By Chris Graham*
Mal Brough has won Liberal National Party pre-selection for the seat of Fisher, virtually guaranteeing him a seat in federal parliament in 2013… unless voters find out about his past performance, of course.
The best predictor of someone’s future behaviour is their past behaviour. Which means that with Mal Brough winning pre-selection for the federal seat of Fisher, parliament is in for a sideshow the likes of which it hasn’t seen since… well, the last time Brough was there.
Brough’s win in the Liberal National Party’s pre-selection for the seat of Fisher means he’ll almost certainly be back in federal parliament by 2013.
But contrary to widespread media reports, Fisher is not a safe seat. It holds a margin of less than eight percent, way down on the glory days of 20-plus percent in 2004 which it enjoyed under Peter Slipper.
Still, if the predicted electoral wipeout of Labor in Queensland comes true, Brough will likely win the seat with an increased margin.
There’s also a broad expectation that Brough will walk straight back into the ministry if he wins office. And there’s widespread fear in black Australia that the portfolio will be Aboriginal Affairs, given Brough’s boys own adventure in 2007 with the Northern Territory intervention.
I think the fear is misplaced.
When the Libs merged with the Nats in Queensland, Brough was the leading figure opposing the move. He had a dummy-spit, resigned as president, and fired shots from the sidelines in a bid to wreck the process.
That makes Brough today about as popular among his conservative colleagues as a refugee at a Liberal Party convention.
Brough won pre-selection courtesy of a good old-fashioned membership drive (which some have unkindly suggested is also known as a branch stack). Whatever it was, it was enough to get him across the line in Fisher, but with high profile federal Libs like Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull lining up to back ‘the other guy’ – rising star James McGrath – Brough is unlikely to simply walk back into a cabinet position.
Even less so with the stink that surrounds him on the Slipper affair.
And none of that factors in the risk that the Liberals might actually discover that Brough was not only a terrible Minister for Indigenous Affairs, but he was only ever a syllable and a decision away from saying and doing something really, really silly.
With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting some of the policy disasters over which Mal Brough presided during the Howard years.
1. DESTINATION ANYWHERE
The Community Development Employment Program – aka the black work for the dole – was designed and run by Aboriginal people, and had been chugging away relatively successfully for more than three decades.
Enter Mal Brough, who decided in 2006 that CDEP had become a “destination” rather than a “path to real employment”.
He began abolishing CDEP in remote regions, despite the fact CDEP was the ONLY source of employment in impoverished towns, not to mention the major funder of basic services.
Aboriginal unemployment when Brough left office was at near record levels.
2. THE GREAT (WHITE) AUSTRALIAN DREAM
In 2007, Brough decided Aboriginal people were at risk of becoming communists, because they couldn’t purchase their own homes on collectively owned Aboriginal land in remote areas.
So, after amending the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the NT, Brough unveiled the Home Ownership on Indigenous Lands program (HOIL), a government funded scheme aimed at helping blackfellas buy a plot of land they already owned.
He quarantined $100 million in government funding for HOIL while at the same time underfunded the highly successful Home Ownership Program (which enabled Aboriginal people anywhere in the country to access home loans).
HOP’s waiting list blew out exponentially while money sat locked in the HOIL program.
Finally, after five years of operation, Brough’s HOIL was quietly shelved and the money diverted into HOP. The HOP waiting list dropped instantly from 1,500 to just over 400 – that’s more than 1,000 Aboriginal families into home ownership almost overnight.
And the cost of Brough’s HOIL adventure? $10 million to administer a program that provided just 15 loans worth $2.7 million.
3. STASHING CASH WHILE ROME BURNS
Brough spent much of his time as minister pounding the state and territory Labor governments for their poor performance in Indigenous affairs.
A good thing too.
But at the same time, in 2006-07 his department underspent the Indigenous affairs budget by a staggering $600 million, one-fifth of the total budget. This in the same year that Brough declared “a national emergency” in NT Aboriginal communities.
4. SECRET MEN’S BUSINESS
Who could forget Brough’s role in the Lateline reporting fiasco which helped spark the Northern Territory intervention.
In May 2006, Lateline broadcast a story entitled ‘Sexual slavery reported in Indigenous community’.
It featured a witness who appeared with his face blacked out and his voice digitized, and backed earlier claims by Brough (and rubbished widely) that paedophile rings were rife in Aboriginal communities.
Lateline falsely described the man as an “anonymous youth worker” but it later emerged he was Gregory Andrews, an Assistant Secretary in Brough’s department. His job was to advise the minister on issues of child abuse in Aboriginal communities.
