Marion Rose Scrymgour was an Australian politician who was born on September 13th, 1960, in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. Her father was forcibly removed from his home as a child in Central Australia, and her mother was a Tiwi Islander. Scrymgour received her primary and secondary education in Darwin but initially did not pursue tertiary education, instead working in various office administration positions. Later on, she undertook correspondence courses as a mature age student in book-keeping, accounting, administration, and health economics. She served as director of the Wurli Wurlinjang Aboriginal Corporation, coordinated several trial community care programs around Katherine, and was Director of the Katherine West Health Board Aboriginal Corporation.
Scrymgour was an active member of the Liquor, Hospitality, and Miscellaneous Union, and represented the union at the national conference of the Australian Labor Party. She contested and won the Labor preselection for the Legislative Assembly seat of Arafura after Maurice Rioli’s retirement. The seat was considered safe for Labor, and she was re-elected with a lesser majority due to the presence of two high-profile independent candidates on the ballot. In winning the seat, she became the first Indigenous woman elected to the Legislative Assembly.
Scrymgour was promoted to the ministry under Clare Martin on December 17th, 2003, as part of a reshuffle caused by the sacking of Health Minister Jane Aagaard. She was assigned the portfolios of Family and Community Services and Environment and Heritage, becoming Australia’s first Aboriginal woman cabinet minister. As Minister for Family and Community Services, Scrymgour was tasked with responding to the issues of substance abuse and domestic violence. She chaired a select committee into substance abuse and was the relevant minister during the rollout of non-sniffable Opal fuel across remote Indigenous communities.
After a further reshuffle in August 2007, she retained Arts and Museums, regained Family and Community Services, and was made Minister for Child Protection. She also oversaw planned changes to the territory’s heritage laws, which created a heritage council to protect important sites, as already exists in several states. During her second term, Scrymgour developed a reputation for outspoken views on Indigenous issues. She clashed with her own party on the issue of the MacArthur River Mine in 2006 and joined three other Indigenous MPs in crossing the floor to oppose the mine’s expansion. In late 2007, she publicly condemned the federal government’s intervention into Indigenous communities, the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, labelling it “a vicious new McCarthyism.”
Chief Minister Clare Martin resigned in November 2007, having lost the support of her caucus, and was replaced by Paul Henderson. Henderson appointed Scrymgour as his deputy, which was considered a surprise choice at the time. On December 24th, 2007, Scrymgour spent several hours at the emergency department of Royal Darwin Hospital undergoing treatment for “an emotional and physical collapse.” In January 2008, Scrymgour became the Acting Chief Minister of the Northern Territory while the incumbent Paul Henderson was on holiday, becoming the first Aboriginal government leader in Australian history. She served for two weeks.
Scrymgour had taken on the education portfolio upon her ascension to Deputy Chief Minister but had been regularly criticized in the press for her performance, particularly after her controversial sacking of the head of the Department of Education and Training in May 2008. She was shifted to the Attorney-General portfolio in February 2009 in a move widely seen as a demotion. Several days later, she resigned from Cabinet and as Deputy Chief Minister, citing “health reasons.” Scrymgour remained on the Labor backbench until June 2009, when she announced her resignation from the Labor Party, becoming an independent MP. She cited disagreements with the party’s leadership and a lack of support for her policies as reasons for her departure. Scrymgour went on to win her seat in the 2009 Northern Territory general election as an independent candidate, becoming the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the Northern Territory Parliament. She continued to serve in Parliament until 2016, when she announced her retirement from politics.
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