In a historic move, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has successfully recruited former Olympian Nova Peris as the Northern Territory's Senate candidate for the 2013 federal election.
Who is Nova Peris?
She is perhaps best known for her significant sporting accomplishments. She was the first indigenous Australian to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as part of the women's hockey team. She achieved similar success upon switching to athletics, winning Commonwealth Games gold medals in both the 200-metre sprint and the 100-metre relay in 1998. She was named Young Australian of the Year in 1997 and was later awarded the Order of Australia medal. Her autobiography, Nova: My Story, was published in 2003.
Since retiring as an athlete, Peris, who is 41 and a mother of three, has been an Aboriginal activist with a stated passion for health and education. She was a treaty ambassador for the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and established the Nova Peris Girls' Academy in Darwin, which supports many young women from Northern Territory's indigenous communities.
How did Peris become a Senate candidate?
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that although she was "very proud" of Labor's record in indigenous affairs, she had been "troubled" that the party had failed to endorse an indigenous candidate. She believed Nova Peris would make a "great contribution" to the Federal Parliament and personally sought to recruit her. Having now been endorsed by the ALP national executive — Labor's chief administrative body — Peris has become the first indigenous Australian to be "preselected" by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) for a "safe" (winnable) federal seat.
Peris acknowledged the "huge opportunity" ahead and emphasised that "to be a voice for young and indigenous Australians in the national Parliament" is "something I've wanted to do for a long time". She said she was "honoured" to have been selected for her health and education work rather than her high profile as an athlete.
What is controversial about the move?
In choosing Nova Peris, the Prime Minister engaged in a "captain's pick", a provision within ALP preselection rules usually reserved for exceptional circumstances – for example, a forced by-election. However, for NT's "rank and file" Labor members, the Prime Minister's move was considered "interference" because, under normal circumstances, the NT Labor branch would have selected its own candidate. Gillard assured that she would not routinely "intervene" in party processes but on this occasion saw it as a matter of "national significance".
The "installation" of Nova Peris has meant that current senator, Trish Crossin will be replaced after 15 years in the Parliament, prompting "outrage" from several Labor figures. Senator Crossin, who also expressed her dissatisfaction with the turn of events, argued that ALP members should be trusted to determine the best candidate to serve the "diverse interests" of Northern Territorians. Gillard acknowledged the "tough choice" involved but remained unapologetic: "I have made a decision and that is it," she said.
What is the fallout within Labor ranks?
For the most part, anger within Labor ranks stems from the lack of consultation, the treatment of Senator Crossin, and the Prime Minister's perceived disregard for ALP pre-selection process. However, some have also suggested a "revenge" motive, arguing that Senator Crossin's support for former prime minister Kevin Rudd in last year's leadership ballot is behind the move.
Others disapprove of Peris as a candidate, criticising the Prime Minister for "parachuting in" a "celebrity" whom many consider to be politically inexperienced. They argue that the move could backfire, resulting in Labor disunity — something the party is keen to avoid in an election year — or a backlash against Peris, who has already had to publicly quash negative personal rumours.
Despite Labor unrest, the Prime Minister's many supporters hail the move as an important acknowledgment of the right of indigenous Australians to be represented in Parliament. They defend her actions, arguing that ALP preselection procedures are "not always perfect", having consistently failed to select an indigenous candidate.
What are others saying?
Many support the Prime Minister's choice, calling it a "grand gesture towards Aboriginal reconciliation". Others label it "tokenism" or a "cynical political stunt" designed to attract votes in the Northern Territory where the ALP has been losing support. Some debate the merits of untried "celebrity candidates" whose careers, they say, are often lacklustre.
Others ask: Who cares? They say the Prime Minister should be able to pick whomever she wants on her own team, declaring that the ALP pre-selection process invariably offers up "party hacks" and "faction favourites" that are not always the best candidates. Others say she is an "excellent choice" because she has the ability to inspire and relate to those in her electorate. They say that although she may lack political nous, she has a known capacity for hard work and a dedication to ideals and deserves a chance to prove herself. Aboriginal scholar Marcia Langton described her as "a truly great contender".
"ALP endorses 'hurt' Peris for NT Senate spot" The Australian, January 29
"Smear campaign targets Nova Peris as MPs fear PM may axe more serving members" News Limited Network, January 25
"PM's captain's pick may end a sorry chapter in Labor history" The Age, January 26
"The wheels within wheels of a grand prime ministerial gesture" Sydney Morning Herald, January 24
What The Age says
"The Age sides with Ms Gillard on this. It is absurd that, for a party which prides itself on advancing the interests of indigenous Australia, the ALP's selection process has never propelled an indigenous person to Federal Parliament. Not once. That suggests the selection process has failed to meet the ALP's stated goals. It is generating professional apparatchiks who have done the bidding of the party machine."
Editorial opinion, January 24
What people say
"I have always argued they have got to correct this wrong, otherwise it was an embarrassment for the party. We couldn't continue going on saying that we were the party for Aboriginals without having people sitting in the Parliament."
Former ALP national president and indigenous leader, Warren Mundine, The Age, January 22
"Celebrity status is no substitute for expertise. There are many far more qualified indigenous people who could have been chosen."
Tom Nilsson, The Age, January 24
"Teenage mother, Olympian, founder of a girls' academy which caters for indigenous students, and a sometime ATSIC treaty ambassador, Nova emerges as an articulate and compassionate individual whose life has represented the essence of the traditional ALP credo: triumph over social circumstances. The Prime Minister has made an excellent decision."
Jon McMillan, The Age, January 25
"I don't think it's relevant just to be parachuting people in and saying that that soothes our conscience in terms of Aboriginal representation, because it's a short-term fix that belies the deeper problem."
Labor senator Doug Cameron, ABC's AM program, January 23.
"Because we are in an election year, most MPs will bite their lips, but people are furious. This sets a dangerous precedent that vulnerable MPs can simply be replaced overnight by somebody with name recognition to bolster the leader's numbers."
Anonymous Labor MP, The Age, January 24
"Rather than criticising Julia Gillard's unorthodox approach, your correspondents might consider giving her credit for replacing what may well be a lacklustre politician with little "real world" experience [Crossin was a union branch secretary before entering politics] with an individual who has the potential to inspire and relate to many in her electorate. After all, more than 30 per cent of the population of the Northern Territory are indigenous Australians."
Ross Pulbrook, Sydney Morning Herald, January 25
Nova Peris Girls' Academy
Was the Prime Minister right to recruit Nova Peris? Why/why not? What do you think of "celebrity" candidates?