Marion Scrymgour is Australia’s most powerful Aboriginal politician. As Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister, along with several other minor Ministries, she has one of the toughest jobs in Paul Henderson’s single-seat majority NT Labor government.

But right now Scrymgour is fighting for her political life and credibility as a Minister, with real questions being asked about her fitness and capacity to continue as Education Minister. In the last 6 weeks she has summarily sacked her department’s CEO, announced a rushed and unpopular policy and faced relentless and sustained attacks from the media and in the parliament over her administration of education in the NT – particularly on what would be expected to be her particular strength – remote aboriginal community-based education.

On October 9 this year Scrymgour and the then Chief Executive Officer of her education department, Margaret Banks, met briefly as Scrymgour left to travel to Maningrida in her electorate of Arafura.

Banks didn’t know it at the time, and Scrymgour didn’t tell her, but she was firmly in the Minister’s sights.

As reported by Paul Toohey in The Australian the following week:

“Relations between Ms Scrymgour and Margaret Banks had been deteriorating for weeks. The minister told The Australian a fortnight ago she was headed for a “big stoush” with Ms Banks over what she perceived as a lack of ability in her department to deal with pressing issues involving remote-area education for Aboriginal children.”

Late on Thursday afternoon Banks was told that she no longer had the confidence of the Minister and that it was ‘time for her to go’.

Just 7 weeks previously, on 18 August, Scrymgour had re-appointed Banks to her position as CEO of her department.

And by the close of business on Friday October 10 Banks was gone. What was unclear was whether she retired, was sacked or resigned. She is now apparently serving out her time in Paul Henderson’s Chief Minister’s department.

Scrymgour told Parliament during a “Want of Confidence” motion against her in the NT Legislative Assembly on 22 October 2008:

“With regard to Ms Banks leaving…She was advised by the Territory’s most senior public servant, the Chief Executive of the Department of the Chief Minister, Mike Burgess, that as minister, I no longer had faith in her leadership of the agency. Simply put, she was advised her services were no longer required.”

ABC Local radio in Darwin asked Margaret Banks why she had been sacked:

“I wasn’t given any reason, there’s been information [that has] come out in the press afterwards; but if I could just correct some of the misinformation, I think you will see that there’s been a bit of a vacuum for me, in which I’ve had to operate.”

And NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson, Scrymgour’s boss and previous Education minister didn’t help with this statement to the local NT News that puts a particularly novel view of Ministerial responsibility under the Westminister system of parliamentary conventions:

“Mr Henderson admitted Ms Banks’s sacking could have been handled better. “I have to say it wasn’t ideal,” he said….”The buck stops with the Minister and, in the Westminister system, if there is a breakdown between the Minister and chief executive officer it’s appropriate that the CEO moves on.”

That’s not a version of Ministerial responsibility under the Westminster system that The Northern Myth learned during Constitutional law lectures all those years ago.

Scrymgour’s failure to clarify whether Margaret Banks retired, resigned or was sacked has left many people in the NT uncertain about the how and why of Banks’ termination and raises real questions about her performance and judgment as Minister.

Over the weekend of the 11th and 12th of October Scrymgour, her advisors and the Department were busy cobbling together a policy that required, in part, that from the first day of the school year 2009 the “…first four hours of education…will be conducted in English”.

That policy has caused grave concerns about the future of Aboriginal education in the bush and Scrymgour has since admitted that the policy was “…put together in the few days since Ms Banks’ departure.”

But Scrymgour’s current problems don’t end with a poorly-handled sacking and a flawed policy that is widely believed will kill off the long-established and valued  bilingual education programs in remote Aboriginal townships.

As Natasha Robinson reported in The Australian on November 20:

Ms Scrymgour – who faced a censure motion in parliament yesterday over her record as education minister – embroiled herself deeper in the messy beauty salon affair that may have been dismissed as trivial had it not been for her own convoluted explanation of why she was at Anita’s Beauty Salon in Darwin at 4.30pm on September 21.

It is trite to say that politics is a science based on negotiation and compromise but the real worry is that Scrymgour, with the help of poor or incompetent advice, has painted herself into a corner from which she cannot retreat, cannot negotiate and cannot compromise without a massive loss of face.

