In a disaster entirely of her own making, NT Labor Leader Delia Lawrie’s ill-judged case against the commissioner of an NT government inquiry (with a status equivalent to a royal commission) into the grant of a rent-free lease to Unions NT of public land has failed in the worst possible way. Lawrie will be dumped as leader after the Easter break by a party that has long been disillusioned by the style and substance of her leadership.

Lawrie’s Supreme Court case deserves a nomination for a political Darwin Award, commemorating those who improve the local very shallow political gene pool by removing themselves from it.

As I said in an earlier report on this matter, until earlier this year, Labor was odds-on to regain power at the next NT election due in the spring of 2016. That betting has blown out now as a result of Justice Stephen Southwood’s excoriating judgement, delivered yesterday in the NT Supreme Court, in the matter of Delia Lawrie v John Lawler.

Southwood found that Lawrie had engaged in a “conscious and deliberate strategy” to withdraw her participation in Lawler’s inquiry (the “Stella Maris Inquiry“) into the grant of a Darwin property to Unions NT and then claim she was denied procedural fairness in the course of the inquiry.

How NT Labor deals with Lawrie’s dead-duck leadership is the focus of local media attention today but, as NT Chief Minister Adam Giles (almost) gleefully noted in this media release last night, the case has much wider implications for the NT’s tiny legal fraternity.

“The dishonest tactics of the Labor Party and its connections in the legal fraternity have been laid bare on the public record and it’s not pretty. Labor and their lawyers engaged in an orchestrated campaign to discredit the inquiry, smearing members of the parliament, the inquiry and the public service along the way. It’s their usual modus operandi …

“Justice Southward refers to a letter written by one of Ms Lawrie’s lawyers, former NT Labor President and union heavyweight Cathy Spurr, in which she falsely claims the Labor Leader and her Deputy have exhausted their pro bono legal assistance.

“This letter to Mr Lawler is part of the strategy of Ms Lawrie ignoring and disengaging with the inquiry. The whole of the second paragraph in Ms Spurr’s letter to Mr Lawler is deliberately and knowingly false. The making of the false statements is counselled by Mr Wyville (sic); and Ms Spurr sent the letter after obtaining instructions from Ms Lawrie. Ms Lawrie knew the statements were false.” Lawrie v Lawler [2015] NTSC 19, 181, p. 94

Cathy Spurr, a partner in the local firm Halfpennys, retained Alistair Wyvill SC (president of the NT Bar Association and also a member of the Australian Bar Association Council) as counsel for Lawrie and Labor MLA Gerry McCarthy. Spurr and Wyvill agreed to act on a pro bono basis after they were informed in late 2013 that the NT government would not fund Lawrie’s representation at the Stella Maris inquiry.

In his judgement, Southwood details the history of engagement between Lawrie, her legal team and the inquiry. He refers to an email, sent by Wyvill on March 31, 2014, to Lawrie, McCarthy, Spurr and Labor staffers that he says:

“[151] … signals the commencement of the strategy to ignore, disengage and discredit the Inquiry. In my opinion, the strategy is adopted because Mr Wyvill had formed the view that Mr Lawler could not be persuaded by Ms Lawrie’s explanation about why it was necessary to make the decision to grant a Crown lease of Stella Maris to Unions NT in the manner the decision was made …

“It must have also been obvious to Mr Wyvill that the Inquiry was not going well for Ms Lawrie and Mr McCarthy … Much of Ms Lawrie’s evidence was dissembling and it was apparent that she was not conscientiously endeavouring to assist the Inquiry.

“[152] The strategy suggested by Mr Wyvill involved two components. First, Ms Lawrie and her lawyers would ignore Mr Lawler in the future and disengage from the Inquiry. Second, they would discredit the Inquiry.”

Referring to an exchange during the inquiry hearings between Wyvill and Lawler, Southwood notes that:

“[163] What Mr Wyvill is doing during the course of this exchange with Mr Lawler is consistent with the first dot point of his email dated 31 March 2014. First, Mr Wyvill is endeavouring to respond to Mr Lawler’s concern that Mr McCarthy had wrongly suggested that Mr Lawler had stated that he had reached a ‘final view’. He is also asserting that Mr Lawler had wrongly described the attachment between Unions NT and the Stella Maris site as an 88 ‘urban myth’ and thereby prejudged the issue. Second, Mr Wyvill is putting ‘quotes on the record’ for the purpose of using them to discredit Mr Lawler at a later date. In substance, Mr Wyvill was endeavouring to disparage Mr Lawler publicly on the record so that political use could be made of his comments in other places. (p. 87-88) …

“[164] Mr Wyvill fails on both counts. Both barrels were empty.”

Peter Fray

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