Yesterday I discussed the relative political fortunes of various of the Federal Northern Territory incumbents and candidates for the House of Representatives at the forthcoming federal election due some time in 2010.

I said then that I’d pass on any news from either of the two NT Senators or the prospective opponents – more fool me for making promises I have to keep!

I note that due to the effect of section 42 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, terms for senators representing the Northern Territory expire at the close of the day immediately before the polling day for the next general election of members of the House of Representatives – so NT Country Liberal Party/Deputy National Party leader/newly appointed Opposition shadow Minister Nigel Scullion will be up for re-election sometime next year.

Senator Scullion on a boat. Pic: NT News
Senator Nigel Scullion on a boat. Pic: NT News

Nigel was appointed as Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokesperson on Tuesday this week. He’s had ministerial experience in the past, occupying the relatively soft portfolio of Community Services in the Howard government from January 2007 till that government was defeated at elections later that year.

Nigel has had a few “moments” in his political career, including, as Chris Graham said in Crikey yesterday:

The Country Liberals Senator for the Northern Territory is perhaps most famous for admitting to being handcuffed to a pole at a Russian nightclub in his underpants during a “lovely night” out with some “lunatic fishermen from Newfoundland” in 1998…Of his transgression, Scullion added: “This was 10 years ago and I was a fisherman. Everybody has a colourful past, I think most Territorians do.” A knock-about sort of a bloke whose more at home in a jeans than a suit, Scullion grew up in Canberra before heading north to the “other territory” to carve out a life as a professional fisherman. He went on to hold various senior positions in the industry, including chair of the Australian Seafood Industry Council.

But, as Chris Graham also noted yesterday, Nigel’s previous Ministerial experience will be a “walk in the park” compared to his new responsibilities as Indigenous Affairs spokesperson.

Other than his brief junior ministerial responsibilities, many in the NT and beyond will remember that Nigel, and his local office, were closely involved in the preparations for – and execution of – the Howard/Brough Intervention into aboriginal community life in the NT in 2007.

As I said in Crikey in August 2007:

…Scullion has provided invaluable service to Brough as his local point-man and interference-runner, both in relation to the Howard/Brough intervention and the tangled web of intrigue that surrounds the consultations about and negotiations for a 99-year lease of townships on the Tiwi Islands on which Supreme Court Justice Steve Southwood will rule tomorrow.

Yesterday Nigel told the ABC’s Emma Masters that:

…under the Federal and Territory Labor Governments, Aboriginal people have not seen the benefits of housing, infrastructure and employment promised more than two years ago.”That’s why I suspect that the intervention is unpopular in many of these communities,” he said. “Because they simply have not seen the promises of the past. Yes, there’ll be some pain, but there’ll be some gain in terms of infrastructure. The infrastructure has been a monumental failure.”

Late this afternoon Nigel, two days into his new role as Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokesperson, was interviewed by the ABC’s Rohan Barwick on Local Radio 783 in Alice Springs, after copping somewhat predictable sprays from both Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson earlier in the day.

It is a useful interview – in part because it reveals the apparent narrowness of Nigel’s focus on his responsibilities as Jenny Macklin’s shadow:

Nigel Scullion: Good afternoon Rohan, how are you going?

Rohan Barwick: Good thank you. Now first of all Jenny Macklin says that you don’t have much to say on issues outside the Territory. So tell, me, what do you believe is the biggest challenge for Indigenous Affairs outside of the Territory.

Scullion: Well, I think I just heard Jenny Macklin say that I didn’t speak about much on indigenous affairs outside the territory…she is quite correct about that. It was outside of my portfolio.

But…eh…look I have to say that indigenous affairs in the Territory, indigenous affairs in New South Wales or Queensland or West Australia – they are the same issues.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Um, and, eh, I think that any portfolio need to…or any portfolio consideration of policy needs to…er…look very carefully at those same issues that…you know…affect us everywhere.

And I can tell you right now whether you need a house over your head in the Territory to keep the rain off it is exactly the same in Queensland and Western Autralia.

Barwick: So do you see housing as the biggest issue then?

Scullion: No, I don’t think housing is the biggest issue. And I’m reluctant to say one thing is the biggest issue. But look, I’d have to say that many mentions [?] that the health issues of indigenous people do need to be dealt with. I think education is a significant issue, particularly in the more remote areas of Australia.

I think school attendance can no longer seem to be an option, which it still is. Um…and I think…um…generally, more generally engagement with the economy seems to be a significant issue. So they’re three policy issues that we’ll be looking at, but of course we don’t want to be stuck with “These are the only things you care about”, because its not the case. But, if Jenny Macklin is concerned that all I ever talk about is indigenous policy in the Territory then I’m quite proud to accept that as…a…a…compliment.

Barwick: Now Senator, you’ve also been attacked today by the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Paul Henderson. He says that you need to get out and see the progress in Aboriginal communities before criticising the government. So can I ask you when was the last time that you were in an Aboriginal community, and what did you see when you were there?

Scullion: Well, I travel extensively [in] indigenous communities and what Mr Henderson was relating to was my criticism of the SIHIP program and what I said was “We still haven’t got a single house built. “ So look, it is quite simple. If Mr Henderson can provide me with an address where a new house has been built anywhere in the Territory [I’d be] delighted to go there.

But as of this day and day…this hour, there just simply hasn’t been one. And I maintain my position that is an appalling set of circumstances and I think every Territorian would be completely disappointed and dismayed with a Chief Minister trying to…trying to protect…and somehow trying to rationalize this, this absolutely ridiculous position.

Barwick: You have now been given the role of Opposition spokesman for indigenous affairs, so what do you think needs to be done. If you are saying that the SIHIP program hasn’t worked. What needs to happen now?

Scullion: Well, we are not going to change away from the SIHIP program. We’re just gonna need people, the bureaucracy in the Northern Territory, and particularly leadership from the Minister, Minister Knight on this matter, and perhaps some leadership from Paul Henderson. Just…you know…everybody cannot understand how you cannot build a house…

My tape ran out there – just before the end of the interview – apologies to Nigel and Rowan if I missed anything pithy or relevant.

All this was pretty predictable stuff from Nigel and hardly the sort of dynamism that his leader told us all that we could expect of his shadows…

For mine, Tony Abbott’s occupation of the Indigenous Affairs portfolio was a tenure characterised by manifest disinterest and boredom – in that regard Nigel won’t have to do too much to lift the Opposition’s performance in that portfolio.

But whether he’ll be able to lay more than the occasional glove on Jenny Macklin’s administration of the indigenous affairs portfolio is another matter entirely. Not that I can say much that is positive about her performance either.

Indigenous affairs in this country has an awful habit of wreaking absolute havoc on political careers – and with Nigel expected to run for re-election next year there will be more than a few – both inside his Country Liberal Party and in NT Labor – who will be keeping  a very close eye on his performance.

As Nigel said “There is nothing new under the sun.”