Northern Territory-based News Limited scribe, Ashleigh Wilson, was a man under attack on the weekend after a front-page piece in The Weekend Australian revealed NT Chief Minister Clare Martin could soon face a challenge to her leadership from education minister Paul Henderson.

By Monday, NT Labor was in major damage control. Wilson’s story was described by Martin as a work of “imagination”. Henderson himself ruled out a challenge before the next election (in 2009) and various factional warlords declared peace would reign in the Top End.

Even federal NT Labor parliamentarian (and NT Labor president) Warren Snowdon weighed in, claiming the challenge against Martin would never happen.

Of course, it’s all horsesh-t – Wilson’s story was spot-on. Speculation about Henderson “doing the numbers” has been rife in the Territory for months. It’s just no-one was game yet to take the risk of being wrong and writing the yarn. Wilson’s piece was a major scoop.

The NT Labor Left are being blamed for the instability, but in fact it’s the Labor Right that have been doing the courtings and the counting. Today’s Oz quoted a “senior Right factional member” saying Henderson was a “patient man”.

In a roundabout way Henderson already has the numbers. He knows the Left and five of the six black MPs want a change of leader. But he hasn’t struck a deal with them yet, so he can’t launch a leadership challenge.

And that’s perhaps the only criticism, albeit a pretty hollow one, that can be made of Wilson’s article –  it was a little pre-emptive. Henderson was to talk to the Left and the “black left” soon, but now it’s all public that’s unlikely to happen before late December.

Any deal would see Henderson take the Chief Minister’s chair and an Aboriginal MP or a member of the Left take over the Deputy’s role.

Respected Aboriginal minister Marion Scrymgour would be a front-runner for deputy, but it’s hard to say whether or not Scrymgour would want the job. Barb McCarthy, a rising young star, has been mooted as a possible successor to current Deputy Syd Stirling (who is rumoured to be retiring at the end of this term).

A deal between the Left and Right would also open the way for Aboriginal “maverick” MP Alison Anderson to enter the ministry. Anderson, a former ATSIC commissioner, has long been touted as ministerial material but has been banished to the backbench by Martin and Stirling. They’re worried that if Anderson ever gets into the ministry, she might do something silly like vigorously advocate for the rights of Aboriginal people.

Whatever happens in the next few months, Martin has a myriad of major problems. There’s her dispute with the Labor left and the unions over an agreement the government signed with the developers of the Darwin waterfront. It’s a $1.1 billion redevelopment but the building sites are explicitly non-union.

There’s the NT government’s capitulation on the McArthur River Mine expansion in the face of massive opposition from Aboriginal traditional owners, not to mention Aboriginal MPs.

Martin’s performance in Aboriginal affairs generally is considered unsatisfactory, not least of all the government’s under-funding of health and education in remote Aboriginal communities like Wadeye and Maningrida.

There was a broad perception that after almost three decades of the CLP, once Labor was in Aboriginal constituents would finally get a fair go. The feeling in many sections of NT Labor is that ­NT Labor have continued the policies of the CLP, and in some cases made things worse.

There’s also a perception that Martin and her closer colleagues have remained captives of the “Country Liberal Party bureaucracy”. Many in the party believe the public service, which includes senior supporters of the CLP, still control NT government policy and expenditure.

There’s also residual anger in NT Labor at last year’s “race card” election, in which Martin unveiled a “get tough on the blacks” re-election strategy within 24 hours of the start of the official campaign period. She never floated the idea with other members of caucus and the Left and the Aboriginal faction of NT Labor has never forgiven her (nor, ironically, Henderson, who had a key role in the policy).

But it all pales into insignificance against Martin’s involvement in an attack on Aboriginal land rights.

Martin personally lobbied the Prime Minister for 99-year leases on Aboriginal land in the Territory. The Prime Minister enthusiastically obliged. But Martin never got her plan approved by caucus, and never will. The whole mess remains stuck in a caucus committee to this day.

The Left of NT Labor, not to mention the black Left, are appalled at Martin’s breaking of a longstanding agreement on Aboriginal land rights. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as the Aboriginal faction is concerned, and it will be the issue that is Martin’s ultimate undoing.

As for the numbers, here’s how they stack up today:

Clare Martin:
Jane Aagard
Chris Burns
Delia Lawrie
Elliot McAdam
Syd Stirling

Paul Henderson:
Alison Anderson
Matthew Bonson
James Burke
Karl Hampton
Len Kiely
Rob Knight
Barb McCarthy
Kon Vatskalis

Kerry Sacilotto
Chris Natt
Ted Warren

Both Elliot McAdam and Delia Lawrie are soft Martin supporters –­ both have a commitment to their own ministerial careers but would be likely to switch camps if they’re convinced the leadership is about to change.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.