Marion Scrymgour is Australia’s most powerful Aboriginal politician. As Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister, along with several other minor Ministries, she has one of the toughest jobs in Paul Henderson’s single-seat majority NT Labor government.

But now Scrymgour is fighting for her political life and credibility as a Minister, with real questions about her fitness and capacity to continue as Education Minister. In the last 6 weeks she has summarily sacked her department’s CEO, announced a rushed and unpopular policy and faced relentless and sustained attacks from the media and in the parliament over her administration of education in the NT – particularly on what would be expected to be her particular strength — remote Aboriginal community-based education.

On October 9 this year, Scrymgour and the then Chief Executive Officer of her education department, Margaret Banks, met briefly as Scrymgour left to travel to Maningrida in her electorate of Arafura.

Banks didn’t know it at the time, and Scrymgour didn’t tell her, but she was firmly in the Minister’s sights. As reported by Paul Toohey in The Australian the following week:

Relations between Ms Scrymgour and Margaret Banks had been deteriorating for weeks. The minister told The Australian a fortnight ago she was headed for a “big stoush” with Ms Banks over what she perceived as a lack of ability in her department to deal with pressing issues involving remote-area education for Aboriginal children.

Late on Thursday afternoon, Banks was told that she no longer had the confidence of the Minister and that it was “time for her to go”.

Just 7 weeks previously, on 18 August, Scrymgour had re-appointed Banks to her position.

By the close of business on Friday October 10, Banks was gone. What was unclear was whether she retired, was sacked or resigned.

Scrymgour told Parliament during a “Want of Confidence” motion against her in the NT Legislative Assembly on 22 October 2008:

With regard to Ms Banks leaving… She was advised by the Territory’s most senior public servant, the Chief Executive of the Department of the Chief Minister, Mike Burgess, that as minister, I no longer had faith in her leadership of the agency. Simply put, she was advised her services were no longer required.

ABC Local radio in Darwin asked Margaret Banks why she had been sacked:

I wasn’t given any reason, there’s been information [that has] come out in the press afterwards; but if I could just correct some of the misinformation, I think you will see that there’s been a bit of a vacuum for me, in which I’ve had to operate.

Scrymgour’s failure to clarify whether Margaret Banks retired, resigned or was sacked has left many people uncertain about the how and why of Banks’ termination and raises real questions about her performance and judgement as Minister.

Over the weekend of the 11th and 12th of October, Scrymgour, her advisors and the Department were busy cobbling together a policy that required, in part, that from the first day of the school year 2009 the “…first four hours of education…will be conducted in English”. That policy has caused grave concerns about the future of Aboriginal education in the bush and Scrymgour has since admitted that the policy was “…put together in the few days since Ms Banks’ departure.”

But Scrymgour’s current problems don’t end with a poorly-handled sacking and a flawed policy that is widely believed will kill off the long-established and valued bilingual education programs in remote Aboriginal townships.

As Natasha Robinson reported in The Australian on November 20:

Ms Scrymgour – who faced a censure motion in parliament yesterday over her record as education minister – embroiled herself deeper in the messy beauty salon affair that may have been dismissed as trivial had it not been for her own convoluted explanation of why she was at Anita’s Beauty Salon in Darwin at 4.30pm on September 21.

It is trite to say that politics is a science based on negotiation and compromise but the real worry is that Scrymgour, with the help of poor or incompetent advice, has painted herself into a corner from which she cannot retreat, cannot negotiate and cannot compromise without a massive loss of face.

As Michael Duffy, vice-president of the NT Council of Government Schools Organisations (COGSO), told Crikey:

The sacking of Margaret Banks reflects resistance within government to both the style and content of Banks’ leadership, enabling the old departmental culture of blocking and gate keeping to live on.

(Minister Scrymgour) blames Aboriginal parents for the ills of the system and Canberra for an imposed and unworkable solution to those ills. This reflects poor advice or an inadequate understanding of the complexities. Or both.

Neither she nor the Government as a whole seem to be able to manage education effectively. The goodwill ran out some time ago and I think the education constituency is now running out of patience.

John Greatorex has over 30 years of experience in bilingual education in the NT, including as a principal of Shepherdson College at Galiwinku in north-east Arnhem Land. He told Crikey that:

If a Minister for Education is unable or unwilling to consult with her constituents and honour community-government partnership agreements that she and her Department have put so much work into. If she makes decisions or announces policies that are not based on evidence, and misrepresents the data from research showing clearly that bilingual schools are more effective at teaching English than English only schools. How then will the community see her fitness to be a Minister for Education?

And perhaps the greatest irony of Scrymgour’s current problems is that the clearest voice in this ugly business comes not from her own Labor party but from the man who came within a whisker of taking his party to the Government benches at the NT general election on 9 August of this year, just 9 days before Scrymgour re-appointed Margaret Banks as her CEO.

Before entering politics Terry Mills spent 17 years as an educator and on the last day of the NT Parliament for 2008 he told the Legislative Assembly:

An indigenous teacher of 32 years’ experience, Yolma (sic) Yunupingu, is right when she describes this policy position as both threadbare and clumsy…the approach is clumsy in a number of substantive ways.

To support the sentiment expressed by the minister without an understanding of how language is learnt nor an appreciation of the task of the early childhood teacher, who is charged with society’s most noble task, teaching a child to read and write, is wrong, and amounts to a betrayal.

Crikey invited Minister Scrymgour or her advisors to respond to several questions concerning Ms Banks’ current employment status, the term and nature of her re-appointment by the Minister as CEO in August 2008 and the legal status of a number of Regional Partnership Agreements between the Department and Aboriginal school communities that make specific reference to bilingual education.

The Minister’s Chief Advisor, Mr Jamie Gallacher, responded through the Minister’s Media Advisor as follows:

Mr Gallacher has advised that we will not be providing a response he said, ‘We do not answer questions from bloggers on random electronic gossip sites —
The Minister’s office deals with reputable media outlets.’

Peter Fray

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