By ERWIN CHLANDA
To get an idea of what’s ahead of us in this election year it’s instructive to read the final words spoken by government front bencher Chris Burns in the NT Parliament before the Christmas break.
Producing his own brand of Festive Season cheer, Labor politician Dr Burns was having a shot at Alison Anderson in the adjournment debate of the last Sittings of 2011.
That’s not surprising, because the colorful Member for MacDonnell had recently joined the Country Liberal Opposition, after having been an Independent, which was after having been a party colleague of Dr Burns’.
What is remarkable about his sniping is that his ammunition consisted mostly of alleged past transgressions by Ms Anderson which, while she was a Labor Member, his party either ignored or said Ms Anderson was not guilty of. And that was from then Chief Minister Clare Martin down.
So Dr Burns engaged in some robust mental gymnastics to explain his change of heart.
It’s all about the book by Melbourne journalist Russell Skelton, King Brown Country, The Betrayal of Papunya.
He’d referred to it previously, explained Dr Burns in December, but “I carefully avoided reference to personalities in that book”.
Why? Nothing to do with the fact that then Ms Anderson was still on the cross benches in a delicately balanced Legislative Assembly?
Why is he naming her now? Nothing to do with the fact that now Ms Anderson has joined the Opposition?
The reason, says Dr Burns, is “the very fact that [author] Russell Skelton now has a Walkley Award for this book”.
The award is for journalistic achievement in the long form, organised by the Media Alliance.
Taking his cue from the journalists’ trade union is surprising for a member of a government that prefers to conduct its business with the media through an army of minders.
Dr Burns ends his speech with a call on Opposition Leader Terrry Mills “to remove the Member for MacDonnell from her position as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Indigenous Affairs”.
And in the process Dr Burns attaches Parliamentary privilege – protection against legal action – to a string of assertions in the book, further embellished by his own extrapolations.
The other irony is that many of the things the book alleges Ms Anderson to have done, are things that Dr Burns’ government should have known about, or should have stopped or prevented. Dr Burns’ colleagues have been in government since 2001. He became a Minister in 2002.
And before Labor gained power the CLP administration consistently fumbled the governing of remote councils, not just Papunya. Mr Skelton’s book acknowledges that, but then proceeds to take aim at Ms Anderson in particular.
Dates are interesting. The book appeared in September, 2010. According to it the main dastardly acts in the troubled community of Papunya, some 300 kms west of Alice Springs, occurred in the late 1990s and mid 2000s.
Many had been extensively – and largely exclusively – covered by the Alice Springs News, which the book mostly acknowledges.
This includes the significant accomplishments and ultimate banishment of school principal Diane de Vere, and especially, what the book calls “motorcar dreaming”.
The media coverage of that started with a leak of sensitive financial information to the Alice Springs News, raising questions about the dealings by the quasi local government body in used cars. All this went on under the nose of the government of which Dr Burns was a front bencher.
The council, while getting government money, wasn’t a local government body at all, but a social club.
Ms Anderson, who’s working on her own book about the events, says similar arrangements were in place in Haasts Bluff, Kintore and Mt Liebig, without attracting attention from the media, nor Dr Burns.
King Brown Country gives a thorough and easy-to-read account of the chaotic conditions in The Centre’s bush, in broad brush starting in the 1960s, and in useful detail from the mid-70s.
The situation Mr Skelton encountered would have been a good enough – amazing enough – yarn without him constantly having shots at Ms Anderson – shots that are frequently quite off target.
On the one hand Mr Skelton describes her astonishing skills: she speaks seven local languages, pops out the best political one-liners, has an acute strategic instinct for survival, and compelling persuasiveness: you should – I have – see her handing out how to vote cards. “No” is not an option.
Mr Skelton also describes her as invaluable to administrators, as an interpreter not just of languages, but of the complex situations in some of the nation’s poorest, remotest, least developed communities, grog and violence ridden, and hammered by tribal tensions.
And while her strong personality came into play a lot, she wasn’t reigning supreme – she was (for a time) part of a council and the council was at all times – supposedly – under the control of a government department under the control of Cabinet.
Given all that, making her always the baddie is a bit of a stretch. Who really needs to be fingered in the betrayal of Papunya?
The book makes much – most, really – of the so-called “motorcar dreaming”. This is how it worked.
The Papunya store, run by the local social club, set prices to make healthy profits which it donated to the so-called council which spent some of it on cars which were given to locals, on a kind of rotation basis, not necessarily guided by the strictest principles of equality.
There is no suggestion in the book that the Anderson clan benefited from the scheme more than others.
One of the store keepers, John Verek, who arrived in 1992, took issue with that arrangement, and so does Mr Skelton.
I had an opportunity of speaking with Mr Verek. The occasion was the NT Government’s decision to charge Papunya residents for electricity – raising Ms Anderson’s ire to boiling point.
