Last weekend, I accompanied Alison Anderson, the ALP challenger to the seat of Macdonnell, as she travelled to campaign at several remote community booths in central Australia where pre-polling was being held for the Northern Territory elections. The seat of Macdonnell covers a corridor of land south of Alice Springs which follows the West Macdonnell Ranges out to the Queensland, South and Western Australian borders. It encompasses rural properties, outstations, small hamlets, major Aboriginal communities such as Hermannsburg, Kintore, Papunya and Docker River, and also Yulara, the resort mecca that services the local tourist industry at Uluru.
The following Saturday night on June 18, Alison Anderson recorded what might seem a surprise win over the CLP incumbent John Elferink, with a swing of about 30 per cent to Labor in the seat of Macdonnell. At last count, Anderson had captured approximately 70 per cent of the two-party vote after preferences.
This result might seem surprising given that in the lead up to the Northern Territory election, an intense smear campaign was run by one of the local newspapers, the Alice Springs News, against the new ALP candidates for central Australia. Alison Anderson and her husband Steve Hanley came under particularly fierce scrutiny, with allegations of mismanagement at Papunya which has become the focus of a Commonwealth investigation. Some of this controversy spilled over into the national media, with an article and an editorial in The Age focusing on issues at Papunya. Despite this intense media criticism, Anderson continued to campaign strongly and extensively throughout Macdonnell.
Last weekend, signs of support for Anderson were already evident in the communities of Mt Liebig, Papunya and Aputula (Finke) which I visited during pre-polling. Anderson cut a straight-backed, determined figure in a red and yellow T-shirt (“your strong voice for Macdonnell”) and matching ininti beads. Her easy rapport with people was obvious. She knew most community members and spoke to them in language outside the polling booth. When we arrived at Mt Liebig, she sat down immediately with some old women round a campfire.
At Papunya, admittedly Anderson’s heartland, many of the 200-plus community people who lined up to vote handed back the CLP’s how-to-vote cards. One woman from out-of-town even complained bitterly about having to vote for Peter Toyne (the Labor member for Stuart): she wanted to vote for Alison. The CLP candidate’s team stood out like the proverbial shags on a rock: they were all whitefellas, except for a black scrutineer inside the booth, they wore white T-shirts and the emblems of rural gentry such as moleskins and R.M. Williams boots. The lack of relationship between them and the community members couldn’t have been clearer.
What accounts for Alison Anderson’s resounding victory in the CLP stronghold of central Australia, especially given the smear campaign against her in the local media and the scuttling of ATSIC?
In interviewing her on election night, the ABC presenter queried whether Anderson’s success was a result of her family and community connections. Anderson definitely knew the electorate well and campaigned hard. But it’s over simplistic to suggest that her success is a reflection of kinship and community obligations. Not only that - it’s paternalistic to insinuate that community people do not know their own mind in voting for Anderson. They also had the opportunity to register a vote of no confidence in Anderson through the democratic process, if they so wished.
Part of the reason for Anderson’s win may have been the smear campaign conducted against her backfired. Community people make up a substantial proportion of Macdonell, and they don't usually read The Age or even the Alice Springs News. But it seems they may have taken what bad press they heard personally, as a slight on their communities. Many of the issues that face Papunya, castigated in The Age as the “nation’s basket case”, are shared by remote communities across the Territory.
Anderson’s national profile undoubtedly held her in good stead with voters. Some of Anderson’s campaigners reported receiving a warm welcome from non-Aboriginal families while door knocking. People said they knew that Anderson was outspoken. They thought that she would speak out on their issues. As far as they were concerned, the sitting member had not done enough for them. Interestingly, Anderson also polled strongly in Yulara, the booth that recorded the highest percentage of votes for the CLP in Macdonnell in the previous election.
At the Leagues Club where the ALP was partying on election night in Alice Springs, I asked people what accounted for the landslide win for the Martin government.
“People remember what things were like under Burke,” they said. “They don’t want to go back there.”
There was a general feeling that the CLP did not offer any real alternative. Territorians are looking for candidates who are more truly representative of the current population and its realities than the fading CLP caste. Not only did the ALP do well, the Greens also polled strongly, recording a swing of 4 per cent. The election of five Aboriginal MPs, including three women, is indicative of the perceived need for change. The Aboriginal MP’s will make up a fifth of the new parliament, a shift that’s long overdue given that 30 per cent of the Territory’s population is Aboriginal. It’s also a significant win in light of the demise of ATSIC, the “black parliament” of elected Indigenous representatives, and the failure of any federal, state or territory government to designate Indigenous-specific parliamentary seats.