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La Guillotine, the wrecker

March 27, 2011

Tony Abbott’s recent call for bipartisan action in the Northern Territory has predictably been lambasted by the Labor government. Wrecker, opportunist, grand stander they cried but it is they who are wrecking a truly principled call for action from Tony Abbott.

Christopher Pearson takes a look behind the Labor politicking and finds, unsurprisingly, nothing but knee jerk, headline grabbing soundbites and spin. Tony Abbott, on the other hand, has shown himself to be, not only a man of conviction, but one willing to cop the abuse in an effort to get bipartisan support.

Christopher Pearson is right when he says that the crisis in Alice Springs is bigger than party politics and that it does La Guillotine no credit to reject Tony’s call. There is only one wrecker in this sorry episode.

IN mid-February, The Australian’s Nicolas Rothwell filed a remarkable story on the collapse of civil order in Alice Springs. He began by evoking a typical night scene under the lights at the intersection of Stott and Todd streets. “You can see boys and girls as young as 10 years old marauding about at midnight, with their slightly older brothers and sisters, who are walking at speed, drinking from their hidden alcohol containers: you see cars laden with illegal grog stopping to pick up teenage girls and whisk them off ; here’s the madam, with her girls for sale, and that’s one of the African gang cars, driving by and checking out the talent and choosing the girls they like.”

In early March, Ted Egan, a former administrator of the Northern Territory, who lives in the township, urged the Prime Minister to intervene and assume personal responsibility for restoring law and order there. “Left as they are, matters will not get better but infinitely worse, exacerbating a situation that not only shames us as a nation but has created ammunition for the many other countries that look scornfully at us. Nicolas Rothwell has not exaggerated the situation in Alice Springs. If anything, he has understated it.”

On March 20, Tony Abbott sent a letter to Julia Gillard, calling for a bipartisan approach to designing a new intervention in NT townships. He proposed a joint visit to Alice Springs, consultation with Aboriginal leaders to avoid the “top-down” approach of the earlier intervention and parliamentary support for any administrative or legislative measures needed to implement it. Abbott took the precaution of releasing the letter to the media on the same day, conscious the government might otherwise play politics with it in some way, as it has in the past on indigenous issues.

Predictably, the minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, leapt in immediately to accuse him of grandstanding. “While we welcome Mr Abbott’s interest in this important issue, you would have to doubt he’s serious. On Friday, Mr Abbott mentioned this issue to the Prime Minister as they were about to get off the plane in Christchurch. During this brief exchange they agreed to meet to discuss the issue further.”

In fact, as Abbott’s letter to Gillard makes plain and as Macklin must have known all along, the first conversation between the two leaders on the subject took place at the time of Sapper Jamie Larcombe’s funeral on Kangaroo Island, back on March 4.

By question time on Monday, under the obligation not to mislead the house, Macklin had changed her tune to concede they’d discussed the matter “a couple of times”.

But she used the Dorothy Dixer to attack Abbott’s bona fides, saying: “I welcome the Leader of the Opposition’s recent interest in this issue – and it is recent.”

It’s worth noting that while Labor has attacked him all week on the subject, Abbott has conspicuously failed to return fire, leaving open to federal Labor the option of co-operation during the six-week parliamentary recess, when the scale of the problems in Alice Springs are likely to get more media attention and the size of the task the government is taking on becomes more apparent.

It’s also worth looking at Abbott’s track record on indigenous issues and the way in which he couched his offer to the government, to assess the fairness of Macklin’s charges.

First, there are the two fortnight-long stints in Cape York as a teachers’ aide and a truancy officer, undertaken at Noel Pearson’s invitation and without fanfare during his time as the Coalition’s indigenous affairs spokesman.

Has any serving frontbencher on either side done anything comparable in recent years ?

Back when Kevin Rudd issued his parliamentary apology, he announced without prior reference to Brendan Nelson that there would be a bipartisan committee with co-chairs from both sides of politics on Aboriginal housing. When Nelson nominated Mal Brough for the role, Rudd and Macklin objected and promptly withdrew the invitation.

Seen in that context, Abbott’s proposal was designed to be acceptable to the government and offered in the hope that it would be accepted, because he was convinced the problem was urgent and a second intervention would need all the support it could muster.

Releasing the text of his letter to Gillard to the media was just a precautionary move to prevent his proposal being misrepresented.

In the letter, he was at pains to point out that he’d shown a draft version of it to Alison Anderson MLA, a former minister in the Northern Territory’s Labor government, Ian Conway, a traditional owner of the land on which Alice Springs is built, and Warren Mundine, a former federal president of the ALP. In short, Aboriginal leaders with Labor connections had been consulted and had supported the plan.

On Monday Anderson described herself as “appalled by the government’s refusal to take up Abbott’s offer . . . I heard Jenny Macklin this morning and I thought ‘this is more propaganda and spin’. There’s no honesty in her voice or her heart about transforming Alice Springs.”

On Tuesday Mundine reiterated his support for the sentiments in Abbott’s letter and urged bipartisan co-operation.

Another indigenous leader, Marcia Langton, said she did not believe Abbott was playing politics. Mick Gooda, the Social Justice Commissioner, appealed to Gillard to travel with Abbott to Alice Springs and described his letter as “sincere and necessary. I think he has had a genuine concern for a long time”.

On Thursday afternoon, Gillard met Abbott and rejected his offer of a joint trip, saying instead that she would go to Alice Springs in due course with Macklin and stick to the government’s existing approach to solving the township’s problems. Abbott again took a conciliatory tone.

“The Prime Minister, to her credit, has closely studied my letter. She assures me that the government has the matter in hand.”

The politics of this impasse are fairly straightforward. An offer of bipartisan support seldom occurs unless there’s a crisis.

The situation in Alice Springs is dire and the Coalition will get points, especially in Aboriginal circles, for taking it seriously. Cross-party support also indicates a preparedness to adopt a common policy and share whatever credit or blame attaches to the subsequent management of the issue.

It’s unlikely there will be any credit in the foreseeable future for Gillard arising from her handling of the situation in Alice Springs and her stubbornness compounds the problem.

Then again, the government’s record on service delivery and implementing important policy change inspires little confidence.

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