Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

My how the times have changed

If you have any doubt that the election of a Rudd Labor government has changed the country, consider this: a year ago, did you imagine that the Prime Minister would be sending an openly gay woman of Chinese ancestry to Bali, to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Australias behalf?

Because thats exactly what Climate Change Minister Penny Wong will be doing after shes finished reporting on her visits to a couple of schools and a homeless centre, and any other homework Kevin Rudd finds it necessary to set before giving them all a day off for Christmas. The break with the past 11 years spent behind John Howards white picket fence could hardly be more dramatic.

Kyoto, of course, has been one of the great symbolic differences between Labor and the Coalition; another is WorkChoices, and Julia Gillard is already busy putting that to sleep so she can concentrate on what she rightly sees as her main job, implementing Rudds education revolution. And the third major symbol will be the long overdue apology to the stolen generation, now being prepared, as it should be, not just by the government, but in consultation with Aboriginal leaders.

It would be nice to believe that this will be the start of a new surge towards genuine reconciliation, with a renewal of goodwill on both sides. But unfortunately it is not as simple as that. During the wasted years of the Howard era too much has changed for Rudd to be able to pick up where Paul Keating left off.

On both sides, the politics are more complicated. The arrival of Noel Pearson and his agenda of black capitalism has split the Aboriginal leadership and on the white side the discarded policy of assimilation is making a comeback. An apology is a necessary first step, but the distrust right across the board is now too deep for it to be the cathartic event it might have been when Howard first rejected the opportunity.

One thing that needs to be made clear immediately is just what Rudd intends to do about the Northern Territory intervention, because the signals going out to the settlements have been very mixed. Rudd himself has said there will not be a review until the first 12 months are up, but even that is unclear: do the 12 months date from the announcement in June or from the roll-out, which is still very much a work in progress?

But in any case, much of Labors campaigning, by the Northern Territorys Warren Snowdon and the now minister, Jenny Macklin, in particular, has implied that Labor will immediately reinstate the permit system which gives the communities power to control access to their land, and at least partially restore the CDEP, the Aboriginal work-for-the-dole program on which many communities depend. This should be clarified at once; the communities are is a huge state of confusion already and the last thing Labor should do is add to it.

The architect of the intervention, the now seatless Mal Brough, and the new Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson, have both issued emotional pleas to Rudd to keep the process going unchanged and Rudd has accepted the primacy of protecting vulnerable children. But before accepting Broughs lines about how happy the communities are with the intervention taking place and how well things have settled into place, he may care to glance at some of the voting figures from the Northern Territory.

Warren Snowdon won his electorate of Lingiari, which takes in all of the Territory outside Darwin, for Labor by a margin of almost two to one; but the vote in the remote communities was much higher generally between 80 and 90 per cent. In Yirrkala, where the most important of the elders, Gallarwuy Yunupingu, actually endorsed Broughs plan, the Labor vote was 99 per cent. And even in Hopevale, Noel Pearsons own Cape York community, Labor scored 75 per cent.

Admittedly, Labor has always polled well in the communities and did not oppose the intervention; but even so, the figures can hardly be interpreted as a ringing declaration of support for Broughs invasion. Reconciliation will be a long, hard road and it is obviously not one of Rudds immediate priorities. But it is to be hoped that at least he avoids the worst of Howards mistakes and includes the Aborigines themselves in any proposals he makes.

The opposition, of course, is still as confused about the issue as ever: Nelson still rejects the idea of an apology while his most serious rival, Malcolm Turnbull, regards it as a necessary break with the past. Actually it probably doesnt matter much what the opposition does for the next six months, because it will be at least that long before they regroup sufficiently for anyone to take them seriously.

Indeed, it may take another change of leadership before they settle down: Tony Abbott has already been honest enough to declare himself a contender in future, Peter Costello is lurking on the backbench with the suggestion that he just might reconsider and make himself available if they asked him really, really nicely, and of course no one had any doubt about Turnbulls ambition.

Nelsons leadership hangs by a very thin thread. And with the long-dreaded Labor monopoly finally in place, it is tempting to say that the same applies to the Liberal Party as a whole: with no government base anywhere to fall back on, it faces a lean few years, as does its dwindling Coalition partner. The Nationals stocks have never been lower and electing a new leader eight years older than his predecessor is unlikely to revive them.

After 11 years as supreme rulers, the conservatives are at their lowest point ever. Thank you and good night, John Howard.

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