Nova Peris – a contemporary political soap opera


Preselecting Nova Peris as a “Captain’s Pick” for Labor senator for the Northern Territory must have seemed like a good idea at the time in early 2013 to then Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The election of Ken Wyatt as a Liberal federal MHR from Western Australia in 2010 had sparked calls for the Labor Party to preselect Indigenous candidates for winnable federal seats.

One third of the population of the Northern Territory is Aboriginal and half of its land mass is Aboriginal-owned. The NT has four representatives in the Federal Parliament but not one of them had ever been an Aboriginal person.

Moreover, the incumbent Labor members, Warren Snowden in the seat of Lingiari and Trish Crossin in the Senate, were long-standing politicians with competent but undistinguished careers. Some suggested disparagingly that they had superglued themselves to their seats in Parliament. Efforts to replace one of them by an Aboriginal Member of Parliament had been thwarted over the years by the NT Branch of the Party, albeit for factional rather than racist reasons.

Nevertheless, both the politicians and the administrative wing of the NT Branch had unfairly gained a reputation among some politicians federally as a bunch of primitive rednecks. It is alleged that one of Kevin Rudd’s first actions as Prime Minister in 2007 had been to demand that Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin should resign for supposedly failing to deal appropriately with the Little Children Are Sacred report into allegations of child abuse in Aboriginal communities, leading to the Howard government’s Federal Intervention stunt. One would suspect that Gillard shared Rudd’s negative view of the competence of at least some in the Territory Labor Party.

More importantly and urgently for Prime Minister Gillard, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott seemed to be successfully presenting himself as the new champion of Indigenous people despite the conservative parties’ attitude towards Aboriginal people and issues generally being somewhere between indifference and hostility. Moreover, in the Territory in particular the Henderson government had just been unceremoniously ejected from office after losing four predominantly Aboriginal bush seats. Gillard would no doubt have seen the strong possibility of losing the federal seat of Lingiari and failing to win the Darwin-based seat of Solomon unless something dramatic was done.

In those circumstances the PM no doubt saw the preselection of high profile Northern Territory Aboriginal sports star Nova Peris as a political masterstroke and almost a no-brainer. She was wrong.

Preselection of high profile celebrity candidates from outside politics has a chequered history of success at the best of times. But Peris had no history of membership or involvement in the Labor Party at all and no especially evident interest in politics or community issues. Moreover, an adult lifetime consisting largely of dedication to international sporting endeavours does nothing to develop the high level complex social skills essential to a successful career in politics.

Compounding Nova’s difficulties was the very fact that she was parachuted into the Territory Senate seat not only without any real consultation with the NT Branch but indeed in the face of the active opposition and even hostility of many. It was always going to be difficult for Nova to build interpersonal bridges in the face of that hostility. It became evident this week that she had failed to do so. While Federal Labor identities gave the obligatory public praise for Nova’s scanty political achievements in the wake of her sudden early retirement announcement, local Territory politicians and prominent members of the administrative wing mostly remained eloquently silent.

Nova Peris herself can’t fairly be blamed for most of the above. To the best of my knowledge she didn’t aggressively seek Senate preselection, it was effectively offered to her on a platter by Gillard and her advisers for reasons Peris almost certainly didn’t really understand. You can hardly blame Nova for seeing it as an honour and an opportunity that she should accept. She is unlikely to have anticipated what she would be facing.

Apart from local political hostility, Nova also would not have anticipated the extent of loss of privacy involved in elected political life. As a sports star she probably thought she understood what fame and public recognition involved, but politics is a whole new ball game. A politician lives and works in a figurative goldfish bowl stuck in a spotlight. Opposing politicians and their supporters see you as an enemy to be pressured and vilified on just about any pretext, and in Nova’s case quite a few of her own party’s supporters treated her likewise. It must have been a lonely and unpleasant three years for her.

Moreover, politicians can also find that their media opponents as well as their political opponents will exploit any personal skeletons in their closet, deliberately putting the worst and most sinister interpretation on any private peccadillo. That was certainly Nova Peris’s fate. The wash-up of a nasty family law dispute resulted in associates of her recently deceased ex-husband leaking salacious material to the media concerning her involvement in a publicly funded trip to Australia by American athletics star Ato Boldon. It seems that Nova’s motivations for spruiking Boldon’s visit included carnal ones. It had nothing to do with her political career and in most respects was nobody’s business but her own. Her marriage had ended at the time and she wasn’t involved in politics. The media organisations that gleefully published it should have been much more wary and sceptical given the source of the material. As I commented at the time:

