The most remarkable event of the past 36 hours of Adam Giles’ Country Liberal Party government was not the bizarre and utterly inept challenge to his chief ministership by two senior colleagues, one of whom was the Attorney-General, but his announcement of a judicial inquiry into the did-he-fall-or-was-he-pushed resignation of NT police commissioner John McRoberts.
We have few details at present, and Giles was typically inarticulate in his explanation as to the why, who, when and what of this inquiry, but according to Giles it will reach right into the heart of what appears to be an administration in abject chaos.
We’ll have to wait for further details, but from comments by Giles at a 2pm presser yesterday the inquiry will concern the administration by the NT Department of Health of a pensioner travel scheme, the alleged rorting of that scheme by at least one travel agent and the subsequent actions of NT Police, allegedly involving McRoberts, and the remarkable arrest of a well-known local travel agent — frog-marched from her office in handcuffs in full view of the media and placed in a paddy wagon for what appears to be a relatively minor fraud-related offence.
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Rumour and scuttlebutt — the two ugly handmaidens of political intrigue — have been prominent in political circles for weeks if not months, and Peter Chandler, appointed by Giles as Police Minister in a pre-Christmas re-shuffle, was obviously struggling to control matters. Space prevents a fuller exposition of this affair here, but this excellent piece by Paul Toohey in the local NT News sets out the seriousness of the matter and (at least) some of the dramatis personae.
But back to Giles’ presser of yesterday afternoon — delivered immediately before he entered a CLP parliamentary wing meeting to deal with the upstart coup leaders. Giles let loose first at the rumour-mongers in his own party and Darwin’s “chattering class”:
“There have been a series of allegations and rumours made today, particularly in relation to some senior police and members of the political fraternity on the Country Liberals party side … there are rumours being spread about myself to destabilise me, spreading them through the political circles, the chattering class, through upper echelons of police force, making allegations about me in relation to the police investigation …
“[T]he circumstances around the undermining process, spreading rumours about myself by one parliamentary member in particular and upper echelons of the police, I think is very bad and signifies a significant problem within police, hence the judicial inquiry if just announced we will be proceeding with.”
Giles then cut to the chase, drawing a link — tenuous at best perhaps at this stage — between the recent difficulties within the NT Police Force and the midnight coup launched by two of his senior ministers:
“The allegations that have been coming out about senior members of the police force actively running a coup or a campaign in cahoots with some alleged politicians is a significant problem.”
Taken at their highest, these allegations point to a conspiracy between senior police and politicians to effect a coup of the elected government. How credible those allegations are is yet to be tested, but if proven true, this would represent a low point in Northern Territory — if not Australian — democracy.
Watch this space.
The rest of the Giles presser was equally remarkable. Giles took out his best Louisville Slugger and aimed it squarely at the coup leader’s head:
“I don’t believe that Willem Westra Van Holthe has the capacity, capability or the tenacity or the professionalism to be chief minister … I think today he has made quite a tactical error. If you do want to be chief minister, surely you get your numbers right and get government right.”
Giles was contrite:
“… all I can do is apologise. It is a disgraceful thing that has occurred. It’s immature politics.”
But brutally frank about the conduct of his party and its continued fitness to govern:
“There is no doubt the Country Liberals have been divided for many, many, many years on a range of different areas, policy and structural and personalities. I believe those things have been coming together quite well … What we have seen as a result of last night is a party completely disintegrate in terms of different factions, warring factions immediately …
“I would be questioning whether the CLP has the 500 members to be a registered party themselves. The number of resignations that have come through today, I’m advised by the president is significant. This is turmoil within the party. It is turmoil within government and not good for Territorians.”
Earlier that day Giles had called the coup leader’s bluff and refused to resign. At 3.30pm he entered an emergency meeting of the CLP parliamentary wing, emerging three hours later — still as Chief Minister — with van Holthe by his side, newly anointed as Deputy Chief Minister.
Giles was — again — contrite and apologetic, backflipping on his earlier call for an election within three months.
Van Holthe said that he was “very pleased” to be named the Deputy Chief Minister and said he was “100% … in fact, 110% behind the Chief Minister”.