Northern Territory gov’t rolls its leader

Adam Giles has become the first Aboriginal politician to lead an Australian state or territory.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Terry Mills was replaced by Adam Giles in a sudden leadership coup on March 13, while Mills was in Japan on a trade mission. This shift has led to backdowns from the Country Liberal Party (CLP) on some regressive policies but could pave the way for more attacks in the future.

Crikey’s Bob Gosford predicted the spill on March 5 and wrote a detailed account of it.

Giles tried to take the leadership on March 6. He lacked the numbers, in particular from the Aboriginal members of the “Bush coalition” — Alison Anderson, Bess Price, Larissa Lee and Francis Xavier.

Gosford said the CLP, in a “blatant and desperate political bribe”, made Price, Lee and Xavier parliamentary secretaries at a cost of about $1 million on March 10.

But the Coalition broke up quickly and Giles was appointed as the first Aboriginal politician to lead an Australian state or territory in Australia’s history. Dave Tollner was also appointed as the new treasurer.

The CLP government has been unpopular with voters because of cuts to public services and hikes in power and water bills. The NT News said more than 440 public servants had lost their jobs since the CLP took power.

The government hiked power and water bills by 30% and cut funding to Aboriginal services such as Night Patrol.

It instead spent funds on 500 new police to start a “crackdown on crime”. It cut funding for diversion programs like the drug and alcohol court, and suggested the introduction of “boot camps” for juvenile offenders.

The CLP has also been accused of cronyism, providing jobs for failed political candidates.

Since the spill, the CLP has said it would raise power and water bills by only 20%, refunding those that paid already, and has overturned its appointments of parliamentary secretaries.

But the appointment of Tollner as treasurer is deeply worrying.

In the 1980s, the CLP used blatant racism to appeal to its white voter base. It often used the spectre of Aboriginal town camps to scare people into voting for it. Bashing Aboriginal people was usually a sure way to win votes.

This was not present during last year’s election campaign. The CLP actively wooed Aboriginal voters in the bush who were disillusioned with Labor.

Except for Tollner, who stuck to the script of the need to “clean up” town camps — particularly the Bagot community in his Darwin electorate of Fong Lim.

It is widely rumoured that Tollner instigated the leadership spill and could influence what direction the CLP takes in coming months.

One policy of interest to Aboriginal people who voted for the CLP is the shire system. Before 2008, local governments in remote Aboriginal communities worked like the rest of Australia, although over much larger areas than most.

In 2008, the federal government of then prime minister John Howard promoted a more “efficient” model of amalgamating local governments into “super shires”. This distanced locals from decision-making because council decisions were made hundreds of kilometres from those affected.

It was universally hated by Aboriginal voters, who blamed NT Labor for going along with the policy.

The CLP promised to abolish the super shires system in its election platform. It was in the seats where this policy was a hot issue that the CLP made gains.

Aboriginal candidates from the Greens and the First Nations Political Party (FNPP) directed preferences to the CLP on the basis of this policy.

Maurie Ryan from the FNPP said on ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph on August 27: “I don’t support [CLP candidate] Bess Price … I gave my preferences to whichever political party … would remove the shires.”

Last week, before the coup, Giles had announced the launch of a discussion about what would replace the shires. Those hoping to see a return to the previous system will be disappointed with the proposed new system.

As part of the conditions for creating a new local government system, the discussion paper says: “The Minister for Local Government [Giles] instructed the Working Group that a return to the pre-2008 local government framework (of over 50 local government councils) was not an option as it did not consistently provide strong accountability for public funds.”

Proposals for a new system include giving mining companies and pastoralists equal say on government bodies as elected representatives.

Huge sections of the NT are open to mining exploration licences. Many of the mining projects underway in the NT are dominated by fly-in-fly-out workers who pay no rates and have little interest in long-term community need.

The leadership spill in the NT has changed politics, but it’s hard to say that it is for the better.

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