Northern Territory: July to December 2002

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The Northern Territory Labor government consolidated its authority during the period under review but not without some controversy. Debate and discussion occurred on changes to the Northern Territory Public Service, economic development, repositioning the Country Liberal party (CLP), law and order, the Legislative Assembly, swimming pool safety, Aboriginal policy, the first anniversary of Labor's election to power, Freedom of Information legislation, changes to the ministry and inter-governmental cooperation.

The Northern Territory Public Service

On 8 July the CLP Opposition attacked Parks and Wildlife Minister Kon Vatskalis for allegedly making misleading comments regarding the controversial dismissal of Dr Bill Freeland, the Director of Parks and Wildlife (see the previous chronicle). The Leader of the opposition, Denis Burke, argued that an entry in the Northern Territory Government Gazette showed that Freeland's appointment had been terminated but, contrary to the Minister's statement, his position continued to exist. A government spokesperson responded that the Director's position would be abolished but this could not occur until the relevant legislation was amended.

It was revealed on 13 August that nurses at the Alice Springs Hospital were being forced to work up to eighteen hours at a time due to a staffing crisis. The Minister for Health, Jane Aagaard, said that this was due to a respiratory epidemic that had inundated the hospital with patients. The Australian Nursing Federation advised that its members were considering industrial action unless the problem was addressed.

The government was accused on 20 November of politicising the public service following the leaking of a confidential memorandum to employees of the Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development. The memorandum advised staff "to maximize positive coverage of the Department and the Minister, all staff are encouraged to contribute possible ideas to the media manager for action" (Northern Territory News, 21 November 2002). Opposition Leader Burke argued that it was not the role of departmental staff to provide "positive coverage" for the Minister and the government should not compromise public servants' independence (Northern Territory News, 21 November 2002).

The Economy

There were strong predictions during July that the government would pump millions of dollars into capital works spending. The August budget, however, was also expected to have a strong focus on deficit reduction. The initial capital works increases occurred even before the budget announcement when on 6 August the Chief Minister unveiled an $80 million project to put electricity power lines underground in the Darwin suburbs of Rapid Creek and Nightcliff.

The Treasurer, Clare Martin, announced the budget on 20 August. It was, the Northern Territory News claimed, a "good news" budget that "managed to increase spending and cut the deficit at the same time" (Northern Territory News, 21 August 2002). But the good result was partly achieved by borrowing more than $100 million, increasing the Territory's debt to more than $3 billion. The Treasurer delighted business leaders by stimulating the economy with a $430 million capital works program. She also appealed to traditional Labor supporters by boosting spending on health and education. The police received an 8 per cent increase. As promised, government charges and taxes remained unchanged. Homebuyers received a significant boost with the introduction of stamp duty concessions. Martin argued that the budget reflected Territorians' desire for change, particularly a new government committed to "the core issues of job creation, better education and health care, and building safer communities" (Northern Territory News, 21 August 2002).

There were varying responses to the budget. The General Manager of the Northern Territory Construction Association, David Malone, welcomed the expenditure on infrastructure but stressed that it needed to be committed quickly. …