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Some timely reflections from former Labor MP Warren Snowdon

Introduction by Croakey: After three decades in the federal Parliament, Northern Territory MP Warren Snowdon has retired, leaving the Lingiari electorate in the hands of fellow ALP member Marion Scrymgour after her narrow win over the Country Liberal Party’s Damien Ryan.

In his valedictory speech to Parliament earlier this year, Snowdon highlighted many of the pressing issues that now face the Albanese Government, saying that the housing crisis in Aboriginal communities requires “the investment of billions, not millions”.

In his speech, published in full below, Snowdon blamed “the institutionalised racism that has been so much part of government since Federation” for the poverty, poor and overcrowded housing, and “scandalous levels of preventable, chronic disease”.

“If you’re at all serious about improving health, education and employment outcomes then the housing crisis must be addressed,” he said. “It’s urgent. If we are to stop preventable diseases, such as rheumatic heart disease, then we must fix the housing problem.”

Meanwhile, Scrymgour, who has cultural connections to Central Australia and the Tiwi Islands and is a former Deputy Chief Minister of the NT and former Northern Land Council CEO, has raised concerns about low voter turnout and a lack of First Nations interpreters to help in remote booths in the Lingiari electorate.

Read Snowdon’s full valedictory speech below, first published by the Parliament of Australia on 16 February, which also includes some important historical reflections.


Warren Snowdon’s valedictory:

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of this country, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and the Traditional Owners where I live, in Mparntwe country, the Central Arrernte people. It’s an honour and a great privilege to be here, and it always has been.

Just to contextualise what I’m about to say: the Northern Territory first got representation in this parliament 100 years ago in the election of 1922, when Harold Nelson, HG, was elected as a Labor candidate into this parliament.

I was first elected in 1987 – that’s 35 years ago – and have been in the Parliament for 32 years: 12 as the member for the Northern Territory and 20 as the member for Lingiari. My good friend in my neighbouring seat is Comrade Gosling, the member for Solomon. Over that period, I have been really, really fortunate – in the context of Labor members of parliament, extremely fortunate.

I’ve had 15 years in government, six years as a parliamentary secretary in the Hawke and Keating years, and six years as a minister in Rudd and Gillard years.

But the truth of it is that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for so many others. Yes, I was fortunate enough to be given those opportunities, but it’s the good people of the Northern Territory and the Indian Ocean Territories that I owe the most. They are the reason I’m here, and I want to thank them for their ongoing support and friendship.

My number one priority since coming to this Parliament has been to advocate for and represent them in this place. Just as a reminder, Lingiari is 1.34 million square kilometres, and the Indian Ocean Territories, way off there in the Indian Ocean, are often forgotten by so many, but they have had the travails and trauma of the Tampa, children overboard and deaths at sea. My good friends in the Cocos Islands – just such a wonderful community.

So it’s a very dispersed electorate, from the Red Centre where I live, to the north and the Indian Ocean Territories. It has a wonderfully diverse population, although 42 percent are Aboriginal people, for whom I am most thankful. The overwhelming support of Aboriginal people has meant I have been here election after election – 11 successful elections and one which I lost.

As an indication, at the last federal election, there were 194 mobile polling booths in the Northern Territory, and across those booths I received 80 percent of the vote. That’s an indication and the reason why I’m here.

My motivation

Well, I should just say I’m here because I’ve been so fortunate to be elected. But I actually grew up just down the road in Narrabundah. I never visited this joint when I was a kid. I never had ambitions to be a member of parliament. My first visit to Old Parliament House was when I was working in the Department of Trade and I was carrying ministerials over to John McEwen’s office. That’s a while ago!

And I’m not the only Snowdon ever to seek election. This will be for my mates over there in the rural rump – I beg your pardon, my National Party comrades! My grandfather, Percy Claude Snowdon, stood as an independent Country Party member for the seat of Murray Valley in the 1945 Victorian state election. Thankfully, his political journey didn’t pass on to me!

My motivation for seeking election in the first place was driven by my involvement in my church, community and sporting organisations, the mighty trade union movement and my job as a teacher.

