13 July 2013
The Australian Magazine
Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles is a man in a hurry – but is he going too fast?
Even before he became chief minister of the Northern Territory, Adam Giles made it clear he regarded speed limits on outback highways as a prime example of the namby-pamby Labor Party over-regulation that he and his conservative Country Liberal colleagues would eradicate should they get into power. True to his word, since assuming the top job Giles has been pushing for a return to the halcyon days of Top End drivers rocketing up and down the Stuart Highway at 150km/h-plus in their V8 utes. It’s a sure-fire vote-winner, although after spending time with Giles you suspect that his support for high-speed driving is not just mere populism. The man is in a hurry, whatever he does.
“A jetski!” he exclaims, pointing from his car window to a roadside market as he drives south from Darwin under a blazing winter sun. It’s a Saturday morning in early June, a time when Giles might normally be hurtling around the bush on his Husaberg 650 trail bike. But since becoming chief minister in March, he laments, the bike has barely been out of the garage, so perhaps tooling around Darwin Harbour on a jetski might be a substitute. Ahead of us, framed against blue sky and red earth, a white minibus hoves into view travelling at the heinously slow speed of 100km/h in a 130 zone. “C’mon, get past the coaster-bus!” Giles urges the cars ahead of him, then peers at the offending vehicle’s licence plates as we overtake. “Where’s he from? Aw, New South Wales. At least he doesn’t have a hat on … ”
It’s 10.30am, only eight hours since Giles flew bleary-eyed back into Darwin from his first official visit to Indonesia and Singapore, a three-day whirlwind of breakfast speeches and ministerial meetings designed to spread the gospel of the Northern Territory as Australia’s economic opportunity zone. After snatching two hours’ sleep in a Darwin hotel room – his customary abode for the six days a week when he’s not at home in Alice Springs – Giles had risen at 5.30 to head to the gym, read the morning papers and then jump into a hire car for a four-hour drive to press the flesh in the outlying districts of the Territory.
Our destination is Barunga, a tiny Aboriginal community of 300-odd souls outside Katherine which is hosting its annual cultural festival, featuring dancing, didgeridoo-making and a closing night concert from Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. En route we’ll stop at Adelaide River, an even tinier white settlement on the Stuart Highway that’s holding its annual agricultural show, complete with ute muster, rodeo riding and polocrosse tournament. It’s a day that encapsulates much of the Territory’s racial and social extremes, although the chief ministerial agenda is admirably ad hoc. “I’m just calling in to talk to the local member,” he says of the Adelaide River stopover. “Probably grab a pluto pup and a can of Fanta, display to the Territory my healthy lifestyle … Then jump in the car and feel like shit for the rest of the day with a pain in my belly.”
Dressed for the bush in pale blue open-necked shirt, jeans and R.M. Williams boots, Giles looks like some youthful 40-something larrikin you’d find pulling beers behind the bar of an Alice Springs pub, which was in fact his job briefly six years ago. Yet the casual demeanour and easy banter belie the stories that circulate about his ruthless competitive streak. In March he became chief minister by dethroning his own party leader, Terry Mills, in a coup that was brutal even by Northern Territory political standards. The affable Mills had led the Country Liberals to victory in the NT election last August, but while travelling in Japan on a trade mission he found out Giles had just stolen his job in a leadership spill back in Darwin. Fortunately for Giles, the national media focused instead on the symbolism of the moment: a month before his 40th birthday, he had become the first indigenous head of government in Australian history.
Since then Giles has done everything in his power to play down that symbolism. On his first full day in office he told 7.30’s Leigh Sales: “I have never declared myself an indigenous politician; I am not an ‘indigenous chief minister’.” By day two he’d scrapped the Northern Territory Department of Indigenous Advancement. Then he stunned the Aboriginal community by advocating “permanent adoption” of severely neglected children. The fall-out from those remarks is still reverberating as we drive south, with the NT Office of Children and Families denying that adoption will be reintroduced and indigenous leaders warning that Giles has reanimated the ghosts of the Stolen Generations.
