A tropical night in Darwin and another failed political coup

keziaThere has been yet another failed political coup in Darwin overnight, with the minority CLP government failing to carry a motion to sack Independent (and erstwhile CLP) Speaker Kezia Purick.

Keen watchers of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera known as Territory politics will recall the failed CLP leadership coup early this year when nine of (then) 14 CLP members met secretly late at night and elected a new leader/Chief Minister in Willem Westra Van Holte to replace the deeply unpopular Adam Giles (who wasn’t present and wasn’t told about the meeting).  But Giles refused to go, the Administrator declined to appoint Van Holte as the new Chief Minister,  a couple of Giles cronies threatened to cross the floor and vote for a no confidence motion if the majority plotters persisted in trying to replace Giles, and so the plotters backed down.

Now an equally farcical failed coup has played itself out on the floor of the Legislative Assembly late last night, with the CLP government attempting unsuccessfully to remove the Speaker Kezia Purick and substitute one of their own MLAs. Purick was one of numerous CLP defector Independents who collectively transformed the Country Libs from a government with a more than comfortable majority to a shambolic minority rabble.  The most recent defector was Speaker Purick who quit over a range of issues mostly revolving around the corruption of planning issues in the rural area she represents.

The government didn’t seek to remove Purick as Speaker because they didn’t have the numbers anyway and because she had initially indicated that she would not support a no confidence motion in the government (and until now she hasn’t).

However the picture changed yesterday. The CLP appears to have done a deal of sorts with an earlier defector in Arnhem Independent MLA Larissa Lee who, along with fellow Indigenous MLAs Alison Anderson and Francis Xavier (the latter subsequently un-defected and rejoined the CLP), had resigned from the Party in the first part of 2014.  They were the first to quit the Country Libs in high dudgeon, then joined the wild bush horses Palmer United Party from which they also later defected to sit again as Independents.  It had been rumoured for weeks that Lee had done a deal with the CLP and yesterday it seemed to be true when she voted with the government to gag debate on a motion moved by Speaker Purick, as a just posted NT News story recounts:

Ms Purick, acting as the independent Member for Goyder and not Speaker, moved to refer controversial NT Government attack ads to the Parliamentary Privileges Committee Tuesday afternoon on the grounds that they were political in nature and paid for with taxpayer money, against political advertising rules.

Purick had not only moved the motion but also indicated that her continuing support for the minority Giles government was contingent on its “coming clean” about the apparent deal with Larissa Lee.  She also allowed (over strident but ineffectual objections from CLP Leader of Business John Elferink) a Public Accounts Committee report to be tabled that was highly critical of complete lack of consultation and planning in relation to the government’s $20 million proposal to redevelop Richardson Park at inner suburban Ludmilla as a purpose-built rugby league stadium.  True fanatics might like to read this PDF extract of the debate on the Richardson Park PAC report.

It appears that these disturbing manifestations of Speakerly independence by Purick were the last straw for Giles and his (sometimes reluctant) government cronies. Despite denying that there was any deal at all with Larissa Lee it appears that Giles did think they had a deal with Lee because they moved a motion late last night to sack her as Speaker, something they would not have done unless they thought they had the numbers to stave off a no confidence motion without her vote.  Unfortunately someone appears to have stuffed up the numbers on the motion to sack the Speaker, because it failed!!

Crikey blogger and local lawyer Bob Gosford recounts the events:

Bob Gosford’s story of failed coup against Speaker

Kezia Purick has been–until early this morning at least–a popular and more-than-competent Speaker of the NT Legislative Assembly. But in a close-to-midnight move by the Leader of Government Business, John Elferink, the CLP tried to get Purick removed as Speaker for apparent non-compliance with the standards expected of the Speaker of an Australian Parliament.

In support of his motion Elferink told the Assembly that:

… it has become increasingly evident with the passage of time that such impartiality one would expect from a Speaker has not been coming from the Chair either inside or outside the House.  It is not unusual for you to make a number of Facebook posts during the course of the sitting day and at other times.  You make many Facebook posts and I would care to give you a number of examples.  On 24 April 2015, you reflected on the member for Fong Lim in relation to urban blocks and then stridently criticised a member of this House.  Also on the 14 September 2015, you stridently criticised government, and on other occasions you have chosen to reflect on members of this House, government members and other members, thus raising the doubt of your partisanship in this house.

Apart from the apparent outrage at Purick’s talent with a tweet it appears that the real source of the CLP’s outrage at Purick’s conduct was that she had the temerity to, in her capacity as the Member for Goyder, propose a reference to the parliamentary privileges committee in relation to a series of government advertisements in the local NT News that criticised Labor and the independents for failing to support a bill to combat the trafficking of methamphetamines into the NT.

Purick told the Assembly that:

The members who voted against the motion to suspend standing orders did not vote against the second reading of the bill. To claim they did so is misleading the community at large and to frame the advertisements, as they have, the responsible person has attempted to interfere with the orderly business of the members of this Assembly and attempted to obstruct those named members in the course of their duty. Publication of the material, which is aimed at unduly influencing a member and disruption of a member in their role, is a possible contempt of this Assembly.

John Elferink then moved that debate on the Purick’s motion be adjourned, and, with the surprise support of independent MLA Larisa Lee, that motion was successful. Lee, who defected from the CLP to Clive Palmer’s PUP party in April 2014, said at the time  that:

If we are going to walk out, that is going to be the proudest moments of our lives, to leave the Country Liberal Party, because we are not breast-plated niggers.”

At around 11pm last evening Elferink tabled a Motion that sought:

… that so much of standing orders be suspended as would allow me to move the following motion and subsequently have the question determined:

1.       that the Speaker is removed from office by the Legislative Assembly in accordance with Section 24(2)(d) of the Northern Territory Self Government Act 1978

2.       that a new Speaker be elected pursuant to Standing Order 7.

Then followed several hours of heated debate into the wee small hours of this morning.

Long story short is that, again with the support of Larisa Lee, the CLP was successful in having standing orders suspended. The Assembly proceeded to a vote on the substantive issue that a new Speaker be elected. Labor proposed Purick for the position and the CLP proposed Member for Greatorex, Matt Conlan. On the numbers it seemed to all present that Purick was for the jump.

But the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley …

It seems there was a rat–or at least a mouse–in the CLP ranks. Kezia Purick was re-elected 13 votes to 12 as Speaker of the NT Legislative Assembly and she was led back to the Speaker’s chair to the cheers of Labor and the independents.

They don’t call it the troppo season up here for nothing. Watch this space.

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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