But perhaps the most important influence was that of Dr HC Coombs and Dr Maria Brandell, whom I worked with on a project in the Pitjantjatjara homelands in the late seventies and early eighties. Dr Coombs was a magnificent and wonderful Australian who became a mentor of mine. After I left that university job, I went back to teaching.

And then I was fortunate enough to go and work at the Central Land Council in Alice Springs where my boss was Patrick Dodson, now Senator Patrick Dodson. Our bosses were the Traditional Owners of Central Australia, and they taught me such a great deal and motivated me to want to become a member of this parliament.

But I have to say that my parliamentary journey over this 35 years would not have been possible without the love, support and sacrifice of my wife, Elizabeth, and our children Frankie, Tom, Tess and Jack. Elizabeth, my partner for 40 years now, took upon herself the primary responsibility of raising and nurturing our wonderful children and maintaining our household. I simply don’t have words that do you justice, Elizabeth, or that are adequate to express my love and gratitude.

Our first child, Frankie, was born a fortnight before the first election. I was on the road in Tennant Creek electioneering. I rang the midwife that night and said, ‘What’s it look like, is Elizabeth okay?’ The midwife said, ‘Everything’s fine, don’t worry, don’t hurry back.’ I woke up at about three o’clock in the morning and thought, ‘No, that doesn’t sound right.’

So I woke up the person who was driving me, my good friend, and I said, ‘Do you mind if we go back to Alice Springs, I think there might be something happening.’ So we arrived back in Alice Springs and turned up at the house, in Chewings Street, and no-one was there. And I said, ‘God, bugger me dead, what’s happened?’ So we go to the hospital, go to the maternity ward, and there’s Frankie, with her mum, being wheeled out of the birthing suite. So I missed you – I’m sorry! I don’t think you’ve suffered as a result – at least, I hope not!

Over the next years Tom, Tess and Jack came along. Elizabeth took 12 years out of the paid workforce, from her profession as a teacher, until young Jack went to school. We’re so proud of the four of them. They are wonderful human beings. I’m sorry that I wasn’t around for you. Prior to the COVID period, I was only home around eight nights a month over that 30-odd years journey. So I missed all those important days – birthdays, school events and all of those things.

I also want to thank, and acknowledge the sacrifice, loyalty and friendship of, all those who have supported me over the period – the members of the Northern Territory Labor Party, my union comrades, the volunteers, all of those who make it possible for us to be here. I know that all of you all understand that, while you might be the poster boy or girl, in fact you’re only there because of those who are behind you, and I’m ever so grateful.

I also want to thank those electorate and ministerial staff that I had the great fortune to work with over many years. They effectively became my second family. Their dedication, friendship, professionalism, loyalty and resilience have been essential for me to be able to carry out my job. My closest comrades were always in my electoral office.

There are two who I’ll mention: Carol Bourke and Jack Crosby were two wonderful, wonderful human beings, who passed away whilst in the job. They were the truest of comrades, friends, advisers and, of course, fearless critics until the end.

While I’m giving the thank yous, I’d like to obviously thank all of the parliamentary staff: the cleaners, the gym staff, Hansard, security, the attendants, the clerks, the sergeant’s office, the Speaker, the nurses, the gardeners, the caterers, the volunteers, the terrific library staff, who are so vital to what we do; the staff of Aussies, who keep the caffeine up; and, of course, the Transport Office and the drivers, who look after us around Australia; and the airline staff, with who I’ve become so friendly. I think I spent close to two years flying over that period, and I’ve come to know those flight attendants really very, very well.

Let’s now talk about the journey

It was a different world in 1987. There were no mobile phones and no internet. My first office had a computer and a fax machine. I travelled for days around the electorate without any form of communication back to home base.

I recall my first speech down there in the Old Parliament House, with my mum and dad in the Speaker’s gallery and Elizabeth with Frankie upstairs with a great friend. My first office was in Old Parliament House, a poky little joint on the Senate side. It was around nine square metres. You couldn’t swing a cat, and you certainly couldn’t have more than one visitor.

