In contrast to the almost continual chaos and dysfunction that marked the former unlamented Giles CLP government, the period of almost 2 months since August’s election of the Gunner ALP regime has been positively soporific.
But it was too good to last. Friday saw a scoop by Sky News’ Matt Cunningham revealing that new Independent MLA for Nhulunbuy Yingiya Mark Guyula might well have been disqualified from nominating for election because he seems to have been a member of the Milingimbi Local Authority, a body established under the Local Government Act and part of the East Arnhem Regional Council.
Local authorities were established by the former CLP government in an attempt to remedy remote community anger towards the council amalgamation reforms perpetrated by the previous Labor government. They are intended to provide local community input to the much larger regional councils.
Disqualifications for membership of Legislative Assembly
(1) A person is not qualified to be a candidate for election as a member of the Legislative Assembly if, at the date of nomination:
(a) he or she:
(i) holds an office or appointment (other than a prescribed office or appointment) under a law of the Commonwealth (including this Act) or a law of a State or Territory; or
(ii) not being the holder of any office or appointment under such a law, is employed by the Commonwealth, by a State or Territory or by a body corporate established for a public purpose by such a law;
and he or she is entitled to any remuneration or allowance (other than reimbursement of expenses reasonably incurred) in respect of that office, appointment or employment; …
There isn’t much doubt that membership of a local authority is an “office or appointment” within the meaning of section 21. Local authorities are created under Chapter 5 of the Local Government Act (NT) and section 53C contains the provisions regarding appointment as a member. Mr Guyula’s spokesperson Kendall Trudgen (son of Mission Aviation Fellowship pioneer Richard Trudgen) seems somewhat desperately to be trying to throw doubt on his MLA’s actual membership of the local authority, while conceding that he did attend meetings!:
Mr Trudgen said it was “undeniable fact” Mr Guyula was included on the list of authority board members.
“That’s a matter of fact he’s on the list, but lists don’t mean anything without proper procedural process,” he said.
“A person is not a member because someone’s put them on a list that says they’re a member, otherwise anyone could be on there.”
Given that the procedural section contains no provision for proxies (and Ministerial Guidelines forbid them) or voting by any person who is not a member of the local authority, it seems unlikely that Mr Guyula just attended meetings for idle entertainment because there was nothing much on TV.
A slightly more interesting but equally probably fatal question for Mr Guyula is whether membership of a local authority involved being “entitled to any remuneration or allowance (other than reimbursement of expenses reasonably incurred) in respect of that office, appointment or employment”. Under section 21 disqualification from eligibility as a candidate for MLA only arises if such an entitlement exists. Section 71 of the Local Government Act relevantly provides:
(2A) A member of a local authority is to be paid an allowance by the council to the extent that any guidelines that the Minister may make and that apply in the relevant financial year permit such an allowance to be paid.
(3) Allowances for each financial year are to be fixed as part of the council‘s budget for the relevant financial year.
The relevant Minister Guidelines fix an allowance/sitting fee for local authority members of 107 revenue units for each meeting attended (Guideline 19). For the year to 30 June 2016 a revenue unit was $1.15, meaning My Guyula was entitled to payment of $123.05 for each meeting he attended. I don’t think there is much doubt that this is an allowance or entitlement in respect of the office/appointment as local authority member within the meaning of section 21 of the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 (Cth).
There isn’t much doubt that Labor unearthed and leaked this story to Matt Cunningham. Labor’s front bench is distinctly inexperienced, and badly needs the services of former Nhulunbuy MLA Lynne Walker. She was previously Labor’s Deputy Leader and one of its best performers in the previous Parliament.
On the other hand it would be a shame if Mr Guyula is found to have been ineligible to nominate as a candidate. To the best of my knowledge he is the only Aboriginal MLA in the new Parliament from a fully traditional background, and would have provided valuable representation for northern Arnhemland communities.
Moreover, boosting Labor’s already overwhelming dominance in the Legislative Assembly from 18 to 19 seats out of 25 would hardly be a positive step for democratic accountability or the capacity of non-government MLAs to subject the new government to the sort of scrutiny that is essential if the Territory is to avoid a rerun with variations of the arrogant fiasco of the Giles CLP government.
But at least we should be thankful for small mercies. Leader of Government Business Natasha Fyles made an announcement last week which will at least effect some small improvements to accountability and transparency:
- The Register of Members’ Interests will be made available online, for any member of the public to see. Currently, there is only one copy of members’ interests available in Parliament house.
- The Government will also propose to the parliament that questions from the Government, so called “Dorothy Dixers”, will not be asked on Wednesdays, meaning the Opposition and independents will be given the full hour of question time to scrutinise the government.
- The Government will be moving that a select committee be formed, including opposition and cross-bench members, to investigate parliamentary reform including improving question time, scrutiny of legislation and public participation.