Adam’s eve: The rise and rise of the first black head of government


Adam Giles, the first Aboriginal Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, and his soon to be deputy Dave Tollner, at a press conference in Darwin on March 13. It came a few hours after party colleagues dumped former Chief Minister Terry Mills.

Adam Giles, the first Aboriginal Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, and his soon to be deputy Dave Tollner, at a press conference in Darwin on March 13. It came a few hours after party colleagues dumped former Chief Minister Terry Mills.

LAST month, Adam Giles became the first Aboriginal person to lead an Australian government, after successfully challenging for the Chief Minister’s job in the Northern Territory. The Kamiliaroi man has quickly risen through the ranks of the Liberal Party and although he’s already made history, Giles’ career ambitions are unlikely to have been satisfied entirely. CHRIS GRAHAM reports from Darwin.

I have one memory of Adam Giles that endures above all others. It was late 2009, and I was driving up the Stuart Highway from Adelaide to Alice Springs, as the editor-at-large of the National Indigenous Times.

Adelaide to anywhere is a long drive, so I switched on ABC radio to catch the midday headlines.

I’d come in mid-broadcast, and to my alarm the journalist was talking about a “Northern Territory politician” who overnight had described asylum seekers as “criminal scum”.

Having delved in and out of Territory politics for the better part of a decade, I’d assumed that Dave Tollner, the occasionally all-too-relaxed former federal Member for Solomon and now the local member for Fong Lim, had opened his mouth before his brain had kicked into gear.

To my horror, the offending party – literally and figuratively – was Adam Giles.

And why was I so appalled? Because, having been cut loose from the NIT office to rove and report, my destination was actually Giles’ house in the suburb of Braitling on the outskirts of the Alice Springs, where I was intending to stay for a few days, before heading out bush.

Giles’ wife, Tamara (aka ‘Tam’) was one of the early driving forces behind the National Indigenous Times, and one of the first Aboriginal people I met when I entered Aboriginal affairs.

We don’t agree on everything, but Tam, more than most, helped shaped my views on Aboriginal people, and to this day remains one of my oldest friends (and one of my business partners).

Given my leftist views, I figured that it was going to be, at the very least, an interesting stay at the Giles’ residence.

Later that week, when Giles arrived home from Parliament, we had a BBQ and a few beers. He explained that during a heated parliamentary debate, passion had got the better of him.

He’d intended to describe people smugglers as ‘criminal scum’, rather than asylum seekers.

Language not withstanding, it’s a reality that, when you think about it, is hard to refute.

Needless to say, it came out all wrong.

Giles apologized publicly for the comment, and tried to explain the context. But in politics, context matters less than content when there’s a beating to be had. The phrase has been rolled out repeatedly by Giles’ enemies, including in the last month, when Terry Mills stepped aside as

Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, and Giles replaced him.

Obviously, Adam and I don’t see eye-to-eye on quite a few issues. But despite our political differences, he’s never given me any reason to doubt that he has the best interests of Aboriginal people at heart.

And still in his still defence, the Adam Giles of the last month, is a very different politician to the young conservative who won the seat of Braitling in 2008.

When Giles’ staged his first press conference after assuming the leadership, I happened to be in Darwin. As the cameras turned on, I was surprised how serious and authoritative Giles appeared.

I’ve known him in a much more relaxed setting. But before the press conference, there was only one guy smiling as broadly as Giles as the media formed a scrum. Me. Regardless of your politics, it’s nice to see people you know and respect do well.

So that’s the personal stuff out of the way… the world’s longest declaration of a personal interest. Now down to business.

Adam Giles is a Kamiliaroi man. His father was a Romer, and his grandmother was a Ruttley.

He grew up in Sydney in a staunchly Labor, pro-unionist family, an irony not lost on him during his maiden speech to parliament, which he acknowledged.

After high school, Giles studied accounting and real estate and worked briefly in property management, before joining the Australian public service.

Giles cut his teeth in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, before moving to Canberra to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.

