There’s a lot of pressure on Adam Giles, the first indigenous government leader in Australian history.
Among the new Northern Territory Chief Minister’s first decisions in announcing his cabinet was the abolition of an indigenous affairs portfolio; Alison Anderson’s role as Minister for Indigenous Advancement disappeared. Giles regards it as redundant, given 30% of the NT population is indigenous and many mainstream government services are delivered to indigenous Territorians. (Such a rationale does not seem to extend to the women’s policy or children and families, also substantial portions of the NT population.)
Giorgio Agamben popularised the term “state of exception”, the transcendence of the rule of law in the public interest in times of national emergency. This term can be applied to the Commonwealth Intervention of 2007-2012, which created a “territory of exception” when racially discriminatory laws were passed to “stabilise and normalise”.
Giles aspires to convert this “territory of exception” into an exceptional territory. His vision, first articulated in his maiden speech to the Legislative Assembly in September 2008, is to rapidly grow the NT economy. A part of the vision is for indigenous people in the NT to gain “jobs, jobs, jobs, not welfare, welfare, welfare”, with equal opportunity delivered through mainstream service delivery on an equitable basis and reform of land rights so as to allow land privatisation and greater land access. Giles would like to see “goods manufactured in remote areas by people in welfare-subsided private sector jobs, those goods shipped to hub cities such as Darwin and onwards to Asia”. As the NT economic pie expands, perhaps Aboriginal people will be able to capture their fair share?
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It all sounds great, but it is also pie in the sky. Such competition with Asian manufacturing is not where indigenous comparative advantage lies, especially given the absence of remote infrastructure and transport linkages.
Giles’ aspirational vision is no doubt influenced by his personal biography and unquestionable achievements as someone who has risen to great heights from a modest family background. His early professional career was in real estate and the federal employment department, so it is unsurprising he sees jobs and changes to land tenure arrangements as pivotal. But Giles also believes decisions must be based on evidence, and here his ideology seems at odds with his goals. It is not that public underwriting of enterprise has not been tried before in the territory — the CLP made it an artform with its NT Development Corporation in the 1980s with little success.
“A change in federal government in September 2013 might result in a stronger ideological and policy match between Darwin and Canberra …”
My advice to the new Chief Minister is to more rigorously outline for his indigenous constituents the “jobs, jobs, jobs” he will create in remote regions; how he will reallocate infrastructure investments on the basis of disadvantage, not votes; and what land tenure reforms he might have in mind to change land access and privatise and individualise land held under inalienable common property tenure. Some feasibility studies of manufacturing in remote communities would not go astray.
On his brand of new mainstreaming, history also tells us that while indigenous citizenship entitlements should be everyone’s business, this is not necessarily the case. Those in remote homelands should be treated no differently from those in Darwin and Alice Springs suburbs. But the reality is that recognition of difference and specialist bureaucratic capacity might actually lead to more effective “difference-attuned” service delivery.
The approach of the new Giles government will cause problems for Prime Minister Julia Gillard because it appears to directly challenge the co-operative federalism on which “national partnerships” to close gaps has been built. But it also creates opportunities for the ALP in Darwin, which will no doubt scrutinise this new approach closely to see if it delivers.
The CLP has also abolished the independent Office of the NT Co-ordinator-General for Remote Service Delivery and the Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council.
A change in federal government in September 2013 might result in a stronger ideological and policy match between Darwin and Canberra, at least on the development of the north, the need for further welfare reform, and mainstreaming of services delivery.
Giles is keen to be held to account and be judged for the man he is, not his heritage. Yet without his indigenous heritage one ponders if he would have had the moral authority to abolish the indigenous affairs portfolio. For indigenous people rapid delivery of outcomes is needed to make a difference, which Giles is keen to do — ironically he will also need to deliver to the non-indigenous constituency if he is to retain power long enough to deliver to indigenous Territorians.
*This article was originally published at Tracker