Jane Aagaard

Jane Aagaard

Jane Lesley Aagaard is an Australian politician. She has been an Australian Labor Party member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly since 2001, representing the Darwin-based electorate of Nightcliff. She has been the Speaker of the Assembly since June 2005. Aagaard previously served as Health Minister from 2001 to 2003.

Early life

Jane Lesley Aagaard was born in Melbourne, Victoria in 1956, to John Stuart McIntosh and Jean Brown. She moved to Brisbane, Queensland at the age of seven, where she was educated at Somerville House, a school for girls in South Brisbane.cite encyclopedia| editor = Suzannah Pearce| encyclopedia = Who's Who in Business Live!| title = AAGAARD Jane Lesley, Hon.| accessdate = 2008-03-16 | date = 2006-11-17| year = 2007| publisher = Crown Content Pty Ltd| location = North Melbourne, Vic] Following matriculation, she studied management and public relations at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and went on to work in business, spending substantial amounts of time travelling around the world.

In 1986, she accepted a position with the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy, and settled with her husband in Darwin. Aagaard founded her own public relations firm in 1988 and continued maintaining the business until her election to parliament. In this role, she worked as a consultant to the Country Liberal Party government during the 1990s, which it has been claimed earned her some enemies within the party when she later stood as an opposition candidate.

Aagaard also became heavily involved in many aspects of the Darwin community. She helped found the Brolga Awards and Northern Territory Sports Awards, and continued organising both presentations for several years. Not long before entering parliament, she had also organised the city's commemoration of its bombing by Japanese forces during World War II. [Smith, Camden. "Aagaard to stand for Nightcliff seat". "Northern Territory News", March 7, 2001.] She was also a high-profile figure in Darwin's business community, served on the school councils of both Nightcliff Primary School and Nightcliff High School, and was very active in her local Uniting Church, where she became a lay minister.

Election to parliament

In 2000, Aagaard was approached by the Australian Labor Party to contest the Legislative Assembly seat of Nightcliff, which was then held by retiring Country Liberal Party member Stephen Hatton with a margin of 4.3%. She was expected to face a close race against CLP candidate Jason Hatton, the son of the retiring member, but received a larger than expected swing on election day, as part of Labor's first ever election win in the territory, achieving a 13.2% swing and being easily elected to parliament.

In the wake of the surprise Labor victory, incoming Chief Minister Clare Martin immediately appointed Aagaard to the new ministry, assigning her the portfolios of Minister for Health, Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Chief Minister on Women's Policy. ["Labor names NT's first Aboriginal minister". "Adelaide Advertiser", August 6, 2001.] This meant that Aagaard had to confront from the very beginning what the "Northern Territory News" described as the government's toughest portfolio, and ultimately attempt to solve a wide range of health-related issues in the Territory - including serious institutional problems within her own department, allegations of understaffing in hospitals, widespread drug abuse, and growing complaints of domestic violence, particularly in the Aboriginal community, as well as having to fight continual running battles with the federal government over health funding.

First months as Health Minister

Aagaard had been one of the government's most high-profile new MPs, and her first months in the position did bring some notable success, including a proposal for a crackdown on smoking, which ultimately banned it altogether in shopping centres and restaurants and forced hotels, bars and casinos to maintain non-smoking areas for patrons, as well as several smaller changes, such as the creation of a renal unit in Tennant Creek. However, it was not long before she ran into serious problems of her own for overseeing the night closure of the Palmerston health service, and refused to back down despite a significant amount of media criticism. She was also forced to respond to concerns about the safety of nurses after an incident where nurses in a remote community had been attacked by a drunken mob, in an issue that would ultimately continue to be a problem throughout her ministerial career. Aagaard also began to face a hostile response from industry and community groups who claimed that she was unwilling to meet with them and unreceptive to their issues and concerns.

Mixed reactions

By April 2002, Aagaard was being singled out by the opposition Country Liberal Party as a key focus of their attacks on the government. She was forced to respond to claims that large numbers of health staff were leaving the territory as a result of poor working conditions and was further criticised over her apparent inability to stop ongoing executive infighting within her department. In May, the opposition attempted to pass a censure motion which was struck down along party lines.

