Aboriginal voters vent their fury… and change a government

SINCE it was awarded self government in the late 1970s, the Northern Territory elections have always been decided by 10 key seats in the northern suburbs of Darwin. Aboriginal voters out bush were never able to change a government in their own right. Tonight, all that changed.

Black voters – for the first time in the nation’s history – have decided the outcome of an election.

The Labor government has been swept from office, with several key bush seats that have always been considered safe Labor, falling to the CLP.

Daly, held by Rob Knight, has gone to the CLP. Arafura, held by retiring member Marion Scrymgour, is looking very shaky.

Both major parties sensed the swing was on in the bush in the dying days of the election campaign. And that lead to another historic first for the NT – neither party engaged in a dog-whistling race to the bottom on Aboriginal issues.

Instead, they competed with each other to win the votes of Aboriginal communities. That has never been seen in an election anywhere in Australia.

The thought of politicians actually trying to woo black voters – rather than bash them – is a foreign electoral concept in this country.

And the wooing was won by the CLP. Unecnumbered with the baggage of the destruction of the Aboriginal shire councils in 2009, the CLP have been talking quietly to bush communities for months, and publicly for weeks.

Ironically, the NT intervention played a factor in the election, and it was the Liberals, of course, who introduced it. But it’s been Labor whose run it for the past five years. That the super shires policy has cost them victory tonight.

Adam Giles, the Aboriginal member for Braitling, polled strongest of all the candidates in the election, and it will be hard to resist promoting him through the party ranks. Giles has frequently been touted as the next leader of the CLP. At the very least, he’ll have to be elevated to deputy when the dust from this election settles.

For outgoing Chief Minister Paul Henderson, the next few weeks will be a process of working out where it all went wrong.

Commentators will suggest they should have done more in the past few months to win black votes. But the rot for Labor set in in 2001, when they were swept to office, but never repaid the favour to the long-supportive black bush seats.

The ALP has finally been punished in a meaningful way for ignoring the pleas of Aboriginal voters. And it’s hard to imagine that having tasted electoral blood, Aboriginal people in the Territory will ever allow their vote to be taken for granted again by always voting for one party.

It’s a whole new ball game in the Territory. The dog whistle politics of the past are, if not dead, then buried for a few years at least.

As for the upcoming federal election, the Member for Lingairi, Warren Snowdon, will be a nervous man tonight. The black vote collapsed in his seat in 2010. If tonight is any indication, he won’t be back in office next year.

* Chris Graham is an Australian journalist specialising in Aboriginal Affairs. He has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting, and is a Walkley Award and a Walkley High Commendation winner. He lives in Glebe, Sydney.

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