Dark clouds and red dirt

ROSALIE Kunoth-Monks, a crusty veteran of indigenous politics, is enjoying the moment. She has Des Rogers, the endorsed Labor candidate for the vast electorate of Namatjira, nibbling like a trout at the end of a line baited with promise.

"Des, what can you achieve for us? Labor's $300 million for outstations over 10 years is minuscule," she sniffs. Rogers protests: "It is $200 million more than the Country Liberals are promising; its $25,000 a house. I wouldn't call it minuscule."

The 74-year-old traditional owner continues to talk over Rogers, claiming voters are confused about what Labor will do if re-elected.

"We have resisted the intervention up here, we resisted leasing of our land. People have been traumatised by the intervention. It was [John] Howard and that monster [Mal] Brough, who carried it out,'' Kunoth-Monks says. "Aboriginal men still feel slighted, they have been accused of being paedophiles, but there has never been an apology."

It's an anti-intervention argument Rogers has heard many times before, but he listens respectfully. Monks, with her Order of Australia, is akin to royalty in remote arid Utopia, an Aboriginal homeland 260 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs where about 1200 people subsist on some 16 outstations, some of them with just one or two families.

He knows that Monks, an influential figure in Utopia, or Arapunya as it is also known, is a canny operator of the old school. Until recently, she was president of the Barkly super shire. He needs her "nod and wink" to lock in the preferences of First Nations candidate Warren H. Williams, the popular singer-songwriter from Hermannsburg. He knows winning elections in bush seats is as much about networks and family connections as policies.

And it is the bush seats, traditionally Labor strongholds, where Saturday's Northern Territory election may well be won or lost. Territory elections generally cast the faintest of ripples on the national body politic, but Saturday's poll is likely to be different - very different.

If Labor's Paul Henderson loses badly it will be read as confirmation that the trashing of brand Labor by voters in New South Wales and Queensland was no aberration. A close win, or even a narrow loss, would provide hope for the true believers that Julia Gillard's recent bounce in the polls may be a turning point.

This election is something of a landmark with a record number of indigenous candidates contesting many of the 25 seats. In the massive bush electorates of Namatjira and Stuart - both a third bigger than the state of Victoria in land size - all the candidates have established profiles.

In Namatjira, Rogers, a Southern Arrernte man who set up the first all-indigenous security company, Peppered Black, is attempting to dislodge the mercurial and volatile Alison Anderson, who quit the Henderson ministry in infamous circumstances after cutting a backroom deal with Country Liberals leader Terry Mills.*

In Stuart, the "Warlpiri" electorate, the stakes for Labor are equally high. Karl Hampton, the boyish Minister for Central Australia, faces a determined challenge from his aunt and CL candidate, Bess Nungarrayi Price, a no-nonsense woman from Yuendumu.

Unlike Hampton, Price backed the intervention and the quarantining of welfare payments and is a forceful advocate for the rights of women and children. A former adviser to the Henderson government, she is drawing support from all quarters. She needs a 16 per cent swing to win, not impossible in the present circumstances.

Price sees the election as a historic turning point with the record number of indigenous candidates standing. She rejects the claims from Kunoth-Monks and others that the major parties are pitting indigenous people against each other for political gain.

"This is something to be proud of, not sad about. We are a democratic country and it's silly and simplistic to see Aboriginal people as Labor voters. We are entitled to our own points of view and philosophies and people have become disillusioned."

Price, no stranger to controversy, recently berated the human rights group Amnesty for playing politics with the intervention and the plight of her people. She says she has nothing but contempt for what she terms the "naive activists" from down south who know nothing of her culture and care even less about outcomes. As for her family, Price says they will have to decide for themselves the family member best equipped to represent her people.

Price drives the best part of 900 kilometres to reach the northernmost end of her electorate, dropping in on communities along the way. She claims the tide has turned for Labor, that its 10 years in government has left voters weary, disillusioned and ready for change.

"Astonishing levels of poverty and illiteracy exist in parts of the electorate and there are few jobs for young people. We need innovation to give kids direction." She sees opportunities in the bush for small business.

Karl Hampton says he has travelled 60,000 kilometres up and down the electorate since becoming a minister and is confident of retaining the seat. He says social media, including Facebook, have helped him stay in touch with young people. Although he is not fluent in Aboriginal languages, he says he is able to convey what the issues are and that he has always made it clear to voters that he never endorsed the way the intervention was imposed on the territory by the Howard government.

