Adam Giles' journey from Blaxland High to running the Northern Territory

THERE’S lots of reasons why Mount Riverview’s Adam “Gilesy” Giles is running the Northern Territory today —and the work ethic he learnt from his Blue Mountains parents would have to be one of them.

Weekends as a 12-year-old were spent cleaning bread tins for $2.50 an hour at the Mount Riverview bakery. He moved on to working at a butchery in Warrimoo and later delivered pizzas and Chinese takeaway meals around Penrith.

Now, 40 he is still working long hours and making the days count.

“I get up at 4am,  go through some files, go for a walk, go to the gym... get into work about 7.15am,” he told Review in an interview a few weeks after he was installed as NT Chief Minister.

Mr Giles’s defends his current role in the NT, a role that became his when the leader was rolled while overseas on a trade mission.

“I wasn’t actively pursuing the Chief Minister’s role .. they asked me to, so I stepped up, it just worked out that way.”

But since taking the role he has said no to the prime minister over  the federal education deal at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Canberra, adding Ms Gillard was also ill-informed over drinking issues in the Territory.

His take-no-prisoners approach also includes threats to remove neglected Aboriginal children from their parents and place them in adopted homes if necessary.

Growing up to do battle with a Federal Labor prime minister wasn’t really part of the plan for Adam Giles. In his maiden speech, the conservative politician said his Dad would be “rolling in his grave” because of the political party he had chosen to stand for.

“He’s a big Labor man and I’m a Liberal man and he would be turning in his grave but he would be proud.”

“Dad was probably where I got my first interest in politics. I don’t know when it was I became more interested to do something about it, probably when he was killed [in a workplace accident]  when I was 15, that was a bit of a turning point.”

For these reasons Mr Giles has “never forgotten the fact that you must look after the worker”.

“I probably have a harder position than people in the left of the Labor Party but it’s something that is in my veins, I was taught that as I was growing up and I’ve never forgotten it.”

Teachers at his high school were “not likely to remember” him as he “never sought leadership roles at school or on the sporting field”.

“There was no [political] drive when I was growing up, I went to Mount Riverview Public School, Blaxland High School and just ended up on a road that led to this point. I think it just shows you can strive to reach any levels.”

Giles studied accounting and real estate after leaving high school, working in property management before moving into public housing management for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

He worked as a social and economic policy adviser for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and was the Liberal Party candidate for Fraser in the 2004 federal election. Unsuccessful, he travelled through the Territory as part of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous Economic Taskforce before settling in Alice Springs with his second wife and daughter. 

He had another tilt at federal parliament, standing as the Country Liberal Party candidate for Lingiari at the 2007 federal election. He failed but was elected a year later with a high primary vote to the seat of Braitling in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly and became transport minister in 2012. He replaced Terry Mills as leader of the Country Liberal Party while Mills was on a trade mission in Japan and was sworn in as Chief Minister on March 14 this year.

The Chief Minister doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back on his life and when asked about the stories of being called “coon” and “boong” as a child or being a minority, he tells the Gazette “I’m not going to play on any comments like that ... I was a kid like anybody else and it never affected me.

“Kids are kids, people say different things when they’re kids and we all grow and learn from life. 

“I didn’t see myself as in the minority. The minority was the two exchange students we had in the home - one from Japan and one from the U.S.”

But he admits when an indigenous school friend killed himself in jail “that put it in perspective for me”.

“It made me sit back and think about that, it’s more than just name calling, indigenous disadvantage is more than just name calling, it hit home to me.”

Mr Giles’ home is in Alice Springs but he works in Darwin 1500 kms away.

“It’s been a long road. We came to Alice Springs for work and one thing has just led to another and I ended up in politics.

“I was told when I was young you need to go out and get a part-time job, I went and got that part-time job and I never looked back.

“I started work when I was a 12-year-old at the bakery. I worked on a Saturday and Sunday cleaning bread tins,” he said.