My neighbour at the time, my first neighbour, was John Hewson, who was also elected at that election. So life in Old Parliament House was so, so far different from what you lucky buggers have got here! Until we arrived here in 1988, there was very scant security. The parliamentary bar was a constant buzz and a meeting place of literally all sorts.

I’d had experience of being in that place a couple of years prior with Patrick, now Senator Dodson. We were involved with the Northern Territory Land Council and campaigning against changes which the then Hawke government wanted to make over land rights, particularly national land rights.

We were keen to prevent them falling into the trap which had been set by Brian Burke, the Premier of Western Australia, who opposed national land rights. We were unwilling and campaigned to make sure that no legislation which was passed undermined the existing rights of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory through the Northern Territory land rights act, and we were successful.

Over the years, of course, you meet some really wonderful people. Very early on, Gerry Hand became a very close friend, along with Nick Bolkus and, after the 1990 election, Simon Crean and Daryl Melham. Over the last 20 years or thereabouts, I’ve shared accommodation with now lifelong friends – Nick Bolkus for a while and Simon Crean.

When Nick retired from this place, we were looking for someone to stay, so we auditioned a few. We interviewed Brendan. He was the successful candidate, poor bugger!

… that house in Narrabundah has some wonderful memories, and if only the walls could talk. The dinners, the plotting, the planning, the conniving, the arguments – they all took place there. Some of that had more than a passing impact on events in this place. At some point, if those walls could talk, you’d hear some stories. Thankfully, you won’t hear them from me!

The ALP caucus is an interesting beast. Over the years, there have been some very unique characters, all with a lot to offer: lively policy debates, leadership ballots, vacancy ballots. I lost one once! It didn’t make me happy!

[An opposition member: That’s democracy.]

Yes, that’s democracy, as my comrade says. I have to say, over the years, it’s become a much tamer affair. You need to lift your game! But I do enjoy the friendship of my caucus colleagues, particularly our regular Thursday night dinners, which are an opportunity to decompress, have a yarn or just be plain silly. And there’s a lot of that happening.

But the outstanding and positive change that has come to our caucus is its feminisation. In 1988, only nine percent or thereabouts of our members on the House of Representatives floor were women. It’s now 48 percent, and after the next election it will be over 50 percent. That’s all because of the hard work done by women in our caucus. Thank you.

And there is the wonderful legacy of Julia Gillard, as our nation’s first female Prime Minister. Now I know for certain that the pathway to leadership is open to all women in our caucus. A few blokes have got to loosen their grip a bit, but that will happen – don’t worry!

The most recent reckoning of the abuse of women in the parliamentary workforce and in the workplace, and the acceptance of the need for action and cultural change, is welcome and long overdue.

There are a lot of things I could talk about being a minister, but there simply isn’t time, and I wouldn’t do justice to the very many people I had the great good fortune to work with in the various portfolios.

I have great memories of those times, and it was a great honour and a great privilege, but I do want to mention a couple of things about the caucus that I wasn’t happy about. There were decisions taken by the caucus that I opposed.

I kept caucus solidarity, but, of all the decisions, the one that caused me most concern was the decision by the Howard Government to intervene in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, which I strongly opposed.

I also strongly opposed the abolition of ATSIC and the decision to ban live cattle exports from the Northern Territory. These decisions were unnecessary and caused hurt and harm. In the case of the intervention in the Northern Territory, the repercussions are still being felt. The trauma is still there.

In relation to the ministerial responsibilities, what I learnt, and what reaffirmed my belief in public service, was the importance of the people in the public service who work for ministers. It reaffirmed in me the belief in a strong, independent public service in the Coombs tradition.

An independent public service is central to our democracy and system of government, and I want to thank those many fine public servants with whom I had the good fortune to work, as well as those thousands of people who work in public service offices around this country, working for us. I think it’s well past the time for another review of the type of the Coombs Royal Commission of the 1970s.

I was going to talk about the Parliament, but I’m aware that time is passing. I just want to make the observation that it is such a great privilege to be in this Parliament debating, representing the interests of our constituents. There could be no finer job to be done.

