Wednesday, March 25, 2020

King Of Nothing For A Day: Did Terry Mills Return As NT Opposition Leader?

Brief answer: Perhaps!

Of all the things going on in the world at present probably the least important of all is the position of NT Opposition Leader (unless, perhaps, a new conservative force starts winning NT elections and then winning federal seats).  But we all need some laughs, and so long as one doesn't think at all about whether NT politicians could have found something more constructive to do with their time right now than this, this is a rather funny story.  Not as funny as the time Willem Westra van Holthe held a late night presser to announce he was "Chief Minister apparent" only for it to turn out that he wasn't (Adam Giles who he thought he had deposed as leader threatened to bring down the government and as a result Giles was restored to the CLP leadership.)  But still, not bad.

The remains of Giles' government were slaughtered at the 2016 Territory election leaving the CLP with only two seats compared to 18 for Labor and five for a range of independents (some of them ex-CLP).  One of the independents was former Chief Minister Terry Mills, who had earlier been rolled by Giles while Mills was out of the country, just seven months after Mills had led the CLP to majority government.

At various times, some of the independents became interested in possibly seizing Opposition status from the two CLP members, but the government was firm in its disinterest on the basis that an association of independents couldn't be an Opposition - they're not a party, after all.  However, Mills' new Territory Alliance party has since attracted another independent, Robyn Lambley, plus a former Labor MLA turned Independent, Jeff Collins.  (Collins was one of three Labor MLAs kicked out of the Labor parliamentary party in 2018.)

That gave the Territory Alliance three members and, according to a part of the advice linked above, if one follows the federal House of Representatives Practice then "The Opposition is the party or group which has the greatest number of non-government Members [..]"  However, that advice only says the Speaker is "guided" by the Practice, and it also says the Speaker doesn't decide who the Opposition is: "It is submitted that the Speaker has no role greater than presiding over an Assembly which may consider the matter of who is the Opposition if it is brought to the floor of the Assembly for consideration."

On 18 March the Territory Alliance announced that it was now the Opposition "formally coming into effect from tomorrow." It claimed advice from the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly to the effect that the CLP would be told to vacate its offices.  Some media sources then accepted this without question.  However, the draft Hansards of 18 March, 19 March and 20 March contain no mention of the matter.  On all these days the new CLP leader, Lia Finocchiaro (herself only Opposition Leader since 1 Feb) continued to be referred to as Leader of the Opposition.  There is no evidence that Terry Mills had become Opposition Leader on any of these days.

It appears that changes to seating and office arrangements were then made prior to the next sitting on 24 March on the basis that the Territory Alliance would become the Opposition.  And on 24 March Terry Mills presented a Shadow Cabinet to the House (which had also been listed on the NT Parliament Website), and was referred to as Leader of the Opposition by the Chief Minister and others at various points.  But were they correct, when the Assembly had not yet ruled on the matter?

Eventually Lia Finocchiaro moved the following (I expect a missing word in item 1 will be added)

"Madam Speaker, I move a motion without notice to determine the
official opposition in the Assembly. I move that this Assembly:
1. agrees that the party or group that the official opposition remains unclear
2. declares therefore that the office of the Leader of the Opposition is vacant
3. conducts a ballot pursuant to chapter 21 of the Standing Orders to fill this vacancy
4. agrees that a ballot so conducted be a choice between the Member for Spillett and the Member for Blain only
5. agrees that the result of the ballot, regardless of the numbers of members participating, determines that the party or group led by the successful candidate shall be the official opposition
6. agrees that this resolution merely binds the thirteenth Assembly"

This motion was passed 17-3 with only the 3 Territory Alliance members voting against.

A secret ballot was then held with Labor either mostly or entirely abstaining and Finocchiaro winning 5-3, which would have been with the support of some independents.  Retiring veteran Nelson MP Gerry Wood stated he voted for the CLP to remain the Opposition.

So the Assembly, having initially recognised the CLP as the largest party without anyone initially making a fuss, had then never formally ceased to recognise the CLP as the Opposition before passing the motion.  The motion however said that the status of official opposition "remains unclear" (but doesn't say starting when).  At the least, Finocchiaro had never been declared by motion to have ceased being Opposition Leader.  Was Mills actually Opposition Leader at all?  Does the resolution of the House mean that the Opposition Leadership is deemed to have been indeterminate? Starting when if so?  My view is that unless the Assembly formally rules clearly that Mills did return as leader, or a court rules that the motion to elect an Opposition Leader was invalid and Mills in fact holds the position, then he didn't actually return as leader at all and the press coverage to the effect that he did has all been nonsense.

Also of interest is how decisions regarding the website display, offices, seating arrangements and the recording of Mills as Opposition Leader in the Hansard draft came to be made in the absence of a parliamentary resolution, and on what advice.   This seems irregular and there are some rather strange exchanges in the draft Hansard with MLAs thinking that the Speaker made the decision and the Speaker saying that the Territory Alliance did it themselves (???), and so on.

With only five months to go til the election it is unclear if the Assembly will even need to sit again and whether the motion of March 24 will have any impact beyond bragging rights as to who the Opposition is.

The only thing for sure is that the winner from all of this is the Gunner Government.  Not always the most cohesive unit itself, it gets to go to an election at a time of public turmoil of the sort that often favours incumbents anyway and competing (a la Peter Beattie in Queensland 2001) against a rabble who leak preferences as they fight each other for what is currently second prize.

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