I should concede that the analogy drawn in this post between Dave Tollner and Tony Abbott is an imperfect one (image from NT News)
Northern Territory politics is nearly always very silly but equally unfailingly highly entertaining. It was the inspiration for the “Troppo” in this blog’s name and is best explained or at least described by the combination of heat, humidity, rotting mangoes and associated insouciant mañana lifestyle that makes Territorians behave very strangely at times especially in the buildup and wet season. What with a very long wet buildup and an even wetter wet season, the opposition Country Liberal Party’s latest bout of infighting is a vintage example of the phenomenon.
Just 18 months ago most observers would have put the CLP at short odds-on to win government in a canter at the next election due in 2012. Labor appeared to be dead men walking to almost as great an extent as their NSW counterparts. Chief Minister Paul Henderson had opportunistically deposed the extraordinarily successful and popular Clare Martin by riding on the coat-tails of John Howard’s equally opportunistic attempt to create an electoral wedge by announcing the Indigenous Intervention on the patently spurious excuse that Martin had failed to move promptly to implement the Little Children Are Sacred recommendations which Howard and Mal Brough then proceeded to completely ignore anyway.
Hendo then narrowly survived the 2008 NT election that he had been expected to win easily, ending up governing with the narrowest possible majority of 13/12. Mild-mannered CLP Opposition Leader Terry Mills had almost led his party to a totally unexpected victory, a bit like Tony Abbott at federal level but without the bombast or budgie smugglers.
Then, after a bewildering series of soap opera Ministerial and Party resignations and temper tantrums, Hendo’s attenuated Labor team was reduced to just 12 rather puzzled and shell-shocked pollies in minority government with Independent and former chook farmer Gerry Wood.
Most people saw it as only a matter of time until Mills and the CLP took over. But they were wrong. Gerry Wood, despite an image as a conservative-leaning eccentric, proved to be a much more reliable ally for the ALP than most had expected. Probably more importantly, Hendo fluked on a master-stroke by appointing wise old apparatchik and senior public servant Dennis Bree as Secretary to Cabinet then seconding him as Chief of Staff. Bree imposed a sense of discipline and purpose that the Cabinet and Caucus hadn’t previously possessed even in Clare Martin’s halcyon days, although he has no doubt been helped by the party’s near death experience and the certain knowledge that one major slip means instant electoral annihilation.
However, this discipline born of desperation seems to have done the trick. Although the NT hasn’t been without ongoing public fiascos since then, most have been unresolved hangovers from the pre-Bree era. Since Bree was appointed Ministers have mostly stayed disciplined and on-message and previous cock-ups like the SIHIP program (a massive federally funded indigenous housing scheme under the post-Intervention Closing the Gap concept) have been progressively put back on track; a chaotic power system seems to have become more reliable; and the economy has largely recovered from the GFC, although tourism remains fairly subdued under the impact of a strong Australian dollar.
All in all, if the massive INPEX LNG project gets the final go-ahead later this year, you’d cautiously favour Labor to actually win the 2012 election fairly comfortably, an unimaginable outcome only a few short months ago. If a week is a long time in politics then 18 months is an eternity.
One strongly suspects that this astonishing reversal of apparent political fortune is playing a large part in the current CLP in-fighting. Terry Mills seemed unassailable 18 months ago, a quiet, nice bloke and just the sort of leader needed to run the “small target” strategy seemingly required to win the next election against a terminally unpopular government. Think Barry O’Farrell without the weight problem. These days Terry doesn’t come across as such a great bloke, mostly because he was prevailed upon by former federal Liberal President and deposed Chief Minister Shane Stone to demonstrate his toughness by running a dirty tricks stunt during last year’s federal campaign to force Lingiari federal candidate Leo Abbott to step aside so Mills could run a smear campaign based on beaten up domestic violence allegations against incumbent ALP Member for Solomon Damien Hale. Mills and Stone regarded Lingiari as unwinnable and Solomon as borderline but winnable if they pulled out all the stops including any semblance of honesty or party loyalty. They misjudged badly. Despite a dud candidate, the CLP actually won Solomon in a canter anyway purely on the national swing, while the party might well have actually won the previously super-safe Lingiari had Mills and Stone not done a hatchet job on Leo Abbott. Mills’ fortunes have been on the skids ever since, and numerous Party members especially in Alice Springs are after his political hide at any cost.
