Nearly six months after the elections, Opposition Leader Gary Higgins is undaunted by the near annihilation of his Country Liberal Party and the minuscule size of its Parliamentary wing.
During a trip to Alice Springs he says the loss has jolted the local CLP branch into action, opening its meeting to outsiders in search of ideas.
And Mr Higgins, the Member for Daly, found crime to be the number one concern in The Centre, and is urging that diversion programs such a boot camps get much more funding. He spoke with editor ERWIN CHLANDA.
NEWS: What can you do for Central Australia as on Opposition of two based 1500 kms away?
HIGGINS: Lots. I have a connection with Alice Springs over 30 years. It doesn’t matter if you have an Opposition of one or 10, there is only so much you can do in any form of news media. We’ve taken up the issue of the half-day holiday. The government took a lot of hits on that. The scrapping of the tradies’ voucher without doing a Budget review, that’s ludicrous. Look at the petitions lodged in Parliament. Look at the Dan Murphy [liquor store] floor space. That was never flagged. The taxi tax – a lot of people were not aware of that.
NEWS: What is the future of the CLP and who will be driving it?
HIGGINS: The CLP got 32,000 votes in the last election. Labor got 42,000 or 43,000. We lost seven seats by 100 to 150 votes. The election result has made the party look at how it interacts with the public.
NEWS: Do you expect there will be a break-away party, perhaps a branch of the Liberal Party?
HIGGINS: No. There has never been any mention of that to me, to management or Central Council. Membership has increased since the election. We had a branch meeting in Alice Springs on Wednesday night. Lia [Finocchiaro, pictured] and I take it in turns to attend branch meetings here [The Wednesday’s meeting] was open to non-members. We had about 40 people, only about 25 were members of the party. I had to extend my stay by a day because Tourism Central Australia asked me to attend their meeting last night.
NEWS: What were the main points made at that meeting?
HIGGINS: Crime. I met with the Chamber of Commerce. One of their main problems? Crime. Tourism CA’s other concern is if government cuts its spending in tourism – that would have a big impact. I was involved in tourism for 16 years in Daly. I am very aware of the lag time that you have in tourism. It’s very easy for government to say, tourism is doing fine and they cut their advertising. In two or three years’ time the effect of that shows up.
NEWS: What would you do to fix crime?
HIGGINS: The biggest need is for diversion. That takes time. There is no plan in place. Immediate action could be more police on the beat. Longer term are the things we introduced, such as the boot camps. They are full and the government is not spending more money. The Bail Amendment Bill was on the floor of the House before the election – three strikes and the presumption of bail is taken away. They are options that should be looked at. What I heard at the branch meeting was that people were annoyed offenders were being let out on bail, and then go and re-offend. Government has been on holidays for two months and they have not been looking [at these issues].
NEWS: Should parents play a role in stopping their kids offending?
HIGGINS: Yes, but you can’t hold parents totally accountable. Some people think if a window is broken and the child can’t pay for it, the parents should. What if those parents have also got another child at home who requires special attention? Should we take money away from that other child?
NEWS: In what way is diversion the answer?
HIGGINS: Wadeye, in my electorate, has the reputation of being the worst community in the Territory. It is bigger than Tennant Creek. Under the CLP Government we developed a diversion program around football. We upgraded the oval, put in lights, paid for a person from AFL. The crime rate is down 35% to 40%. We have police now applying for jobs out there. Other communities may need other initiatives. We need to ask the people on the ground there.
NEWS: What has Adam Giles done to the party?
HIGGINS: I wouldn’t point the finger at people. I’ve got a different style to other people, I am not a confrontational person. Opposition is not there to oppose everything the government does, it’s to hold them to account on their election commitments.
NEWS: Are you concerned about damage to the NT that Adam Giles may be doing in his new job with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting, using sensitive information he would have gained as Chief Minister?
HIGGINS: Not really.
NEWS: Labor MLA for Stuart Scott McConnell recently attacked the role of the Fifth Floor where Ministers’ advisors and minders have their offices in Darwin. During the CLP Government it was a highly improper barrier between it and the public.
HIGGINS: There are complaints not only from Scott. I had the same issues. You have to speak up for your constituents. I felt things weren’t being done for the constituents, or not fast enough. Backbenchers need to get an understanding how government and its relationship with the public sector actually work.
NEWS: The problem Mr McConnell pointed out was that the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituents was being interfered with by political staffers, a problem that CLP and Labor governments have in common.
HIGGINS: Speaking for myself, when I was a Minister I was always accessible to the media. Very rarely did I say “no”. I say to my staff, I want clear and honest advice. I don’t want any political spin put on it. Leave the interpretation to myself and my chief of staff.
NEWS: Adam Giles entered into five year agreements about Parrtjima – the Indigenous light festival projected onto the MacDonnell Range – and Desert Nats (a motor enthusiasts festival), for more than $1m per event per year. Should these agreements be subject to cancellation if they do not provide appropriate cost-benefits?
HIGGINS: You have to have a look at anything that is costing money when you draw up the Budget. These events have been funded out into the future. They are sitting in the Budget. Tourism and other people should have numbers and we should be looking at those, and that should be the basis of any decision. Tourists may be planning their trips in advance including those events.
NEWS: MLA for Namatjira Chansey Paech has started work on the national indigenous art gallery in Alice Springs. Does it still have bi-partisan support from the CLP?
HIGGINS: I started it 12 months out from the election when I was the Arts Minister. A lot of work was done. Labor picked it up. I support it, but you can’t have stuff from every Indigenous cultural group in one location. You may end up with a hub and spoke approach. Perth and Sydney were toying with the idea of doing it as well, and it’s also dependent on funding from the Commonwealth. It’s probably going to take three, five, seven years.