Australian political watchers got a leadership spill after all last night — but it wasn’t quite the one they were expecting. In a late-night Northern Territory coup, Adam Giles’ Country Liberal Party colleagues dumped him as chief minister, with Willem Westra van Holthe announcing he had seized control at a 1am press conference.

According to inside sources, the vote to unseat Giles was nine to five. Giles had the support of colleagues Kezia Purick, Bess Price, Dave Tollner and Peter Styles*.

At the press conference Westra van Holthe told the media the bloodletting was over, and the government could get on with the business at hand: “Under my leadership, this government will be more consultative with Territorians and engage with them before we make important and crucial decisions on the future of the territory.”

But the midnight-hour coup will not bring stability to NT politics. While Terry Mills, whom Giles dumped in a clumsy political assassination — Mills was dumped by text message while on a trade mission to Japan in March — is laughing like a drain in Indonesia, this latest coup pours petrol rather than oil on the NT’s troubled political waters.

Westra van Holthe was for a short while Mills’ deputy chief minister and suffered the same fate as his boss during the March 2013 spill. Giles took on Tollner as his second in command, giving Westra van Holthe a wide variety of portfolios, including Primary Industries and Fisheries, Mines and Energy, Land Resource Management, and Essential Services.

But that was’t the end of it, with Tollner encouraged to take “a rest” — i.e. step down from the deputy role — after making homophobic comments about a colleague’s son in August 2014. The party selected Peter Chandler to replace him.

Two big questions remain from last night’s political carnage: if Giles and Chandler — condemned to polishing the leather of the backbenches when Parliament next sits in a few weeks — leave the legislative assembly and force byelections, NT voters might still be in baseball bat-swinging mode and might dump the CLP — and the party’s skinny majority will evaporate like the steam off a hot Darwin road after a wet season sun shower.

As Crikey hits publish, the CLP is in chaos, with Giles refusing to sign a resignation letter.

Long-time party supporters are also livid. One rusted-on CLP member told Crikey this morning, “The brains are all on the backbench, the fuckwits are running the party”.

Watch this space.

* An earlier version of this piece identified Deputy Chief Minister Peter Chandler as a Giles supporter.

Peter Fray

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