Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911
As true as that hundred-year-old observation of the nature of men and their affairs in the United States was so it is too for the Northern Territory today. And no greater proof of the universality of Bierce’s satirical—but nonetheless accurate—observation is needed than a dip into the pages of what for mine is the finest—and undoubtedly the laughing-out-loud funniest—book of the year that will be the stuffing in many a Christmas stocking this season. A great read for the beach, the hammock or those boring overs at the cricket.
For the Country Liberal Party—the Northern Territory’s own and a party with a self-proclaimed right to rule—it all started with so much promise just four short years ago when Terry Mills led his party back to power after eleven years in the wilderness of opposition. But even in that first flush of victory, seasoned observers and party insiders were worried that the CLP was unprepared for a return to government and was already riven, like termite-rotted wood, with indecision, rank incompetence and internal jealousies that had the new government all-but-doomed from the start.
Now the public blood sport that was the Terry Mills / Adam Giles governments has been laid bare by Ben Smee, deputy editor at the NT News and his senior political writer, Christopher A. Walsh in a book that documents, in excruciating detail, the tepid rise and self-inflicted fall of the worst Australian government—bar none—in living memory.
Crocs in the Cabinet. Northern Territory politics: An instruction manual on how NOT to run a government may have a clunky title and a cheesy cover but it makes up for those minor flaws in spades with the telling of a gripping tale of … well, I can do no better than this grab from the Authors’ Note:
This book is about the fall of an empire – about the power struggles and missteps and flawed characters that took the CLP from the Northern Territory’s dominant political force to near extinction, from an election win in 2012 to holding just two seats in Parliament four years later. As the empire crumbled, the internecine nature of Darwin’s elite society was laid bare. The carnage exposed a sort of frontier Gotham City; corrupted by an interconnected web of public service fiefdoms, lawyers, judges, police, politicians, businesspeople and the media.
Smee and Walsh note that the CLP’s parliamentary wing had no firm factions but, at least before it started shedding members like a dog with too many fleas, consisted of sixteen factions of one.
… at least seven of them made leadership bids in some form or another … seven of the original sixteen MLAs resigned from the party. There were eighteen Cabinet reshuffles and eight different deputy leaders, most of them forced out through resignations or sackings
The fishbowl nature of NT politics and journalism—and the minuscule size and occasionally toxic and grog-fuelled character of what passes for local political elites—means that writing politics in the NT can sometimes be a dangerous gig. Journalists get the cold shoulder one minute and a shoulder-charge the next. Trusted sources dry up because of threats and bullying and favouritism and paranoia rule, particularly when the public service is treated with contempt by a government seemingly as fixed upon leaking against itself than running the Territory.
Towards the end, the Giles government (March 2013 to August 2016) Cabinet, according to Smee and Walsh had just gone MAD:
… was held together not by alliances or relationships of mutual respect, but by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Forget the media or the opposition: ministers were more terrified of salacious information turning up in the hands of their colleagues.
Many in The South regard the NT News with a begrudging contempt that cannot see past the regular stream of crocs, dick jokes, masturbating pollies (and drivers) and mango-madness that fills much of the Territory’s only daily newspaper. What they fail to grasp is that—and I’ve been called out for saying this before—the NT News (and its sister the Sunday Territorian) serve as the NT’s journals of political record.
Crocs in the Cabinet is proof, if it was ever needed, that Smee, Walsh and their colleagues at the NT News bat well above Darwin’s hot and sweaty weight, no less so because much of the book consists of their daily news pieces, columns and editorials written during the CLP’s latest run at government from 2012 to 2016.
One failing of the daily grind of journalism is that sometimes the threads that weave a whole cloth of a story together are spread across months, if not years. Crocs in the Cabinet draws those threads together into a coherent and highly entertaining account of the Mills and Giles governments that in its death throes:
… provided a script of high farce, a fall-of-Rome epic of backstabbing and buffoonery.
But back to Ambrose Bierce’s observations on the fundamental corrupting nature of politics.
Here is Smee and Walsh on the final days of the fall-of-Rome-on-the-Arafura-Sea:
The Country Liberals had a great time in government over the past four years at public expense, and their excesses, poor judgement and bad decisions had finally caught up with them … No more cowboys. No more ‘little boys’. No more crocs in the Cabinet.
Crocs in the Cabinet. Northern Territory politics an instruction manual on how NOT to run a government. by Ben Smee and Christopher A. Walsh. Hachette Australia. Publication Date: 29/11/2016
Ben Smee is the Deputy Editor of the NT News. He won a Walkley Award in 2014 for his coverage of Northern Territory politics during stints as the paper’s Chief Political Reporter and Head of News. Ben is also the 2015 NT Journalist of the Year. He previously worked for the Newcastle Herald where he won awards for his investigations and news coverage, including being selected as a finalist for Walkley Young Australian Journalist of the Year in 2009. Crocs in the Cabinet is Ben’s first book. He lives in Darwin.
Christopher A Walsh is an award-winning political journalist with the NT News. A native of Canada, his work has appeared in a variety of publications there, covering everything from the east coast carnival to politics across the country. His first book, Under the Electric Sky, was an Atlantic Book Award finalist for Best Literary Non-fiction. From the carnival of Canada to the circus of NT politics, he is currently based in Darwin.