Troppo season comes early to the NT

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 exceharveyptional 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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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14 years ago

Interesting times ahead.

14 years ago

Speaking of expert political commentary, where’s Ned the Bear these days?

14 years ago

And speaking of animals behaving badly, apparently Spielberg’s now threatening to remake “Harvey”.

Stick to Tintin Steve (which I picked here first on Troppo Armadillo).

Joshua Gans
14 years ago

Could the Commonwealth Government overturn the Electoral Act and force an election? I supposee you wouldn’t welcome that any more than Kevin Andrews’ interference.

14 years ago

Does anyone know if there is any truth to the story that the wife of the journalist who wrote the unflattering commentary about Alison Anderson works for Paul Henderson?

14 years ago

I don’t think ‘maladministration’ of SIHIP is all that clear.

Any expectation of a housing panacea from SIHIP is bound to result in bitter disappointment. SIHIP will not be the solution to all the housing woes in remote communities. Some communities will nothing from SIHIP in terms of new houses and some won’t see much at all for quite a while yet.

14 years ago

Would the Territory have turned out better if in 1974 the Whitlam govt had established Alice Springs and Darwin as self-governing cities and had the rest of territory granted autonomy under a Nunavut style model of a non-party legislature? This would have required substantial guidance in its early years.

14 years ago


SIHIP isn’t much over a year old. Renovations started a few months ago and urgent safety work (eg electrical) was done late last year.

It ain’t fast, but given the usual pace for such things, it’s not particualrly slow.

14 years ago

Am very pleased to see the Commonwealth is maintaining, after at long last the Commonwealth started insisting, that valid leases be issued as a pre-condition for obtaining public monies, before funds provided, before construction starts of housing and other buildings.

Majority of the current lack of economic reality, of our current economic, educational, and social failures, directly result from Commonwealth’s 30 years failure to require such basic terms and conditions to be satisfied.

The Commonwealth at last is fixing basic problems visible since draft ALR(NT) was first tabled in Commonwealth Parliament and provided to the communities.

Current negotiations are protracted, largely because many involved came to believe Canberra’s bottomless pit of Commonwealth money would never end, indeed some believe it shall continue to flow – giving them their trickles of improvement, without any pre-conditions if only they can perform the correct wailing dance…

References to these extensive consultations at times are farcical.

Those with noses in the trough and doing well are wailing, the majority know and understand little of what is happening, largely result of land trusts leaderships turning developing what should be developing communities into zoo cages.

For far to long the ongoing refusals by Land Trusts to provide draft leases to hundreds of residents already housed using public monies have been ignored.

Residents can not obtain an Apprehended Violence Order to prevent others coming into their home whilst they are without valid leases from the landowner – these land owners are corporate Land Trusts, not individuals.

Individuals are just shareholders in these corporate Land Trusts, shareholders without the protections they otherwise would have…

Whilst residing in a home and purportedly paying rent a “Traditional Owner” still lacks their right to have their family or friends or tradespeople visit them whilst these “Traditional Owners” lack a valid lease from “their” landowning corporate Land Trust.

Land councils refuse to provide valid leases as doing so may give leasees some rights and responsibilities, the same rights and responsibilities as tenants elsewhere already have.

paul walter
paul walter
14 years ago

Sad to see so many on side with coercive Brough “intervention” policies so quickly adopted by Labor, state and federally.
Why om earth should indigines be forced tolease their own land…wtf!
Apparently the outstation communities often provide a more secure transitional environment for indigenes undergoing the long process of recovering from white conquest, better at least than the shanty towns on the outskirts of places like Alice springs where they are at the mercy of white publicans.
Ken Parish seems to hint at the “underserving” welfare thesis so favoured by conservatives and neoliberals in this ethically bankrupt country, but I’d suggest much of Aboriginal policy in this country since Wik/Mabo hs been about denigrating indigenes to appeal to Hansonist base instincts for votes and secondly, for “developers” and their mates, collaborators like Noel Pearson, to get their hands on what little welfare and property rights are still within the reach of (culturally shattered) aborigines, for reasons relating to ideology and /or graft.

paul walter
paul walter
14 years ago

Jacques, you’re not seeing the big picture.
The narrative ignored in your view point occurs over two centuries, involves intense pressure on the Aboriginal population thru deculturing leading to a widespread traumatised state inthese people.
We are talking about (suffering) humans and humans do not deserve to be removed from (relative) safety and put into “anthropological zoos” on the fringes of townships, because this policy must conform with the gratuitously deceitful and selfish aspects of neoliberalism, no doubt revolving around tax cuts garnered from social policy to pay for white mortgage-belt credit card excesses, gym memberships, etc.
The indigenes have had enough of us. Handing the nation’s entire GNP over, for their compensation and betterment, would not begin to make up for the miseries and humiliations inflicted upon them.
F..k “development”!
This is an ethical issue, not more neolib thievery fobbed of as “development”.
But then what else can you expect from such a barbaric, narcissistic viewpoint, arguably emanating from a primitive pathological “lack” relating to precisely those characteristics that make humans human; empathy and comprehension.