Two days after Christmas, the NT News ran this extraordinary apology from Philip Brennan, previously a senior Northern Territory Department of Education bureaucrat.

That apology was directed to Stephen Ferguson, who had been a teacher at several remote NT government bush schools and has more than a few tales to tell of his time in the NT. Ferguson is now based at a remote school in South Australia and last week sat down with the Northern Myth over a coffee or two to tell his tale.

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Stephen Ferguson (“Mr Ferg” to his pupils) grew up with his adopted parents in Glasgow in the early ’70s and as a young man travelled to Australia to link up with his biological mother. He’d trained as a teacher in Scotland and, during the late ’90s, worked in a number of schools across the world as an ESL teacher and returned to Adelaide to do postgraduate teacher training for local accreditation. In 2004, he made his first trip to the NT for five weeks of practical teaching at Milingimbi, a small township on an island off the central Arnhem Land coast.

Ferguson was smitten by the life out bush and after finishing his degree he took on a two-year contract to teach at Gapuwiyak, another small Arnhem Land town a few hundred kilometres east of Milingimbi. He took 2007 off to travel but by the start of the school year in 2008 he was back in north-east Arnhem Land.

The first sign of trouble for Ferguson — who like many Glaswegians I’ve met is slow to anger but has a quiet resolve that should never be underestimated — came in early 2009 when he had a run-in with his regional director Hylton Hayes and the deputy principal of the school — a run-in Ferguson claimed was related to his activities as a union delegate at the school. That resulted in Ferguson lodging a claim with the NT Anti-Discrimination Commission. By late November 2009, he was mired in a full-blown dispute with the Education Department over the conduct of the principal at the Gapuwiyak School, Shirley Nirrpurranydji. Nirrpurranydji had apparently taken exception to him making a formal complaint against her conduct as principal.

As detailed in an April 2011 letter to Ferguson from Dr Julie Wells, Director of the NT Teacher Registration Board concerning the hearing of Ferguson’s complaints against Nirrpurranydji, the allegations against her included that she had approached a teacher for loans of money and had on November 16, 2009, “allegedly used threatening words … that once she had the name of the person … she was going up to the house of teacher, Stephen Ferguson, to spear him, burn his house down and to have her family kill him.”

Now Ferguson might be a nuggety Glaswegian, but he isn’t stupid. So he took the very sensible step of asking the Education Department to evacuate him — and two other teachers feeling similarly threatened — from Milingimbi to Darwin. Due to the seriousness of the threats against them, the police were later involved.

In early 2010, Ferguson lodged a further complaint (this time alleging victimisation) with the Anti-Discrimination Commission and a workers compensation claim. Ferguson spent much of 2010 travelling in southern Africa and returned to the NT for a new teaching appointment at the Alyangula Area School on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 2011. From his perspective, he’d put many of the past issues behind him and was looking forward to his new teaching assignment.

But his regional director was Hylton Hayes, with whom he’d had a run-in in 2009 and Hayes was to haunt Ferguson’s career again. As Nigel Adlam reported in the NT News in September 2012, when Ferguson approached Alyangula Area School principal Coral O’Neill seeking a reference:

“O’Neill sent a message about him to school performance director Hylton Hayes headlined: Reference for the Trained Tattoo Monkey.

“Mr Hayes replied: ‘Ohhh! Mental health facilities are desperately needed and sends a shiver through me.

“‘On another matter, how do you get a gun licence in the Territory?’

“Ms O’Neill messaged back: ‘Walk into a police station and tell them you have a varmitt (sic) problem.'”

Ferguson, who later obtained the emails through Freedom of Information legislation, threatened to sue Hayes and O’Neill for defamation. Both settled those claims for undisclosed amounts before they reached court.

At the Teacher Registration Board hearing in March 2011, Nirrpurranydji admitted that she had threatened to kill Ferguson and more. As reported in January 2012:

“Nirrpurranydji, who is considered one of the ‘star’ figures in Territory education, said she would spear Stephen Ferguson and burn down his house.

“A Teachers’ Registration Board investigation found the allegations were true — but the Education Department didn’t sack her.

“Ms Nirrpurranydji, 56, was told not to do it again. The principal paid a fine after being issued with two police infringement notices for using threatening words and behaviour in public.”

