The Liberals have got themselves a Federal President who will do little to sooth the moderates contemplating crossing the floor over manadatory sentencing, says Crikey’s Howard government insider, Hillary Bray

Relaxed, Comfortable – & Stoned?

How relaxed and comfortable will John Howard be once Parliament resumes next week and the Senate select committee on mandatory sentencing reports?

Seven Liberal backbenchers have already expressed their concern with mandatory sentencing – and indicated that they may support a mooted Labor private member’s bill to override the Northern Territory legislation.

What makes this potential backbench rebellion so interesting is the caliber of the members involved. We’re not talking lightweights here. The group includes:

  • former New South Wales minister Bruce Baird;
  • former Victorian Liberal Party State Director and architect of Kennett campaigns that actually worked, Petro Georgiou;
  • up and coming teenage toe cutter Chris Pyne, from South Australia;
  • former AMA boss Brendan Nelson;
  • Dana Vale, an ex-solicitor with an interest in juvenile justice issues normally seen as a firm supporter of the Prime Minister and a solid member of the NSW right;
  • Senator Helen Coonan, who faces a stand off with fellow moderate Marise Payne later in the year for a winnable spot on the NSW Senate ticket and who – up to now, anyway – has enjoyed the blessing in the context of the self styled PM’s fixer, Parliamentary Secretary Bill Heffernan; and
  • Victorian Peter Nugent, shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs in the dying days of John Hewson’s leadership.

If even a few of these cross the floor, it will be a real blow to the Prime Minister.

How the PM’s mate, President of the Liberal Party – and former Territory Chief Minister – Shane Stone reacts will be fascinating.

Stone had a few things to say when the Federal Parliament overruled the Territory’s euthanasia legislation. MPs opposing the Territory law were “ignoramuses” and “being bastards and bitches”.

The former Victorian – he only moved to the Territory in his thirties – called on the NT’s three MPs to “move to the crossbenches and become independents”, saying they “would become a very powerful bloc for the Territory. Quite clearly, the leverage that they would be able to exercise would at least start to form some sort of defence against this type of intrusion in the future”.

Quite clearly, Stone will scarcely be a uniting force if maverick Liberals join with the ALP and Territory law is overridden once again.

The Liberal President is known for his skills as a diplomat. In March 1996, twentysomething ABC Darwin host Katherine McKenzie squeezed through a partially closed door to join other journalists, MPs and pressies in the government’s private box at the NT Football League grand final. As she straightened her shirt, Stone leaned over and, to the great amusement of other guests, happily told her he “could see everything from here”. He was later forced to apologise.

Stone made a major attempt at real diplomacy that year, too, taking a message from newly elected PM John Howard to the then Indonesian President, Suharto. Just to make sure the visit wasn’t overlooked, the Territory government picked up the tab for a team of journalists to come along as well. Despite the large number of Timorese refugees in Darwin, Stone had no time for complaints about Indonesia’s human rights record, even wanted to ban the burning of national flags in the Territory at one stage.

Shane Stone also has a fascinating record as a party president. In 1989, as Country Liberal Party president, he ran into a storm over the candidacy of Alice Springs businessman (and Aboriginal) Bob Liddle, for the Territory’s sole House of Representatives seat.

Stone, a lawyer, had acted for Liddle in a family law matter. He created a stir when he took Liddle’s personal file to a campaign committee meeting where Liddle was formally disendorsed.

As the history of the CLP, “The Territory Party”, records: “It was clear from the conduct of the meeting that Liddle’s removal was organised by members of the MC (Management Committee)…Stone was later fined for unprofessional conduct by the Law Society… An interesting postscript to Liddle’s disendorsement concerned the subsequent candidature of Helen Galton… the protege of Stone. Her performance in 1990 was lackluster and she never became a credible challenger…

In an election that saw a general swing to the Coalition, the Territory result was one of the worst… with nearly a 3% swing to Labor… (Stone’s) analysis of the election loss… smacked of self justification”.

Stone took the Law Society matter to the Territory Supreme Court. In 1992, the Court overturned the professional misconduct charge, but the judge, Mr Justice Martin found “no reason has been demonstrated to cause the court to interfere with the findings that the plaintiff was guilty of unprofessional conduct in taking Mr Liddle’s file to the meeting”. Despite this, he still appointed himself a QC.

Stone – surprise, surprise – had major doubts about the gun control plan put to the state and territory leaders in the wake of Port Arthur massacre. In the subsequent amnesty, the weapons handed in to Territory police included an anti-aircraft gun.

However, it is the field on Aboriginal affairs that Stone had his greatest coups.

Stone advocated the recriminalisation of public drunkenness, despite the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

In 1997, he claimed Aboriginal drunks were a disgraceful blight on Territory towns and should be forced back to the bush, saying “we bring these people into our health system, we patch them up, put them back on the streets, and before you know it they’re back again. That’s an enormous expense to the normal taxpayer and people have had enough – we shouldn’t have to wear it”.

In June the following year 1998, Stone described Northern Land Council Galarrwuy Yunupingu as a “whingeing, whining, carping black”. Darwin’s One Nation branch president commented “I think all our members are pretty aware that’s not really acceptable. Whether or not you support Mr Yunnupingu and what he’s on about, you can’t really mouth off at him like that. There’s no need for it”.

This helped him achieve the loss of his great dream – statehood for the Northern Territory – in the October 98 referendum.

Stone had stated his ambition long ago to be the first premier of the Northern Territory. He managed to lose the unloseable referendum. While 80 per cent of Territorians supported statehood, 51 per cent voted against it when the question was formally put. The Aboriginal community – a full quarter of the Territory’s population – were unconvinced that they would be protected under such a change.

The defeat mortally wounded Stone, and he resigned four months later. At the time, he claimed the decision was “pretty much” his own choice. However, one anonymous backbencher told the NT News “Basically, we’ve had enough. It’s a culmination of things that started back when Shane appointed himself as QC. We are basically reflecting the community concerns, that he’s on the nose out there, and we wanted him out.” A letter of no confidence in Stone was drafted a few days before his resignation. At least two ministers were believed to have assisted with the drafting.

At the time, Stone indicated he would remain as a backbencher until the next election. Now, his resignation has created a by-election that the CLP and Chief Minister Dennis Burke are desperate to use as a referendum on mandatory sentencing.

And this is the man who is expected to help the Prime Minister tackle dissent and heal divisions in a Federal Government on the issue?

The Hoon Of The Hill

Forget Manhattan versus New Jersey. No one looks down more on their neighbours than Canberrans gazing across the New South Wales border at Queanbeyan. With Queanbeyan, you see, you can have it both ways – you can treat the natives as either Westies or hicks.

This, of course, meant that staff at the Department of Defence head office at Russell Hill were more than a little startled when it was announced last year that their new secretary would be Queanbeyan High old boy Allan Hawke.

Hawke is certainly making an impression, but even before his National Press Club denunciation of his department, he had rattled the defence bureaucracy.

Military mandarins tut-tutted one morning when they arrived at work to find some hoon had parked his hotted up muscle car in the Secretary’s private park. They tut-tutted even more when, after police were called to remove the offending vehicle, it was discovered it belonged to the Secretary.

Bloody Queanbeyan yobs!

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

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