Two Cheers for Labor!
Election Day in Australia was a long night in America. I spent part of the evening yesterday (Saturday afternoon in Australia) watch SkyNews via The Australian‘s web site, checked in briefly this morning at 3 a.m. local time (the polls had closed in Sydney but not in Perth) and then dreamed about a Coalition “upset” for the next four hours until finally clearing the cobwebs and discovering the Labor had triumphed (not too strong a word, I hope).
I’m disappointed to read the Brisbane Times‘ report “Democrats collapse in Queensland” noting that Senator Andrew Bartlett has almost certainly lost his seat in Queensland. Bartlett, who was a member of the Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous Visual Arts and Crafts Sector, has written passionately against the Intervention and in support of Indigenous causes, and his voice will be missed if he bows out of the public debate now.
There was much prognosticating about the Liberals’ chances to salvage the election at the last moment, with frequent references to how former Prime Minister John Howard (doesn’t that sound lovely?) had come from behind at the last moment in previous contests. None of that had me especially worried, and given the results–84 seats to Labor–I’m pleased to see that Australia was ready to show Howard the door.
What did cause me dismay was the last minute assault on Rudd by Noel Pearson, which received good coverage in The Australian, including an extended analysis by Paul Kelly, “Pearson’s dread of Rudd in power.” I don’t want to dismiss the importance of symbolic reconciliation to many Indigenous Australians; when racism permeates a culture, overt if symbolic disavowals of it are an essential element of changing attitudes and promoting tolerance, the first step towards acceptance. But for Pearson to make this a make-or-break issue the day before the election leaves me shaking my head at the stupidity of it all.
Maybe I just don’t understand constitutional politics in Australia, but a preamble that acknowledges the prior occupation of the continent seems to me to be a pretty weak gesture. Given the mess Howard made of his last attempt to write a Preamble, I never placed much hope in this particular pledge. And despite the trouble that the Bill of Rights can be known to cause in America (think gun control), it still seems to me that there are more important constitutional issues confronting Australia. Of course I would prefer to see Rudd take up this initiative in his first term. But I would never have made his disinclination to do so the cornerstone of a rejection of Labor at a moment when the Coalition is bent on wreaking havoc on land rights, the sustainability of remote communities, and economic opportunity for the most impoverished.
I am much more concerned that the Rudd government act quickly to stop the demolition of CDEP, that they block the destruction of the permit system, and that they support health initiatives and community arts centres. And it’s not yet clear how they will practically proceed on these matters. Given that the new Senate won’t sit until July 2008, at which point CDEP could be a memory throughout the Territory, for example, I’m not really ready to break out the champagne quite yet. To say nothing of the appalling fact that Pauline Hanson received 4.5% of the vote in Queensland.
Now that the election is over, it’s more important that ever to pay attention to the ALP’s platforms and media releases regarding Indigenous Affairs. I don’t expect overnight miracles, and I certainly wouldn’t urge Labor to adopt the strong-arm tactics of pushing legislation through the Parliament without debate as the Coalition did last August. Rudd has said that he plans to continue with the Intervention for another twelve months before re-evaluating it. Maybe that timetable has something to do with the eight months remaining with a lame duck Senate. I have no idea what will happen to the new Community Business Managers and the role they will play on the ground in the Territory. But if nothing else, the new government can make one important change immediately: it can begin talking and, more importantly, listening to Indigenous people in those places where Howard and Brough sowed confusion and disturbance.