No merry Christmas in NT with Labor
One of a trio of dumped Northern Territory Labor Government members has said that there had been a “concerted effort” to drive them out of the party, with damaging email leaks manufactured by Government advisors.
Living in their own little thought bubbles, Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner and his band of cut-throat followers again demonstrate to Australian voters Labor’s rulebook of political behaviour. The rules are the same throughout all tiers of Labor administration. You could say it is a no prisoners taken ethos—slithering about on dark nights, back-stabbings, lies and deceit and a disconnect from reality, not to mention financial vandals. Hmm, strikingly similar to their counterpart, the Coalition!
Aboriginal Affairs and Primary Industry and Resources Minister Ken Vowles, Assistant Minister Jeff Collins and backbencher Scott McConnell were ejected from the Labor Caucus on Friday after a series of leaked emails earlier this week exposed dissent within the party regarding the NT’s ballooning debt and how the Government is handling it.
Northern Territory Labor ‘manufactured’ leaks to drive out dissenters over budget crisis, politician says
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the three were dismissed for “breaking the caucus values and standards signed up to at the beginning of our term”.
“I think there’s been a concerted effort against Ken [Vowles] in particular for some time, and I think there’s a fear amongst the leadership group about Ken and his capabilities,” Mr Collins told the ABC on Saturday.
A confidential letter Mr Vowles sent to the Northern Land Council regarding a decision made about fishing at Blue Mud Bay was also leaked recently, following a long-running standoff about non-traditional owners having access to intertidal fishing zones.
In the letter, he offered a $10 million package to buy out commercial fishing licenses, and he said Alf Leonardi, Mr Gunner’s powerful chief of staff, had wanted the letter leaked.
“I said no don’t do that,” Mr Vowles told the ABC in a statement on Saturday.
“Then an hour after sending the email with the offer to the NLC from my office it was on the NT News website. Only five people had that email. Me, my chief of staff, Leanne my media adviser, Alf and Michael.”
He said the NLC leak was engineered to separate the Government from the NLC.
“It was about ensuring the boat owners in Palmerston knew it was all about the NLC blocking them out [from fishing areas] not the government,” Mr Vowles said.
“Once again, to be re-elected and not respecting the NLC and the rights of traditional owners.”
Mr Collins said he firmly believed the correspondence was leaked, “so as to discredit Ken and try and bring on this type of dispute”.
“I have no doubt that was why the emails were leaked as well … to manufacture this sort of dispute so this sort of action can be taken to remove Ken, Scott, and myself form the caucus,” he said.
Fifteen of Labor’s 18 caucus members attended a meeting on Friday in which the motion to expel the three members was moved and passed.
Mr Vowles said he was banned from attending by the Chief Minister, “denying me procedural fairness and natural justice to defend myself in caucus”.
Leaks did not come from Labor: Gunner
During a press conference in Darwin, Mr Gunner apologised to Territorians, but said he was “not responsible for the actions of those three members this week”.
He said the Labor Caucus unanimously voted to expel the three members.
“It should come as no surprise to anyone that if you can’t support the leader, if you undermine the deputy and question her ability to do her job, if you walk away from caucus and cabinet solidarity and those caucus values that we share, that you are no longer part of our Government team,” he said.
He said the Government had agreed when it was elected in a landslide in 2016 that there would be no public sniping, and that it would not focus on itself at the expense of constituents.
Mr Vowles, Mr Collins, and Mr McConnell breached that agreement, he said, but denied he was throwing the three men’s constituents under the bus with their sacking.
“I think we’ve made the best decision for Territorians by making sure we have a united Government and that’s the best way we can make sure we deliver for all Territorians in all 25 seats … not just those who have members who happen to be in Government,” Mr Gunner said.
He denied that the leaked emails and letter came from Labor, and he denied that Mr Leonardi made his decisions for him, saying that he took advice from many people.
