For a party at war with itself and facing electoral oblivion at the next Northern Territory election in August, this past weekend’s Country Liberal Party central council meeting in very hot Alice Springs represented an all but last chance to rally the local troops, heal the party’s rancorous internal divisions and provide some clear guidance for the difficult times ahead.

It did none of these things.

By all accounts, NT Chief Minister Adam Giles tried his best with a well-received speech up-selling the CLP’s message as the NT’s party of political choice, but other signs boded less well. Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Indigenous Affairs Minister and CLP Senator Nigel Scullion, was in his best angry-ant mode, telling the troops that all was well, apart from a “rough trot with some intraopections and treacherous bastards” within the party.

Following the theme of Giles’ message from late February — that the NT’s economy was in “a bit of a financial hole” — a question from the floor elicited the response from Scullion that “47,000 less backpackers” — a core element of the NT’s tourism trade and farm-labour market — came to the NT in the last year, preferring, it seems, to travel to our new economic enemy Canada instead.

But the numbers in the room spoke volumes. On my generous headcount from footage shown by the ABC on Saturday night, there were no more than 30 CLP members in the room. That was apparently bolstered by a few stragglers who wandered in off a delayed plane from Darwin, including federal MP Natasha Griggs and staff, and an unwell-looking Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu, member for Arafura. No one I spoke to who was at the meeting could give me a number higher than 50 attendees during the weekend, a number that must have party loyalists in despair. Past central council numbers have easily run over 100, particularly when held in Darwin.

CLP central council meetings, while notionally a gathering of representatives of both the party and parliamentary wings of  the CLP and of federal representatives, represent — particularly in an election year where the party’s prospects are bleak, at best — an important opportunity to reset internal policies and discipline, rally the troops, set fundraising priorities and resolve disputes within and between the branches.

How successful the most recent meeting has been at resolving internal disputes and setting electoral priorities remains to be seen and The Northern Myth looks forward to the usual receipt of the full set of leaked central council minutes in due course.

A few other matters exercised the minds of members at the meeting, not least of which is the future of former deputy chief minister and now backbencher, the member for Katherine, Willem Westra van Holthe. Van Holthe has apparently told the CLP parliamentary party room that if he is disendorsed as candidate for his seat at the coming election — a very real prospect that I first tipped here, following his dumping as deputy chief minister three weeks ago — then he will run as an independent candidate.

Van Holthe is unlikely to be successful in that venture should it come to pass. However, his candidacy as an independent would create further turmoil in the CLP, split the local conservative vote and might allow Labor’s Sandra Nelson to sneak over the line, a disaster in a seat that the CLP has held since before self-government in 1978.

The other rumour concerns the plum NT Senate seat held by Scullion. If a federal election is held on July 2 or thereabouts, the scenario runs like this: Scullion is re-elected to the Senate at the July election and Adam Giles is re-elected to his seat of Braitling in the NT Parliament the following month, but the CLP loses government and Giles turns from chief ministerial rooster to a humble feather duster and member of the NT’s loyal opposition to a Labor government led by Michael Gunner. After a few weeks or months, Scullion — who has been an NT senator since 2001, and is unlikely to progress further by way of portfolios or leadership of the Nationals — decides that for family or health reasons he should resign as a senator, and Adam Giles is then nominated to Scullion’s Senate seat.

There are a lot of ifs and buts in that scenario, but, on my reading, Scullion is unlikely to be re-appointed as Minister for Indigenous Affairs or any other portfolio following the (assumed) Turnbull victory at the coming federal election; there are just too many capable backbenchers keen for a ministerial portfolio, even if it as poisoned a chalice as indigenous affairs.

A Senate posting would appeal to Adam Giles’ vanity and political ambition and also get him out of the poisonous “nest of vipers” that is internal CLP politics, which would only become more dangerous following the looming defeat at the August election. Giles and the CLP may well get lucky and win that election — local Labor sources aren’t taking a victory for granted — but the signs within the CLP aren’t looking good, nor are they likely to get better soon.

Peter Fray

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