“What’s happening is the politicisation of my comments,” he says dismissively, “with people running around saying ‘Adam’s trying to create another Stolen Generation’. It’s a load of horseshit!” He reels off a litany of the Territory’s most lamentable statistics: the highest rate of child-abuse notifications in the country; the highest rate of indigenous incarceration; 235 children housed in government foster-homes for more than two years. “That’s the kids I’m talking about,” he says. “If you want to call it adoption, if you want to call it long-term care planning, what we need to do is ensure that these kids get cared for up to the age of 18.”
That an indigenous politician could be accused of reviving one of the most racist policies of the nation’s past shows just how far the ground has shifted in the debate about ending dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. Giles has joined a growing cadre of indigenous political figures who believe the progressive rights agenda of the past three decades must be replaced by a more conservative program of jobs, home-ownership and self-discipline. Noel Pearson in Queensland and Warren Mundine in NSW are fellow travellers, while the NT Parliament now boasts five indigenous Country Liberal MPs, including community leaders Alison Anderson and Bess Price.
Giles may be the most tenacious among them, so much so that many assume Darwin is merely his stepping stone to Canberra. His boyish energy and blunt style have already earned a thumbs-up from Rupert Murdoch, who met him while visiting Darwin in April and later tweeted that Giles was “showing leadership and courage”. Aboriginal figures such as indigenous social justice commissioner Mick Gooda and former magistrate Sue Gordon also hailed his appointment.
As a leader Giles is a raw talent, prone to verbal excess: he has labelled the Labor Party “Green-loving Commies” and asylum seekers “scum”, a remark he says he intended to direct at people smugglers. But with the Coalition tipped to sweep into power federally and looking to transform northern Australia into a “food bowl” and energy export hub, the stars seem to be aligning for him.
“One thing about the man,” says Northern Territory Labor leader Delia Lawrie, “he is full of ambition.”
Chris Graham remembers a moment when the political trajectory of Adam Giles became clear to him. It was 2002, and the two friends were sharing a beer at the Ginninderra Labor Club on the outer fringes of Canberra. In those days Graham was a journalist at the National Indigenous Times newspaper and Giles was a young public servant working in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. “Adam told me he was thinking of going into politics,” recalls Graham, “and asked what did I think – should he go Labor or Liberal? I said to be honest I didn’t think it mattered much, because in my view neither party respected the rights of Aboriginal people.” Graham laughs. “I was suggesting he join the Greens. But he joined the Liberals.”
It was a radically contrarian move, given the loathing that many Aboriginal people felt towards the Coalition government of John Howard at that time. Howard had refused to apologise for the traumas of the Stolen Generations and was soon to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the peak representative body of the black community. Yet in the 2004 federal election Giles ran as a Liberal candidate in one of Labor’s safest Canberra seats. “Not even Noel Pearson had publically declared his support for the Liberals at that time,” recalls Graham.
Graham has remained friends with Giles despite their differing political views, but others have not. “I think he lost some friends, or probably made some enemies,” says Jason Glanville, CEO of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence. “As our friendship grew, some politically engaged blackfellas would say to me: ‘Why are you guys still mates?’?”
Giles seemed to arrive in the Liberal Party from left field, literally. His father, Bob Romer, was a diehard Labor voter, a construction worker who became an organiser in the militant Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s thanks to that union’s indigenous recruitment program. A Gamilaroi man from northern NSW, Romer was the kind of working-class activist whose curtains at home bore the designs of the Eureka and Aboriginal flags. Giles has recalled that his father introduced him to politics at age eight in their home in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, sitting him down to explain that the BLF was going on strike, which could mean “not having enough sheets of toilet paper on the roll and the soap being too small”.