In late May, however, Aagaard seemed to turn the earlier bad press around in her favour. She received national attention and substantial positive press when she announced a massive series of reforms of Aboriginal health care in the territory, giving the community more control over their own services and injecting tens of millions of dollars in funding. She also launched a project to help health workers recognise and deal with domestic violence issues in response to ongoing reports about the problem. On May 20, the "Northern Territory News" printed a vociferous defence of Aagaard, blaming the previous government for many of the issues in her area, and arguing that while her political skills were poor, she was otherwise handling her portfolio well. The media's reception towards her cooled in the months afterwards, however, with one newspaper claiming that she "was yet to convince most Territorians [she was] a success" and another suggesting that she "adopts a siege mentality when exposed to questioning".

Aagaard continued to have mixed success throughout the last months of 2002. She initiated a major and wide-ranging inquiry into the performance of her department and health issues in the territory in general, which came to be known as the Bansemer Report, instituted a well-received anti-AIDS campaign aimed at young people, changed laws to make it easier for drug addicts to obtain methadone, and oversaw the introduction of the smoking reforms from January 1, 2003. The response to the 2002 Bali bombing, which saw hundreds of injured sent to territory hospitals, also fell within Aagaard's jurisdiction, though she was not significantly involved. However, health spending played a significant role in a AU$10 million budget blowout, and she was again forced to confront issues of assaults upon nurses, with statistics suggesting that there was one assault every 21 days occurring in Central Australia.

Last months and her downfall

The long-awaited Bansemer Report was released in February 2003, and was damning of the performance of the health department, making sweeping recommendations for change. It said little about Aagaard's own performance, focusing more on institutional problems, and initially led to Aagaard being portrayed as a reformer. However, little action occurred on the report's recommendations over the subsequent months and it ultimately took back stage as Aagaard became embroiled in the most bitter battle of her ministerial career over the Royal Darwin Hospital. She first backed down on an election promise to create an oncology treatment unit at the hospital, and then delayed a much-needed extension of the hospital until mid-year, despite chronic overcrowding problems. The unions and media became increasingly incensed and almost all elective surgery had to be cancelled, but the new extension did not open until July, as initially planned.

On June 20, another round of allegations surfaced concerning assaults against nurses, this time at remote Gove District Hospital, and Aagaard was again criticised for having failed to take action to stop the ongoing problem. Then, in August, just as the furore over the Royal Darwin Hospital issue began to subside, the media began reporting claims of high numbers of child sexual assaults in indigenous communities. As the issue continued, more and more claims of assault emerged, and Aagaard continued to refuse calls for an inquiry. Finally, on December 6, she announced that AU$50 million would be injected into overhauling the child protection system.

However, her belated response to the child sex abuse issue appeared to be too late, as on December 16, Chief Minister Clare Martin not only sacked Aagaard as Health Minister, but axed her from the ministry altogether. In her public statements, Martin said that Aagaard "had failed to communicate with the public and health stakeholders". Her portfolio was ultimately split between Peter Toyne and Marion Scrymgour, who was promoted in the subsequent ministerial reshuffle. The "Northern Territory News", in its reporting of Aagaard's sacking, suggested that while she "undoubtedly cared deeply about health issues", she "did not have the ability to motivate or inspire."

Re-emergence as Speaker

After her public fall from grace, Aagaard became a particularly quiet member of the backbench throughout the remainder of her first term in office, although she continued to act as chair of a parliamentary committee investigating issues associated with substance abuse. Despite her public axing from the ministry and a concerted effort from the Country Liberal Party to retake her seat, as well as the decision of Northern Territory Greens leader Ilana Eldridge to run against her, Aagaard had little difficulty being re-elected at the 2005 election. However, Aagaard's seat of Nightcliff was one of the few electorates in the territory where the Australian Labor Party vote went down amidst the party's landslide win, with a 3.5% swing against her - although much of this could be put down to Eldridge having polled 16% of the vote.

In the aftermath of the large election victory, Aagaard became the ALP's surprise nomination for Speaker of the Assembly. She succeeded independent Loraine Braham, who the party chose not to reappoint for another term, now that they had a clear working majority with or without the support of independents. Aagaard's nomination as Speaker received the surprise support of new Opposition Leader Jodeen Carney, but was criticised by the outgoing Deputy Speaker, independent Gerry Wood, who argued that the party should have again appointed an independent as Speaker. Aagaard has announced her priorities as Speaker as aiming to increase the standards of debate in the chamber and actively encourage more of the public to attend question time.


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