Prime Minister John Howard tried to call Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin all morning yesterday to tell her of his plans. For whatever reason, Martin wouldn’t take his calls. She should have. It has cost her, as we say in the Territory, ‘big as mobs’.

As Howard and Mal Brough stood in Canberra and told us that they had decided to take control of the Northern Territory ‘because we could’, Clare Martin stood in the main street of Darwin waving a flag at the passing parade of big trucks that carry the V8 Supercars that will race at Darwin’s Hidden Valley racetrack this weekend.

Bread and circuses.

Within the hour, Howard stood in Parliament and received (almost) universal approval for his plan from federal Labor. Martin also had to report to her own Legislative Assembly — and received (almost) universal ridicule.

Oh dear, how did it come to this!

Charlie King, a highly respected sports broadcaster who in his other life is the chairman of the Family & Youth Services Council in the NT said yesterday that Martin left the way open to the Commonwealth to wield its big stick because of her manifest failure to respond promptly to any of the 97 recommendations in the Wild/Anderson report.

King hit that nail right on the head. Martin received the report in late April and sat on it for eight weeks, blaming the delay in its release on ‘problems with the printer’. When she finally released it a week ago, she said it would take another six weeks to formulate an NT Government response.

Martin dropped the ball.

The eight-week delay in the release of the report gave Martin the perfect opportunity to craft her Government’s responses so that when it was made public she could have told Territorians what she was going to do.

She could have, for example, worked with the premiers of the states (and federal Labor) to craft a nationwide plan to address the issue. Or put a comprehensive plan to the Commonwealth. Or given the Aboriginal community in the NT some comfort that their Government actually cared about their problems.

What did she do about the report during the eight weeks she sat on it? Nothing. From perfect opportunity to perfect storm.

Make no mistake about it, despite the serious lack of detail and unanswered questions about Howard’s coup, at least substantial parts of it have been planned for some time.

Howard acted quickly to grasp the opportunities provided by Martin’s inaction. He can enact the most radical and punitive changes to Aboriginal indigenous welfare system since, oh, the mission days, he can finally achieve his long-held desire to scrap the permit provisions in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act and he can further demonise and marginalise Aboriginal men and women and at the same time be seen to be doing something in the eyes of those Australians concerned about the “Aboriginal problem”.

A perfect storm, indeed.

But for all of this, Howard sounds at his most indecisive and uncertain in years. A year ago to the day, the ABC’s Lateline program broadcast a sensational piece on alleged child abuse in remote NT communities. Last night, Howard was interviewed on Lateline by Tony Jones.

Under Jones’s forensic questioning Howard revealed many gaps in both his justification and reasoning and the lack of any comprehensive planning for the implementation of the proposal.

Howard was uncertain about the number of federal police to be sent to the NT, had no idea of the numbers of state police available or required and was, at best, vague about the role of police and Australian Defence Force members and what they would be doing, though it appears much of their work will involve an audit of all ‘government-owned’ computers and would have something to do with stopping alcohol getting into Aboriginal communities.

Howard also seemed to contradict earlier indications that the coup would only apply to about 100 ‘town camps’. When asked by Tony Jones whether control would extend to cities like Darwin, Howard denied this but introduced the undefined concept of “affected communities”.

Howard was unclear to which Aboriginal children the compulsory medical checks will apply and how this will be implemented, and what might happen if their parents objected to this most interventionist proposal. He couldn’t say for how long the emergency measures would apply and to whom.

Howard’s coup is unprecedented in Australian history. Howard and Brough have been strong on rhetoric and their apparent heartfelt sympathy for the plight of Aboriginal children. They have been weak on the detail of what they plan to do, where and to whom. And there is, by the sheer scale and complexity of what they are proposing, every chance of catastrophic failure.

The Commonwealth’s most recent attempts at decisive intervention in indigenous communities through the Communities in Crisis project were abject failures, mainly through administrative incompetence and the failure of political will.

If Howard and Brough can’t do a better job this time it will only end in tears all round – not least for Martin, her Government and the Aboriginal people of the Territory.