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Darwinian politics: it’s survival of the fittest for the top job in the Territory

Terry Mills has been ousted as Chief Minister of the Northern Territory by Adam Giles. AAP

It’s a fact up north that our governments habitually overthrow their Chief Ministers. By my estimation, five of the nine (now 10) Chief Ministers have been ousted by their party colleagues rather than the electorate since 1978. So the dramatic overthrow of Terry Mills, who was in Japan (trying fruitlessly to get gas from Inpex to replace the gas he had given away to Rio Tinto) should have come as no surprise.

Yet of course it did. The successful coup was leaked prematurely, making the event seem more dramatic. This was no Baillieu giving way to Napthine; in true Territory style this was conspiratorial and brutally effective.

And the new Chief Minister is a surprise. Adam Giles is the youngest Chief Minister since Paul Everingham in 1978. Southern observers and news outlets will celebrate Giles as the first Indigenous First Minister of any Australian jurisdiction. Yet he is not Chief Minister because he is Indigenous.

Adam Giles has taken over leadership of the CLP. AAP/NT Government

With his four Indigenous colleagues in the NT Government his indigeneity cuts no ice, because Giles is a Koori immigrant to the NT. Giles is Chief Minister because his parliamentary colleagues, including the Indigenous ones, ultimately agreed that he was the only person that could rescue the floundering new CLP government, elected barely seven months ago.

Importantly, representing an Alice Springs electorate, Giles is the first Chief Minister from outside Darwin. Territorians will be more aware of that than of his indigeneity.

Terry Mills’ troubles began almost as soon as he became Chief Minister last August. He discovered that the NT level of public debt (including contingent liabilities) was much higher than he anticipated. This was not the usual “shock- horror, budget black hole” manoeuvre, pioneered by the inimitable Neville Wran in 1976 and faithfully copied by almost every in-coming election winner since.

It was a fact, a fact that had been created by the ousted Labor Government’s willingness to postpone hard decisions until after the last election.

This point is best exemplified by the case of the power and water charge increases that Mills implemented. This issue became emblematic in his overthrow.

The previous government had used the government-owned Power and Water Corporation (PWC) for political ends. From 2006 it made the PWC pay for the undergrounding of power lines in the northern suburbs of Darwin (supposedly for cyclone safety reasons but coincidentally increasing property values and votes for the former government). The PWC had not been allowed to increase its charges commensurate with its capital renewal and repairs and maintenance needs.

The new CLP government had to rectify the situation. It chose to inflict the pain in a single dose, rejecting the option of graduated electricity price rises over a number of years. This was a political judgement that it was better to wear the odium immediately and hope the electorate would forget by the next election. It was a rational strategy but Mills failed to manage the storm. His school-masterly demeanour was not the medium to convince Territorians that they should pay very much more for electricity. The main Territory newspaper, Murdoch’s NT News, ran an aggressive populist campaign against the government. Like Baillieu, Mills failed as a political communicator.

Still, after only a few months in the job, Mills would have been forgiven for not seeing this coming. His position within the government seemed unassailable. He enjoyed the support of the four new Indigenous MLAs. His three putative challengers – Giles, David Tollner and John Elferink – neutralised each other. Although electorally unpopular, Mills seemed safe until these three egos could decide who would take a run at the top spot.

But Mills made several key political mistakes. First his Deputy and Treasurer, Robyn Lambley, was pushed out, seeming to take the blame for cost cutting and power charges. At a stroke the powerful Alice Springs branch of the CLP was alienated and its three MPs withdrew their support for Mills.

Alison Anderson, a key figure in Northern Territory politics, recently called Adam Giles a “little boy” and “spoiled brat”. AAP/Alan Porritt

Second, Mills assumed that the Indigenous MLAs were his supporters. That was true for the first Giles challenge in the party room meeting last week. But it changed this week. Last week Mills appointed two of the four Indigenous MLAs as Parliamentary Secretaries. On the surface this seemed to confirm his permanence, but to this observer it seemed an odd indication of his dependence rather than leadership.

In the end it was two behind-the-scenes developments late last week sealed that Mills’ fate. Tollner agreed to defer to Giles for the leadership (Elferink was by now irrelevant, canvassing for votes for a challenge two weeks ago he discovered he had only one, his own). And Alison Anderson the primus inter pares of the Indigenous MLAs, reached a rapprochement with Giles.

Anderson is easily the most formidable and strategic politician in the Territory. After last week’s party meeting she publicly castigated Giles as a “little boy” for his challenge. So we can only speculate on the subsequent conversation that secured Giles the “bush” members’ votes and so the Chief Ministership.

There was no one reason the Northern Territory lost its Chief Minister just six months into his tenure. Rather, like his colleague Baillieu in the south, Terry Mills had simply outstayed his welcome with a restless party, and lost the support of the public.

The ousting may have seemed dramatic, but in the end, it was just another day in Territory politics.

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