At the Christmas Sunday markets in the Todd Mall in Alice Springs, Dale Wakefield seems upbeat for a woman who has spent the year balancing one of the Northern Territory’s toughest portfolios with the demands of her marginal Alice Springs-based electorate.
And she seems relaxed about having the ABC along to hear what her constituents have to say about her government.
“Just watch out because the ABC are on … so don’t tell me a dirty joke, all right,” she quips to one friendly Alice local who has come up for a chat.
It’s just over a year since the last NT election when Ms Wakefield, a political novice, pulled off a shock victory by defeating sitting chief minister Adam Giles in the normally conservative Alice Springs seat of Braitling.
Even in the dying days of the chaotic Country Liberals Party government, when the polls predicted a landslide Labor victory, and even with the political baggage carried by Mr Giles and other CLP candidates, it was still hard to imagine that Labor could win seats in the CLP heartland towns of Alice Springs and Katherine.
But it did, in both.
For Labor, the victory in Alice Springs, where it had previously never won a town-based seat, was particularly sweet.
Sixteen months on from the election, at the Alice Springs markets, Ms Wakefield assures residents who have gathered to talk to her they made the right choice.
“It’s good, I feel like everything’s starting to hit the road a bit … we’ve stabilised everything, we know what we’re doing, we’re heading there, it’s good,” she said.
Labor under pressure in Alice Springs
But Labor has been under pressure in Alice Springs, and keeping its foothold in the town may be a battle.
Ms Wakefield won Braitling by only 27 votes and it’s now the second-most marginal seat the NT.
On top of serving a marginal electorate, Ms Wakefield has to balance her heavy workload as Minister for Territory Families which often takes her to Darwin, 1,500 kilometres away from her electorate.
The risk of spending too much time away is that Alice Springs can be sensitive about being snubbed by NT ministers.
Recently, some of the town’s movers and shakers were not impressed when Chief Minister Michael Gunner did not turn up to a Christmas party he had put on for them, even though he’d sent Ms Wakefield in his place.
“I do spend about a third of my time out of the electorate, which does mean that there’s some pressures there, but I also think that the issues in my portfolio are very relevant to Alice Springs and Central Australia,” Ms Wakefield said.
But those portfolio areas — which cover youth detention and child protection — are ones that also have the potential to cost Labor votes in Alice Springs.
A balancing act on youth crime
In recent months there’s been heightened community concern that a large number of children wandering the streets at night is fuelling a spike in youth crime.
At the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, owner Rex Neindorf, who’s lived in Alice Springs for 20 years, isn’t sure if crime is worse this summer than it has been in the past, but he has no doubt it comes at a high cost to business in town.
“Let’s say something happens here and we report a minor incident and the police will then ask for your video footage, well, there goes three hours of your day and we don’t get paid for that, so it’s a big impost on a local business,” he said.
While Ms Wakefield and her government have supported the recommendations of the youth detention royal commission, which emphasises rehabilitation of young offenders, Labor has also faced calls for immediate action to tackle youth crime in Alice Springs.
Local Alice Springs town councillor and CLP rising star Jacinta Price is one of the voices accusing Labor of being soft on crime.
“In terms of crime in Alice Springs we’re seeing more violence on the streets, we’re seeing break-ins occur,” she said.
In one recent case, a 17-year-old girl was charged with the stabbing of a 27-year-old man that left him in a critical condition.
“Because of the royal commission, the Government has been really reluctant to do anything heavy-handed when it comes to youth committing crime on the streets,” Ms Price says.
But Ms Wakefield insists the Government is taking immediate action to prevent crime by deploying more police while also implementing long-term reform.
It’s another balancing act, but Ms Wakefield insists it can be done.
“Absolutely the centre of all the reforms we need to do have to keep a strong view on community safety but to do that we need to make sure we’re getting kids back on the right path, providing a system that rehabilitates them,” she said.
NT Government failing to sell good news in Alice Springs
The NT Government needs to sell that message to the public, but its recent efforts to sell what should be good news to Alice Springs have fallen short.
Its plan for a big spend in Alice Springs on a national Indigenous art gallery and a new cultural centre has become embroiled in a debate over the location, and whether the centres will take away trade from existing businesses.
Even Central Australian Labor backbencher Scott McConnell says his government needs to improve its communication on the gallery.
“We need to get the messaging right around this large build and this large spend and we need to make sure that we get community buy-in, it’s very important,” he said.
Over at the Alice Springs reptile centre, Mr Neindorf is cautiously optimistic about what the gallery can do for Alice Springs.
“There’s some positive things that look as though they’re going to happen, with the cultural centre and those sorts of things,” he said.
“If they’re done properly, then yes, they probably would help but they’ve got to be done properly in my view.”
When we visit, Mr Neindorf is showing around the last two tourists to visit his centre for the day and explaining how to identify some of the red centre’s deadliest snakes.
“The way we tell them is by counting scales and underneath their belly, they have freckles on their belly … but never try and tell a snake by its colour,” he tells them.
Likewise, he says so far the political stripe of the Government in Darwin has been of little consequence to the big issues in Alice Springs.
“Everyone thought that with the change of government things might change, but unfortunately with the change of government, you get a bit of a flurry and then it’s back to normal,” he said.