote to the Coalition.

Wallaga Lake, a small Koori village on the NSW South Coast, delivered 94 percent of the vote to Labor – zero primary votes out of 34, and just two after preferences were counted.

Of the top 10 Aboriginal communities that voted against the Coalition five of them were in Queensland.

Doomadgee, in gulf country north of Mt Isa, came in third, delivering an anti-Coalition vote above 90 percent. But it didn’t go to Labor.

Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter… his policies on Aboriginal issues are sometimes surprisingly progressive.

The seat of Kennedy is held by independent Bob Katter, a man regarded by many as a ‘conservative sandwich short of a hamper’. It was Katter who once promised to “walk backwards from Bourke” to Far North Queensland – a distance of nearly 2,000 kilometres – if there were any gay people in his electorate.

It prompted a gay man from an office down the road from Katter to call on him to get on his running shoes. It also drew a sharp rebuke from Katter’s own brother… who also happens to be gay.

Even so, in Aboriginal communities, Katter has a reasonably strong following, and his policies on Aboriginal issues are surprisingly progressive (Katter, for example, opposed the NT intervention).

On Mornington Island – also in Katter’s electorate – the Coalition secured less than 16 percent of the vote.

In Yarrabah, south of Cairns, the Coalition got just 22 percent.

The Coalition won less than 30 percent of the vote in all of the Cape communities bar two, in NSW towns like Murrin Bridge, and in old mission towns like Woorabinda.

The only jurisdiction to halt a complete electoral wipeout of the Coalition vote in Aboriginal communities was in the Northern Territory.

The Northern Territory News recently compared the results in Aboriginal booths from the 2013 election, against the results from the same booths at the 2012 Territory election, when the Country Liberal Party was swept to power with an historic swing in black seats.

It came to the dodgy conclusion that Aboriginal people had abandoned the CLP, and were Territory elections to be held today, the Giles government would be wiped out.

The Australian Electoral Commission has noted that the NT News was comparing ‘apples with oranges’, and they’re right. There’s quite a bit wrong with the NT News’ premise, not least of all the fact it assumes that Aboriginal voters in Territory communities are so uninformed that they can’t
distinguish between federal and Territory elections. They’ve proven repeatedly in the past that they can, and do.

In 2007, when the Coalition unveiled it’s NT intervention, there were massive swings against the Coalition, and numerous booths that delivered 90-plus percent of the vote to Labor.

Fast forward to 2010, when Labor had been running the NT intervention for three years and the swings against the sitting member, ALP’s Warren Snowdon, were record-breaking.

In some Central Australian booths, the swings against Labor were above 60 percent and for the first time in electoral history, the Greens actually outpolled both Labor and the Country Liberals in Aboriginal communities, after running prominent anti-intervention campaigner and Aboriginal town camper Barb Shaw.

Undoubtedly, local and state/territory issues impact on votes in a federal election, but at nothing like the scale suggested by the NT News.

It’s also fair to say that the volatile nature of swings in the NT masked, to some extent, the broader Aboriginal sentiment against Tony Abbott’s Coalition.

Nationally, there was a swing of around 12 percent against the Coalition, but if you take out the NT, the swing climbs to around 16 percent.

A 16 percent swing against either of the major parties from mainstream Australia would reduce Labor or Liberal almost to minority party status.

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 entirely wedded to any single party.

Secondly, any suggestion that most Aboriginal people LIKE Labor is nonsense. They don’t (more on that shortly). 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.

Apart form the ‘Empowered Communities’ policy, only two others got any 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 which was tried and failed the last time the Coalition were 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.

Professor Marcia Langton (left) and Warren Mundine (right).

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.

Whatever you think of their policies, if you believe in democracy and the right of a people to elect their own leaders, you can’t reasonably sustain an argument that a Mundine/Pearson/Langton is an adequate response.

The other policy to get 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 stated 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.

And the white parliamentary system, as it turns out, is working no better than the Aboriginal one.

During the election campaign, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples – the new body which is elected by Aboriginal people – released the results of its own bi-annual 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 pretty simple reason for this.

Aboriginal Australians 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 brutalization of a First Peoples.

In New Zealand, Maori have seven seats (10 percent 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 amongst the highest on earth. They also don’t jail their First Peoples at the highest rates on earth.

Those dubious 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 be ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’.

As for Labor, the party will no doubt try and exploit the Aboriginal voting sentiment to claim – as it has for years – that it’s the party for the nation’s most disadvantaged.

Of course, the reality is something else entirely. Labor has been responsible for some of the most prominent broken promises to Aboriginal people, and some of the truly great human rights abuses.

It was Labor who promised National Land Rights under Bob Hawke, and then wilted amid an overtly racist campaign by miners and Labor insiders.

It was Labor who ran the Northern Territory intervention for four and a half of its five years, and it was Labor who extended it for another 10 years last year under the Stronger Futures legislation.

It was a Labor Prime Minister – Kevin Rudd – who went to the 2007 election promising to move Australia Day to a less offensive date, and then reneged, followed by a rewriting of Labor’s policy after they won office.

It was a Labor Prime Minister – Kevin Rudd again – who delivered a National Apology to the members of the Stolen Generations, and denied them compensation.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, pictured in parliament.

It was a Labor Prime Minister – Julia Gillard – who in 2011 used the annual ‘Close the Gap’ report card to attack Aboriginal people and blame them for the government’s lack of progress.

All that – and much more – explains why, of all the figures from the 2013 election, one speaks more about Aboriginal voting intentions than any other.

Of the adult Aboriginal population, just over 50 percent of people entitled to vote have never bothered to enroll.

A more resounding vote of no confidence in the Australia electoral system is hard to find.

Clearly, a majority of Aboriginal people don’t consider the Australian Parliament to be a system that can advocate for black interests.

While the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) did – and frequently does – an outstanding job of rolling out voting booths across Aboriginal communities, it’s got its work cut out for it trying to get Aboriginal people on the electoral roll.

But perhaps not quite as much work, it seems, as the new Member for Eden-Monaro Peter Hendy has in turning around the vote in Wreck Bay.

* Chris Graham is the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, now a freelance writer based in Sydney. This feature first appeared in the October 2013 edition of Tracker magazine.