Long-serving Labor politician Kon Vatskalis has announced he is quitting politics after 13 years in the Northern Territory’s Legislative Assembly.
Speaking at a press conference today Mr Vatskalis said “in danger of paraphrasing one of our famous colleagues, it’s time,” referring to Gough Whitlam’s campaign slogan for the 1972 federal election.
“It’s time for me to say goodbye to let some new blood come into Territory politics,” he said.
Asked if he had any regrets, the 57-year-old said: “I didn’t see my children growing up.
“If you compare my life as a public servant and my life as a politician, I’d rather go back to the public service… [working] 8am to 4:21, six weeks’ holidays, no overtime, no weekends.”
Mr Vatskalis has held the seat of Casuarina since 2001 when Labor won Darwin’s northern suburbs for the first time, taking government from the Country Liberals after a 27-year stranglehold on power.
His decision to leave politics will force a by-election, but the Government is yet to set a date.
Hard yards during live exports suspension, Montara spill
Mr Vatskalis described his 11 years as a Northern Territory government minister as the “hardest I have worked in my life”.
He was the primary industry minister when his federal Labor counterpart Joe Ludwig suspended live cattle exports in June 2011.
“I think it hurt a lot for the Labor Party in the federal Parliament, but in the Territory our chief minister Paul Henderson responded quickly,” Mr Vatskalis said.
He was also the minister during the Montara oil spill and fire. An offshore oil rig burned for weeks in 2009, spilling millions of litres of oil into the Timor Sea.
Federal and Territory governments have blamed each other for the disaster.
“The whole Montara incident, the Territory had a very small part to play. Montara was a bigger play in order for some federal department to take control of all the oil fields in Australia,” he said.
But he cited the NT Caught fish labelling system as a model for the nation, allowing consumers to distinguish between local and imported fish at the supermarket and in restaurants.
“It’s so successful that every other state has endeavoured to copy it and have it in their own system,” Mr Vatskalis.
Child protection and health the toughest portfolios
Mr Vatskalis was a long-term health minister and minister for child protection.
“I worked hard and I achieved to have a stand-alone department for child protection, putting extra money there, putting more people, because I many times woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the sad stories I heard during the day,” he said.
The Country Liberals government returned child protection to the Health Department when it won office in 2012.
“We focussed on Indigenous children. This Government has not focused on Indigenous children,” Mr Vatskalis said.
“They completely broke down the Indigenous peak body we put in place, and they are going to pay for it, and the worst part of it is Indigenous kids are going to suffer.”
But he described the federally funded oncology unit at Royal Darwin Hospital as one of Labor’s greatest achievements in health.
“We have the most modern oncology centre in Australia. So good that Western Australia… wants to send people for renal dialysis to Alice Springs. Obviously we did something right,” he said.
Mr Vatskalis will not retire from Parliament until after sittings next month, but he warned candidates in the ensuing by-election that the Territory’s tiny 4,000-voter electorates make on-the-ground campaigning even more important that in larger federal and state seats with tens of thousands of voters.
“You know everybody, you know their wedding anniversary, you know their dog’s name, that’s a very different relationship to anywhere else in Australia,” he said.
“You can’t afford to be invisible because people will ask where is my local member?”
He believes the by-election will be decided on cost of living issues, driven by increases in utility bills from the Government-owned Power and Water Corporation.
But Chief Minister Adam Giles has used the retirement of such a senior Labor figure to raise questions about the Opposition Leader’s hold on the job.
“I’m not surprised Kon wants to go, we know there has been continual fighting and instability within the Labor ranks, particularly around Delia Lawrie,” Mr Giles said
Labor said it had recorded swings against the Government in the two by-elections since the Country Liberals took office, and expects to retain the safe Labor seat.
Neither side would nominate a likely candidate for the by-election.