Work as a parliamentarian is the best work. We might throw barbs across the chamber, but the reality is we’re all here for a good purpose. We might disagree but – if we do show some respect for one another, as we should – despite the political rhetoric and the barbs that are thrown, we are here for a good purpose, and the people of Australia rely upon us to do that job.

I want to comment on the parliamentary committee process, and I see the Chair of the Indigenous Affairs Committee, Julian Leeser, is here and the Chair of the Northern Australia Joint Committee, Warren Entsch, is here. They are two committees that I’ve been involved with for a long time, as well as the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, which I’ve enjoyed.

I have to say that these committees work really, really effectively because of the bipartisan way in which we address the issues and the respect that we show to one another and to those who appear before us. So I want to say to people here – and it’s just so sad – that the recommendations which come out of those committees are so often shelved when, in fact, they should be the guiding light for what happens.

Hope and disappointment

At the very outset of this wonderful journey that I’ve been involved in, I made clear in my first speech that my priority and desire to represent and advocate for the interests of First Australians was my most significant responsibility.

So I’ve sought to have this place understand the need to address the injustices experienced by Aboriginal people, and to have people’s rights as First Australians properly recognised and addressed and their needs met. But if I look at the past 32 years in this place, the outcomes, sadly, have often been very frustrating and sadly disappointing. And First Australians’ needs have not been met.

So many remain marginalised and in poverty, living in poor and overcrowded housing with scandalous levels of preventable, chronic disease. In my view, this is largely driven by the institutionalised racism that has been so much part of government since Federation and by the ongoing refusal to accept the need for truth-telling and acknowledgement of past and continuing injustice.

Over the time I’ve been in this place, there have been periods of great hope – and then times of great disappointment. I’ve mentioned the Hawke Government as being a bit of a disappointment on the issue of national land rights, but they did so many very other good things. At the time of the Barunga Statement and the call for a treaty in June 1988, Prime Minister Hawke said in a document that he signed:

… we would expect and hope and work for the conclusion of such a treaty before the end of the life of this Parliament.”

Sadly, that was not to be. It was not to be, because we couldn’t get the support of the then opposition parties.

A tangible indication of positive change was the establishment of ATSIC. ATSIC gave First Australians a voice and decision-making responsibilities at a regional and national level. Sadly, it had its demise under the Howard Government.

A very significant victory, and a very important victory, for the Jawoyn people of the country adjacent to Kakadu National Park came when Prime Minister Hawke used his personal authority in Cabinet to prevent mining at Coronation Hill – that is, Guratba, the home of Bulla. That was in spite of trenchant opposition from sections of cabinet and caucus. I want to quote from an article by Sid Maher in 2015 in which he quotes Bob Hawke at the time:

Mr Hawke said that when the issue came before Cabinet and there was support for the mining proposal, ‘I was annoyed beyond measure by the attitude of many of my colleagues, of their cynical dismissal of the beliefs of the Jawoyn people.’

He challenged Cabinet that those who opposed the Jawoyn position essentially were saying that the Traditional Owners were talking ‘bullshit’. ‘I think I made probably one of the strongest and bitterest attacks I ever made on my colleagues in the cabinet,’ Mr Hawke said.

He said there was no doubt this contributed to his loss of the prime ministership to Paul Keating later in 1991.

Mr Hawke said he attacked the ‘monumental hypocrisy’ of Cabinet rejecting the Jawoyn’s beliefs about their god while the same people who denigrated that belief ‘can easily accommodate and embrace the bundle of mysteries which make up their white Christian beliefs’.

He said this ‘supercilious supremacist discrimination’ was abhorrent to everything he held to be important Labor beliefs.

That was a historically important moment.

Then we had reconciliation. Patrick Dodson was appointed the chair of the reconciliation council. Paul Keating pursued reconciliation and gave that momentous speech in Redfern Park in December 1992. For the first time, the Prime Minister spoke about dispossession, violence, prejudice and injustice suffered by First Australians.

He then was responsible for initiating the passage of the Native Title Act, following the High Court decision in Mabo, and, in 1994, the Keating Government adopted racial hatred legislation, including section 18C.