In 2003, he began flirting with the idea of a career in politics, a career move that would end up landing him a few records.

Giles joined the Liberal party and while still in Canberra, stood against Labor veteran Bob McMullan in the 2004 federal election.

Fraser is a safe Labor seat – Giles never stood a chance of winning it, and knew it, but it was an important introduction to political campaigning and part of the ‘serve your time’ reality of political life.

Shortly after, he and Tam moved to Alice Springs (Giles was still working for the Department of Workplace Relations), where he joined the Country Liberal Party (CLP).

His first Territory contest was against another Labor veteran, Warren Snowdon for the federal seat of Lingiari.

In politics, timing is everything, and Giles – a relative unknown in Territory politics – was left with the job of selling the Howard government’s Northern Territory intervention, which had been launched months earlier.

This is where he tallied up his first political record, but it’s not one he’d likely dwell on.

Virtually all of the 73 communities affected by the intervention fell within the seat of Lingari, so Giles publicly declared that the contest against Snowdon would be a referendum on the intervention.

He was right. The swing against the Liberals was unprecedented – in some seats, 99 percent of the two-party preferred vote went to Snowdon. It was a tough political lesson for Giles, who had no control over his party’s platform and even less capacity to sell it. But, like in Fraser, he ran in Lingiari more to put himself on the local political map than to win office.

It paid off because shortly after, Giles won CLP pre-selection for Braitling, a safe conservative seat which takes in the north west of Alice Springs.

Giles won Braitling easily in August 2008, and again in 2012. He was the first Aboriginal person to do so.

In ascending to the Chief Ministership, it’s now well known that Giles holds the honour of being the first Aboriginal Australian to lead a government. That’s no mean feat, and an important one for the history books.

But he’s also the first politician from Alice Springs to lead the Territory, a significant political event if you live in the major NT centre outside of Darwin.

In Territory politics, they talk endlessly about the Berrimah Line. It’s a reference to the belief (not entirely true, but not entirely untrue either) that the southern suburb of Berrimah on the outskirts of Darwin is as far as the money makes it when the Territory government doles out the cash each year.

But ask Giles, and his race – and location – is far less important than his ability and his outcomes.

For his first major media interview as Chief Minister, Giles opted to face a grilling by ABC 7.30’s Leigh Sales.

Even Giles’ critics would have to concede that it was a pretty stunning performance. Sales is now the undisputed queen of brutal political interviews. She kicked the daylights out of Opposition leader Tony Abbott in a now infamous interview in August last year. The beating was so bad that

Abbott has never ventured anywhere near 7.30 ever since, and is unlikely to before the upcoming election.

Asked by Sales how he would use his Aboriginality to advance the interests of Aboriginal people, Giles simply replied: “I won’t.”

He asked only that he be judged on his performance. He acknowledged that Indigenous affairs had long been a “passion” but that he intended to govern for all Territorians.

It was a disappointing reply for some, but a striking political strategy in the eyes of others.

That Giles chose Sales as his first major interview says something about his pluck, and his confidence. Even critics acknowledge his capacity to perform under pressure.

From my observations, Giles is a firm believer in politics being the art of the possible. He’s unlikely to wear his political heart on his sleeve, because he knows the value of not being sidelined from debate. Like many conservatives, he’s politically pragmatic, as his background in accountancy and economic development might suggest.

And that’s been Giles’ big thing since before he entered politics. Jobs.

The Darwin press pack awaits the appearance of Adam Giles, after news broke that Chief Minister Terry Mills had lost the support of his parliamentary colleagues.

The Darwin press pack awaits the appearance of Adam Giles, after news broke that Chief Minister Terry Mills had lost the support of his parliamentary colleagues.

During his time as a public servant, Giles increasingly focused on home ownership as a key to economic advancement. It’s a passion he still has today, and since entering politics, he’s pushed for reforms to areas like land tenure as a way forward.

