A couple of weeks ago the incoming National President of the Australian Labor Party, Warren Mundine, turned up on the opening day of the annual conference of the NT branch of the Australian Labor Party.
The minute Mundine walked through the door on the opening morning of the weekend conference a couple of left-wing delegates made a beeline for Territory Labor Party president Warren Snowdon. Their message was simple and direct.
Mundine was a Howard Government stooge. He had no status and no speaking rights at the conference. The minute he opened his mouth the Left would immediately move a motion of no confidence in him for his role in the Howard Government’s assault on the aspirations of Aboriginal people. The no confidence motion would also include Snowdon, and NT Chief Minister Clare Martin. There was no need to repeat the message.
President Snowdon instantly assured them Mundine would not speak and he himself would be taking a thinly-veiled crack at Mundine in his speech to the conference. Snowdon is a left-wing warhorse. He’s a veteran at avoiding or inciting a conference blue.
He’s the longest serving member of the federal parliament ever produced by the Northern Territory ALP. He’s a hard working journeyman politician with a long, deep and abiding association with the territory’s Aboriginal land councils and the wider Aboriginal community. He’s also a fierce advocate of Aboriginal self-determination. Politically, he and Mundine are poles apart.
Snowdon also knows a thing or two about numbers. It was clear to him the Left had control of the conference floor.
The message from the delegates was quietly delivered to Mundine. He had travelled all the way to Darwin to sit mute in a corner of Darwin’s Italian Club for an entire day. He did not appear on day two.
This story speaks volumes about Mundine’s personal political nous. It also exposes the inept political advice to NT Chief Minister Clare Martin.
Why Mundine was invited, and what he was there to do, has never been properly explained. But his presence, and its effect on the dominant faction, clearly ensured a rough conference ride for Ms Martin. The conference showed just how far her star has waned with the territory’s Aboriginal community and its long-time supporters in the NT ALP, black and white.
Readers may recall the euphoria which greeted her election to office in August 2001. She had led the ALP to its first win in the history of the territory. Long-time NT Labor party members had never dreamed they might see their party in government in their lifetime.
The election was full of promise for Aboriginal territorians who had been used and abused by the ruling Country Liberal Party for more than 20 years. The CLP had elevated race politics and push polling to an art form.
It dominated the political landscape by ensuring its key anti-Aboriginal policies were heard loud and often in Darwin’s predominantly middle class northern suburbs. All elections were - and still are - won and lost in the all-important northern suburbs.
Brian Johnstone is a columnist for the National Indigenous Times. He was Director of Media and Marketing at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission between April 1998 and December 2002. Before taking up that position he was a senior advisor to former Federal Labor Minister, Senator Bob Collins, and a senior correspondent with Australian Associated Press.