If next Tuesday’s Labor “no confidence” motion against the minority Giles Country Liberal government succeeds in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, it will mark the first real test of the 4 year fixed term election arrangements that have become increasingly common in Australia. Four of Australia’s six States now have legislated fixed parliamentary terms as do both self-governing Territories. Only Queensland and Tasmania (and for that matter Commonwealth/federal elections) still have “floating” terms where the incumbent government can advise/call an expedient early election when it thinks it can win. Moreover Queensland looks like adopting fixed terms too following a very recent parliamentary committee report.
However the expression “fixed term” is something of a misnomer, because the model adopted with only slight variations in Australian States and Territories still enshrines by legislation what were previously Westminster vice-regal “reserve powers” to dismiss a government. The Governor/Administrator can dismiss the government and call an early election if it loses the confidence of the Lower House or on rejection or failure ” to pass an appropriation Bill before the time the Administrator considers the appropriation is required” (a formula which embraces the Whitlam Dismissal situation).
In the case of a “no confidence” motion (the peril facing the Giles government), there is a legislated 8 clear days “period of no confidence” during which the incumbent government may seek to have the “no confidence” motion reversed by whatever lawful means. If it isn’t reversed in that time the Administrator must still consider (under section 26 of the Electoral Act) “whether a viable alternative Government can be formed without a general election”. In the current Territory situation it is highly unlikely that the Labor Opposition would be interested in forming an alternative government given that opinion polling shows it would be likely to win an election in a landslide if one were held now.
Assuming that a “no confidence” motion is passed and that no alternative government can be formed, under section 24 the Administrator can then call a general election “at any time”, subject to the minimum 23 period from issue of the writ for an election fixed by section 28. A high proportion of urban-dwelling Territorians flee “down south” for Christmas and a good part of January, while the tropical monsoon will probably affect the northern half of the Territory from some time in early January, making remote community polling almost impossible. As a result, it is likely that Administrator John Hardie would choose an election date in late January or even early February.
Despite all these possibilities, my best guess is that Opposition Leader Michael Gunner’s no confidence motion won’t succeed. It is more than likely that the Giles government has done a long-rumoured deal with Independent/CLP defector Indigenous MLA Larissa Lee. Lee has very recently started voting with the government, and her former minder/fixer and ex-Northern Land Council CEO Norman Fry has been seen lurking around the corridors of Parliament. Chief Minister Adam Giles denies any deal has been done, but then he really has to say that. Most plausible deals would involve an indictable offence of bribing a Member under section 59 of the Criminal Code.
Moreover, although Independent/CLP defector Speaker Kezia Purick has said she is leaning in favour of supporting a “no confidence” motion in the wake of the CLP’s botched attempt to sack her as Speaker only last week, she might well have cooled down and changed her mind since then. Both she and long-time Independent Gerry Wood had previously taken a principled position that they would not support a “no confidence” motion given that the Country Liberals had a clear electoral mandate to govern. The government’s outrageous but inept attempt to oust Purick from the Speaker’s role on a spurious pretext of “partisanship” appeared to have changed that view as of last week, but a period for reflection might have cooled tempers.
Purick and Wood (and indeed the non-governing parliamentary majority with the exception of the mysteriously CLP-compliant Larissa Lee) had objected to being characterised as soft on crime by blatantly political CLP “attack ads” . The majority’s sin lay in daring to vote against urgency and insist that a CLP bill to give police extended random and warrantless powers to search vehicles for “ice” on designated open highways should be considered by Parliament in the normal and proper way over two sittings rather than rammed through without prior notice.
The publicly-funded attack ads almost certainly breach the Public Information Act and might well amount to a breach of privilege and even a contempt of Parliament, which is no doubt why Speaker Purick stepped down from the Chair during last week’s sittings to move a motion referring the government’s conduct to the Privileges Committee. However I suspect that most CLP politicians think the Westminster system is some sort of carpet-cleaning method, and so they regarded the Speaker’s action as treacherous partisanship and tried to sack her. Nevertheless, the sacking attempt failed; Attorney-General John Elferink (who moved the sacking motion) has now himself announced his retirement from politics; and the warrantless search bill ended up being passed with unanimous support. As a result I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the circus of NT politics moves on to a new act. If only they wouldn’t keep sending in the clowns. The problem is that there’s no-one else.