I was producing a story for the Seven TV Network. Before flying to Papunya we interviewed the Central Land Council’s Tracker Tilmouth about the “outrageous” prices in the store – and now the poor people had to pay for power as well.
Later in Papunya, between getting vision of Power and Water staff with very long poles screwing fuses out of power poles where people refused to sign up, I went to see Mr Verek.
The conversation went something like this.
Can I please get some footage of your outrageously priced groceries?
Help yourself … OK, now you have your pictures, bear in mind that we could easily undercut Woolworths in Alice Springs. We don’t pay rent and the transport isn’t all that expensive. The prices are set by the elders and they get cars from the profit.
And that wasn’t little cars in cornflake packets. It was real ones. Big ones. Outrage.
I put this to a local. He said, we don’t have public transport. We always share the use of cars. How many blackfellers fit in a car? And sooner or later everyone gets one. It’s like a savings plan. What are you on about?
It was a bush solution. It was a no brainer to most, but Mr Skelton, in the book’s major example of apparent impropriety, came down on the side of Mr Verek who held a far more puritanical – and maybe, impractical – view.
The focus on Ms Anderson makes up a relatively small part of Mr Skelton’s book although in the Territory, at least, it is the part that has received the most attention.
He skillfully puts together the elements of the monumental events in the region at the time, how the politicians and administrators coped with them, or turned their backs, while throwing vast amounts of money at the “problems”: land rights, equal pay triggering the exodus from the cattle stations to the communities, the outstation movement, Labor gaining power after 26 years of Tory rule in the NT, the Intervention, the urban drift to town camps. This part of his book is a useful chronicle of Aboriginal policies and politics in The Centre.
But where the book deals with Ms Anderson it’s hard to shake the feeling that Mr Skelton’s efforts to put much of the blame on her are contrived: is he picking on her because she is an outstanding figure? Was there not a similar mess in dozens of other bush communities?
To be sure, to decline Mr Skelton’s repeated requests for an interview was a strategic mistake on Ms Anderson’s part – “no comment” is the worst answer you can give a journo on the scent of a story about public money, and issues in the public interest.
Much of the book relies on unnamed sources. The major informant is Steve Hanley, Mr Anderson’s former partner and father if her children with whom she was embroiled in a bitter separation.
The Alice Springs News in 2005 and 2006 published several reports about Mr Hanley’s role in the financial dealings of the Papunya “council” – google his name in our online edition.
None of this stopped Dr Burns from sinking in the slipper a bit more: “I understand that none of those [police and other] investigations [into Ms Anderson] were conclusive. But this book is conclusive, this book is conclusive in a political sense now.” What would Mr Skelton say about that?
More from Dr Burns: “Verek said he once tried … to lower store prices, but Anderson flatly rejected the idea, saying it was not what the majority of councillors wanted. Alison and Handley, who is Anderson’s husband, avoided the store, doing most of their shopping in Alice Springs, yet Verek said they benefited from the profits via, amongst other prizes, a $35,000 Toyota Landcruiser.
“So here is someone who not only was aware of price gouging in their local store, but actually required it, actually ordered them to price gouge.
“To price gouge the most disadvantaged people living in a remote area, and rip them off of funds so she and her family could buy a car.
“What sort of cynical person is that? What sort of person who clothe themselves in this place as being some champion of Indigenous people would do that to her own people? And it is catalogued throughout this book.”
That is an extrapolation by Dr Burns from what the book “catalogues”.
Dr Burns: “So here we have bullying, and there is a catalogue of bullying in this book. There is a bullying that went on with the school principal, one Diane de Vere, who had taken the school from near disaster to one of the most successful bush schools in Central Australia.
“Here is a successful principal who had raised attendance, who had raised standards, but it says that a former Education department official who asked not to be named said de Vere’s problem was that she had achieved too much. (The Alice Springs News covered Ms de Vere’s treatment in detail in November 2003.)
“The man said Anderson, her brother Sid and others felt that de Vere had become too big for her boots, she had become a threat to her authority, the Member for MacDonnell, so she had her sacked, well she had her moved out of the community, she hunted her out like so many people.”
As Mr Skelton reports it, Ms de Vere’s dismissal was decided by a community meeting called by “one of the Education Department’s top officials in Alice Springs” – a bureaucrat working for the government in which Dr Burns, the current Minister of Education, was a front bencher.
The fact that it was Ms Anderson who told Ms de Vere of the decision community meeting’s decision to sack her, prompts Mr Skelton to assert: “Anderson may have left the council, but her authority in Papunya was clearly undiminished.” This kind of conclusion ignores the other forces at play, in particular, within the Education Department.
No doubt we’ll hear more from Dr Burns and King Brown Country as this year’s election draws near.
PICTURE: Ms Anderson and her brother, Sid, now the president of the MacDonnell Shire. Different takes on their role as power brokers in Papunya shape up as election fodder.
By ERWIN CHLANDA