Ugly politics

On Thursday, Australia marked the 19th anniversary of the tabling of the landmark report into the Stolen Generations, Bringing Them Home. The same day, the first Indigenous woman to be elected to federal parliament held a press conference to announce her resignation.

“Until you are an Aboriginal person, do not criticise me for the decisions I have made,” Nova Peris said. “This wasn’t easy. It’s hard.”

Peris spoke through tears. In the middle of an election campaign, her grief was a stark reminder of the strange demands politics makes of people.

“It’s not easy to wake up every morning and bounce out of bed and pretend that life is fantastic, because it isn’t,” she said. “Aboriginal people have no inherited wealth. They have inherited pain. But we have a vision … the door that has now been opened by me exiting, I wish that person well. And I know that their time in parliament will make a significant difference. This decision I have made has been on family and I have to look after my family and my children … I hope you respect the decisions I have made.”

News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt was among the first to criticise the decision: “For her now to bail, three years later in the middle of an election campaign, sort of raising stereotypes of ‘not sticking to it, going walkabout’, all that kind of thing, is a disgrace, is an absolute disgrace on her part.”

In a separate column for the Herald Sun, he wrote that Peris had been placed on the Labor senate ticket “for one reason above all: she was Aboriginal”. He said Peris was the beneficiary of a “race industry” and that Trish Crossin, who Peris replaced, was the “first politician in Australia’s history to be officially sacked for being white”.

Again he repeated the prejudice he claims to abhor and which he seems intent on asserting: “Picked as a symbol of Aboriginality, she risks confirming a crippling and foul Aboriginal stereotype of unreliability – of going walkabout.”

Peris has had a particularly unattractive experience of federal politics. Her sexual morality has been questioned. Her personal correspondence has been published and alluded to. Emails accessed through the estate of her dead husband have been used to intimidate her.

She has been described by party sources as “frozen out” and “irrelevant”. On hearing of her resignation, one Labor colleague said: “She didn’t really fit in and she didn’t come from the culture of the Labor Party and she didn’t make an impact.”

Politics asks people to live bizarre lives. On one hand there is brutality and exceptional scrutiny, the latter necessary but no less difficult. On the other, there are months away from home, there is exhaustion and extraordinary pressure, there is endless fundraising and rubber chicken and demands from constituents.

Few ordinary people would want this life. That Peris would want to leave it is no surprise.

It is difficult for parties to attract talent. Election campaigns make this especially clear. This one is no different. But it is worth considering what this means for our politics. It is worth considering how much better this country might be if our political system was reformed to be more attractive to the talented candidates who currently refuse its anachronisms and ruthlessness and weird demands. It is worth considering what a parliament of Australia’s best, rather than its most willing, might comprise.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Ugly politics".

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