Lost the party leadership? Consider yourself lucky …

Amidst all the depressing events of last week’s failed leadership coup in the Northern Territory, there was at least one redeeming feature, at least for constitutional lawyers. Adam Giles’ refusal to resign as Chief Minister, despite losing the confidence of the majority of his party room (albeit in a dodgy unofficial meeting), gave rise momentarily to an occasion for exercise of the Administrator’s reserve powers.

Chief Minister “elect” Willem Westra van Holthe asserted to the assembled media at Government House that Giles’ refusal to sign a resignation letter was just a momentary glitch in his plans to be sworn in as the new Chief Minister by Administrator John Hardie.  They would simply need to prepare an “instrument of termination” for the Administrator to sign.

Unfortunately for van Holthe and his majority coup plotters, the Administrator didn’t agree. He indicated (no doubt after consulting the Solicitor-General) that it was a matter for the Legislative Assembly. In the circumstances that existed last week, that was clearly the case. The conventions of responsible government indicate that an Administrator/Governor should only exercise his reserve powers by dismissing a Chief Minister/Premier/Prime Minister contrary to the incumbent’s advice and appointing a successor in his or her place if it is completely clear that the incumbent has lost the confidence of Parliament and that the claimed successor now enjoys that confidence. Usually that will require the contenders’ numbers to be tested on the floor of Parliament. However, what happens if the claimed successor is able to produce clear written evidence that he/she now enjoys the support of a majority of members of Parliament? Wouldn’t that be sufficient justification for exercise of the reserve powers?

Of course that wasn’t the situation in the Northern Territory last week. Van Holthe had the support of only nine out of the 25 members of the Legislative Assembly i.e. a clear majority of the governing party but not of the Parliament itself. Accordingly, there is no doubt that the Administrator was correct in his interpretation of reserve powers. The only way to resolve the situation was for the contenders to test their support on the floor of the Assembly.  The Administrator no doubt would have exercised his reserve power to recall the Legislative Assembly urgently had the CLP Parliamentary Wing not resolved its leadership dispute (in however bizarre manner) a few hours later.

But what if the situation had been that Giles was refusing to resign but it was clear that the other 13 government MLAs supported the claimed successor van Holthe?  Could the Administrator properly have terminated Giles’ commission and appointed van Holthe without a Parliamentary motion of no confidence? It appears that the question has arisen in several Commonwealth nations with a Westminster system, including Malaysia, India and Fiji. However, the most entertaining example of such a situation is one that occurred in Nigeria. It suggests that the Queen and her advisers do not necessarily regard a no-confidence motion as being an essential requirement for dismissal. The story is recounted by prominent constitutional law academic Anne Twomey:

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Suspend NT self-government!*

*First published as “Abolish NT self-government”.  Last section now significantly rewritten.

Political chaos continues in the Northern Territory in the wake of last Monday’s failed leadership coup against incumbent Chief Minister Adam Giles. Today’s Northern Territory News reports that Giles, who earlier in the week demoted the plotters’ number cruncher, Health Minister Robyn Lambley, to the backbench in an early act of vengeance, is now about to do likewise to Alice Springs MLA Matt Conlan.

Giles is also reported to be about to remove former CLP Chief Ministers Terry Mills and Denis Burke from lucrative government sinecures, apparently as punishment for suspected sympathy for the plotters or perhaps just suspected lack of sympathy for Giles. Controversial CLP fundraiser Graeme Lewis is also rumoured to be about to be sacked from government positions including chairman of the Darwin Waterfront Corporation. I can’t help thinking that the latter looks like a courageous decision in a Sir Humphrey Appleby sense. As long-time chairperson of the CLP slush fund Foundation 51 (currently under investigation by the Electoral Commissioner), Lewis undoubtedly knows where a lot of bodies are buried, in fact he probably buried a lot of them himself. He certainly didn’t look even slightly worried as I had coffee at the table next to him in the Fannie Bay Cool Spot this morning.

This morning’s NT News story also neatly summarises the essence of the appalling conduct by Giles and his supporters which has led us to the current situation of grossly dysfunctional governance, in which the Chief Minister is gleefully wreaking vengeance on a significant number of his party colleagues because they dared to support the majority of government MLAs who have completely lost confidence in Giles’ leadership ability:

Giles retained his leadership despite not holding a vote of the caucus. It was a matter of holding on at all costs, rather than reaching a party room consensus.

Giles ultimately called the plotters’ bluff by threatening to burn the house down.

Westra van Holthe was not able to gain the 13 votes needed to demonstrate the confidence of the Parliament. And if the party didn’t return to Giles, he’d have no choice but to force the rabble to the slaughterhouse of an early election.

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The Peris Affair: perhaps ethically dubious but not legally

I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Senator Nova Peris. I certainly don’t think Prime Minister Julia Gillard should have effectively sacked long-standing and well regarded Senator Trish Crossin to get her into Parliament. Moreover, even if it was reasonable to aim at getting new blood into the Senate and do so by introducing a capable Aboriginal woman, retired Territory Minister Marion Scrymgeour would have been a much better bet.

However, none of those factors justifies publication of the story about Senator Peris’s romantic liaison with international superstar Ato Boldon, at least with the slant it was given. Let me be clear. I certainly don’t take the Pollyanna attitude that the salacious emails should not have been published at all. Whatever some may assert, I suspect there wouldn’t be a single newspaper editor anywhere in Australia who would have refrained from publishing those emails if he/she had them and had obtained them lawfully (or at least without any specific knowledge about how they were obtained).

If they had merely been published as an avowedly prurient exercise in boosting tabloid circulation (as gossip magazines do on a weekly basis), I would have no problem at all. However, the Northern Territory News attempted to dress up its publication with an element of “public interest” which is almost certainly spurious.

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Bogan sheilas and stupid men with beer guts

496696.1.highKevin Rudd’s announcement yesterday of a Special Economic Zone in the Northern Territory surely comes very close to the silliest election promise of the last decade, matched only by Tony Abbott’s almost identical promise a couple of months ago.

The only positive aspect of either policy is that as far as one can tell neither Rudd nor Abbott is actually serious.  They are merely producing shiny but worthless policy baubles in the hope that they might impress a few gullible voters in the highly marginal seat of Solomon.

The problem is that both of them are not only insulting the intelligence of Territorians but our memories as well. They must think we have a collective dose of Alzheimer’s Disease. They certainly wouldn’t have tried it 15 years ago, maybe not even a decade ago, because back then there were still too many Territorians with quite fresh memories of the financial fiasco that had occurred last time a “free trade zone” was tried as a magic bullet solution to the Territory’s chronic underdevelopment.

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How much does it cost to make sure income support recipients don’t waste their money?

Nobody knows exactly how much it costs to administer Income Management. But government estimates suggest that it could be as high as $150 a week per person in remote areas. According a recent report from the Australian National Audit Office:

… departments were aware that providing income managed services to people in remote areas would be more costly than providing services to those in rural and urban areas. The estimated costs were:

  • remote areas—between $6600 and $7900 per person, per annum;
  • rural areas—between $3900 and $4900 per person, per annum; and
  • urban areas—between $2400 and $2800 per person, per annum.

The estimated cost in urban areas works out at around $50 per week per person. The same amount welfare advocates want government to add to the single rate of Newstart Allowance. Continue reading

Darwin’s property market – a case study in muddled public policy

My post on the Territory’s recent mini-budget has resulted in an interesting comment box discussion about Darwin property prices.  At first blush general Troppo readers might not find it all that absorbing, but in fact the dynamics of Darwin’s property market provide an instructive example of the interplay between government policies and actions, market forces, demographics and a range of other factors.

Are Darwin real estate prices anomalously high?  How about rents, which haven’t really figured at all in the comment box discussion? This article examines those questions in some depth, and then explores possible public policy solutions.

