By Andrew Campbell
On the 29th of January the ALP national executive officially endorsed Nova Peris as the party’s top pick for the Northern Territory’s Senate seat. The choice all but guarantees that Ms Peris will win a Senate seat and in doing so become the first Aboriginal parliamentarian in the ALP’s history. It will also displace the incumbent, Senator Trish Crossin, a three term veteran.
Many have lauded the Prime Ministers choice to make a “captain’s pick” and intervene in the preselection process. They cite the failure of the ALP to successfully run a federal Aboriginal Candidate as a stain on the party’s record. But there is residual anger within the Northern Territory branch of the ALP. Pressing questions remain about what Ms Peris’s parachuting into the Senate ticket says about the internal workings of the ALP, both in the NT and more broadly.
The decision to back Ms Peris, who at her time of endorsement was not a member of the ALP, seems to be a tactical move aimed at courting the indigenous vote. Last years defeat of the long standing Labor territory government in the NT by the Country Liberal Party has been attributed by some to the disenfranchisement of aboriginal voters. Although much of this swing is better attributed to the failures of the Henderson territory government, it has surely frightened some within the federal ALP.
Ms Peris’s work with remote communities promoting healthy living and her Olympic achievements give her a certain degree of “star power” and voter recognition. Given that some NT communities have very low voter turn out rates (by Australian, not American standards), this pulling power could be very important for the ALP, as it looks to retain Warren Snowdon’s marginal lower house seat of Lingiari.
There were already several Aboriginal candidates within the NT ALP who had intended to nominate for Senate preselection, including ex-deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour. If the objective of the federal ALP was to get an indigenous person into the federal parliament, perhaps it would have better to endorse a member of the party? Although this would still have involved rolling Senator Crossin, it would demonstrate that working within the party will be rewarded. Instead the move to endorse Ms Peris appears to suggest that the best way an aboriginal person can succeed within the ALP is to not be a part of it.
It comes down to a question of tokenism versus real engagement. Of short term gain equaling long term pain. This is the same battle ground that saw the ALP defeated on the territory level in 2012. Ironically the move to preselect Ms Peris may in fact weaken support for the ALP in aboriginal communities tired of being treated with contempt.
There are also larger implication for a Labor party that is looking to rebuild its base and increase party membership. The Prime Ministers aim to recruit an additional 8000 ALP members would be easier to achieve if branches are seen to have influence over the preselection of candidates. A feeling of disenfranchisement and alienation was noted as a major factor in people leaving the party in the Faulkner-Carr-Bracks review.
Ms Peris’s election into the Senate will be a historic event for the ALP. But whether or not the actions taken by the Prime Minister in getting her there are in the interest of the party long term is not yet clear.