30 September 2021

From the Murray River to political currents: James Milligan's journey to becoming an MLA

| Dominic Giannini
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James Milligan

Liberal MLA for Yerrabi James Milligan on the day he found out he had been re-elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly following a recount. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

It’s a fair bet James Milligan is the first professional water ski instructor to end up in the ACT Legislative Assembly. But for the Gungahlin-based MLA, it’s all about community and being involved where you live.

As a child growing up along the Murray River, he played golf, cricket and anything he could get his hands and feet into. He’s still passionate about sport although these days he has swapped the water skis for the dispatch box.

“Growing up in a country town, there is not a lot to do so you get outdoors and play sport,” Mr Milligan tells Region Media.

“Since coming to Canberra, I’ve continued with golf and cricket, playing for Barton in the suburban comp, but not so much water skiing – you cannot use boats on these waters,” he laughs.

His future wife, Katrina, lived 30 minutes up the Murray River, although the pair didn’t meet until they worked together behind an RSL bar hundreds of kilometres away in Wagga Wagga.

Mr Milligan had moved to Wagga Wagga to study graphic design before starting his own publishing business in 2003. A year later, the pair moved to Canberra after outgrowing the regional NSW hub.

Many call Canberra a big country town and after growing up in the bush, a certain set of values stuck with the young Mr Milligan as he decided to run for the ACT Legislative Assembly.

“The values I was brought up on – common sense, personal responsibility, trust and belief in the individual, supporting families – are a good foundation for the community,” he says. “The ACT has so much potential, and we are missing out, which is part of the reason I wanted to get into politics.

“After living in the ACT for quite some time before deciding to put up my hand, I was looking at what the community was like and thought we needed a renewed direction and a government that is focused on these core values.”

Mr Milligan was elected as a Liberal to the Gungahlin-based seat of Yerrabi in 2016 after a failed tilt at the then-federal seat of Fraser, now Fenner, in 2010.

James Milligan and Alistair Coe passing football

James Milligan (left) replaced Alistair Coe (right) in the seat of Yerrabi. Photo: Region Media.

He lost his seat at the 2020 ACT election to Liberal Leanne Castley, but was re-elected and subsequently named ACT Shadow Minister for Disability, ACT Shadow Minister for Emergency Services, ACT Shadow Minister for Vocational Training and Skills, and ACT Shadow Minister Sport and Recreation when a countback was triggered after former ACT Opposition Leader Alistair Coe retired from politics.

Mr Milligan’s name hit the headlines less than two months after being re-elected when he was referred to the Commissioner for Standards following an email he sent to constituents asking them to get in touch with projects or referrals for his company, JM Publishing, after losing his seat at the election.

However, the complaint was dismissed.

For now, Mr Milligan’s focus remains on the local Gungahlin community, with the Canberra Liberals in Opposition until at least 2024.

READ MORE James Milligan re-elected to Assembly after Yerrabi recount

“Gungahlin is a fast-growing area, and I am basing my priorities off the feedback I get from the community,” he says. “Our schools are overcrowded at the moment, and we do not have adequate secondary schools.

“Planning and infrastructure has also been a bit of an issue out here. We tend to bottleneck at every roundabout and intersection.

“I have a particularly keen interest in sporting infrastructure, as well. We need an indoor sporting facility and better changing facilities and infrastructure at our sporting ovals.”

This focus on sporting facilities might be because sport has remained a constant for Mr Milligan during his jumps from regional Victoria to Wagga Wagga and then to Canberra, which makes his shadow portfolio of Sport and Recreation a perfect match.

Handmade woodwork tables by James Milligan

Some of James Milligan’s woodwork creations in his garage. Photo: Supplied.

And while community sport remains mostly off the table during the COVID-19 lockdown, the former publisher has become an active painter and woodworker, trying to rekindle his creative life he had before entering politics.

His new woodworking hobby has expanded to take up most of the garage, while his weekly barbecue catch-ups with family and friends have been put on hold due to lockdown restrictions.

“Typically, a dozen or so of us will catch up every Sunday and have a barbecue and play some pool,” says Mr Milligan. “It became a sort of ritual so I definitely miss that.”

With three years until the next election, the Canberra Liberals might not have a fully fledged political platform, but a sturdy wooden one may be in the works.

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