Judging by the publicly revealed facts, it seems that Peris was working as a paid Ambassador for Athletics Australia at the material time in 2010. Unless her duties involved having some specific role in proposing, assessing or approving visits by overseas athletes like Boldon, it is difficult to see how any claim of “misuse of public funds” could plausibly be made.  Even if her duties did include any such role, it would almost certainly be very minor. Failing to disclose that she had a personal relationship with Boldon might conceivably in those circumstances have given rise to a minor matter of misconduct in employment, but no more than that. Moreover, it would at most be a matter for warning and counselling not summary dismissal. And if she had no role at all in proposing, assessing or approving international athlete visits (as is almost certainly the case), then you can’t even say that there was a conflict of interest. The most you could say is that it might have been preferable in a private ethical sense had Peris disclosed her personal relationship with Boldon.  She couldn’t be accused of “misuse of public funds” if she had no role at all in deciding how those funds were used.

Although the whole affair ended up petering out in the public arena at least, no doubt in large part under the impact of legal threats, it must have been extremely unpleasant and stressful for Peris.

That unpleasantness and stress was soon compounded by her daughter Jessica’s involvement in heavily publicised criminal legal proceedings as the alleged victim of serial domestic violence assaults at the hands of her former partner, prominent rugby league player Shaun Kenny-Dowell.  It was alleged that Jessica had drug and related issues. Supporting a young daughter through such an ordeal must have placed extraordinary stresses on Nova Peris.

Looking at all those circumstances in hindsight, it’s hardly surprising that Nova chose to pull the pin on politics when an opportunity to take a good job with the AFL arose. Nevertheless, her farewell press conference yesterday alongside Bill Shorten was hardly her finest hour. Remarks like “until you are an indigenous person, do not criticise me for the decisions I’ve made” are unlikely to endear her to many Territorians.  Charitably, perhaps we should see them as manifestations of the lack of developed high level social skills I referred to earlier, rather than the extraordinary arrogance they may suggest at first blush.  The entire saga has been an unfortunate interlude in both Nova’s life and the history of the Northern Territory Labor Party. Despite the reservations many of us have about her, I think we should wish her well in her future endeavours.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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7 Responses to Nova Peris – a contemporary political soap opera

  1. paul walter says:

    I just want to know why this sort of stuff is not included in major newspapers instead of the tripe usually served up. As to Henderson, beleive it or not, I had not read anything whatsoever on recent politics in the North, but the real world info contained in this posting makes this one of the few rewarding trips Ivé made to blog sites this week.

    I get the sense that even the best of the NT politicians seem a bit asleep at the wheel, btw.

  2. Peter WARWICK says:

    Agree with you Ken. The whole thing must have been traumatic and stressful for her.

    I think politicians would need to have 5mm stainless steel skin, and possibly a stainless steel heart. Every moment of your live as a politician is exposed for all to see and sneer at. You possibly experienced “the treatment” when you were a member.

    Should you suffer a little flatulence in the supermarket, its likely to be splashed on the front page of the local rag the next day, or should Channel 9 be there, on A CURRENT AFFAIR.

  3. Christopher Skinner says:

    Extremely well thought out and written, a great analysis that concurs with my own gut feelings about Nova, who I have always found to be a gracious person. however, Nova, whilst doing the best she could in her position really lacked the aggressive streak one needs to be a successful Senator, I mean mentally aggressive, not physically.
    Thanks, Ken.

  4. Jim says:

    Great post. I wish Nova Peris all the best in the future.

    But until the media start to focus on the issues and not the individual, it will be increasingly harder to get successful people of real substance from outside politics to consider putting their hands up. Why would they?

  5. Chris J Lloyd says:

    I am sure that if I were parachuted into Federal Parliament I would crash and burn faster than Nova. The real villain here is Gillard and her grubby political smarts. AS you say, she would have thought it was a master stroke and it wasn’t. She should have picked an aboriginal with some background in politics.

  6. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    If you’re a team player and the prime minister shoulder taps you to stand, you’re going to find it very hard to say no. Especially if she’s our first female PM and she’s doing it explicitly because you’re an aboriginal, woman, from the NT, and your family want you to. Sure, Nova *could* have said no. But I think it wasn’t as simple as many people assume.

    The carnival of dunces in the media is what I think should scare off any sane person.
    What I see from them is an incredible level of bias. At the extreme is the Rupert-led media demonising non-business parties and the giant piling on of sexist abuse we see every time a woman dares to become a politician. Remember Natasha Stott Despoja and Meg Lees?

    It’s almost as though the media *want* shallow, compliant politicians.Could it be?

  7. Jim Rose says:

    A mate lived in the Northern Territory in the 1980s and early 1990s.

    With 25 members of the legislative assembly, constituencies maybe had 3000 voters.

    Because of that, you can expect to have your local MP round for dinner for personal inspection. With constituencies that small, then offending one extended family would be a major swing against you

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