Session 5 day 1

Thursday 23 February (day 1)

(scribe/author: Robyn Smith)

Session 5:  The Media’s View of Self-Government

Panel:  Julia Christensen, Alyssa Betts, Matt Cunningham, Christopher Walsh, Amos Aikman

Julia Christensen:

  • I arrived in 1979 and had no connection with politics until I met political operatives. The NT First Home Owners Scheme gave me entry into the property market.
  • I remember hearing Paul Everingham’s drawl on the radio and he drew us along with him in respect of infrastructure and development. The down side was the black bashing at every election.
  • There were sweetheart deals with developers, tax havens, TDZs, public service riots, the statehood debacle under Shane Stone, and the federal Intervention. Embarrassment was not the exclusive domain of the Giles Government.

Alyssa Betts:

  • How do I get the information I need that I think is in the public interest? That is my greatest frustration.  Cited an example of asking a department about the number of pot holes and receiving the standard 4.21pm email that was devoid of any relevant information.
  • The go-to people are in Ministers’ offices.
  • There’s been a slow die-in-the-ditch mentality in the public sector which may be a result of the politicisation of that sector.

Amos Aiken:

  • The consequences of self-government are difficult to find in Aboriginal communities. It’s made no difference to them at all.  For example, the shire reforms didn’t work.  There have been no jobs created or meaningful development in Aboriginal communities.  There has been an attempt to paint a new nation on a very old continent.
  • The NT’s vicinity to Asia is self-evident as soon as you arrive.
  • The NT’s problem is Australia’s problem. The country’s soul is in the bush.
  • The NT can do a lot better because it falls short of the mark so often. Get Aboriginal land and labour into the economy.
  • The NT is not a failing frontier.

Matt Cunningham:

  • Had to re-adjust his news sense when he arrived in the NT.
  • Political coverage by the NT News is good. Cited the last four years of political coverage and the example of Alyssa Betts holding the Henderson Government to account.
  • The NT News puts politics on the front page when it is in the public interest to do so. It kills circulation.
  • The media gets a bad rap, but the NT media punches above its weight.

Christopher Walsh:

  • Have been in Darwin for three years and spent it all covering the Giles Government.
  • The hard part is getting good people into politics.
  • Darwin is a frontier Gotham City where interests are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate corruption from poor business practice.
  • There were also ‘faceless men’ in back rooms in the previous government.
  • The public service is conflicted, particularly in senior management. We need an ICAC because scrutiny has to be there.
  • Information is extremely difficult to elicit and made more difficult by bureaucracy.

Panel Discussion:

  • Bob Gosford asked: is the NT the most corrupt jurisdiction in the country?  Christopher Walsh – I don’t know, but there were some serious questions.  Is it corruption or is it incompetence?  Matt Cunningham – it’s a big call.  Think Joh Bjelke-Pedersen and Eddie Obeid.  Alyssa Betts – it’s a small jurisdiction and everyone knows everyone so everyone knows everyone’s business whereas in bigger jurisdictions it isn’t so well known until it appears in the media.  ICAC will cover politicians and their staff, but procurement is a problem, too.  ICAC needs to be properly resourced.  Marshall Perron – scandals are so regular because everyone knows everyone’s business.  The Queensland equivalent of ICAC has been abused by politicians who use it to make allegations against each other in spats between themselves.  Amos Aiken – there are far too many unresolved allegations in the NT.  They are not properly investigated, especially in respect of the use of public funds.  Julia Christensen – there are many unfounded allegations, too.  ICAC would give voters confidence and would deal with the issue of perception.  Christopher Walsh – perhaps use an ICAC from interstate to avoid conflicts and the problem of Gotham City.  There must be complete independence.
  • Question from Lawson Broad: to what extent should the public service/bureaucracy be held accountable?  Christopher Walsh – I’m going to start naming senior bureaucrats in my coverage.  Amos Aiken – there are 130-plus spin doctors employed on Level 5 of Parliament House who should flip the onus to be:  why shouldn’t something be made public?  Julia Christensen – it used to be that way.
  • Question: what about reporting on minor parties?  Alyssa Betts – we try to balance but tiny parties can’t have equal coverage with the major parties.  It was difficult to talk to 1 Territory in the last election.  Christopher Walsh – is the media out of touch with the community?  We should represent them.  Amos Aiken – it is not the responsibility of the media to create space for people; it is the responsibility of the media to report on the decision makers and that boils down to the major parties.
  • Freedom of Information laws. Chris Walsh – he received a quote of $16,000 to give the public its own information.  And there’s ministerial interference because a Minister’s Chief of Staff checked the information before it was released.  Matt Cunningham – the process should be simpler and streamlined.
  • Question from Trevor Jenkins: investigative journalists have legal teams and their budgets have been cut back.  How does that affect the media?  Julia Christensen – quality journalism has to be well resourced and local radio is not.  Amos Aiken – received a response today claiming that a document doesn’t exist.  He knows it does.  Marshall Perron – the CLP didn’t have FOI legislation because governments don’t want to release information that will damage them.
  • In summary, then. Julia Christensen – there need to be better controls such as ICAC, enforceable Ministerial Code of Conduct and boundaries that are clearly defined.  Alyssa Betts – things in the public interest should be freely available.  Amos Aiken – democratic participation didn’t come up once this session.  Failure to vote, especially in the bush, was huge at the last NT election.  Matt Cunningham – we should reflect on some of the good things such as electorates are tiny and can and do hold Members accountable, as they did at the last election.  Christopher Walsh – I’m optimistic that we’re getting there.