Seeking to capitalise on Mills’ misfortune are two oddly assorted leadership aspirants. Dave Tollner was the federal Member for Solomon until defeated by Damien Hale in 2007. Dave is succinctly described as a loud-mouthed, combative boofhead. Think Tony Abbott with substantially less brains and charisma. Tollner mounted a leadership challenge a few months ago but failed to do the numbers and ended up losing with only his own vote and that of Alice Springs-based MLA Adam Giles. According to veteran NT News political journo Nigel Adlam the numbers are a lot closer now, although you’d have to wonder whether Adlam is mostly just recycling Tollner’s backgrounding bullshit.
Deputy Leader John Elferink is the other reputed leadership aspirant. His public persona is a bit like that of Terry Mills but more accident-prone and not as immediately likeable. Arguably Elferink’s biggest political error was to mistake Parliament for a psychiatrist’s couch and unburden himself in graphic detail about his experiences as a victim of sexual abuse as a teenager. You’d have thought it might have elicited general sympathy and support but NT politics isn’t that sort of place. Labor Ministers Chris Burns and Kon Vatskalis had a wonderful time taking the mickey out of Elferink using props that included a very large sweet potato, until they were mildly chastised by the Speaker and made to promise never to do it again. I’d wager though that the fruit and veg will again be unsheathed if Elferink becomes Opposition Leader.
Mind you, Elferink’s own colleagues are no more discreet or compassionate. Amongst the extraordinary chain of emails leaked to Adlam recently and just published in the weekend’s NT News is one from a pseudonymous CLP member calling herself Pauline Harris and addressed to Elferink in reply to an equally intemperate email from him:
Please do not send such an appalling email again. We may not agree on anything but we should still respect one another at least. We aren’t animals.
Oh and when you said that you have four job offers from lawyers and we would be sent back to lower wages. Jam it up your backside with a tree branch. I would rather be on lower pay and happy than higher pay and work with you. No wonder your ratings go backwards everytime people meet you.
How did these highly entertaining emails come to leak, you may ask? A little bird tells me that Darwin rural area MLA Kezia Purick “accidentally” emailed the entire chain to every member of her Litchfield party branch, and one unidentified member then predictably leaked it to the NT News.
Oh yes, and if I’m any judge of linguistic style I reckon “Pauline Harris” is actually Kezia’s mum Noel (Padgham-Purick), a veteran Top End eccentric and goat farmer who was once a CLP minister until disendorsed and re-elected as an Independent from which position she irritated the CLP for years. It’s a fair bet that Kezia at least has joined the ranks of Tollner supporters among current CLP MLAs. Moreover, he might even be the best choice if they can find a Bree-like Wise Old Owl to keep Dave on a tight rein. The CLP certainly needs someone who can discomfort an increasingly confident Hendo and get under his skin as the Mad Monk did to a rampant Kevin Rudd.
PS None of the participants in the email exchange emerge with much credit. Elferink especially is diminished, not only as a result of “Pauline Harris’s” reframing but because of his evident lack of political smarts and interpersonal skills. Dave Tollner on the other hand might be a net beneficiary, which heightens the suspicion that it was an ally of his who leaked. Of course the exchange confirms that Tollner is gleefully undermining his leader, but we all knew that anyway. The leak, along with the backgrounding of the NT News’ Nigel Adlam on the alleged numbers in the parliamentary party, might conceivably bring the leadership issue to a head in this week’s CLP caucus meeting even though the party machine managed to keep a lid on things at the weekend Central Council meeting. Moreover, Tollner’s email reveals that he’s perhaps a little more thoughtful and analytical and not quite as complete a boofhead as he’s been painted. I opined only last Friday on ABC local radio that Tollner was no chance in a leadership challenge, but I’ve changed my mind. These are interesting and fluid times, at least in the CLP.
Meanwhile Hendo must be chortling complacently in his cornflakes. He need have no fear of a leadership challenge in the near future. Gerry Wood made continuance of Hendo’s leadership an express term of his support for the minority Labor government. Gerry is clearly unimpressed by ALP Deputy Chief Minister Delia Lawrie, the only plausible leadership contender. Gerry has kumbaya aspirations towards peace, love and understanding in Territory politics. Hendo has a more consultative style than Delia, who usually seems to favour a “take no prisoners” approach to most things