Northern Territory Local Government Minister John Ah Kit delivered a courageous ministerial statement recently. And, yes, I do mean "courageous" in the sense that Sir Humphrey Appleby famously used it.
NT News reported that Ah Kit called on Aborigines "to take control of their lives and improve their living conditions" (March 9). It was the kind of candour and realism that Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson displayed some time ago. Remember, Noel Pearson? Once a favourite of ABC news and current affairs, he all but disappeared from the national broadcaster’s radar screen after expressing views similar to those aired by Ah Kit.
The NT Minister’s views also exposed the code of political correctness that permeates newspapers like the Melbourne Age.
During the panel debate segment on ABC Insiders (10 March), The Age’s Annabel Crabb openly challenged the "appropriateness" of Sydney Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman to comment on Aboriginal issues.
Presenter Barrie Cassidy set the scene with this synopsis of Ah Kit’s speech:
"He [Ah Kit] said it’s almost impossible to find functioning Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory any more. He feels ashamed about the drunks, the beggars and the anti-social behaviour. And [he said] it’s time that Aborigines took charge of their own lives."
Cassidy asked the panel, "Is it about time somebody made all of those points?"
The response of Karen Middleton, Canberra correspondent for the West Australian was interesting:
"Well, I think it’s good that he made those points. I think he is a person who’s respected, significantly respected, within the Aboriginal community and it’s time that people like him stood up and said that. It’s one thing for people outside the community to say it. Someone inside the community – maybe things will start to change."
Piers Akerman responded:
"That’s very politically correct of you, Karen … I think that this is the most refreshing thing that’s happened and what I hope it signals … is that all of those 70s and 80s Aboriginal experts are cleared out of the departments and we listen to people like John Ah Kit and embrace what he says and actually do something."
Now, Akerman’s comments might have seemed fairly logical, straightforward, even unexceptional. But for the third member of the panel, Age journalist Annabel Crabb, Akerman had crossed that well-policed – and strictly enforced – politically correct line.
"Well, I think it’s appropriate for those commentators to make those remarks to an extent. I think it’s less appropriate for you to," Ms Crabb told Piers Akerman.
Akerman was quick to challenge Crabb’s comment. "When you take the view that only Aboriginal people can talk about Aboriginal people," he said, "and that other people can’t discuss these critical issues, then you’ve just sold yourself entirely to the politically correct camp."
One suspects that Crabb has long been a member of that camp. Clearly, she believes there are some things better left unsaid. As she declared on Insiders, "My only reservation about John Ah Kit’s comments to Parliament the other day was that I did tend to wonder how the people in those communities felt being told how hopeless they were."
If journalists apply that kind of sensitivity to their work, it is easy to see how politically correct journalism can stifle rather than promote open debate.
A month ago, ABC TV’s Insiders presenter Barrie Cassidy lamented what he perceived to be the media’s "lack of enthusiasm" for Simon Crean’s leadership of the federal Labor Party. Cassidy offered that comment on the very weekend two very positive profiles of the Labor leader appeared in major newspapers.
Cassidy need not have worried. At least two political correspondents for national TV networks appear to be arriving at the kind of assessment Cassidy believes Crean’s political CV deserves.
Seven’s Glenn Milne and Ten’s Paul Bongiorno apparently have arrived at a consensus on the prospects of the Opposition Leader. As Paul Bongiorno told Phillip Adams on ABC radio recently:
"I had a discussion with my colleague and longstanding friend, Glenn Milne, who works over at the Seven Network, and he and I both agree that Simon Crean is the nearest thing that the Labor Party has got to John Howard.
"And I say this because I just would like to remind you and your listeners … that between 1989 and 1995 the Liberal Party of Australia thought that John Howard was unelectable. And, in fact, the opinion polls thought so too, because one of them had him at ‘Mr 18 per cent’. Now ‘Mr Unelectable’ is now our third-term Prime Minister and he is our third-term Prime Minister because he wanted it desperately, and he went for it, and he has political skill and cunning.
"Now I believe that Simon Crean wants it desperately. I believe he has political skill and cunning. And I believe that he will be a formidable opponent for Peter Costello and/or John Howard should he still be there in three years’ time."
It is another interesting example of how the Canberra pack mentality again has achieved a consensus, in this instance openly acknowledged, between two major networks on a major political issue.