Syd Stirling spent 18 years in the NT Parliament and was a long-term deputy chief minister and treasurer before retiring in 2008. Yesterday he went on local radio to slam the move by Julia Gillard to parachute Olympic gold medallist Nova Peris into the Senate — in the bluntest of language.

“I bagged Gillard and her absolute contempt for the NT Labor Party,” the Labor man told Crikey last night.

“I initially declined but I was persuaded otherwise by someone much smarter than me. Gillard has picked a person who has never had anything to do with the Labor Party, never done anything to support the Labor Party, she’s never done anything for the Labor Party. She’s not even a member of the Labor Party! She gets tapped on the shoulder for a prestigious, privileged and highly responsible position to represent the Territory in in the Senate.

“We know that Gillard has questionable judgement — look at the Slipper business — and for mine this just confirms that all that has been said about Gillard is true. She has no principles.”

There is a saying in politics — well, if there isn’t there is now — that what starts in tears will end the same way. Yesterday a nervous and tearful Peris stood next to the Prime Minister as she announced the stunt, lifting the hockey player and sprinter into the sinecure that is the Labor Party’s Northern Territory Senate seat.

So Gillard faced down the factions and put a grandmother, middle-ranked sporting “legend” and all-round good woman into the Senate. And to boot she’s black. What could be wrong with that?

The clumsy attempt — and that is all it is at the moment — to thwart the NT Labor Party’s preselection process may have the good and the great shouting Peris’ name from the rooftops as a political masterstroke. Certainly it will play well down south. But in the NT — where we’ll have to make the choice to vote for her or not — it may just be seen as a cruel and cynical attempt to make a dish of very cold revenge of current Labor Senate pick Trish Crossin and take a dump in the local party’s lap at the same time.

Earlier this month ex-NT Labor deputy chief minister Marion Scrymgour announced her bid to run against Crossin. Scrymgour is a tough and smart politician who stood down after 11 years in the NT Parliament that saw her rise — for two years — to be the most powerful elected Aboriginal woman in the country. In 2009 she resigned to spend seven months on the backbench as an independent, then returned to save Labor’s parliamentary skin following Alison Anderson’s defection in August 2009.

For some in the party Scrymgour is seen as one of those cheap Chinese Catherine Wheels: no matter how firmly you nail it to the post, you can never be quite sure that once you light the fuse it won’t shake itself free and explode in your face. Or stay fixed and give a memorable display of political grace and power.

Scrymgour stood down from her (then) safe seat at the 2012 election in August. For many a black mark on her political legacy is that she didn’t ensure her seat of Arafura was secure enough for Labor candidate Dean Rioli to take over. The CLP’s Francis Xavier took what should have been a safe Labor seat by just 62 votes.

Crossin has held the NT Senate seat since 1998 and due to the particular demographics of the NT — our status as a Commonwealth Territory means the NT only gets two Senate seats, notwithstanding the NT covers an area the size of several European countries — she has held that seat ever since.

She’s seen as a political plodder, never awarded a ministry or much above the (temporary) chairmanship of committees. And her greatest political sin — for these times — is that she was (and may still be) a supporter of ex-PM Kevin Rudd.

Despite Scrymgour’s political baggage she was seen as a good chance to roll Crossin in the preselection and take the Senate seat at the federal election later this year. Just how NT Labor will react to being (effectively) rolled by Gillard remains to be seen. Watch this space.

For all the mud thrown at preselection as an imperfect and bloody political science, it does serve some very good purpose: it subjects candidates to a degree of due diligence that rattles — or should — any skeletons in a candidate’s cupboard.

Yesterday the NT News reported Peris was approached by Labor’s national secretary George Wright just six weeks ago and asked if she’d like to run for Crossin’s seat. Crossin was given the bad news late on Monday night while in Sydney preparing for the first public hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, of which she is the chair.

Whether Gillard caught the cruel irony of the moment we don’t know, but you can be sure of Crossin’s discomfort, as would her fellow committee members George Brandis and fellow NT Senator — and likely federal indigenous affairs minister in an Abbott government — Nigel Scullion.

Despite Peris’ apparent inside run at the NT Senate seat, she may have a hard time convincing local Labor rank and file to support her in the very necessary grunt work involved in a Senate election battle in the NT. As one local commentator pointed out last night, Peris is, as far as Crikey is aware, not a current resident of the NT nor a member of the Labor Party and “if Peris really was a local hero the local people would be out saying ‘go, good girl’. And as for the stupid idea that sports people are ‘rolled-gold’ political candidates — Jesus.”

The rank and file of the NT Labor Party will hold fire until after the byelection for former NT chief minister Paul Henderson’s Darwin suburban seat of Wanguri (he announced his resignation yesterday). Others, like Syd Stirling, are not so shy or constrained.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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