Michael Duffy, vice-president of the NT Council of Government Schools Organisations (COGSO) told Crikey:

“The sacking of Margaret Banks reflects resistance within government to both the style and content of Banks’ leadership, enabling the old departmental culture of blocking and gatekeeping to live on.

“Marion Scrymgour presides over a system that still doesn’t have a workable plan for remote education.

“She’s failed to engage or negotiate with school communities, most notably the remote Aboriginal schools.

“She blames Aboriginal parents for the ills of the system and Canberra for an imposed and unworkable solution to those ills. This reflects poor advice or an inadequate understanding of the complexities. Or both.

“Neither she nor the Government as a whole seem to be able to manage education effectively. The goodwill ran out some time ago and I think the education constituency is now running out of patience.”

John Greatorex has over 30 years of experience in bilingual education in the NT, including as a principal of Shepherdson College at Galiwinku in north-east Arnhem Land and told Crikey that:

“If a Minister for Education is unable or unwilling to consult with her constituents and honour community-government partnership agreements that she and her Department have put so much work into.

“If she makes decisions or announces policies that are not based on evidence, and misrepresents the data from research showing clearly that bilingual schools are more effective at teaching English than English only schools.

“How then will the community see her fitness to be a Minister for Education?”

And perhaps the greatest irony of Scrymgour’s current problems is that the clearest voice in this ugly business comes not from her own Labor party but from the man who came within a whisker of taking his party to the Government benches at the NT general election on 9 August of this year, just 9 days before Scrymgour re-appointed Margaret Banks as her CEO.

Before entering politics NT opposition leader Terry Mills spent 17 years as a teacher and administrator.

On the last day of the NT Parliament for 2008 he spoke at some length on an Adjournment Debate about the current dilemmas that Scrymgour has bought upon herself.

I think Mills’ measured and informed comments deserve to be quoted at length.

Mills told the NT Legislative Assembly that:

In my view, minister Scrymgour’s announcement concerning bilingual education is, sadly, more tinkering for effect rather than a reform to change and is, in fact, a betrayal of children, those who most need honest and courageous leadership.

An education system has at its core three primary elements – qualified teachers, an effective curriculum, an appropriate facility. The minister for Education’s announcement of English focus policy for instruction relates to curriculum and how it is taught. Implied in the Deputy Chief Minister’s announcement is that bilingual education is a significant cause of the abysmal failure to achieve results in remote education, perhaps deliberately allows that message to run or that implication to run.

An indigenous teacher of 32 years’ experience, Yolma (sic) Yunupingu, is right when she describes this policy position as both threadbare and clumsy, it warrants closer inspection. Notwithstanding that the announcement is a reversal of long standing Labor policy and announced without adequate consultation, the approach is clumsy in a number of substantive ways. It fails to substantiate that bilingual education is, in fact, a problem. Proposing a cure without understanding the cause would be extremely dangerous in medicine, and it is equally so in education.

Worse than this, the minister for Education fails to accurately, and I think perhaps deliberately, I hope it is deliberately, because it would be perhaps worse if she does not actually understand the difference between two approaches in bilingual education – fails to accurately reflect what is meant by bilingual education, and made the attempt even today to try to create some kind of division on the issue of bilingual education – a couple of statements that have been made in this Chamber. What for? Is that of any assistance to those young ones who are trying to learn to read, and those ones who are trying to help them?

Some approach bilingual education as a means to preserve the mother tongue, by aiming to develop proficiency in two languages and cultural world views at the end of formal education. Perhaps the minister believes this is the approach taken in most of the remote schools. That is the objective. Well, if that is the case, the minister is ill informed.

The common practice is to develop proficiency in English. That is the objective, to be able to teach proficiency in English through the mother tongue. This approach is concentrated in the early years of schooling, probably better referred to as teaching English as a second language. This approach both values the language that is spoken at home and links the community to the school. However, the aim of this approach is to most effectively teach English. There is evidence to indicate that this approach is superior to the English only approach, where you remove that connection with the community and you are making comment on their own language.

