Malcolm Baalman, PHAA
As happens at every federal election, several long-serving Members of Parliament have retired. Two in particular have influenced public health in Australia. Previously, we acknowledged the service of the Hon. Greg Hunt, former Minister for Health. Today we profile the Hon Warren Snowdon, former Member of the House of Representatives for Northern Territory and Member for Lingiari from 1987 to 1996 and then 1998 to 2022.
As the longest-serving federal politician to retire at the recent election, Snowdon represented the nation’s red centre for over three decades.
Snowdon held several ministerial portfolios, including being the first to take the role of Minister for Indigenous Health, serving from 2009 to 2013.
Before serving in the House of Representatives, Canberra-born Snowdon had a teaching career, was a senior policy officer then worked with the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, and then with NT trades and labour organisations.
In his valedictory address to Parliament in February, Snowdon acknowledged the traditional owners of the Mparntwe country, the Central Arrernte, where he lived, and pointed out that 42% of his electorate were Aboriginal people, who had consistently supported him in elections… He noted that at his last election he received 80% of the vote in the mobile polling booths that served remote Aboriginal communities.
In discussing his motivations for seeking election, Snowdon recalled the influence of people he worked with, including Dr HC Coombs, Traditional Owners, Yaruwu man Senator Patrick Dodson, and Dr Maria Brandell.
“I was fortunate enough to go and work at the Central Land Council in Alice Springs where my boss was Patrick Dodson – now Senator Patrick Dodson. Our bosses were the traditional owners of Central Australia, and they taught me such a great deal and motivated me to want to become a member of this parliament.”
Despite his own three year tenure as the responsible Minister for Indigenous Health, Snowdon lamented the lack of progress on the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“I’ve sought to have this place understand the need to address the injustices experienced by Aboriginal people, and to have people’s rights as First Australians properly recognised and addressed and their needs met,” Snowdon told the House. “But if I look at the past 32 years in this place, the outcomes, sadly, have often been very frustrating … And First Australians’ needs have not been met. So many remain marginalised and in poverty, living in poor and overcrowded housing with scandalous levels of preventable, chronic disease.”
“In my view, this is largely driven by the institutionalised racism that has been so much part of government since Federation and by the ongoing refusal to accept the need for truth-telling and acknowledgement of past and continuing injustice.”
“But the gathering at Uluru and the Statement from the Heart in May 2017 have provided the opportunity to reset the agenda. There is simply no excuse now, in 2022, for any government to walk away from the need for constitutional recognition of a voice to the parliament, truth-telling and a process of treaty.”
“I remain appalled at the failure of successive governments to come to terms with … First Peoples and accord them the recognition and the justice that is their due or, despite the rhetoric so often heard about closing the gap, to even do the simplest things by addressing the harshest poverty suffered by so many and providing them with adequate and safe housing that would do so much to change their lives. The housing crisis requires the investment of billions, not millions. That is an investment that would make such a difference to Aboriginal people in my electorate and elsewhere across the country.”
“If we are to stop preventable diseases, such as rheumatic heart disease, then we must fix the housing problem.”
After Snowdon’s time in the role, the Indigenous Health ministerial role was abolished, before being reestablished from 2017 to 2019 and held by Ken Wyatt MP. After 2019 the position was merged back into the responsibilities of the Cabinet-level Minister for Health.
In his later years on Opposition, Snowdon became the longest serving member of the House.
The Northern Land Council in February said Snowdon had “always been a hard-working, fearless and feisty advocate for the interests of all Territorians, but in particular his constituents in Lingiari.”
The Council’s statement concluded “Boh boh, comrade”, adding “boh boh” is a central Arnhem Land term of affectionate farewell, but not goodbye.
Emeritus Professor Mike Daube AO, who was Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) President during Snowdon’s time as Indigenous Health Minister, said Snowdon’s contribution was significant.
“Warren Snowdon was a stalwart and consistent supporter for public health,” said Daube. Prof Daube cited Snowdon’s contribution to the establishment of the national Tackling Indigenous Smoking program in 2010, which is overseen by Professor Tom Calma AO. Under Prof Calma’s leadership, this has been a successful and effective prevention program.
Former PHAA CEO Dr Michael Moore also expressed appreciation to Warren Snowdon for his willingness to engage and particularly to listen to the voices of those who were advocates for prevention, protection, and health promotion.
“Warren Snowdon should be very proud of the time that he spent in Federal Parliament as an outstanding MP and as a Minister,” said Dr Moore.
Marion Scrymgour was pre-selected by the Australian Labor Party to run for the seat of Lingiari at the 2022 Federal Election, and has cultural connections to Central Australia and the Tiwi Islands. Scrymgour, a former Deputy Chief Minister of the NT and former Northern Land Council CEO, has said that her motivation for returning to politics was driven by wanting more for Aboriginal Territorians. Scrymgour, who replaced Snowdon as Labor candidate, has at the time of writing a narrow lead on her Country Liberal challenger, Damien Ryan. If elected, Scrymgour will become the first Indigenous women to represent the Northern Territory in the lower house.