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Aug 28, 2017

Stability in the NT doesn’t mean Michael Gunner’s policy has to be boring

The old, foreboding curse "may you live in interesting times" doesn't apply to Michael Gunner's leadership. The real test of the NT government will be what forward-thinking policy they can implement during this period of stability.

Six months before the NT general election on August 2016, then-Labor opposition leader Michael Gunner told Mix 104.9’s Katie Woolf that his government would be “excitedly boring”.

Eighteen months later Gunner — much to the relief of most Territorians — has certainly led a boring government. Though more than a few pundits — particularly those who were able to make such merry hell of the four years of chaos inflicted by the Country Liberal Party between 2012 and 2016 — will be less than happy at the absolute lack of scandal that the first quarter of Gunner’s first four-year electoral term has delivered.

Gunner is a milquetoast right-wing apparatchik who fell into the leadership of his party after the disastrous fall from grace of former NT Labor leader Delia Lawrie in April 2015. From that time government was his for the losing. That Labor seized 18 of the 25 seats in the NT’s Legislative Assembly was unexpected, and it is the kind of unhealthy majority that inevitably breeds discontent among the wannabes and never-should-have-beens who win seats less on their merits and more because they weren’t the other guy. Labor’s biggest, and only, loss at the 2016 election was the seat of Nhulunbuy, where incumbent Lynne Walker — Gunner’s capable deputy who would’ve injected some steel into his government’s spine — was defeated by a local independent.

So far the rumblings from the backbench have been just that. But Gunner’s ministerial ranks have a few real plodders and a New Year reshuffle shouldn’t be far from Gunner’s mind. That may see a few of the more capable backbenchers given a guernsey and others left in their deserved places as oncers, left to warm the backbench through to their inevitable defeat at the next general election in 2020.

So far so good, Gunner’s government has been free of any major fuck-ups — an almost weekly occurrence under the CLP between 2012 and 2016. Of course, human and political nature being the fickle beasts that they are, a real test for Gunner will be how he manages them when they inevitably lob onto his desk. Recently a bit of fuss has been made about a decision — or non-decision — about the Woolworth’s subsidiary Dan Murphy’s, the biggest grog retailer in the country and that firm’s plans to develop a mega-liquor store in the suburbs of Darwin.

[Fear and loathing on the fracking trail in Katherine]

I may be missing something — I’m 1500 klicks away from Darwin in Alice Springs — but a decision by a centre-left government to restrict the availability of alcohol in the Territory’s largest city seems eminently sensible to me. Whether the government or their agents were in cahoots with local established liquor outlets or their industry body the AHA is another matter, and it may well be that some impropriety has occurred, but the call by one journalist for the head of Gunner’s capable chief of staff Alf Leonardi and the referral of this matter to the NT Police by an independent MLA appear rash and premature. Of note also is that earlier this month Dan Murphy’s withdrew legal action against the NT government commenced in the NT Supreme Court.

Gunner’s real problems will be those he can do nothing — or little — about. The NT — a mendicant state that cannot pay its own way — is in a long downward spiral of economic and demographic decline. Mining and major industry are still waiting for the next boom and the massive construction workforce at the Inpex gas plant in Darwin harbour will gradually wind down ahead of the plant coming on-stream in late 2018 or early 2019. The prospects for the Territory’s economy over the next decade or so — a period during which Labor should continue to hold government — are little better than bleak.

By far the biggest challenges that Gunner will face, and should take head-on, are those that he can join with Aboriginal Territorians — the only source of population growth in the NT right now and for the foreseeable future — to address the decades of decay and deceit that are the hallmarks of the mainstream’s interactions with them. Notwithstanding that the Commonwealth government holds the purse-strings, Labor has a real opportunity to lead on policy and convince Canberra to address the overwhelming structural and social inequities facing one third — and growing — of the NT population.

[Scorecard: 9 months since election day, how is the NT’s new(ish) Labor government doing?]

Last Saturday Gunner went out to the soon to be shut-down uranium mining town of Jabiru in Kakadu National Park to deliver the Jabiru Statement, an underwhelming effort that nonetheless includes a fair bit of guff about Aboriginal issues in the NT. Notwithstanding the mediocrity and motherhood statements there is some hope hidden in the speech, particularly in an indication that Gunner’s government will focus more on Aboriginal economic, social and cultural issues. There are also some useful contributions about how the Aboriginal history of the NT may be observed in a manner that does justice to the rights and wrongs of that history.

On Australia Day, Gunner said that it is a day that:

“… should be about unity, not division, and for the health and harmony of our nation, Australia Day must evolve. January 26 must hereon meaningfully acknowledge the entire story of our nation. This means more than acknowledgement of country and a smoking ceremony. It means a genuine celebration of the Aboriginal contribution to our national identity. A celebration of all this continent’s waves of immigration. And acknowledgement of the frontier trauma passed from generation to generation and still killing people today in the guise of grog, suicide and sickness.”

Those words will please some and anger others beyond measure, but at least we are seeing the start of a conversation. Eighteen months ago Michael Gunner told us his government would be “excitedly boring”. 

It is time for Gunner to ditch the boring and switch to “exciting”.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Northern Myth.

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