Meanwhile Ferguson’s anti-discrimination claim dragged on in a war-of-attrition-by-letter between lawyers through 2010 to early 2013, with the department vigorously disputing his claims of victimisation and discrimination. In April 2013, the department took the Anti-Discrimination Commission to the NT Supreme Court, claiming that the commission had fundamentally misconstrued its jurisdiction and made errors in accepting Ferguson’s complaints.

In her judgement in early May, 2013, Justice Judith Kelly rejected all of the department’s submissions, noting that:

“From the outset, the Department’s response to the second complaint was entirely focused on trying to have it dismissed on technical grounds, rather than dealing with the substance of the complaint.

“As I have said in paragraph [36] above, there has been no jurisdictional error and, therefore, there is no basis for the relief sought. If there had been jurisdictional error demonstrated, I would nevertheless have been inclined to refuse to intervene on discretionary grounds.

“As the Registrar pointed out in her correspondence to the parties on 28 June 2012, it would lead to a perverse outcome if the plaintiff [the Department] could assert that the conduct complained of by Mr Ferguson was not victimisation for lodging the first complaint but discrimination (in the sense of harassment) because of Mr Ferguson’s union activity, and then restrain the Commissioner from hearing the claim for discrimination on that ground: yet that, essentially, is what the plaintiff is attempting to do in this proceeding.

“The plaintiff’s claim is dismissed.”

Following the ignominious defeat in the Supreme Court the department settled Ferguson’s anti-discrimination claims soon after the start of the hearing. As he told me over coffee earlier this week:

“I told the Department’s lawyers very early in the piece that I’d be happy to walk away with a modest settlement, a minuscule amount compared to what the department must have spent on legal fees and my costs in the Supreme Court and the other matters over the years. I told the department that all I wanted was a quiet life and to be left alone. But they came at me — and kept coming — so what was I gonna do?”

But the department — or at least one member of it — couldn’t leave Ferguson alone and in August, 2013, things got really weird. As set out in Phillip Brennan’s apology in the Public Notices of the NT News, Brennan — in mid-2013 employed as the department’s general manager of human resources — “… create[d] an email address which was almost identical to Mr Ferguson’s personal email account.”

Brennan went on to use this fake email address to set up a fake Facebook page in Ferguson’s name and to log onto and make comments at the NT Education Union’s Facebook page purporting to be Ferguson at a time when the union was engaged in difficult and prolonged enterprise bargaining negotiations with the NT government.As Brennan notes in his apology, he did not use departmental resources, instead using his personal computer. Brennan also posted comments on the blog site, which claims to be a site to address:

“Our broken NT Education Dept needs your help. Join us in the Campaign for Accountability and Responsibility in DoE. Help to protect all NT teachers from Institutional abuse of power.”

Brennan’s deceptions weren’t going to stay secret for long, particularly with Ferguson on the case and with his dander up. He’d cancelled his own (real) Facebook account more than two years earlier and he’d never posted any comments at the cardfightback blog. Ferguson arranged for a check on the IP addresses for the blog comments which revealed that some had been sent through a US-based proxy server.

Further investigations — bolstered by a court order — and negotiations with the Facebook administrators and the ISP revealed that Philip Brennan was the owner of the computer from which the comments had been posted and of the fake Facebook page.

Ferguson was gobsmacked.

“I couldn’t believe that a senior NT government officer — who I know had been cc’d into many of the emails that I had seen between various NT government legal and education department officers –would post malicious and wrong comments about me and fabricate a false online identity in my name. And what is perhaps the most remarkable thing is that while Brennan has apparently been subject to ‘investigation and discipline’ by the education department he now works for the NT Health department, presumably in a senior role. For me that just compounds the insult. Did the Education department contact me to apologise for Brennan’s conduct? Did they fuck …”

By now Ferguson was well familiar with legal proceedings and filed suit against Brennan for his actions. That matter was set for a first Directions Hearing in the NT Supreme Court on December 9, 2014. Brennan apparently agreed to settle Ferguson’s claim before that hearing.

Two-and-a-half weeks later Brennan posted his fulsome — in both senses of that word — apology.

The day after Brennan published his apology the NT News ran a puff piece entitled “Top of the Class” profiling the lives of three NT remote teachers that started with:

“Teaching in remote Territory communities is like teaching nowhere else in the country.”

What remains to be said? Surely the last word belongs to Mr Ferg.

“I won’t take their shit anymore. The NT education department has thrown everything at me — legal cases, angry letters, kicked me out of my house and job, tried to bleed me dry with legal costs and I had to move to another state to do the job I love — but I’m still standing and I can laugh at them now.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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