For anyone familiar with the chaos that is Northern Territory politics right now the notion that the “gang of three” members of the Legislative Assembly — Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu, Alison Anderson and Larisa Lee above — who are cited as “holding a gun” to the head of Adam Giles and his Country Liberal Party government have any credibility may seem more than a little far-fetched.
But their core grievance — that the CLP governments of Terry Mills (2012-13) and Giles (March 2013 to perhaps not much longer) have done nothing for the bush electorates that gifted the CLP power in August 2012 — is essentially correct. There is no shortage of locals that will agree with that premise.
Notwithstanding a derisory attempt to rebut their claims by Infrastructure Minister Peter Styles, Giles has had the appearance of a kangaroo in the beam of a roo-shooter’s spotlight for the last two weeks of what can only be described as the lowest point in the history of democracy in the NT.
The lowest, that is, since the chaos Anderson inflicted upon this most immature of Australian polities when she ran away from the then Labor Party NT government led by Paul Henderson in August 2009 following an allegedly “racist” article in the local NT News.
Labor survived. Just. Rebel MLA Marion Scrymgour, who had gone to the cross-benches in June 2009, returned to the Labor fold and Henderson ran a minority government with independent Gerry Wood through to August 2012, when the CLP regained power.
It is useful to compare Anderson’s comments about her treatment by Henderson’s Labor in 2009 and the Giles CLP government in 2014. Here is what Anderson thought of Henderson and his government:
“I will not stand by a leader and a party that fails to defend me when the race card is played.
“I see very well that Territory Labor is no longer the best friend of Aboriginal politicians and Aboriginal voters. Labor only came to power with black votes, and only stays there with black votes.”
Five years on she appears more forgiving of NT Labor, but damns the Country Liberal Party. This is Anderson from an ABC report on March 29:
“I’ve never seen anything like it. Like I said, I’ve been with Heckle and I’ve been with Jeckle. And I think we’ve always been sort of safe with Labor.
“They’ve got that social conscience and they want to do things for Aboriginal people, but if ever I’ve met a racist group of people, I’ve met them in the Country Liberal Party.”
The gang of three’s claims that at least some in the CLP — and by extension the Giles government — are racist is bolstered by comments from Priscilla Collins, CEO of the NT’s leading Aboriginal legal aid provider, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency:
“There’s a lot of legislation that the Government has put in that targets Aboriginal people. Things like the alcohol mandatory treatment and alcohol protection orders, the list just keeps going on, and incarceration rates just keep going through the roof.
“When you’ve got over 80% of people in jail who are Aboriginal, then that’s really targeting Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.”
Following the CLP’s success at the August 2012 election — where the power of the Aboriginal vote in the bush was trumpeted from the rooftops by conservative columnists across the land — Anderson was appointed as Minister for Indigenous Advancement and Regional Development. Anderson — and newly elected colleagues Larisa Lee, Bess Price and Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu — were key supporters of then chief minister Mills, though as Paul Toohey pointed out in a perceptive article in this weekend’s NT News, Anderson had apparently backed CLP “cleanskin” Peter Styles.
After Mills’ unceremonious dumping by the CLP in March 2013, Giles gave Anderson the portfolios of Children and Families, Regional Development, Women’s Policy and Local Government, all portfolios where she at least had the opportunity of making an impact on indigenous disadvantage, particularly in the bush.
Rumours of tension between Giles and Anderson during this period were rife, not least because of her lingering anger over her description of him as a “little boy” in the weeks prior to the coup that ousted Mills. In September 2013 Anderson was dumped by Giles and left as little more than a footnote to Giles’ announcement of his new cabinet.
By December the rumours of a Mills comeback — with the much-heralded and still-loyal “bush members” as key supporters — were rife. One scenario was that Mills would be re-installed as chief minister by March 2014 — there was frantic number-crunching afoot — and that if this did not occur that the bush members, as a bloc, would walk to form a new party. Or join Maurie Japarta Ryan’s nascent First Nations Party.
Reality — and Mills’ “shock” resignation from the NT parliament on February 20 — cruelled the first of those options. And notwithstanding Ryan’s offer, it is hard to see Anderson and the rest of her gang joining a party that has never won a seat in an election.
The past 20 months of CLP rule in the NT have seen a struggling government — Mills’ — replaced by a Giles-led government riven with in-fighting and indecision.
Word on the street among grieving CLP loyalists is that the Giles government was a “60/40” government: spending 60% of their time looking over their shoulders at what Mills and his supporters were — or might be — up to and 40% of their time trying to govern. Business — large and small — is desperately unhappy and word is that the old guard of the CLP has given up and will let the cards — and the Giles government — fall where they may.
Country Liberal Party elder — and for mine the best leader of the CLP in the 30 years I’ve lived here — Shane Stone is scathing in his assessment of Giles and his government. In early March, speaking on the eve of the launch of his memoir My Story, he told The Australian that the Giles government was in real trouble and needed to “kick some goals”.
“I think this government is struggling because its members are preoccupied with themselves … The Chief Minister, Adam Giles, is leading the government nowhere … when you get the sense nothing is happening and time’s running out, someone has to say something.”
Where to now for the Giles government? The options are limited and almost all out of their hands.
Assuming that Alison Anderson, Larisa Lee and Francis Xavier leave — or are ejected from the CLP in the next week or so — the next crucial date is April 12, the byelection for Mills’ old seat of Blain. The CLP have a notional majority of 13% in Blain but that appears to be diminishing by the day and Labor stands a better than evens chance of taking it.
If Labor takes Blain and the CLP lose the gang of three to the crossbenches then Giles will need to form a minority government with independent MLA Gerry Woods to survive. Woods has been there before — in 2009 he supported Labor because his primary consideration was the stability of any future government.
But Henderson’s Labor in 2009 and the Giles CLP government of 2014 are very different political creatures and Wood may think it better that the Territory head off to a general election to sort out the current — and likely future — chaos. But Wood keeps his cards close to his chest and many think he would support the incumbent government.
If a general election were held in the next few months it is difficult to see the CLP offering any comfort to an electorate that has watched the blood sport that CLP politics has been for the last 20 months. They would almost certainly lose all of the valued bush seats (most of whom, apart from Anderson, are on skinny majorities) and would most likely also lose seats in the major towns.
* Correction. In an earlier version of this piece I had the Blain by-election as being held on 14 April. It is of course on Saturday 12 April 2014.