Giles’ mother, Jan, who is white, had met Romer as a teenager when he would visit her family in Sydney on what Giles describes as “respite” visits from his own home. Why his father needed respite is a subject buried in family history. Bob Romer’s mother, Lois Ruttley, was an Aboriginal woman born in the Pilliga Scrub of northern NSW in the late 1920s and orphaned as a child. According to archival marriage records, she was an 18-year-old domestic servant when she married a 47-year-old mechanic named Bertie Romer in 1946, the year Giles’ father was born. By the time Bertie Romer died 11 years later, she had six children. Giles paid tribute to his grandmother in his maiden speech to parliament, saying: “History has taught us much about the injustices committed against Aboriginal women in the past. For these reasons I have never met my grandfather on my dad’s side.” It’s a statement he’s reluctant to elaborate on.
“There’s family history there that I don’t go into with anybody,” says Giles, whose grandmother is now 85. “You’ll see from the birth records that my grandfather and grandmother that you allude to had six children. Or did they have five, or seven? There’s a whole lot of stories that don’t get talked about by my grandmother, or by my family.” Perhaps Giles wants to avoid being pigeonholed as a product of Aboriginal disadvantage? “That’s part of my concern,” he replies. “What happened with my family and its history is no one’s business. I don’t want people thinking good, bad or indifferent about my past. It’s more about me today.”
Giles is similarly emphatic that racism was not a defining issue of his childhood, despite the occasional taunts he received at school. After his parents separated in the late 1970s he was raised by his mother and her second husband, Jim Giles, yet remained close to his father and has fond memories of their camping and rabbit-hunting trips together. But that stable world was shattered one morning when 15-year-old Adam was called to the school office at Blaxland High just before his first Year 10 exam. Earlier that morning his father had been working at a construction site in the centre of Sydney when a truckload of girders came loose from its chains and 14 tonnes of steel crashed onto him, crushing his body below the neck.
Bob Romer was in intensive care for two weeks before he finally died on October 24, 1988, from a blood clot on the brain. Asked whether that tragedy had a lasting impact, Giles deflects the question. “I dunno, I don’t reflect on these things,” he says. “I’m a person who’s about tomorrow, not yesterday. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t; I’ve never reflected on it. I was very fortunate – I had a stepdad who was very loving and cared for me. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have a hole in your heart at the same time.”
“Adam was Bob’s oldest son, so he didn’t show as much emotion,” says Romer’s second wife, Cheryl, who believes Giles’ father strongly influenced his work ethic and desire to “make a difference”. But Jason Glanville has a different take on his friend’s political heritage. “His mother and father had quite different political leanings, but of course Adam lost his father as a teenager, and I think he was more deeply influenced politically by his mother … [who] has a more conservative political background.” Giles declines to let the media speak to his mother and stepfather, saying he wants to protect their privacy at a time when Jim Giles is not well.
After high school, Adam Giles studied accounting at TAFE but dropped out to become a real estate salesman before getting a job at the NSW Department of Housing. A brief marriage ended in 1999, the same year he attended a management course and met Tamara Constantine, a feisty 24-year-old indigenous woman who had a two-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. “I knew from the second I met him that politics was his game,” she recalls. “He announced it to everybody in the course.” Attracted by his energy and knockabout humour, she married Giles in 2000 and moved with him to Melbourne when he secured a job at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
By 2002 the family were in Canberra, where Tamara wrote for the National Indigenous Times and he joined the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In Melbourne, Giles had witnessed the in-fighting that bedevilled ATSIC; in Canberra, he joined a government review that toured Australia listening to Aboriginal community leaders complain about the millions being squandered while their communities suffered. Those experiences shaped his view that welfare was the root cause of indigenous dysfunction, a belief that crystallised after he moved to Alice Springs in 2005 so that Tamara could take a job at Imparja Television. Recruited to run the regional office of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, he saw Aboriginal people on an endless treadmill of dole cheques with no obligation to find work; in the streets he came face-to-face with chronic alcoholism and extreme violence.
Karen Mundine, a friend of Giles’ since his Canberra days, says direct experience fuels his exasperation. “With foster kids, for instance, Adam and Tamara have fostered kids themselves, so they know the difficulties those kids face because they’ve seen it directly,” she says.
