The first sitting of the NT Parliament for 2009 kicked off at 10am this morning.

Late yesterday afternoon Marion Scrymgour tearfully announced her resignation as Deputy Chief Minister and from her various Ministries. She says that she will remain as member for her remote electorate of Arafura until the next NT election.

As she announced her resignation Scrymgour was flanked by the best performer in the NT Parliament and her successor as Deputy Chief Minister, Treasurer Delia Lawrie, and Chief Minister Paul Henderson.

Scrymgour told the press conference that “My life fell apart 15 months ago …I was on my own … I found my father dead after four days.”

“This government doesn’t need a weak link.”

Just six days ago Henderson announced a long-anticipated reshuffle of his Ministry using, in what must pass as the limpest of excuses — the global financial crisis — as justification.

In that reshuffle Scrymgour lost the Education and Arts portfolios, but was given what is widely seen as a promotion to Attorney-General, Minister for Justice and, as is typical in the NT, a raft of minor ministries.

Later that day Scrymgour performed her last duties as Education Minister — meeting with a powerful delegation of Aboriginal educators concerned about the mess they say she’d made of the Territory’s bilingual education system.

At that meeting, Scrymgour apparently gave a set of undertakings about her future commitment to remote Education in the NT.

Later in the week she did her last gig in her favoured Arts Ministry, awarding the inaugural NT Book of the Year to Top End author Andrew McMillan for his magisterial review of life in the NT’s north-east, An Intruders Guide to Arnhem Land.

Henderson spent yesterday afternoon reshuffling the reshuffle — distributing Scrymgour’s abandoned Ministries among a Ministerial line-up largely made up of the incompetent and the inexperienced.

One overdue reshuffle justified by the weakest of excuses is bad enough. A reshuffle of a reshuffle — within a week — must be an Australian record for political panic.

Leader of the CLP Opposition, Terry Mills, who just six short months ago came within eighty or so votes of taking Government, will be keenly anticipating today’s first day of the Parliamentary year.

Mills yesterday described Scrymgour’s departure as an “…excuse to leave a crumbling team … This is an indicator if disarray in government and should have been dealt with [in] last week’s reshuffle.”

By the end of the 2008 Parliamentary year Mills had consistently had Henderson’s government on the backfoot, with particular close attention to Scrymgour’s poor handling of the Education portfolio, now-sacked Health Minister Chris Burn’s shortcomings in that portfolio and serious power failures in Darwin’s northern suburbs touching any number of raw political nerves.

As a long-term teacher and administrator Mills probably knows more about education than any member of Henderson’s government and now, with Henderson and Minister assisting Malarndirri McCarthy, Mills will be able to go toe-to-toe with Henderson on his own ground.

Yesterday Scrymgour denied that her decision to resign was related to last week’s reshuffle:

I have done so after seeking further medical advice relating to a pre-existing medical condition and ongoing health issues following the death of my father … but my ongoing health issues do not allow me to continue the hectic pace of a Ministerial workload. I will continue as the Member for Arafura until the next election.

Crikey has been unable to confirm reports in today’s NT News though it has been known for some time that Scrymgour has been receiving intensive medical treatment in Adelaide for a thyroid-related condition.

But there is widespread speculation that another motivation for her resignation, apart from the humiliation of having education taken away from her, may be that not only did Henderson strip Scrymgour of her beloved Arts portfolio, but he had the temerity to award it to Scrymgour’s ideological opposite, Allison Anderson, Labor Member for MacDonnell.

There is a long history of mutual antipathy between Scrymgour and Anderson, including a stoush in late 2007 that followed Scrymgour’s description of the Howard/Brough NT Intervention as a ‘black Tampa’ motivated by naked political opportunism.

And, as Henderson well knows, it is Anderson and Scrymgour who may well hold the fate of his ‘crumbling’, one-seat majority government in their hands.

Anderson, who, as evidenced by her vocal support for the Brough/Howard Intervention and outspokenness on matters sensitive to government, is widely regarded as a loose cannon perhaps more closely aligned to the CLP Opposition than to the centre and left of NT Labor. While she may be happy with her Ministerial appointments for now, there is the very real threat that she could jump ship, either as an independent or to surface as a member of the CLP, and force a change of government.

And Scrymgour, for reasons not presently apparent, could resign from parliament altogether and force a by election that would very likely be a difficult election for Henderson’s Labor party to win.

Peter Fray

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