By ERWIN CHLANDA
The defection of Robyn Lambley last week has put soul searching within the Country Liberal Party into overdrive.
Some fundamental questions are being raised: What power does the party have over the Parliamentary Members it preselects?
Is the talent pool amongst the 13 remaining Members – now in a majority of just one – big enough to fill ministerial positions?
Is Adam Giles the right leader?
In separate interviews the Alice Springs News Online spoke with CLP vice-president Daniel Davis (below, left), the party’s highest official in the southern part of the Territory, and Jenni Lillis (above, right, during Vinnies’ CEO Sleepout last week), president of its Alice Springs branch, which puts forward candidates for Namatjira, Stuart, Braitling, Araluen and Greatorex.
Ms Lambley’s seat, Araluen, is proposed to be scrapped.
The branch has some 170 members, and an average of about 35 turn up to meetings.
Mr Davis says Mr Giles (Braitling) attends “significantly more” meetings than Matt Conlan (Greatorex – he has announced he won’t stand again), who attended “maybe two a year” and Ms Lambley who “wouldn’t be far off that either”.
Bess Price attends nearly all of the 11 branch meetings a year – there is usually none in January, says Mr Davis.
NEWS: Less than three years ago, all five Members in Central Australia were from the CLP, all were on the front bench, the Chief Minister lived in Alice Springs and for good measure, the Federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs was and is a CLP politician from the Northern Territory, Nigel Scullion. The stage was set for conservatives to do great things in The Centre. Today one Member is throwing in the towel, two have left the party, one is finding it difficult to articulate what’s going on in one of her portfolios, the Chief Minister is the guy who stabbed in the back the man who led the party to victory, and faced a no-confidence motion by nine of the 13 CLP Members. It’s not a fantastic look.
DAVIS: I agree, I would be lying if I said it was fantastic, it’s quite disappointing we’ve ended up in this position. Unfortunately there are a few people who’ve possibly been put offside when they were criticised in their ability to do their job. Adam’s leadership has come up for criticism and to an extent that’s probably warranted, but there is also the other side of the coin where some members have shown that they are unable to do the job in the ministries they’d been given. You can’t continue to pander to people who can’t do their job. It’s a difficult task for any leader to get the balance right.
LILLIS: It’s never a good situation when people aren’t being loyal to the party, and are putting the party into disrepute. The redistribution of electoral boundaries [apparently the trigger for Ms Lambley’s resignation] is totally out of our hands, totally the responsibility of the Electoral Commission. Robyn knows that. And we’re not a boy’s club. Half our members are female. There are people in high positions who are female, in the branch and the party itself. Our president, Tory Mencshelyi, is a woman. And by the way, Adam Giles still lives in Alice Springs.
NEWS: What about Bess Price’s gaffe?
LILLIS: Statehood is hardly something that’s on the boil. There are a lot of other problems in the Territory that are far more pressing. I thought it was particularly unfair that they targeted Bess on a portfolio that no-one really has any interest in, ignoring some of the good work she’s doing in other areas.
NEWS: Where to from here?
LILLIS: We can’t make any moves until we know what the final redistribution is. We’ll regroup. Adam’s doing good work up there. We just keep on ticking over.
DAVIS: The party has to make sure that those we preselect are not only electable but are more than able to do any job given to them in government.
NEWS: Do you have the talent pool for that?
DAVIS: Well, I don’t know that either party does at this stage and it’s something we need to work on very hard. If the CLP wants to make sure there is a conservative government come next election, we need to make sure we have people able to do the job and we have to bring the team together. We’d be kidding ourselves if we said we can continue on as we are at the moment. The trend in politics in general across Australia seems to be to preselect popular candidates, their ability to do the job appears to be a secondary consideration. That should the prime consideration for anyone being preselected, especially in the Territory where we have a very small Assembly. We only have 25 seats in the House, a majority is 13, at least half of those need to be able to be a Minister. Labor have shown they have the same problem, I think it’s across the House.
NEWS: Both parties have the same reason for leaving Alice Springs out in the cold because the town will always vote conservative. The CLP knows it doesn’t have to try hard to get our vote, and the ALP knows it never will.
LILLIS: I don’t think our Members take Alice Springs for granted at all.
DAVIS: I don’t know whether being left out in the cold is the right phrase, based on dollars per elector we actually get significantly more than Darwin, as we should, it’s always going to be more expensive to service people in remote areas. It’s probably more a case of those dollars could be better spent. We do have a tendency to overlook what we do have. I would go as far as saying that no other town of our size has the sporting, health care and transport facilities that we enjoy. Most MLAs don’t take their electorates for granted, not only do they rely on the electorate to vote for them but generally they live in those electorates, so of course they have a vested interested in those areas doing well. I do think that often government focus tends to fall on the loudest, but not necessarily the most populous lobby groups.
NEWS: Do you think the information flow needs to be reversed – the town telling the government what to do rather than the other way ’round. We have some big lobbies – the Town Council, Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Central Australia, Congress and ALEC, for example. If they were acting in concert, it would be a foolish politician to say no to them. Are they being assertive enough?
