Chief Minister Michael Gunner has barely given a thought to the Northern Territory election in August.
And that’s because he has been putting all his energy into a matter of life and death – the coronavirus pandemic. It is widely recognised that his strict regime – closing borders, compulsory quarantine, shutting down business – has saved lives.
The Territory recorded only a handful of cases and no deaths. Territory Government aid packages saved many businesses from going to the wall. “I haven’t had much time to think about the election,” says Michael. “But I’m certainly not complacent about it – be complacent about winning an election and you’re out the door.
“All our decisions have been about the pandemic, not the election. We threw the kitchen sink at trying to handle the pandemic.” The Labor Chief Minister is defending his inner Darwin seat of Fannie Bay on 22 August. He says handling the Covid-19 crisis was “traumatic”. “We had to take some tough decisions.
We had logical, rational grounds for those decisions, but I knew business people and their workers would be hurt.” Michael says the harm done to small business particularly pained him – but the alternative was putting lives at risk. “The hardest decision was shutting down every business with hardly any notice.
I felt particularly upset for restaurants because their profit margins are so slim anyway.” Michael’s empathy with small business comes from his childhood in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. His parents were small business owners and he remembers how hard they worked and the constant worries about money.
His family fell on hard times when he was still at school and he remembers “couch hopping” in the homes of relatives and family in Tennant Creek. “I remember one Christmas we had nothing. The church came around unannounced and gave us a hamper of food. It made an enormous difference to us and I have never forgotten that kindness.”
One benefit of the pandemic is the strong relationship built up between the Chief Minister and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “We always got on well behind the scenes – our relationship has grown stronger during this crisis and is now more public.” Michael supports continuing the video-conferencing national cabinet employed during the pandemic.
He says the Prime Minister; state premiers and chief ministers have shown they can all work towards the same aims in the national interest. The Chief Minister says the Territory will need a strong, experienced Government after the election to lead the reconstruction of the economy. “We need to do the basic things, the fundamentals, the hard work and then the goals will come.”
He says most elections have two elements: time for a change or stick with what you’ve got. “There’s a very strong argument for sticking with Labor.”
Michael is optimistic about the Territory’s future, especially as so many projects are underway, including:
• $300 million ship lift, which will support the creation of a marine industry
• $100 million Charles Darwin University campus, which will help rejuvenate Darwin city centre
• $200 million luxury Waterfront hotel, which will boost tourism and be attractive to business leaders
• Terabit Territory, which will make the NT a leader in communication and an attractive home for data storage
• Sun Cable’s billion-dollar solar farm near Tennant Creek
• NASA rocket launch pad near Nhulunbuy
• $1.5 billion Sea Dragon prawn farm
• a string of mines, including the lithium project just south of Darwin
• the rejuvenation of Alice Springs CBD
• a multi-billion-dollar home-building initiative in remote communities
• the Tennant Creek to Mt Isa railway
“The Territory has got superb fundamentals for a strong economy,” the Chief Minister says. “We need to work hard to create jobs, which will attract more people here. “We need to diversify our economy and show that the Territory is a good place for a low-emission manufacturing industry. “We need to increase our wealth so that we have the means to prosper and close the Indigenous gap.”
Michael has had great joy amid the pain of making what he calls “gut-wrenching decisions” about the coronavirus pandemic – his wife Kristy gave birth to their first child, a boy named Hudson. “Looking after a child is hard work but so rewarding.
When Hudson finally goes to sleep, I say ‘thank heavens’ – and the next minute I’m looking at photos of him. I miss him already and he’s only having a sleep. “Kids take over your life. And they’re such a delight.” TQ