Brough, Pearson, Yunupingu rejected by Aboriginal voters

Editor of the National Indigenous Times, Chris Graham, says that indigenous Australians have had their definitive say on the government's martial law intervention in Northern Territory communities.

I never quite understood how former Aboriginal Affairs minister Mal Brough managed to escape genuine mainstream media scrutiny so often during his brief but, shall we say, "exciting" time in indigenous affairs. I always just put it down to the "conga line of suckholes" phenomenon identified by Mark Latham (albeit as a "Liberal" inclination in dealings with Americans ... but as we all know a trait which also besets some in the media when confronted with a "Minister").

The media liked Brough - known as "Sideshow Mal" within indigenous affairs - because he was always prepared to "say anything, do anything" to get a headline. That makes for great copy. Unfortunately for Brough, however, the media didn’t get to decide the outcome of the contest for his parliamentary seat.

That privilege was afforded the fine residents of the federal electorate of Longman who, it turns out, decided that Mal Brough was even more odious than the "average" Queensland Coalition member ... which is quite something.

Across the state, Queenslanders registered an 8 per cent swing against the Howard government. But in Longman, the swing against Brough was almost 11 per cent. Even worse, of the 29 seats up for grabs in Queensland, only three recorded swings to Labor above 11 per cent, and two of those were in seats where the sitting Coalition member had retired.

I accept that opposition to the NT intervention did not translate to any significant swing against the Coalition at a national level. But given the huge swing against Brough personally, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his boy’s own adventure in the NT played a part, albeit a relatively small one.

Perhaps, when it came time to vote, at least some of the good people of Longman stopped to think about the NT intervention and decided that using the sexual abuse of children for your own personal/political gain was really quite ... well ... disgusting. Either that or the Longman punters decided that Mal Brough was just a really shit local member.

As for the Aboriginal vote in the Northern Territory, well they also got to cast judgement on Brough (and Howard). And what a judgement they delivered! Conveniently, one federal seat – Lingiari – encompasses all of the 73 Aboriginal communities affected by the NT intervention.

Media have correctly noted that "Aboriginal booths" in Lingiari delivered votes to the ALP in the 90 percentile range. True enough, but once again the reporting has been sub-par. Just quoting the percentages from a few booths doesn’t come close to telling the real story.

It’s correct to say that at the Wadeye booth, for example, the ALP collected about 95 per cent of the vote. But what does that actually mean in real numbers? Of the 723 people who cast a ballot, just 26 of them voted for the CLP. 26! And doubtless almost every one of those was white.

In Angkarripa, in central Australia, the CLP managed just five primary votes out of a potential 503. That’s 0.99 percent of the total vote.

But the really big story - one which went begging for the media - was from a small booth in Arnhem Land. Yirrikala is home to Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the prominent Aboriginal leader who outraged colleagues by reversing his opposition to the NT intervention on the eve of the official start to the election campaign.

Brough, no doubt, thought he had an ally in Yunupingu, but the electoral returns reveal otherwise. Of the 266 votes up for grabs, the CLP secured just two of them - 0.75 percent of the primary vote.

And what of the other great story that went begging? The vote for the ALP in the booth of Hopevale – Noel Pearson’s hometown. 75 per cent.

One of the great hypocrisies not just of media coverage of indigenous issues, but of Australian thinking generally is our inability to apply the "good for the goose, good for the gander" principle when it comes to black issues.

For example, WorkChoices. The Australian public rejected it. No one’s debating the mandate to wind it back.

Yet the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory overwhelmingly, comprehensively, spectacularly reject the NT intervention, and we’re all still arguing about whether it too should be scaled back.

The fact is, Aboriginal people still want the $1.3 billion spent in their communities, plus a lot more to make up the massive gaps in health, housing and education that have grown amid decades of appalling government neglect. They just don’t see why they have to give up their basic human rights in the process.

Aboriginal people rejected the methods of the intervention. They want consultation, not confrontation. They want assistance, not insistence.

And they want to be heard. As usual, Aboriginal Territorians have spoken loud and clear at this federal election, but I fear that as usual, not enough people are listening.

November 27, 2007

Chris Graham is editor of the National Indigenous Times. This article originally appeared on


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