Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard personally announced her hand-picked senate candidate for the Northern Territory – and it wasn’t the incumbent, Trish Crossin. Ms Gillard had chosen Indigenous Olympic Gold medallist, Nova Peris.
Ms Gillard said she had made a “captain’s pick” in asking Peris to run. It marks the first time Labor has put forward an Indigenous candidate in a safe seat at a Federal election. If elected, Ms Peris would be the first Indigenous female senator, making history both individually, for the Labor Party and for Julia Gillard.
“With the support of the people of the Northern Territory I want her to be the first Aboriginal woman to sit in the Federal Parliament,” Gillard said at the press conference.
It’s not a shock that Julia Gillard wants to help other women move into the political sphere; she is, after all, Australia’s first female Prime Minister.
But why has this nomination so scandalised the ALP?
The overlooking of Trish Crossin, the incumbent Labor senator for the NT, has caused many ALP members, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to criticise the nomination. To begin with, Gillard took the control of the nominations out of the hands of the Northern Territory ALP Branch and to make matters worse, Ms Peris is not even a member of the Australian Labor Party. But, is it really a shock that Gillard bypassed standard party pre-selection process? Surely, we all still remember how Gillard wrested the ALP leadership away from Kevin Rudd?
The Australian was reporting that a number of ALP members, including Indigenous members, were considering a silent protest. There were even rumours that some members were considering voting in the pre-selection with sidelined Trish Crossin.
But it’s not Nova Peris they’re protesting: it’s how the decision was made. Karl Hampton, an Indigenous former NT Labor Minister, is reportedly planning to submit his nomination as part of a protest at the pre-selection decision being taken out of the hands of the NT ALP branch.
Putting aside Julia Gillard’s political motive, does Ms Peris have the skills and the experience to be a successful Senator for the Northern Territory?
Kim Hill, the former chief executive of the Northern Land Council, who has also stood for Labor pre-selection in the past, has questioned whether Ms Peris has the necessary qualifications to represent the Territory.
“What does she bring to the table, particularly for all Territorians?” he said to The Australian. “People are tired of celebrities. People are tired of people with high profiles because they are not delivering.”
The press conference to announce her candidacy seemed carefully controlled by the Prime Minister and the Labor Party; a Party of which Ms Peris is currently not a member.
It’s for this reason that her nomination has been attacked as a political manoeuvre to win points with the Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and Australia wide. There was no honeymoon period for the allegedly inexperienced Ms Peris – it didn’t even take a week for a “smear” campaign to be launched against the former athlete.
Her past career has been drawn into speculation, as has her character and her suitability as Labor’s number one candidate. The ABC were reporting on Friday of investigations into how funds from one of Ms Peris’s education programs were used.
This needless discussion on a closed investigation does spell smear, and it makes any appropriate scrutiny almost seem objectionable. As Tom Calm, an Australian of the Year finalist, told reporters in Canberra, “The scrutiny is fine; the vitriol is unacceptable.”
Following the attempt to discredit her, Ms Peris released a press statement disputing what she labelled as “malicious rumours”.
“I did not misuse departmental assets during my time at the Northern Territory Department of Education,” she said.
The Sunday Times reported the NT Government confirmed that the spending of $50,000 in taxpayers’ cash on a girls’ academy program had been subject to a high-level education department investigation.
Ms Peris was cleared of any wrong-doing.
While Ms Peris has addressed the smears being spread against her through press releases and written statements, requests for interviews from the ABC have been politely declined by a Peris spokesperson. The media’s interaction thus far with Gillard’s new favourite has been micromanaged by a Party Ms Peris is not even a member of. It will be difficult to estimate if Ms Peris is up to the Senate position if the Labor Party refuses to let her off such a short and tight leash.
This makes it hard to disagree with Liberal Senator Cory Bernadi (you know him for comparing gay marriage with bestiality), who told Adelaide radio yesterday that the nomination of Peris is “tokenism of the highest order”. He said, that while Peris was an extraordinary athlete, her skills as a politician were yet to be demonstrated.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin (you know her for saying she could live on $35 a day) hit back at Bernardi, saying Ms Peris was a great advocate for Aboriginal people.
“It’s a sad reflection on Liberal politicians that so many of them are trying to run down a determined and driven Aboriginal woman who is seeking to represent her community in federal parliament,” Ms Macklin told The Australian.
But the party could have avoided these cries of tokenism.
The ABC’s Suzanne Smith reported that it was “well known that former Senior ALP Territory Minister, Marion Scrymgour [an Indigenous Australian] was hoping to secure the top Senate spot.” Ms Smith went on to say Ms Scrymgour is on the Left and she was involved in the delivery of the Super Shires plan that lost the ALP considerable support in the electorate, meaning she wasn’t “safe” in political terms.
But neither was Trish Crossin, according to Ms Smith, due to her being a Rudd supporter.
This issue of factions, which was bought forth from the murky political depths of the Labor Party in the ousting of Kevin Rudd, has once again found the light. And once again, it’s been triggered by Julia Gillard.
The infamous faceless men who backed her in her coup against former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, are also backing the nomination of Peris. This backing from the Right faction assures the former athlete of victory in her pre-selection quest.
No matter if Nova Peris wins the Senate Position or not, she is an excellent role model for all women – Indigenous and non-Indigenous. She was the first Indigenous woman to win an Olympic gold medal, paving the way for Cathy Freeman. Her work in education in the NT is commendable and the contributions she has made to her community are endless. But is the nomination of Nova Peris the product of mere tokenism or will she be a force to be reckoned with?
Julia Gillard and the ALP are heading into a mighty battle to retain seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. According to recent polls, the Greens are also losing numbers, meaning their preferences can’t be relied on. This Labor minority government needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat – and it seems Nova Peris could be that rabbit; at least, Julia Gillard seems to believe so.