Last night — after watching the win-that-was-really-a-draw between NSW and Queensland in the State of Origin match, I flicked across to the ABC to sit through some equally miserable comedy (“wash your willy!” is funny?) and waited for Lateline, with the promise that Tony Jones would do the job on Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles that NSW couldn’t do on Queensland.

If I was after some sparks, I shouldn’t have bothered. Jones’ interview with Giles — and the short piece that preceded it by Jason Om — was focused on the sale of the Darwin port to the Chinese-owned Landbridge. For sure, that sale might have caused a fuss with Malcolm Turnbull, Barack Obama and Australian defence policy wonks, but it is hardly a top-order issue in the current federal election, let alone the looming NT election due in late August.

There is no shortage of other issues in the NT that would warrant a closer look by Lateline: the parlous state of democracy here; the scandalous rates of black imprisonment — particularly youth incarceration, as Frank Brennan noted in The Guardian earlier this week; the tanking local economy and business confidence, the flogging off of natural resources, particularly water, to big out-of-state agribusiness. These are all just starters on a very long list of issues of pressing local and national relevance.

Om’s piece started off thin and went downhill from there. I’d expect one-word-association vox pops–“Malcolm Turnbull?” — “Port of Darwin” — from morning TV on the commercial stations, but not from the national broadcaster.

Om donned some high-vis and a hard hat and trotted off to the Port of Darwin for an interview with Landbridge managing director Mike Hughes on the relationships between Landbridge and the Chinese government.

JASON OM: So there’s no militia?

MIKE HUGHES: Absolutely not. Absolutely not …

This was followed by a chat with local Australian-Chinese businessman Ernie Chin, which elicited this curious response.

ERNIE CHIN, DARWIN BUSINESSMAN: I just find it sometimes a bit — not insulting, but a bit sort of — not understanding is why all of a sudden the Chinese have become the rapists or whatever they want to do.

Om can be forgiven for the weakness of his piece, but, for mine, Lateline could’ve easily done much better, whether it concentrated on the port sale or broader issues. There is no shortage of Darwin-based journalists — Kate Wild and James Oaten come to top of mind — let alone national journalists — say, Matt Peacock and the very good Ginny Stein — who’ve lived in the Territory and would have done a far better job that Jason Om’s fly-in-fly-out effort.

And if Om wants a tip on where to get the local skinny on just about anything up here, fronting up to table 23 at the Roma Bar on most any lunchtime with a couple bottles of quaffing red is as good a place  to start as any.

Enough of that.

If the entree was disappointing, the main course was more of the same. Tony Jones was either off his game, poorly briefed or both. Adam Giles — never the most comfortable on-camera interviewee — was all that Jones wasn’t.

The port sale was Jones’ main focus, and Giles, who has been quick to spread the $500 million or so his government received from Landbridge thin, far and wide, was relaxed and (relatively) comfortable. Jones asked Giles whether concerns about the port sale — by defence analyst Neil James, among others — was evidence of xenophobia directed at the Chinese owners of Landbridge.

Territorians love a bit of southerner-bashing — read: xenophobia of the local kind — and Giles, a self-confessed cricket tragic, swatted that to the boundary with ease.

GILES: … When was the last time Neil James was in the Territory? Tony, I’m sick of people from interstate attacking what the Territory’s doing.

Giles acquitted himself moderately well in the following exchanges, and Jones moved onto federal election issues and the four seats — two in the Senate and two in the House of Representatives — in play. Giles saw that one coming like a basketball, stayed on message and took a free hit in favour of MHR for Solomon Natasha Griggs.

ADAM GILES: … From where I sit in the NT, there’s only one party who has a plan for developing northern Australia and that’s the Coalition. I believe that Natasha will be supported in that and I think she’ll grow her margin because there is a strong plan to support the NT and support northern Australia.

Jones then tried to get a rise from Giles on the sorry record of political instability in the NT since the CLP took power in August 2012.

JONES: You deposed a chief minister while he was overseas, then you were disposed, but you refused to go. Since then you’ve had eight ministry reshuffles, six deputy leaders, five treasurers. Is there something in the water up there?

Giles eyeballed that long before it left the hand.

GILES: I’ve been Chief Minister for three and a half years and I’ve worked with four prime ministers … What we’ve seen over the last 10 or so years in Australia is a bit of a constant change in politics and I think that most Australians have had a gutful and what they want is some certainty to be able to not have politics in front of their faces every five minutes of the day.

Jones asked Giles whether he’d take credit as being the first indigenous — not quite yet the first elected — leader of an Australian government. For those in the south this is a no-brainer. Of course a black man would take credit for getting the top job, even if it was as a result of an ugly coup. But what might sell well down south won’t run in the NT.

If Giles were to trumpet his Aboriginal heritage in the NT the redneck rump in the CLP would have conniptions. Giles shuffled in the pitch and responded with a dead bat to cover.

ADAM GILES: … Yes, I’ve got indigenous heritage, but I compete in politics just like every other person. If I’m successful in the next election, I’m successful as Adam Giles, not as a black Adam Giles. If I’m unsuccessful, I’m unsuccessful as Adam Giles, not as a black Adam Giles and I’ll never walk around with my bottom lip hanging out or crying based on racial-based issues.

Make of that what you will.

For mine, Giles will be well pleased with the interview. I wouldn’t blame him if he’d headed off to the nearest pub and shouted the bar with high-fives all ’round.

“How’d you go, bruss?” he’d be asked. “Soft as, bruss, soft as.”

A few months ago I — and the polls — had Giles and his government gone for a duck at the NT general election in August. Now I’m not so sure. Labor Opposition Leader Michael Gunner, who has yet to hit his stride (if he ever will), hasn’t put a mark on Giles in months. Most of the damage to the CLP has been self-inflicted.

Giles and the CLP appear to be making good runs in the bush — their indigenous jobs and purchasing-preference policies appear to be popular — which is where Labor needs to make up a lot of ground.

Giles can win this election, even with the odds stacked against him. Incumbency and being cashed-up will help with that but, with most of his senior list retiring he’ll be hard-pressed to put together a quality team if he does win, and the NT’s economy is set to all but collapse in the next 12 months.

More on that soon.

*This article was originally published at Northern Myth

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey