As Charles Darwin University’s designated “expert” political commentator, I’ve been doing lots of media interviews in the last week or so for both national and local media. As many Troppo readers will have noticed, the Henderson Labor government seems to be in the process of self-destructing just 12 months after it scraped back into government by 74 votes with a majority of just one seat after “Hendo” called an opportunistic election almost 12 months early.
One of the election promises Hendo made and actually kept was to introduce fixed four year terms for the future. Section 23 of the Electoral Act embodies the new four year fixed term system, while sections 24, 25 and 26 contain provisions governing exceptional situations where an early election may be needed because the government has lost the confidence of Parliament or a supply/budget bill has been rejected.
Hendo wouldn’t have imagined in his wildest nightmare that the exceptional early election provisions would be pressed into action less than a year after enactment. However, the last few months have seen a prolonged if very entertaining process whereby the two most prominent indigenous Labor politicians, Marion Scrymgour and Alison Anderson, have been at each other’s throats and dragging the Hendo government down with them. Scrymgour was Deputy Chief Minister shortly before she quit the ALP in high dudgeon a few months ago, partly because she disagreed with its policy of partially defunding smaller Aboriginal outstations (many of which are very expensive holiday camps occupied only a few weeks per year) and concentrating scarce health and education resources in larger, more viable communities, and partly because she suspected that one of Hendo’s spin doctors had leaked to the media a story to the effect that Scrymgour had been tired, emotional and crying in a Caucus meeting. The result was a minority Labor government, with Scrymgour promising not to support a no confidence motion against the government and to vote for supply.
Meanwhile, Scrymgour’s arch-enemy Alison Anderson, who loudly supported the Brough-Howard Intervention, was promoted to the Aboriginal Affairs and Arts portfolios after Scrymgour’s dummy spit. Anderson is a strong supporter of the defunding of small outstations policy that Scrymgour opposed.
A couple of weeks ago, however, Anderson apparently received a departmental briefing at which she was (mistakenly?) told that a $762 million joint federal/NT remote area housing programme (originally part of the Howard-Brough Intervention) would end up with about 70% of its funding consumed by administrative and consultancy costs. That figure was speedily denied, although no houses have in fact been built some 2 years into the programme, and the true figure for administrative and consultancy costs appears to be $70 million to date. Anderson emulated her bete noire Scrymgour and threatened to resign from the ALP as well. Seemingly receiving strategic advice from her current romantic partner Murdoch journalist Nicolas Rothwell, Anderson “agreed” to postpone her resignation pending an audit of the SIHIP housing programme but announced she would nevertheless review her position every three days and might yet resign at any time.
As it turned out she didn’t waste much time at all on regular position reviews, because last weekend the local (Murdoch) NT News published an article effectively accusing Anderson (and for good measure the other 4 indigenous Labor MLAs as well) of being self-indulgent, undisciplined and opportunistic. In a seemingly unintentional proof of the article’s thrust, Anderson resigned, closely followed by Marion Scrymgour’s hasty return to Labor ranks from self-imposed Independent status:
She said she was offended that the Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, had not publicly condemned the article and defended her and her colleagues’ reputations.
“Today I am walking out of the Labor Party and turning my back on the Government of Paul Henderson,” she said.
“I will not stand by a leader and a party that fails to defend me when the race card is played.”
The current state of play is that the CLP Opposition has served notice of intention to move a no confidence motion in the Hendo government. It is due to be debated and voted on in the Legislative Assembly on Friday, and in the meantime a most entertaining time is being had by media and political observers like me. Anderson will certainly vote with the Opposition, while Independent Gerry Wood is playing his cards close to the chest (current numbers are ALP: 12 including Prodigal Daughter Scrymgour; CLP: 11; Independents including Wood and Anderson: 2). The NT News reports that Anderson has been promised a senior portfolio in a CLP minority coalition government.
If the no confidence motion is passed (as still seems most likely despite Wood’s playing coy about his intentions), section 24 requires a clear 8 day period to elapse before the Administrator (the Territory equivalent of a State Governor) can decide whether to prorogue Parliament and issue the writ for an early election that Labor would almost certainly lose. Allegedly leaked polling suggests that the CLP currently holds a 6 point lead over Labor, but it’s difficult to believe that such a comically disunited rabble could have a snowball’s chance in hell of re-election in the current circumstances.
Nevertheless, section 26 obliges the Administrator to consider whether another party could form a viable government before deciding to call an election. CLP leader and former school principal Terry Mills would therefore need some form of agreement with both Alison Anderson and Gerry Wood to be able to advise the Administrator that he was in a position to form a government. Given Anderson’s propensity to abandon existing allegiances at the drop of a hat and the fact that a CLP government has Buckley’s chance of doing much better on either remote housing or outstations than Labor (it certainly didn’t do so in its previous 23 years in power), you wouldn’t imagine Mills would be too keen on jumping into coalition with Anderson.((For that matter, it’s equally difficult to understand why Anderson would want to go into coalition with the CLP if she’s serious about tackling indigenous disadvantage. She has clearly (and probably correctly) concluded that Labor is inept and ineffectual on such issues, but at least they’re vaguely well-meaning. The CLP on the other hand has a long history of blatantly basing its entire political strategy on ignoring indigenous issues in favour of pork-barrelling urban Darwin and Alice Springs. Although current leader Terry Mills seems a nice and sincere chap, it’s hard to see the CLP actually changing its lifelong spots in government. Perhaps Anderson imagines the CLP would exhibit the sort of sincere “tough love” approach that she apparently admired in Mal Brough. But there are no obvious signs that anyone in the CLP shares either Brough’s toughness or his seemingly sincere resolve to take practical if somewhat misguided action on indigenous issues. ~ KP))
Nevertheless Mills claims not to want an early election, although perhaps he simply means he doesn’t want to be seen to want one too gleefully just 12 months after he failed to win government by a whisker. On the other hand, the professed reluctance of both parties to go to an early election may in part flow from the fact that neither has even begun pre-selecting candidates yet. Section 28 provides that any election must take place 19 days after issue of the writ, and candidates must lodge their nominations within 4 days. No doubt both party leaders will be urging Administrator (and former Solicitor-General) Tom Pauling QC to postpone issue of the writ for a couple of weeks so they can complete an emergency pre-selection process and run a lot of chook raffles in a very short time.
For political afficionados, the situation is replete with multiple ironies. There’s John Howard for a start, who manufactured the Intervention largely as a hopelessly unsuccessful attempt to “wedge” Kevin Rudd, only to see it belatedly lead to the demise of one NT Chief Minister in Clare Martin with another seemingly about to follow taking his government with him. A rather pathetic consolation prize, one might think.
Then there’s Hendo himself, who had long coveted the CM’s chair. Hendo opportunistically capitalised on Clare Martin’s politically inept handling of the “Little Children Are Sacred” report and rode to leadership on the back of promises of a better deal to the 5 indigenous Labor MLAs in the wake of the Rudd government’s 2007 electoral victory. Martin was gone within 48 hours despite having secured a record majority at the previous NT election, but Hendo himself has lasted only 2 years in the top job. Hendo somehow managed to get his ambitions and abilities dreadfully confused with each other.
Lastly there’s those 5 indigenous MLAs, who might have been better advised to stick with a popular, personable, articulate leader even if she seemed to give little priority to indigenous issues, rather than throw in their lot with a rather blockheaded, inarticulate successor who had shown no sign of any greater ability or interest in such issues and has spent most of the time since last year’s election doing a convincing imitation of a very large rabbit caught in a spotlight.