As the former Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Local Government, Giles had been working with Tiwi Islanders to open up their home to jobs and economic prosperity. His idea centres around freeing up pockets of land from the permit system, where it includes major arterial roads.

The goal is to drive economic development and make access for industries like tourism less cumbersome. It’s a compromise to the broader conservative approach of doing away with the permit system altogether.

More broadly, the job ahead for Adam Giles is a tough one. He’s tried to hose down expectations that he is the silver bullet for Aboriginal people in the Territory, and the Sales’ interview was an important part of that.

But his Aboriginality has irresistible appeal to some, particularly conservatives who like to promote – rightly, I suppose – that it’s been the Liberals who have delivered Aboriginal presentation to federal parliament.

Indeed, his first interview was so strong that more than a few people in the Territory immediately began talking about Giles as future Canberra material.

Many who know Giles politically would suggest he’s always been destined for bigger things than Territory politics. And he’s been encouraged by political mentors to focus on the Territory, but keep one eye open for Canberra.

Having assumed the leadership, it’s highly unlikely Giles would do anything other than focus on the job at hand, at least for the next few years. But it’s not too big a leap to suggest that sooner or later, Giles may try to call Canberra home again, at least for 12 weeks of the year.

Some in the Territory are already mooting Giles as leadership material for the federal Liberals, particularly after the Sales interview. There’s a lot against him, not least of all the fact that Prime Minister’s predominantly come from the east coast. But there’s a bit for him as well, and like it or not, his Aboriginality is an important part of his political story, and his appeal to voters.

Of course, it will all come down to leadership, and on that front Giles’ is completely untested.

Yes, he had the mettle to knock off Terry Mills and gain the leadership of the NT CLP, but NT politics is a long way from Capitol Hill in Canberra. And for his part, Giles has inherited a party that is hopelessly fractured.

It’s also happens to be a party that is home to Alison Anderson, another prominent Aboriginal politician who has the potential to wreck political careers.

Anderson nearly brought down the Henderson government when she defected from Labor to crossbench in 2009. She eventually joined the Country Liberals, but the switch hasn’t steadied her political to-ing and fro-ing.

In the days before Giles successfully challenged for the leadership, Anderson described him publicly as a “spoilt brat” and a “little boy”, only to support him a week later. Anderson can change her political position (or party) as quickly as she changes her mind, hence her nickname in Aboriginal politics is ‘The Pillow’, because the impression she currently holds is from the person who last leant most heavily on her.

Giles will have to manage that – and a general lack of party discipline – as an ongoing concern, although he appears to have clipped Anderson’s wings for now by dumping her the Local Government portfolio, the basket-case of NT politics.

The most delicious irony of all is that Anderson is now in charge of unravelling the disastrous local government reforms that she championed as a Labor minister, the same reforms that decimated the bush and, ironically, turned the bush seats against Labor and delivered the CLP government.

Of course, time will tell if it keeps Anderson busy, but regardless it was an astute move by Giles.

He’s also an unknown on the outcomes front, and that’s how he’ll ultimately be judged, but with a twist.

In the past few weeks, he’s slashed party policy that saw a hike in electricity pricing (the great undoing of his predecessors, Terry Mills), but that was pitched predominantly at the white voter base in the northern suburbs of Darwin.

But last week, he also took aim at federal Labor over the roll-out of the National Broadband Network into remote Aboriginal communities (local contractors failed to meet targets for the roll-out of the network, Canberra seized control, and immediately moved to dump a fibre optic network in favour of a satellite service, a far inferior service).

But however Giles brands his leadership – whatever issues he choses to advocate or ignore – his capacity to deliver real gains to Aboriginal people in a part of the country which suffers among the worst life statistics on earth will ultimately be the lense through which his performance is judged.

Giles and the people around him may be able to look past his Aboriginality, but most can’t.

That’s the price of being Australia’s first Aboriginal Chief Minister.

* Chris Graham is the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, now a freelancer and roving reporter for Tracker.

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