Northern Territory in 2013

One from each side of politics, both came into their jobs with some controversy: Adam Giles of the Country Liberals rolled then-chief minister Terry Mills for the NT’s top job in March while the latter was on a business trip to Japan.


And in January longtime Labor Senator Trish Crossin was elbowed out by former prime minister Julia Gillard to parachute in Olympian Nova Peris, whose seat was confirmed at September’s federal election.

But their approaches to leadership are extremely different, with Mr Giles refusing to be seen as “an indigenous chief minister”, while Senator Peris is drawing strongly on her Aboriginality to connect with her electorate.

“I’m a politician, not an indigenous politician,” Mr Giles told AAP.

He said he was expected to do his job based on his ability, not on his background.

“If you say you’re a certain type of politician, whether it’s indigenous or otherwise, you typecast yourself, and you lose respect from the general public because they think you’re only there for that population,” he said.

Senator Peris has taken a different tack.

In her maiden speech to parliament last month she proudly identified herself as “a member of the oldest continuous surviving culture on earth”, and shared the story of her grandmother and mother being separated from their families as part of the stolen generation.

Mr Giles derided her speech as focusing only on Aboriginal Territorians.

“There’s 70 per cent of the population who are not Aboriginal and if you’re a senator you’re elected to represent everybody,” he said.

But Senator Peris says his comments demonstrate a lack of understanding of the NT’s genetic makeup.

“My background is a background of struggle, and it gives hope to people who have been battlers all their life,” she said.

“I haven’t used that as an excuse for why I can’t achieve something, I’ve used it as a reason why I want to reach for the stars.”

Mr Giles has repeatedly said the NT is open for business as he tries to attract investment in the region, courting South Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia on trips this year.

He says the NT has been too reliant on the boom-and-bust nature of Darwin’s construction and mining industries, and sees private sector investment as the solution.

“You look at a map of Australia from Queensland to WA, and in the middle the Territory hasn’t been developed, because everyone’s reluctant to do it,” he said.

“I want developments in all corners of the Territory so everyone can start benefiting.”

But at what expense, Senator Peris asked.

She said the social and environmental impacts of rapid mining development needed to be examined and local communities consulted.

“Mines can come around and last for 10, 20, 50 years, but then you’ve got people who have lived on that country, farmed that country and worked that country for thousands of years,” she said.

She pointed to the crisis facing Nhulunbuy following Rio Tinto’s November announcement that it would close its alumina refinery, where almost half of the town’s population work.

Whether or not the town can be saved will be the focus of all levels of government in 2014.

Meanwhile, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has procured memorandums of understanding on 99-year township leases in Gunbalanya and Yirrkala, and the NT government has signed off on a similar deal with the Tiwi Islands.

Mr Giles said Tiwi Islanders had approached his government looking to partner on the lease, and said it would allow them to facilitate negotiations with private investors looking to develop the islands.

“The problem with Aboriginal land is you have no security of tenure, so people won’t invest on it; this is just a model to give certainty to business.”

It’s a step away from welfare dependency to helping communities run their own affairs and make the most of their land, he said.

But critics say the leases are handing over decades of hard-won entitlements for short-term gain.

“A 99-year lease is regarded by most people as an effective surrender of title,” said Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, of eastern Arnhem Land.

“A lease that takes control of the land means we are giving away our law and our identity. We will become fringe dwellers – our land can never simply be exchanged for monetary gain.”

Given that the NT’s Aboriginal community represents a large swinging block of voters who have proven themselves more than able to turn against governments they see as failing to fulfil their promises, it remains to be seen whose approach to leadership will be more successful.