Tamara Giles says the couple offered foster and respite care to children while living in NSW in 2000 and 2001, but says an even more defining moment for her husband was talking to an Aboriginal woman on his staff in Alice Springs. “[She] had fostered a boy since he was quite young, and every year this child had to go and see his family as part of kinship care, and he’d come home with his ear half torn off, or end up in hospital … Those are the influences for him; people he knows, things he sees.”
In the 2007 federal election Giles mounted another quixotic campaign, this time against veteran Labor MP Warren Snowdon, who held the NT seat of Lingiari by a large margin. As a Country Liberal Party candidate Giles faced impossible odds, made worse by the Howard Government’s “intervention”. But he took six months’ leave from his job, got bar work in Alice and travelled the Territory, attacking welfare dependency and earning occasional abuse in the process. It was a bruising introduction to Top End politics, and Snowdon trounced him, but Giles polled strongly enough in Alice Springs for the Country Liberals to reward him with a tilt at the NT Parliament in 2008. Running in the traditionally conservative seat of Braitling, Giles won decisively and on August 9 he took his seat as the only indigenous MP on the opposition benches.
In his maiden speech, he paid heartfelt tribute to his mother and stepfather sitting in the public gallery, and to his absent father, who he joked would be rolling in his grave. “Things have changed since his era,” said Giles. ” … The fight has now moved a little to the right.”
At Adelaide River, Giles pulls his car into the showgrounds and walks over to the Country Liberal stand, manned by a wizened old bushy with a battered Akubra and ZZ Top beard. There isn’t an Aboriginal face in sight here amid the fast-food vendors, jackaroos and equestrian riders. A dozen utes stand in a row under the winter sun, and Giles is roped in to judge them. He votes for a Falcon festooned with nationalist bumper stickers (“F..k Off, We’re Full”) and six towering aerials, two of them flying the Eureka flag beloved by his late father.
Half an hour later he’s back in the car and heading to Barunga, 280km distant. The tiny community in southern Arnhem Land was the site of a historic meeting in 1988, when indigenous elders devised a statement of political objectives based on land rights, selfmanagement and ending discrimination, presented on bark to Bob Hawke. But the Barunga Statement’s focus on symbolic gestures and rights is the very thing Giles believes paved a false road for Aboriginal people. The solutions he is proposing are altogether more authoritarian: enforced alcohol rehabilitation for chronic drinkers; adoption of at-risk children. That morning’s Northern Territory News had run 10 pages of stories supporting his “push to remove neglected Aboriginal children from their parents”.
In the car earlier, Giles had outlined his vision of remote communities running tourism businesses – resorts, golf courses, adventure-travel enterprises – and weaned off welfare. “A lot of people in remote locations might say, ‘Why do we need a golf course?’ It’s about supporting tourism; it’s about supporting locals … It’s all about job creation.” He wants large Asian-style shopping malls built in Darwin to attract tourists from Singapore and China. He wants an alliance with Queensland and Western Australia to create a unified economic zone. He speaks unblushingly of “my bold vision of how to change things in Northern Australia”.
For more than a week, alcohol and drug experts had been warning that “mandatory rehab” for alcoholics won’t work, and Giles admits the research isn’t promising. His rhetorical response is: why not try it anyway? “We’ve got chronic alcoholism,” he says, hitting the steering wheel with the heel of his hand.
” … There are a core group of people who drink and beat their women. Beat their women; neglect their kids. And I am now the head of state in the Northern Territory, working with a Cabinet that’s intent on trying to fix some of these issues. If I wanted my job to be politically easy, I’d do nothing and let the people keep getting pissed and beating their women. But I’m not going to do that. I’ll have a fight … ”
How many in his own party will follow him into such fights is the great unknown. The Country Liberals won last year’s Territory election because the party’s indigenous MPs stole the bush vote from Labor. But Giles’ ability to hold together his patchwork team of black-and-white/ bush-and-city MPs may be his biggest challenge. His draconian approach to Aboriginal issues disturbs some indigenous colleagues, while others in the party mutter that he’s an opportunist focused largely on his own career. For years, they say, he leaked damaging material to destabilise CLP leader Terry Mills. And for all his professed intolerance of domestic violence, they point out, when his friend Leo Abbott was alleged to have threatened his former partner with a knife and nulla-nulla, Giles rose in Parliament to defend him as “a proud, strong Aboriginal man”.