"Look, it all comes down to trust and people know we have created jobs and built houses on an unprecedented scale," he says.

There are signs that the Country Liberals are chasing votes harder than ever in bush seats long regarded as Labor strongholds. Remote community pre-polling centres have been swamped by CL party workers sporting T-shirts and campaign bunting. Prominent locals have been recruited to hand out how-to-vote cards. The unprecedented level of organisation and resources has Labor strategists worried.

Jodeen Carney, the former CL leader who recently wrote a review of the youth justice system for the Henderson government, says historically Labor has always outgunned the CL in bush electorates with its superior resources and reach.

"They always had more people on the ground and spread their tentacles wide and deep. What makes this election interesting is that the CL have picked a good range of candidates likely to make a difference."

Carney held the Alice Springs seat of Aruluen for many years before retiring. She believes both parties could be in for a surprise come election day, that there is no way to accurately predict which way voters may turn when presented with a proper choice.

"People change their vote because of effective campaigning. If Labor regains Namatjira and retains Stuart, the party will have run the more effective campaign."

The election wild card is the anti-intervention First Nations party. Although seriously under-resourced - candidates in urban seats travel around by public transport - and lack the organisational back-up of both Labor and the CL, their preferences could be decisive in the seats where voting is expected to be close. Maurie Japarta Ryan is contesting Stuart on a policy of dismantling the shires and restoring community councils.

On paper at least, the big issues in the bush seats are the so-called super shires and the fact that funding for outstations was frozen under Labor as part of a plan announced by the then minister Alison Anderson to promote the development of growth centres for the better delivery of government services.

Both initiatives have proved highly unpopular with indigenous voters, who believe they were disenfranchised when local councils were abolished.

Despite record spending on indigenous housing and education, large parts of the electorate remain disconnected and uninterested in the election. I encountered voters in the Namatjira electorate who were unaware that Anderson had switched parties; others had little idea that both major parties were promising a big injection of funds for outstations. Some had no idea of the days set aside for people to vote in their community before election day. If there was a common thread to how people might vote, it was through family connections not parties.

Conditions in Utopia are as bad as anywhere; so too are school attendance rates. A new school and a band of dedicated teachers, who maintain the school at weekends and spend two hours a day driving children from outstation to school for no extra pay, has changed little since pre-intervention days. At Three Mile outstation people live in overcrowded, badly maintained houses with a single payphone linking them to emergencies services.

In the seat of Namatjira, the campaign is plagued by bitter personality politics rather than policies. On the road to historic Hermannsburg, a short drive from Alice Springs, the signs of the acrimonious campaign are evident.

Posters for Labor candidate Des Rogers have been defaced and torn down. Everywhere, including in far away Docker River and Kintore, it seems voters are confronted by the beaming face of Anderson, who is fighting for her political life against the Labor machine determined to reclaim her seat.

Her supporters have waged a knock-down, drag-out campaign that says much about the importance of family connections. It also says much about Anderson's audacity and the ineffectual nature of an electoral commission that has failed to monitor events at polling booths with Aboriginal language speakers or respond effectively to complaints.

Anderson won't comment to The Age on a recent incident outside the Alice Springs voting centre where several witnesses, including Labor electoral officer Jenny Pender, said Anderson harassed indigenous voters, ripping Labor how-to-vote cards from people's hands.

The electoral commission confirmed a complaint had been received from Pender but declined to say what action, if any, was planned.

But Anderson did tell a local newspaper she regarded Pender's complaint as an act of "aggression" towards her and claimed Rogers, her Labor opponent, had done some "deplorable things in this campaign", without detailing what they were. Rogers declined to comment on the incident, saying he wanted to stay focused on the issues people were concerned about.

"I am not going to be distracted by this nonsense. I still see kids starving and missing out on education. I want to make a significant difference to people's wellbeing and I believe I can represent them better."

How the war of words between Anderson and her old party will end on Saturday is impossible to predict, but one thing is certain: a very dark cloud hangs over the future of the Henderson government.

*Alison Anderson has, for more than seven years, refused all interviews with me, particularly for my book King Brown Country, in which she features; over those years I have come to know Des Rogers, but well before he was an endorsed Labor candidate. Readers can decide for themselves the independence of this report.

Russell Skelton is contributing editor.

The story Dark clouds and red dirt first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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