Today at 4pm an extraordinary sitting of the NT Legislative Assembly will begin the inevitable process of knocking Paul Henderson’s sorry failure of a Labor government on the head.

Clare Martin took Labor to glorious victories in 2001 and again in 2005. In November 2007, in an extraordinary week that saw Kevin Rudd elected as PM and the most powerful black organisation in the NT, the Northern Land Council, replace its CEO and refresh its Executive, Paul Henderson tapped Clare on the shoulder and took over as Chief Minister of the NT.

It’s been all downhill since then. He went to an early and unnecessary election a year ago and reduced Labor to a single seat majority.

As Crikey noted in June, the fall of Henderson’s government was a matter of when, not if:

Henderson, after yesterday’s dummy-spit by Scrymgour, now has two very poor choices — try to keep his failed government alive by dancing to Scrymgour’s increasingly erratic beck and call or hold a fresh election 10 months after the last one and more then three years before the next one is due in 2012.

Henderson has held on by the skin of his teeth for a couple of months — but that all went very pear-shaped when ex-Minister Alison Anderson spat the dummy and left labor in high, and very curious, dudgeon last week.

On Friday last Terry Mills, leader of the Country Liberal Party opposition, wrote to the Speaker of the NT Legislative Assembly, Jane Aagaard, proposing that an extraordinary sitting of the Legislative Assembly be held today at 4pm.

That letter was signed by 13 members of the Assembly — presumably Mills and his CLP members, the long-term independent Gerry Woods and Anderson. Mills proposed that after today’s sitting the parliament will rise until Friday of this week, when it will sit again.

As Mills said yesterday on his Facebook page:

Terry Mills is ready for what may come. The question to decide the fate of the Labor government will be asked tomorrow and answered on Friday.

The question of want of confidence in Henderson’s Labor government will be asked today, and, in order to comply with section 24 (1) of the NT Electoral Act , will be voted on at its next sitting on Friday:

Extraordinary general election — motion of no confidence

24. Extraordinary general election — motion of no confidence

(1) The Administrator may issue a writ for a general election at any time if:

(a) a motion of no confidence in the Government is passed by the Legislative Assembly (being a motion of which not less than 3 clear days notice has been given in the Legislative Assembly)…

That much is clear — if a motion of no confidence in Henderson’s government is passed off we go to an election to allow the people to decide who they want to govern them.

But — and in the current context this is a very big but — section 26 of the NT Electoral Act allows for the (inevitable) political fix:

Criteria for deciding whether to issue writs

26. Criteria for deciding whether to issue writs

In deciding whether a writ for a general election should be issued under section 24 or 25, the Administrator must consider whether a viable alternative Government can be formed without a general election and, in so doing, must have regard to any motion passed by the Legislative Assembly expressing confidence in an alternative Government in which a named person would be Chief Minister.

If the CLP and Labor can agree to a motion that a “viable alternative government” can be formed without going to a general election following the passage of a motion expressing confidence that in the CLP can form a new government, then Mills will be in the big chair at the end of this week, thanks to a bloodless coup.

No doubt that motion has already been drafted.

For the CLP and Labor such a fix has its separate attractions — each have their own very good reasons for avoiding the public scrutiny of a general election.

For Labor the primary attraction of the gift of government to the CLP on the floor of the Assembly would be to avoid the inevitable and deserved flogging they would receive at tan election. Labor has been conducting opinion polls around Darwin over the past two weekends and will hold focus groups mid-week — by which time its future may already have been determined.

Crikey understands that the polling results are appalling — if an election were held now Labor could end up with as few as three seats in the Legislative Assembly … maybe. Such a result would condemn Labor to at least a decade in the same political wilderness which it inhabited for 27 years of CLP rule in the NT.

The chief attraction, to Labor, of a section 26 fix would be that it would retain the eleven seats it has left and that the CLP would have to rely on fractious independents to govern until the next election in three years time.

For the CLP, getting power — however it comes and whatever odious deals it has to do with Anderson and Woods to get it — will be enough reason to avoid an election.

Other reasons for the CLP to avoid an election include that right now it is effectively broke and couldn’t afford to run an election.

And the legislative requirements for the timing of an election would be highly inconvenient — assuming that Terry Mills went to NT Administrator Tom Pauling QC next Monday, August 17 seeking a writ for an election, nominations would close on Friday 21st and an election would have to be held by Saturday September 5.

With the next general elections not due until 2012, Crikey is not aware that either major party has completed preselections as yet — this may see the CLP repeating its embarrassing failure to find candidates to contest the seats of Anderson and Malarndirri McCarthy at the last election — allowing them to be re-elected unopposed.

And the most important reason for the major parties to avoid an election — and for mine the best reason for having one — is that the Greens and independents could very likely spring a few surprises, win more than a few seats and — surprise, surprise — hold the balance of power.

Peter Fray

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