The hostilities within the party surfaced spectacularly during the chaotic events that led to Giles becoming chief minister four months ago. For years Terry Mills’ main rival for the leadership – and Giles’ chief ally – has been Dave Tollner, a rangy, shoot-from-the-lip, old-school Top End MP. (Tollner has said that one aim of enforced rehab is to encourage streetdrinkers to “hide out in the scrub”.) By early this year Mills’s polling was so dire that a challenge seemed inevitable. But Tollner overplayed his hand during a particularly vigorous Cabinet meeting on March 4 when he allegedly hit Mills over the head with a stack of documents – a pivotal moment, according to Opposition Leader Delia Lawrie.
“Once Dave lost it, threw the books at Millsy, hit him in the head and got thrown out of Cabinet,” she says, “the dynamic completely changed.” When Giles threatened to challenge for the leadership unless Tollner was reinstated, warfare broke out. Giles’ indigenous colleagues were so hostile to him that Alison Anderson lambasted him on radio as a “spoilt brat” and a “boy”. Yet six days later Giles was voted in as party leader, after the indigenous group heard a white colleague was about to make a run. Giles insists he was asked to replace Mills, although he doesn’t exactly deny he spent years undermining his leader. The ill-feeling engendered by the debacle still lingers.
At the Barunga Festival, Giles officially opens proceedings on stage and gives a brief off-thecuff speech that mentions nothing about the Barunga Statement but offers uplifting bromides about the culture and spirituality of the Northern Territory. Behind me, a couple of locals snort derisively. As an outsider to the Territory, Giles lacks the cultural authority that other indigenous MPs enjoy, and Anderson’s “boy” insult was a pointed reminder of that fact.
Giles’ old friend Chris Graham is a regular visitor to the Territory and has heard what some in the Aboriginal community mutter about their new chief minister: that he plays down his indigenous roots to woo white voters in urban Darwin; that his combative statements about drunks and neglected children are coded signals to that same constituency. “He seems to have made a conscious decision not to play the race card, and I think some people have interpreted that as Adam turning his back on Aboriginal people,” says Graham. “But I don’t think that’s true at all. I think he’s made a very astute political decision. Certainly the Adam I knew in Canberra understood his Aboriginality very well, but that guy wasn’t the chief minister of the Northern Territory. He’s got a job to do and he has aspirations, I believe, beyond that job.”
Giles himself declines to be drawn on the suggestion he has his eyes on Canberra. “Some people have suggested that to me as well, on more than one occasion,” he jokes. “[But] it’s a big job to do here, and this is what I’m here for.”
Federal politics is a much grander stage than Giles has been accustomed to, of course. His electorate is so small that he won it in 2008 with only 2052 primary votes, a fact which helps explain why politics in the Territory can have the rough-hewn style of a local council stoush. Defending his alcohol-rehab plans recently, Giles suggested that experts who opposed the plan were “leftie, welfare-orientated people” who lived off the misery of alcoholism and should “piss off”, a remark that didn’t sound particularly chief ministerial.
For the moment, he has his hands full negotiating his way through a minefield of competing interests while shouldering the burden of expectation that ancestry confers on him. Wandering around the Barunga Festival, he’s approached at one point by an excited worker in a fluoro vest who says she can’t wait to hear him introduced as the first indigenous chief minister to open the festival. Giles gives her a blank look. “But I don’t want that,” he replies.
As we walk away, he shrugs resignedly. “I keep saying that. But I guess some people see it as more important than I do.”