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Hairy palms and letters to the editor

I haven’t been posting on Troppo much lately, mostly because I’m pretty fully occupied establishing with partners a new private legal practice in Darwin, Melbourne and Adelaide by early January.

However I haven’t been able to restrain myself from indulging in the first sign of madness, namely writing letters to the editor of the local Northern Territory News.  They mostly seek to debunk its current lowest common denominator populist crusade against the entirely responsible economic policies of the new Mills CLP government.  The NT News currently sees itself as the propaganda arm of the ousted Labor regime, which is rather bizarre given the biases of the Murdoch press elsewhere in Australia.  Unfortunately the editor didn’t see fit to publish my last effort, and he probably won’t publish this one either, so I’ll post it here instead:

Dear Sir

Although there are valid concerns about some individual spending cuts announced in the Mills CLP government’s mini-budget, its overall direction and settings are in my view modest, responsible and appropriate. As many would know, I am anything but an uncritical CLP apologist.

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NT election 2012 – a watershed moment in Australia’s history?

[This was written on Sunday.  An edited version was published at the G8 universities site The Conversation late this afternoon.]

The Northern Territory’s Labor government led by Chief Minister Paul Henderson was swept from power at yesterday’s election by Terry Mills’ Country Liberals.  Where Labor previously held 12 seats in the 25 seat Legislative Assembly and held minority government with the support of  Independent Gerry Wood, at the time of writing it appears that the Country Liberals will now hold either 14 or 15 seats with Labor retaining either 9 or 10.

The remarkable feature of this election result is that it presents two completely opposing aspects, with dramatically contrasting results between the towns and remote bush communities. In the urban seats in Darwin, Palmerston and Alice Springs and the seats of Nhulunbuy and Barkley (centred on mining towns), the status quo has prevailed. Labor retained all of its existing seats and indeed even achieved swings towards it in a couple of seats.

Labor’s campaign strategy was to pour resources into limiting an expected anti-Labor swing sufficiently to retain its own marginal Darwin seats while targetting the northern suburbs Country Liberal seat of Sanderson which its polling said was vulnerable.  There was a pro-Labor swing in that seat of around 2.3%, not enough to win it for Labor.  The overall swing against Labor in urban areas was around 4%, significantly less than the 6% shown in a poll a couple of weeks ago commissioned by the local Murdoch outlet the Northern Territory News. In other words, Labor’s strategy worked almost precisely as intended in the towns.  Had bush seats followed suit it would have been seen as a masterful campaign.

The federal implications of the NT election appear to be minimal.  A swing of that magnitude probably reflects federal factors to a limited extent, as well as a muted local “it’s time” factor after 11 years of local Labor rule, but does not suggest that the Labor “brand” has been irretrievably damaged.

However, the picture in remote Aboriginal community-based seats seats could scarcely have been more different.

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The Good-Hearted Curmudgeon versus The Nanny State

By sheer chance, on Sunday I found myself listening on ABC Classic FM to part of the 18th century opera ‘The Good-Hearted Curmudgeon‘.  In her inimitable way, Jen couldn’t help suggesting that the opera might have been named after me. Little did I know that within an hour or so I would accidentally find myself rehearsing the lead role (though perhaps without the good-hearted bit).

We went for a family outing to a Darwin Festival concert at the Gardens Amphitheatre, featuring Kate Miller-Heidke and Megan Washington.  It was partly to celebrate Jen’s 50th birthday, so we took along a picnic basket including lots of yummy Greek cakes, candles, tucker and bottles of water.  We knew we couldn’t take alcohol and intended to purchase it at the Amphitheatre bar.

However as we went in we discovered that everyone’s bags were being searched, and we were required to empty out our bottles of water. Presumably the government organisers thought this might somehow stop teenage binge drinkers from smuggling in spirits disguised as water.  As neither of us look or act as if we’re likely to be secreting gin, vodka or similar beverages, I rapidly mounted my high horse (conveniently tethered nearby as Gore Vidal once memorably remarked).

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