Issues go begging in NT election


DARWIN — Froth and bubble rule in the campaign for the Northern Territory elections on June 4. The incumbent Country-Liberal Party (CLP) accuses the ALP of taking orders from "down south" and not having the expertise to govern. Labor says the CLP is "tired", having been in power since self-government began in 1978. Media coverage is dominated by this parochial apolitical sniping, while alternative candidates and activists with real policies barely get a look in. To give voice to some of these views, Deb Sorensen, Tim E. Stewart and Bernie Brian asked several activists and organisations for their comments.

One heated debate concerns the noise levels residents are subjected to as Australian and foreign military aircraft carry out exercises over the metropolitan area. Kath Midgley, an activist in the Aircraft Noise Abatement Group (ANAG), sees this as the major issue in the election.

ANAG oppose the aircraft exercises as detrimental to the health and well-being of residents. Often noise levels exceed what tests have defined as the "pain threshold". ANAG also questions whether the NT government can be wholly committed to both the tourism industry and the continuing military build-up. Visitors may be attracted by the image of calm wetlands or brilliant sunsets over still bays, ANAG points out, but the reality is ear-splitting military exercises scheduled 10 months of the year.

Midgley doesn't rate either major party above the other on this issue. Both are calling for further studies; neither has projected scaling down the exercises. At a March ANAG meeting, federal ALP Senator Bob Collins told those assembled they were fighting a losing battle and might as well forget about it.

"The CLP and Labor policies are much of a muchness", Midgley told Green Left. "I'm lucky to have a Green candidate in my electorate (Milner); otherwise I would be a conscientious objector in these elections."

That Green candidate, Ilana Eldridge, believes there has never been such a high level of dissatisfaction with the major parties.

Eldridge regards Aboriginal health and unfettered planning to be the major issues. "Lack of funding for decent and appropriate housing, adequate water supplies and dust suppression are some of the ground-level problems leading to the crisis in Aboriginal health. Particularly, we need to empower women as the primary care givers and give them access to more funding to tackle these problems", she told Green Left.

Racist campaign

The director of Danila Dilba Aboriginal Medical Service in Darwin, Barbara Flick, told Green Left, "It disgusts me that the CLP have run a campaign on racial hatred. I hope the ALP looks critically and analytically at the problems of relationships between the different races and any decisions it comes to are based on justice and equity."

A former chief minister, Ian Tuxworth, speaking on a recent ABC 7.30 Report, agreed that the CLP had won many elections in the past on black bashing, and this one was no different.

A spokesperson for the Northern Land Council, however, told us that these elections have produced "a level of racial divisiveness not seen since 1983".

"The NLC is trying to bring people together, but the NT government seems to have jettisoned any chance of an Aboriginal vote in favour of winning the suburban vote. They are doing this through racial scare tactics ... We are hopeful that the Territory has reached a greater level of sophistication and can see through what the CLP is doing", he said.

The spokesperson added, however, that Labor is "soft on Aboriginal issues and is even reluctant to mention the word".

A spokesperson for the newly established Darwin branch of the Democratic Socialist Party, Bernie Brian, feels Labor has adopted basically the same agenda as the CLP. "Rather than challenge Marshall Perron, who has publicly stated that he finds social justice 'frightening', Labor leader Brian Ede avoids the real issues by talking about some small business person in Winnellie. They will never beat the CLP on its agenda of development at any cost.

"The CLP must go, and unfortunately we are in a lesser of two evils situation. There is a marked gap between the attitudes of the redneck cowboys who run the Territory and feelings on the street. There is a real opening for an alternative in this election, and it's good to see the Greens running in a number of seats."

Well-known feminist Paddie Cowburn is aware that if Ilana Eldridge is elected she will have limited power, but "at least there would be one dissenting voice from the mainstream parties. So far we haven't heard a peep from the major parties about issues like the militarisation of Darwin and human rights violations in East Timor."

Cowburn believes the ALP has moved some way in involving women and addressing women's issues. The CLP, as well as being racist, "doesn't think women have a role to play in politics".

Trevor Charles of the Maritime Unions also thinks the emergence of the Greens is a positive development. "The Darwin branch of the Waterside Workers Federation have in the past supported progressive alternative candidates as well as the ALP." Charles said that the Greens will "certainly make both the major political parties address environmental issues".

Public scrutiny

However, Jamie Pittock, campaigns coordinator of the NT Environment Centre, is not so sure the major parties have come that far on environmental questions. Issues that should be addressed are the protection of Darwin Harbour's mangroves, ending the uranium industry, a halt to expansion of mining at the McArthur River mine, protection of threatened species and wilderness and the introduction of accountability and public scrutiny procedures for development projects.

The Environment Centre "would like to see an administrative appeals tribunal, freedom of information legislation, third party appeal rights and the production of regular state of the environment reports. It is also important that an independent environmental protection authority be established."

Pittock says that "the ALP has supported some of these measures ... It has also promoted the establishment of a mega-environmental protection authority, but it is unclear how independent it will be and whether it will have the power to oversee mining."

Eldridge agrees that "planning and development need to come under more public scrutiny, with the community having the right to appeal. Environmental assessment should not only consider the impact of development projects on the natural environment but how they will impact on the community as well." She doubts that the major parties have the political will to fine the big polluters.

Pittock says, "While the CLP has yet to fulfil any of its promises over the last 12 years regarding the protection of Darwin Harbour, the ALP has promised legal protection of Darwin's mangroves and to develop a management plan for the harbour. Unfortunately, both support the expansion of the McArthur River mine, and the ALP sits on the fence when it comes to uranium mining."

The Labor Party, rather unimaginatively, is highlighting law and order, jobs and growth. It promises more police to combat the Territory's "highest crime rate in Australia".

'Law and order'

Each party claims it is tougher on crime than the other. There has been little debate on changes by the CLP to the Summary Offences Act which allow for massive fines for public drunkenness. Margaret Friel from the Aboriginal Youth Law Centre recently told the NT News that such laws were specifically aimed at charging and jailing more Aboriginal youth. They are also in contravention of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.

Student representative Cate Buchanan also feels the focus on law and order is aimed at the Aboriginal population. In her electorate there were issues being ignored while both major parties focused on crime. Some of these were health problems such as alcohol abuse and social problems associated with high density living and unemployment. Instead of addressing these issues, the CLP was trying to whip up "racist hysteria", Buchanan told Green Left. She also criticised the government's lavish expenditure on the new parliament house while areas such as health and education suffer.

The ALP has said it will eliminate such waste, leaving more money for schools and medical services. According to Ilana Eldridge, Darwin has a shortage of free and adequate medical facilities. "Royal Darwin Hospital does not even have a day clinic. The CLP says it will increase the number of beds at RDH, but is silent about the drastic need for more doctors and nurses."

Eldridge believes the dissatisfaction in the community will lead to a big increase in the number of votes for alternative parties like the Greens. "The ALP is running a very conservative line and not coming up with any new vision."

The Greens have announced that they are running Ilana Eldridge in Milner and Andrea Jones in Port Darwin. The Democrats are running candidates in Karama and Nightcliff, but Green Left was unable to contact a spokesperson. To help in the Greens campaign, ring 817 591.

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