The Northern Territory Country Liberals’ early start to election campaigning looks to be just as chaotic as the rest of its term of government. The last month of taxpayer-funded blatantly party political advertising doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on voters, except perhaps to reinforce existing perceptions of blatant “snouts in the trough” behaviour. Of course Labor did pretty much the same thing when it was in government, but arguably not quite as blatantly. The CLP advertising fairly clearly breaches section 6 of the Public Information Act, which is contravened by “information” which “promotes particular party political interests; includes statements that are misleading or factually inaccurate; or does not clearly distinguish a statement of facts from a statement of comments.
Historically the Auditor-General hasn’t been especially diligent in finding breaches of the Act, but this morning’s effort may change that. Demonising Labor and the Independents for daring to deny urgency to a Bill that clearly wasn’t urgent, and listing the names of those MLAs alongside those of the CLP MLAs who supported urgency is just about as clear an example of promoting particular party political interests as it is possible to imagine.
Given that the Bill was proposing to boost police powers to search vehicles for drugs (especially ice) on public highways, presumably the CLP’s strategy is to wedge the ALP by painting it as soft on law and order. However, given that the Bill wasn’t urgent on any sensible view and clearly has a significant effect on ordinary citizens’ freedoms, it certainly needed to be subjected to at least ordinary levels of Parliamentary scrutiny.
Moreover, the Bill will probably be supported by the ALP anyway when it comes to a vote in November. Any momentary perception that Labor might be soft on crime will not only disappear but almost certainly be outweighed by reinforcement of the already strong perception that the CLP government is habitually contemptuous of ordinary proper processes of government and is rorting the public purse for its own private advantage. It is not unlikely that this unfortunate result will be compounded some time much closer to the election by an adverse report by the Auditor-General concluding that the Public Information Act was indeed breached. This is just dumb politics.
Meanwhile, that fiasco was exacerbated by a parliamentary “own goal” by Attorney-General John Elferink late last week, when he responded in Parliament to repeated silly and deliberately provocative interjections by Labor’s Natasha Fyles by saying irritatedly that he was “really tempted to give her a slap right now, figuratively speaking”. It’s obvious from viewing the video of the incident, and an earlier one involving Labor’s Lynne Walker, that Labor went into the House with a premeditated tactic of trying to provoke the Elf into an ill-advised outburst.
As The Sunday Territorian’s Ben Smee observed yesterday: “But in the media, it’s openly discussed how easily he can be pushed off message – to the point of saying something politically dumb – when a question riles him up.”
Labor’s tactic certainly succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, with the Elf forced to apologise, sacked as an “Ambassador” by the anti-domestic violence body White Ribbon Australia, and subjected to a pantomime performance by a delegation of Labor and CLP defector women MLAs feigning outrage at the Elf’s “bullying”. The fact that the Elf is a decent bloke and anything but a bully, that his stupid remark in context clearly wasn’t an act of bullying anyway (just dumb), and that manifestly neither Fyles nor Walker actually felt bullied, are all irrelevant. In politics perception is everything, and the Elf is undoubtedly currently seen by many as a ham-fisted bully condoning domestic violence by careless remarks. Moreover, the whole melodrama completely derailed last week’s CLP attempt to wedge Labor as soft on crime.
In a broader sense I doubt that there is any percentage in trying to wedge the ALP on law and order issues. Labor proved adept at beating the law and order drum themselves when in government, and with a right-leaning Caucus under Michael Gunner the Opposition is unlikely to have any pangs of conscience about matching and even outbidding any “tough on crime” initiative the CLP trots out.
On the other hand, the long-mooted Darwin Port privatisation appears to present massive potential for successfully wedging Labor. It also happens to be potentially a key aspect of stimulating sustainable economic growth and development in the Territory. While there is nothing inherently superior about private over public management of a monopoly facility like the Darwin Port, privatisation presents the opportunity for a new operator to introduce state-of-the-art computerisation and robot technology, thereby probably cutting its workforce in half or better, and achieving massive savings (as Patrick recently did in Sydney). That would potentially deliver significantly lower port charges and freight rates, which would in turn lead to higher levels of rail and sea freight through Darwin (although charges were actually increased late last year, possibly in an attempt to generate a higher sale price). The much-touted but largely unrealised Australia-Asia Freight Link vision promoted as a rationale for the Darwin-Alice Springs Railway almost 20 years ago might finally become a reality. On the other hand, it may well be that the freight task will never be big enough to justify the necessary spending, and that it will always remain one of those pie-in-the-sky failed dreams that have sadly been typical of efforts to “develop the north”.
In immediate political terms, the privatisation would give the CLP an unparalleled opportunity to wedge the ALP. Labor simply could not support (or promise) privatisation of the Port without radically antagonising its union supporters. On the other hand the Giles government could legitimately (or at least plausibly) promise to use the proceeds of sale to fund massive and electorally attractive spending programs on tourism, development and public infrastructure, just as the Baird government in New South Wales recently ran a successful election strategy on promising to sell electricity infrastructure the proceeds of which are to be used to fund huge motorway and suburban rail projects.
Of course, actually coming up with credible, useful and electorally attractive projects that stack up on a cost/benefit basis may not be quite as easy as it sounds, especially for a government that seems to have a talent for making a mess of things. Nevertheless, this would be a re-election strategy with a lot more promise than silly half-baked laura norder stunts. I don’t understand why the Giles government hasn’t already begun cranking up the process of putting the Port up for sale or long-term lease.
Maybe nervous nellies are worried that they’ll cop a public backlash similar to the one over TIO privatisation last year. That’s certainly a risk, but I suspect few people have the sort of affection for the Port that they inexplicably had for the TIO. They will certainly need to ensure that an adequate program for retraining and helping displaced port workers to find new employment is promised and delivered, otherwise a job security scare campaign by Labor could well succeed. Nevertheless, a decent salesperson shouldn’t have any difficulty selling the potential virtues of port privatisation and automation as the key driver of NT growth, development and jobs. That might be the real problem. Do they actually have a decent salesperson? Oh for a clone of Malcolm Turnbull!
On Labor’s side, do they have anyone who understands the nature of the threat and is capable of formulating and explaining/selling an alternative vision of achieving necessary efficiencies for the Port of Darwin under continued public ownership?