Brough always denied knowledge of the appearance, but in later court proceedings it emerged his office was provided a written brief of what the bureaucrat planned to tell Lateline.
Brough used the story – and Lateline – to drive support for the NT intervention, a policy that endures today, and is still wreaking havoc on Aboriginal communities.
5. IT MAY HAVE BEEN MY IDEA, BUT IT AIN’T MY FAULT!
And speaking of the NT intervention, five years on the policy that defined Brough’s time as minister has seen school attendance drop, suicide and self harm rates double, and a more than doubling in reports of violent incidents.
All the while the incarceration rate has soared to almost 90 percent of the prison population.
Brough has the luxury of not being able to be held accountable for the failings of the NT intervention – he was, after all, cast from office five months after it was launched.
But Brough IS responsible for the implementation of the intervention, and on that front things aren’t pretty.
A parliamentary inquiry found its implementation was very poor – apart from alienating Aboriginal people and providing no emergency accommodation for anyone but police and soldiers, it caused widespread starvation among Aboriginal communities.
6. A $1 MILLION PORKIE
When Brough told media this week that at no stage did he ever request extracts from Peter Slipper’s diary (despite text messages showing him request extracts from Peter Slipper’s diary) he was simply adopting a practice that had worked well for him in the unaccountable world of Indigenous affairs.
Perhaps his most startling ‘deny deny deny’ moment came when he walked out of a roundtable summit on Aboriginal violence and told media that someone in the meeting had revealed things were so bad in NT Aboriginal communities that $1 million in cash had been found in one remote town, the proceeds from the sale of drugs.
One million in cash? In a remote community? Really?
Amid Brough denials, the story, of course, collapsed. Anyone with 10 seconds experience of an Aboriginal community could tell you you’d have a better chance of finding life on the Moon than $1 million in cash in a poor black town. Which kind of explains why media reported Brough’s ridiculous claims without question.
It later transpired there was a drug bust in the NT, but it occurred in Darwin, the amount of cash involved was small, and the guy arrested was white, with no links to Aboriginal communities whatsoever.
7. BLACK CASH, WHITE PORK-BARREL
One of Brough’s first acts as minister was to pinch $100,000 from the Aboriginals Benefit Account (which holds NT mining royalties on behalf of blackfellas) and provide it to the organisers of the Woodford Folk Festival, in Queensland.
By law, ABA funds must be spent for the benefit of Territory Aborigines.
Brough wasn’t the first politician to pork-barrel with ABA funds, but he was definitely the first one to do it outside NT. In case you were wondering, Woodford was in Brough’s electorate of Longman.
8. A POOL OF EASY MONEY
The ABA proved irresistible to Brough while in office. His most spectacular raid was undoubtedly the $4 million he pinched to upgrade the Alice Springs Aquatic Centre, a pool owned by the Alice Springs town council.
At the same time, Brough attacked Traditional Owners repeatedly for what he claimed was the irresponsible expenditure of mining royalty monies.
9. LAND RIGHTS FOR WHITES
Even after leaving the job, Brough couldn’t let go. Having amended the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 2006 to allow whitefellas to buy Aboriginal land, Brough found himself out of parliament.
So he boarded the first flight to the Tiwi Islands, and tried to convince locals to enter into a joint venture with him, which involved signing over their land.
The deal was blocked by the Rudd government.
In true Brough style, he simply made up the media script to suit the political winds, telling The Australian newspaper on February 8, 2008 (while the deal was still on) that he was “seeking to make a profit from – and lend a hand to – the islanders”, then later when the deal was shot telling the Sydney Morning Herald he never stood to “make one cent out of it” and that the Rudd government was playing politics with the lives of Aboriginal people.
10. A DEMOUNTABLE PROMISE
Brough’s failings in Aboriginal affairs went beyond bad policy and media silliness. There was also plenty of inaction.
The most stark occurred in 2006, after Brough promised more than 80 demountable buildings from the recently closed Woomera detention centre would be urgently installed in remote Aboriginal communities as emergency housing.
By the time he left office 18 months later, not one demountable had been installed.
Instead, they sat rusting in an Alice Springs industrial yard until the Rudd government finally sent them north in 2008… as emergency accommodation for asylum seekers on Christmas Island.
Today, the average number of Aboriginal people per dwelling in the NT remains at around 9.4 persons per dwelling, the same level it was when Brough entered office. This is despite the expenditure of at least one billion dollars on Aboriginal housing across the Territory over six years.
* Chris Graham is the managing editor of Tracker magazine, and a Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist.