It took the Country Liberal Party’s parliamentary wing a long time to get around to sacking Terry Mills as the Northern Territory chief minister. They finally nailed him yesterday. In fact, it played pretty much as Crikey called it a week ago.
The delay was down to Alison Anderson, who spiked Giles’ grab for the leadership and threatened to take her so-called “bush coalition” of three newly elected Aboriginal MLAs (Bess Price, Francis Xavier and Larisa Lee) with her to the crossbenches or, remarkably, into a coalition with Labor. Someone in that room should have called Anderson’s bluff.
In the days following, a triumphant Anderson — now with a senior cabinet position — railed against Giles, calling him and his supporters “little boys” ill-fitted for the highest office in the NT. This is an insult that will rankle and linger.
Cracks in Anderson’s bush coalition appeared almost overnight. By Thursday last week Bess Price declared her undying support for Mills and took a swipe at Anderson on the way through:
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“Let me make it clear: while I work with and respect Alison Anderson — and indeed all the other members from bush electorates — Terry Mills is my leader and that is where my loyalty lies.”
Meanwhile, with things far from settled at home, Mills set off for Perth and Japan to talk gas. As Crikey noted over the weekend, there is a long NT tradition of bosses going away for a few days leave and finding on their return they’ve been sacked.
In what is widely considered little more than a blatant and desperate political bribe to shore up support with the bush coalition — that would have cost an impoverished NT Treasury upwards of $1 million — on Sunday Price, Lee and Xavier were appointed as parliamentary secretaries.
Crikey understands that by Monday, notwithstanding the “sugar” offered by Mills and his deputy Westra van Holthe, Price had swung her loyalty to Giles. The spill was back on.
As Crikey reported yesterday, by Tuesday night the plotters were out in plain view. Price, Dave Tollner and Giles were in deep conversation during a long dinner at Darwin’s waterside nosh-pit El Piatto. They were joined by Rodney Illingworth, executive director of Sherwin Iron. The Serwin chairman is Barry Coulter, a CLP member and parliamentarian from 1983 to 1999 and deputy chief minister from 1986 to 1995.
Coulter is a supporter of Giles and until last Tuesday — the day before the first Giles spill attempt — was a member of the NT’s “Renewal Management Board”, a six-month position for which Coulter received $150,000 for services as an “advisor”.
Anderson and the others finally saw the writing on the wall and swung behind Giles yesterday morning. By early afternoon Giles had the numbers: 11 to five.
No party room vote has been held yet and Giles and Tollner hold their positions “on the papers” until the CLP party room meets upon the return of Mills to Darwin. The first Giles cabinet will be sworn in this afternoon at 3.30pm.
The bush coalition, widely seen here as a bloc of four votes carried by Anderson, appears to have evaporated.
As Price indicated over the weekend, she does not regard herself as a rusted-on member of that group, if it existed at all. It appears that rather than the four bush coalition votes, Anderson may only carry her own vote and one or two others at most — Lee or Xavier appear the obvious choices. Giles and Tollner had the numbers even without Anderson’s vote.
Mills was in a meeting in Tokyo when he received a number of urgent phone calls from van Holthe. He got the bad news by text message. Within the hour he’d given a number of media interviews and announced he had stepped down as chief minister and would be on the first plane home.
After an overnight flight and a few hours cooling his heels in the Qantas lounge at Sydney Airport, Mills will board flight QF842 and land in Darwin mid-afternoon to be met by a media throng at the airport and humiliation in the party room that a few short days ago had pledged its undying support.
The CLP has been condemned as craven and cowardly for the manner of the coup — sacking a leader while out of the jurisdiction. There is a precedent for this however: in February 1999 Shane Stone was given the word to go while in Perth. Crikey understands it was planned to wait for Mills to return from Japan before giving him the bad news but that someone in the Mills camp couldn’t hold their tongue and leaked it.
Giles and Tollner have a lot of hard work before them to rebuild a shattered party and the loss of confidence — in both the community and business — that a party that cannot govern itself shouldn’t be governing the Territory.