It is my firm view that it is neither the responsibility, nor the capacity of the education system to aim to develop proficiency in both English and the first language. It is the responsibility of our education system to graduate students who are proficient in English. Even a rudimentary grasp of language learning recognises that words convey more than letters on a page, but also concepts and ideas. Effective instruction links the known to the unknown. The place this translation occurs in language is in the first years of school when the foundations are laid. If you do not lay those foundations in early childhood, you will labour, sadly in vain, as we see the results all the way through the system if you cannot get it right in those early years. In fact, there is a capacity, a magical capacity to learn language in those first years and how hard would it be if you ignore or do not take that opportunity to translate a concept of an idea in early years from the language that is spoken into English, so that we can establish a solid foundation upon which to build proficiency in English.

I am convinced that these foundations cannot be effectively laid without reference to the language that is spoken at home. This is in the early childhood years. For those who have spent time in early childhood, you will know what I mean. That is why I support the use of the first language in the first three years of formal learning. Maybe some with a good grasp of English, but do not understand how language is taught or learnt, even in any of our schools in the suburbs, will applaud the sentiment of the minister, because we all want our children to do well. They will think, yes, that sounds good and I have this discussion with people. That sounds good, they say, but they do not understand what is being said and I think they are being conned.

To support the sentiment expressed by the minister without an understanding of how language is learnt nor an appreciation of the task of the early childhood teacher, who is charged with society’s most noble task, teaching a child to read and write, is wrong, and amounts to a betrayal.
The task of teaching is difficult enough and more so when the bridge between the first language and English is removed. It is across that bridge that understanding must pass. That is the purpose of it. The purpose of this approach is to ensure that English is taught. I urge the minister to re-consider and to dig a little more deeply when we are discussing these matters, because there is a line in the middle. I believe it is time for some real leadership and to ensure that those who are lifting the heavy load out there in those communities, are given proper support and we bring to the fore the evidence that surrounds this issue so that once and for all we can work together to ensure that we build stronger foundations so that we have a greater capacity for the speaking of English with our young kids in the remote communities.

Earlier this week I put the following questions to Minister Scrymgour:

Question 1 – The employment of former NT Education Department CEO Margaret Banks from that position was terminated on or about either Friday 10 October 2008 or Monday 13 October 2008. In relation to that termination and Ms Banks’ subsequent employment can the Minister respond to the following questions:

(a) – Please confirm the last date of Ms Banks’ employment as Education Department CEO;

(b) – Minister Scrymgour has informed Parliament that Ms Banks is now engaged at the Department of the Chief Minister. When did Ms Banks commence employment there and for how long will she be engaged in that employment?

(c) – At what Executive level and remuneration is Ms Banks currently employed?

(d) – Please advise of her substantive or temporary position name and description.

(e) – Please advise of the date of the NT Government Gazette Notice that effected the change in circumstances in Ms Banks’ employment and a copy of that Notice if possible.

Question 2 – On 18 August 2008 Minister Scrymgour appointed Ms Banks to the position of CEO of the Education Department – see following extract from NT Government Gazette of 27 August 2008:

“Public Sector Employment and Management Act
apointment of chief executive oficer
I, THOMAS IAN PAULING, Administrator of the Northern Territory of Australia, acting with the  advice of the Executive Council, under section 19(2) of the Public Sector Employment
and Management Act, appoint Margaret Banks to be the Chief Executive Officer of the Department of Education and Training from the date of this instrument.
Dated 18th August, 2008.
T. I. PAULING
Administrator
By His Honour’s Command
M. SCRYMGOUR
Minister for Education
and Training
3/34”

(a) – Please advise as to why Ms Banks was appointed on that day and the circumstances of and period of that appointment;

Question 3 – Please advise (in overall or ‘ballpark’ terms) the total cost of the development and implementation of the several Regional Learning Partnership Agreements (RLPAs) in the NT;

(a) – How many of the RLPAs are proposed and how many have been finalised?

(b) – Can the Minister confirm recent reports that she advised one group of signatories to a finalised agreement that she reserved the right to unilaterally alter the terms of their agreement and that the RLPAs were not ‘legally binding’ on her or the Education Department – particularly in relation to terms in that agreement that related to bilingual education?

(c) – Please advise of the current status of other RLPAs and when they are expected to be finalised.

Yesterday the Minister’s Chief Advisor, Mr Jamie Gallacher, responded through the Minister’s Media Advisor as follows:

“Mr Gallacher has advised that we will not be providing a response he said,

‘We do not answer questions from bloggers on random electronic gossip sites —
The Minister’s office deals with reputable media outlets.'”