Terry Mills is undoubtedly a nice bloke. But in the Northern Territory, as elsewhere, nice isn’t enough and Mills won’t be leading the NT opposition Country Liberal Party at the next general elections due by August 2012.
And his party knows it — as one of his backbenchers told me in Darwin last week, Mills is a political “dead man walking”. That he will be “knocked” is a matter of when, not if.
Two years ago Terry Mills and the CLP were on a roll. At the August 2008 NT election, Mills led a resurgent CLP back from the political wilderness to take six seats off Labor and come within a few hundred votes of a hung parliament. With four years to the next election and an ordinary-at-best Labor government riven with internal dramas, Mills and the CLP looked set to seize power sooner rather than later.
But over the next year, Mills couldn’t lay any wood on Labor and he and the CLP were little more than spectators while Labor tore itself apart in the crisis of mid-2009 that left a hapless Paul Henderson as leader of a minority government held together with string and gaffer tape and a fragile deal with ex-chook farmer and independent MLA but-don’t-call-me-a-kingmaker Gerry Wood.
But the CLP let Labor off the hook. The Henderson-Woods deal is now stronger that ever and it is the CLP that is suffering its own very public leadership crisis.
The latest miserable chapter in Mills’ political decline has its roots in the March 2010 pre-selection of Leo Abbott as the CLP’s candidate for the federal seat of Lingiari, held by Labor minister Warren Snowdon. Abbott’s candidacy was a rolling train wreck for the CLP.
On Friday August 13, one week before the election, the NT News revealed what was at the time an open secret in Alice Springs — that in December 2009 Abbott had entered a guilty plea in the Alice Springs Magistrates Court to a breach of a domestic violence order. Following these revelations Mills, backed by Tony Abbott and the CLP’s successful candidate for Solomon, Natasha Griggs, called for Leo Abbott to be disendorsed as candidate for Lingiari.
But the call by Mills and others for Leo Abbott to be dumped got him well offside with the CLP’s executive wing, and more importantly the Alice Springs rump of the party, both of whom supported Abbott’s candidacy.
I interviewed Terry Mills a few days after the NT News broke the Abbott DVO story. He stood by his call for Leo Abbott to be disendorsed and threw out a challenge to his party: “…there was an order of the court and that order was breached. Full stop. That should have been the end of the matter … [A]nd I would never compromise that. I can’t devalue my currency… Someone is going to have to change here and it is not me.”
What we now know is that two days before Mills spoke to me he had a conversation with Leo Abbott on substantially different terms.
In mid-November the Alice Springs News ran a brief piece based on information from “well informed sources” that alleged Mills and federal opposition leader Tony Abbott had offered Leo Abbott a government job if he withdrew his candidacy. This offer was, of course, conditional on the Liberal Party winning the federal election.
It soon got worse for Mills, with rumours circulating about a transcript of a telephone conversation between Abbott and Mills in the lead-up to an urgent meeting of the CLP executive on the weekend of August 14-15 to reconsider Abbott’s candidacy.
Yesterday Tony Abbott told the ABC in Darwin that he “had no involvement in this matter”. Leo Abbott has said nothing.
And Terry Mills — for reasons that have just about everyone scratching their heads in wonder and amazement — kept schtum rather than just saying “Yeah, we offered him a job. So what?”
While Mills stood mute, Labor made merry hell with the issue, first inviting an investigation by the Australian Electoral Commission into possible breaches of federal election law and running fast and loose with speculation about Mills’ political competence and increasingly tenuous grip on the CLP leadership.
A week ago the NT News published what Mills has begrudgingly accepted as an accurate version of his conversation with Leo Abbott. That transcript records Mills telling Abbott that:
“If you were to step aside … and then we would come out then, completely in support of you, and say there was nothing to this. This man’s good name has been brought low as a result of the dirty tactics of Labor. Now, just bear with me on this. You withdraw. We reinforce your good name and say that is more important than anything…
“I have polling that shows that Tony Abbott is within reach of winning government. But we have to win Solomon…
“There are 17 seats and they reckon they are all now in play if we can win Solomon. And Tony Abbott is then the Prime Minister. Tony Abbott says he can’t be part of this and he can’t condone it in any way. So you got an issue there. However, I have it.
“I have his word that if he be (sic) the Prime Minister, we will be in a strong position to look after you. In any event, secondly, by having a tactical retreat at this point, your good name being protected.”