In 1995, the Keating Government commissioned the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, with Commissioner Sir Roland Wilson and Pat’s brother Mick.

The ‘Bringing them home’ report was tabled in 1997, but, sadly, Prime Minister Howard obdurately and obstinately refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations. So, sadly, the election of the Howard Government brought a crash into despair. ATSIC was pre-emptively scrapped. Self-determination and self-management as drivers for public policy were also scrapped.

The most debilitating decision for people in my electorate was the decision by the Howard Government for the intervention. There were attacks on native title. In 1996 after the Wik High Court case, the then Deputy Prime Minister attacked the High Court judges as being activists. That resulted in what then became the Howard 10-point plan, which depleted the rights of Aboriginal people as native title holders, broadened the power of federal and state governments to extinguish native title and made the initiating of claims difficult and very restrictive.

That needn’t have happened, but it did. Unwinding the intervention was a significant challenge for the Rudd and Gillard governments. The initiative to close the gap was most welcome, but, despite the rhetoric, sadly, little has changed.

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation was of momentous, historical importance and significance. It marked a huge step forward. But the gathering at Uluru and the Statement from the Heart in May 2017 have provided the opportunity to reset the agenda.

There is simply no excuse now, in 2022, for any government to walk away from the need for constitutional recognition of a voice to the parliament, truth-telling and a process of treaty.

So, when I reflect on my over three decades in this place, I remain appalled at the failure of successive governments to come to terms with our First Peoples and accord them the recognition and the justice that is their due or, despite the rhetoric so often heard about closing the gap, to even do the simplest things by addressing the harshest poverty suffered by so many and providing them with adequate and safe housing that would do so much to change their lives.

The housing crisis requires the investment of billions, not millions. That is an investment that would make such a difference to Aboriginal people in my electorate and elsewhere across the country. The COVID crisis has, in plain sight, reaffirmed the appalling result of overcrowded housing.

If you’re at all serious about improving health, education and employment outcomes then the housing crisis must be addressed. It’s urgent. If we are to stop preventable diseases, such as rheumatic heart disease, then we must fix the housing problem.

There are so many other things that need to be done, some of which flow from the inquiry into the destruction of Indigenous heritage at Juukan Gorge. My colleague Patrick Dodson was there. This involves the need to domesticate into Australian law the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia is a signatory but has not yet domesticated it into Australian law.

Most importantly, we need to incorporate the principle of free, prior and informed consent into all laws.

Following me, I hope, in this parliament will be a great Australian, Marion Scrymgour. She will be the candidate for the Labor Party. She’s an Aboriginal woman of leadership and distinction and a former deputy chief minister of the Northern Territory.

I want to acknowledge and thank my colleagues from the Northern Territory who have served in this place: Bob Collins, who as a senator was my close friend; Senator Trish Crossin; Senator Nova Peris; and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy. I thank them for their friendship.

I now want to conclude by, again, emphasising my heartfelt thanks for being given the honour of serving here. There cannot be a greater honour. I hope that all of you appreciate the importance of your presence here and the importance of making sure we have good government. It’s going to be sad for me to leave this joint. It’s been my life.

I want to conclude by quoting Patrick Dodson at the National Press Club in 1985. I remember this speech because not only was I working for Patrick at the time but we had as an editor Mungo MacCallum.

I’ll just finish with this quote from Patrick, which I think is as relevant today as it was then:

If this nation is to ever attempt to wear the mantle of maturity, to have any sense of pride and independence, to claim it is a just and fair society, you must first negotiate with us, the Traditional Owners of this country, the people you have sought to conquer.

Non-Aboriginal Australians have an obligation to negotiate with us not simply on the basis of imposing preconceived interpretations of what rights we can have from you through governments but on the basis of justice and equity.”

• Read the Public Health Association of Australia’s story on Warren Snowdon here.

The tweet above is by former PHAA president, Emeritus Professor Mike Daube, aka @DrOliviaDoll1.

The images below were shared by the new Member for Lingiari, Marion Scrymgour, on her Facebook page.


See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on the 2022 Federal Election.

 

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