DAVIS: It would depend on the issue, these groups will not agree on a lot of things. I can’t speak on behalf of government, I don’t know who they are having dialogue with, but I’m sure these groups are already putting their wishes to government. Obviously, some of these groups have been getting what they wanted. Others are pretty vocal about what they are not getting. At the end of the day it’s always going to be up to the public to put across what they want, the MLAs lobby Cabinet to do what they think they need to do to get re-elected.
NEWS: What influence do you have over people you preselect for a seat in Parliament?
DAVIS: We can’t really tell them to do anything. We can encourage them. (Laughs.) Ideas come up through branch meetings, that’s taken forward to the rest of the party before any sort of policy decisions are made.
NEWS: How many of these suggestions are actually implemented?
DAVIS: Off the top of my head I’m not too sure.
LILLIS: We ask for Members’ reports to our branch so we know what they are doing,what’s happening in their electorates. We don’t dictate to the Members of Parliament at all. Party members can go to branch meetings. We have discussions with Members of Parliament who come along, and Members of Parliament will take away what they will to act on. They are answerable to their electorates. They like to be voted in, next time around.
NEWS: Do the MLAs answer to the branch? Would the branch take a dim view if an instruction or suggestion is not carried out? Is that a reasonable way of looking at it?
DAVIS: The MLAs keep the branch in the loop as far as what they are doing, and in the end they are answerable to the branch in the sense that if they wish to run on the CLP ticket they need to get preselected again. Other than that it is up to them to make their own decisions, they are answerable to the electorate first and foremost and any sensible MLA ensures that they respect the wishes of their electorate.
LILLIS: We are responsible for preselection, for providing people helping with the campaigns. Once a Member is elected we would like to think they are loyal to the party which preselected them and supported them in their campaigns.
NEWS: What has the CLP Government done for Alice Springs? What are the five major things?
DAVIS: Government has tried to push development, residential to reduce upwards pressure on housing and commercial to be an employment driver. Obviously, sometimes that’s tough to attract the investment, depending on the economic environment. They have pushed forward a lot of older projects that have been sitting on the back burner for a long time such as the revamp of the police station, the inner Mereenie loop in the West MacDonnells. There has been a focus on alcohol issues through alcohol mandatory treatment and TBLs.
NEWS: What should they be doing for Alice Springs?
DAVIS: A lot. Where do I start?
NEWS: Where would you like them to start?
DAVIS: Politicians have to balance up demands with what the government can afford and what priorities there are across the rest of the NT. That’s the reality of a democracy.
NEWS: A lot more residential accommodation seems to be a major item on the agenda. The government’s 10 year rent guarantee scheme, Real Housing for Growth, has been expanded from 50 dwellings to 145. This is running in parallel with Tangentyere’s Central Australian Affordable Housing. Some 500 units are estimated to be under construction or planning. Then we have the new supreme court, the proposed transport hub and Melanka. Do we need it all? Are we at risk of becoming a ghost town, many of whose dwellings having never been lived in? And many of whose shops have never opened their doors? A bit like some Japanese construction giants getting government contracts for roads and tunnels leading nowhere so they can funnel campaign donations to political parties?
DAVIS: Melanka and the transport hub are privately funded projects, so for those to go ahead the developers have to believe the demand exists. If we can expand the population to fill the shortage of workers – which is something that’s stagnated for a while – the demand will come as the population expands.
NEWS: I guess, let’s see whether Melanka will benefit from Real Housing for Growth and how much the hub developers will be paying for the 5680 square meter block of land they are getting from the government.
DAVIS: If we don’t do anything we’re not going to go anywhere, are we?
NEWS: Except for a short construction phase, none of these projects attract new business to town in the form of tourism. It is our only industry not completely or largely connected with the governments. Would you come all the way to Central Australia to look at a transport hub?
DAVIS: True, the railway station doesn’t make a destination. At the moment the train stops, passengers hop on a bus, do a little tour around town and get back on the train and off they go. There is no financial incentive for the rail operator to provide a longer stay. Instead of doing three days on the Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin, the rail operator, having a financial interest in the hotel at the site of the hub, could provide an option to spend multiple days in Alice. The operator would be taking the revenue from that, while the passengers are staying in their hotel, rather than just getting a little bit of commission from other hotels.
[Mr Davis, who works in the hotel industry, says it is doing “reasonably well,” partly because of corporate travel, while the backpacker market “is doing horribly, from what I’ve heard” and the self-drive segment still has not completely recovered from the slump.]
NEWS: Will Adam Giles and Bess Price be re-endorsed?
LILLIS: This is totally up to the preselection committee and we won’t be doing any preselection until after the electoral boundaries have been finalised.
DAVIS: That’s up to the preselection committee although any sitting Member, historically, has a jump on the opposition in a preselection process.
NEWS: Is that a matter for a subcommittee of the branch?
DAVIS: They only make a recommendation. The party endorses or rejects that recommendation at Central Council.
LILLIS: Central Council could reject our preselection but I can’t recall any candidates we put up have even been knocked back.
NEWS: Is elected member of the town council, Kylie Bonanni, seeking preselection for Greatorex?
DAVIS: We’ve had quite a few people interested in a couple of seats. I’ve not heard of anyone interested in a sitting member’s seat. Unless a seat is vacant you don’t usually get much interest until just before the election.
By ERWIN CHLANDA