McArthur River anger prompts parliamentary dissent

HOW long can Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin tolerate dissent within her ranks?
During the past few weeks, tensions within the Martin Labor Government have been on public display following concerns about several issues relating to Aborigines. And when one cabinet minister declares: “I’m spent”, surely something has to give.

Earlier this month, three Aboriginal Labor MPs crossed the floor over legislation relating to the McArthur River Mine.

The legislation was designed to overturn an earlier Supreme Court ruling against the approval process for the expansion of the mine, near Borroloola. But with a funeral the following day for a senior Aboriginal man in Borroloola, the three MPs crossed the floor in protest.

Another Aboriginal MP, Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour, missed the vote completely. Until this week, the Government maintained the obvious fiction that her absence was simply the result of other commitments. In fact, as Scrymgour told ABC radio on Wednesday, the only reason she didn’t vote against the legislation was that it would have left her out of a job.

As a government minister, if I had crossed the floor against a government bill I would’ve had no option but to have resigned,” she said.

“I made a decision that I would not vote … I did stick to my principles and that is why I chose not to vote.”

Does the distinction matter? Crossing the floor and missing a vote are, of course, completely different concepts.

But for the average observer, Scrymgour’s position is clear: she didn’t cross the floor but she certainly didn’t support her Government’s legislation. Still, Scrymgour backed the Chief Minister and the Government this week. But she also admitted she had spent the past few weeks soul-searching, adding that she was spent.

“You get to a point in your working career, in your life, you work hard to get where you are, there are certain threshold issues that you get to that cause you to confront who you are and what you are,” she said.

“I don’t walk out of Parliament House, or anywhere else, and go home and wash my skin and the Aboriginality disappears. That stays with me 24/7.”

Also weighing on Scrymgour was the issue of 99-year leases, the scheme promoted by the Howard Government to boost home ownership and economic development in remote communities. The first community to agree to the long-term leases is Nguiu, on the Tiwi Islands.

But Scrymgour, a Tiwi Islander, has deep concerns. Last week, during a visit to Nguiu by federal Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, she said it “has divided our people like no other issue”. Brough pointed out that 99-year leases were first raised by the Chief Minister, but Scrymgour has not backed down.

This week, the traditional owners of Nguiu circulated a document detailing why the deal was a good idea.

Scrymgour wrote a detailed rebuttal in response, saying many of the points raised were misleading and “plain wrong”.

All these issues must be of concern to Martin, who has already come under fire from within her ranks over her handling of indigenous affairs.

In the next few weeks, a report she commissioned into violence and abuse in Aboriginal communities will finally be made public after several delays. Her response may set the tone for the rest of the year.

The Australian A house divided by land issues, Ashleigh Wilson, May 26, 2007

One response to “McArthur River anger prompts parliamentary dissent

  1. I feel for Marion. In whitefella society, there is a long history of people of conscience confronting this dilemma in parliamentary democracy. The history for Aboriginal society is not so detailed – because, for half the history of Australia, Aboriginal people have not been included in the halls of power. What does the individual do? Survive unbowed – but carrying scars – on one issue to carry through to fight even more significant battles? I am sure this is what is weighing heavily on Marion. I am sure she is taking advice within her own community. I hope she is also able to take advice from prominent and public Aboriginal people who may have faced similar dilemmas. Public office and responsibility for the person of principle is not for the faint-hearted. This was evident in the recent documentary on war-time leader John Curtin. It can impact health, family life, and individual well-being not to mention personal relationships. The decision for the individual that weighs heavy is how to carry forward the fight for principle, for right, for change. There is no easy answer. Few of us find ourselves in such a circumstance. For this reason, whatever happens, whatever Marion decides, I hope people remember this and that her decision – to carry on as Minister or otherwise – is respected. My only advice for Marion is one which bears the wisdom of millennia in many cultures – search for the middle way.

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