We have heard much over the past few days of senator-to-be Nova Peris’ many milestones – the gold medals, the dedication and determination and, most admirable of all in our Prime Minister’s reckoning, the signal achievement of having been born black. “This was about my desire to ensure that Labor had within its caucus… an Indigenous Australian," Gillard explained.
If Peris is embarrassed to hear her mentor cite melanin as the key qualification for elected office she has not protested, which speaks of a commendable discipline. The embarrassment of being introduced to the voting public as the token black face — the parliamentary “maid”, to quote a caustic NT Indigenous Affairs Minister Alison Anderson — must be acute, but Peris has not muttered a word that might reflect badly on her leader. Perhaps she really does have the makings of a good and dutiful Labor member.
There is another thing it would be interesting to hear Peris address — the $950,011 in Dept of Health and Ageing contracts her company, Peris Enterprises Pty Ltd, was awarded “to conduct the 2007 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Health Check.”
A year earlier, Peris Enterprises scored $333,700 for the same task, organising a three-month roadshow that visited 24 communities and health services. Peris, “along with other prominent Indigenous persons”, travelled to events, festivals, Aboriginal Medical Services and other health services to encourage Indigenous parents and their children to have check-ups.
“Since it was introduced in May 2006,” the Department’s end of year self-appraisal announced, “there have been 5,347 Medicare Benefits Schedule Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Health Checks conducted nationally in the 12 months to the end of April 2007.”
Peris Enterprises’ site has vanished from the web, but its archived snapshot contains this boilerplate of what Peris saw those whistle-stops achieving:
My objective is based on the provision of culturally appropriate "two way" holistic health and advocacy services to Indigenous Health Services and Health Service providers. It is about promoting Cultural Maintenance and Survival.
We want to achieve excellence in Indigenous Health Education and to improve the health status for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
We want to provide consultancy and support to Health Professionals, implement innovative and responsive strategies to enhance and improve health outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
And we want to provide Consultancy and logistical support to local Indigenous Community Organisations and Health Service Providers, and to support their local initiatives and the service delivery aimed at education and lifestyle matters affecting health, and in particular child and maternal, youth and chronic disease and prevention measures.
Unfortunately things did not work out quite that well, as a scathing independent audit of the programme established:
The centrally-driven approach to the Child Health Check Initiative meant that there was insufficient consideration of the needs of the people, systems and processes already operating in the NT … for many health services the checks were a disruption to normal clinic business and other services were sometimes suspended while the checks were carried out.
This represented a significant opportunity cost as staff attention was diverted to conducting the checks, supporting visiting teams or working to overcome community scepticism and fear about the checks.
Blame cannot be sheeted home to Peris for the program’s shortcomings. She was, after all, no more than a spruiker, albeit a well-paid one, for the bureaucratic waste and confusion that ensued. If she learned from that experience, it was not apparent when she allowed herself to be cast as the chief prop in Gillard’s latest medicine show — a variation on the “Roll up! Roll up!” routine Peris took to the bush and which has now been unveiled for Canberra press gallery.
Once again, a big song and dance. And, once again, for all the PM’s talk of remedying Indigenous neglect, nothing more tangible than symbolism – “tokenism” if you are inclined to be blunt. One more exercise in the theatre of the six o’clock sound-byte.
Meanwhile, as the dollars flow from Canberra, black kids are out in the mulga and going deaf for lack of attention to simple ear infections. Lofty words, millions spent and very little to show for any of it.
Despite what her critics are saying, when she arrives at Parliament House, Peris might just fit right in.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online