“I was always working ... getting that work ethic when I was young really helped me today.”

Finding out more information about the Giles family is difficult as Mr Giles admits he “has forbidden” his “extended mob” to talk to the media. Despite promises to email photos from his early years, the Review had to unearth his high school photo, with Mr Giles sporting a mullet in the back row, from other channels.

But former Blaxland High schoolmate Cherin Johns has nothing but praise for the man whose nickname at school was “Happy”.

“I remember him as a popular guy with many friends. Always inoffensive so he picked his vocation well. He has indigenous heritage which he is proud of. Awesome guy. I cannot speak more highly of his character whilst at a school.”

Mr Giles told the Review his childhood, despite the early break-up of his parents was very “normal” with a “fantastic mum, dad and stepfather”.

“It was a great part of the world to grow up in I never really appreciated the beauty of the Blue Mountains when I was growing up and it’s not till you go back ... [we went] paddling canoes on Wentworth Falls Lake, riding motorbikes on the bush trails, climbing up and down the Three Sisters at Echo Point  — family members climbed and abseiled it but I’m not crazy.

“I was just a knockabout kid. I really enjoyed mathematics and woodwork at school,  some people are more mathematically inclined and others are more literature focused and I was into maths.”

For Mr Giles the numbers didn’t add up on the Federal Government’s education reforms and he famously said no to Prime Minister Julia Gillard at a roundtable meeting on education funding, despite admitting to the Gazette how much he had been looking forward to meeting her at the Council of Australian Governments get together.

He wants to “put the Northern Territory on the map of Australia as an economic contributor rather than a mendicant state, in terms of being the last frontier for the rest of Australia to look after us” and is focused on building infrastructure to create more opportunities in remote areas of the Territory. He also hopes social reform can happen.

“When you have these opportunities in regional and remote areas that creates jobs and that’s the future of the Territory, it allows us to make a greater contribution to the national economy, it provides a future for us.

“Simply, in some places we have no roads, infrastructure needs to be put into place so we can work around it, advancing mining opportunities, tourism opportunities, a whole range of areas that have never really been developed,” he said.

Mr Giles doesn’t mind stirring the pot if it means he can change the face of life for indigenous and non-indigenous Territorians.

In the past he attracted media interest by rejecting calls for John Howard to allow parliament to say sorry to the Aboriginal stolen generations. “Sorry is a five-letter word,” he said. “Is it going to give someone a job?”

And in 2009 he famously complained when the federal government planned to move dongas from the Alice to Christmas Island. ‘’We’re taking potential demountables off disabled kids in Alice Springs to house scum asylum seekers in Christmas Island,” he told the territory’s Legislative Assembly. He later clarified the point on ABC radio saying “When I used the word scum I was referring to people smugglers, people who traffic in human misery”.

One of Mr Giles’ first acts after being sworn in was to scrap the post of minister for Aboriginal advancement. Thirty per cent of territory voters are indigenous. His spokesman told the Gazette Mr Giles did not believe in tokenism on Aboriginal issues and all ministers should be responsible — “it shouldn’t just be lumped at one minister’s feet”.

He says the famous Howard Government intervention into decaying far-flung Aboriginal communities “provided  a lot of opportunities, but it probably wasn’t rolled out the best ... the biggest failure with the intervention was it was more socially based not economically based, what we should have been doing is helping people find economic positions. We all know when someone has a job their kids go to school, kids are healthier, the whole social dynamic of the community changes and that was what was missing from the intervention.”

Mr Giles definitely feels “plenty of pressure” to meet targets he has set in his own mind.

“It is the hardest part of the job, the feedback I’m getting is quite good but people are still going “alright Gilesy what are you going to do?”

Indigenous Territorians had been telling him “it’s good to see [his appointment], now let’s go out and fix this place”.

Without fear or favour maybe “Gilesy” and his Mountain boy work ethic will be the one to do it.

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