‘I have confidence in our economy’
If the three men are dumped from the Labor Party completely, as Mr Vowles has said he expects his colleagues will try to do, Mr Collins said it would be an “extraordinary” attempt.
“It would be setting an incredibly dangerous precedent for Labor parties and Labor governments around the country to talk about expelling members simply because you had a difference of opinion? That’s outrageous,” Mr Collins said.
He said none of the three had voted against the Government.
The damaging independent audit of the NT’s financial position was released on Friday 14 December, before the Chief Minister flew to New Zealand for a hiking holiday with his wife.
Why is the NT in so much debt?
Hearing senior Treasury staff describe the Northern Territory’s budget as being in “dire straits” is the bureaucratic equivalent to saying, “we’re stuffed”.
Mr Gunner did not front the media that day, leaving it to his deputy and Treasurer Nicole Manison to break the news to the public before Christmas that the audit projected the NT’s $3 billion deficit would increase tenfold to $35.7 billion in 2029-30.
“We simply expressed our concern about the state of the budget and how we go about dealing with that problem, and personally I made a simple comment about, ‘if I were leader I would have fronted the media on Friday’,” Mr Collins said.
“That’s the extent of my crime, and I’ve been expelled from the Labor Caucus for the remainder of the term.”
When asked if he regretted going on holidays right after the independent report was made public, Mr Gunner said only that his Government had a plan for fiscal repair and that he was completely confident in Ms Manison’s abilities to lead it.
“I have confidence in our economy, I can see those major projects on the horizon — whether it’s the Defence infrastructure spend, Project Sea Dragon, space bases, onshore oil and gas — there’s a range of major projects coming,” he said.
“The challenge we face as a Government is holding the structural integrity of the economy together, essentially, for those major projects to start up.
He said the biggest difficulty was curbing growth of recurrent expenditure, and he said the departments most responsible for the NT’s biggest issues were Health, Justice, Police, and Territory Families.
“We’ve got a plan in place to invest in our kids which is the best long-term solution to the problems we face in those demand agencies, but we also have to find a way to tackle acute problems in those [areas],” he said.
Mr Gunner said the size of the GST top-up due from the Federal Government and the GST’s fixed relativity rate were unknown when this year’s budget was devised.
“Right now the economy is doing it very tough; there are people out there trying to work out where the next wage check is going to come from and how they’re going to pay the bills,” he said.
“I do not agree with the policy prescription that says we should have sacked thousands of public servants in our first two budgets, I think that would have had a crippling effect on the NT economy.
‘Your job is simply to support whatever we say’
Mr Collins said he would sit as an independent Labor member, and said he hadn’t considered quitting and forcing a by-election.
“I will sit as a member of the Legislative Assembly until the end of the term,” he said.
The next election will be held in August, 2020.
“If I have to run as an independent again, I actually think that the leadership’s actions yesterday have done me a great favour.”
He said he, Mr Vowles and Mr McConnell were viewed as the main opposition within the Labor Caucus.
“My experience in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been there is they don’t deal with criticism or counter-views very well at all, they expect all members to simply support whatever’s provided to them by the leadership group and that’s it,” he said.
“It’s a matter of, ‘You’ve been elected, your job is to simply support whatever we say. We’re not going to discuss that with you, we’re not going to include you in any discussions about the development of that’.”
Country Liberals Opposition Leader Gary Higgins said Mr Vowles had made “an honest assessment of how this Government is functioning”.
“I voiced my opinion on behalf of constituents consistently through the four years of the CLP government; at no time did anyone threaten to kick me out of the party,” he said.
Members of the highly controversial former CLP government appeared on social media on Saturday: former chief minister Adam Giles “loved” the ABC Darwin Facebook live video of Mr Gunner’s press conference, while his former deputy Dave Tollner tweeted to Mr Vowles: “Chin up Kenneth! Politics is toughest on those who speak their minds, and particularly when it’s not what people want to hear.”