Mansfield Inquiry

 Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner

The appointment this past weekend by Michael Gunner’s Northern Territory Labor government of retired Federal Court justice John Mansfield to conduct an inquiry into political donations in the NT was long overdue and welcome. As Gunner noted yesterday, the Mansfield Inquiry will be an important step towards restoring public trust in the institutions of government in the NT. Finding a commissioner for this gig was always going to be tough, but I can think of no better person than Mansfield for the task — he has long familiarity with the Territory and its people and institutions without being beholden to any.

But the Gunner government has bungled the conduct of the Mansfield Inquiry even before it has begun, not least by an unexplained delay in the appointment of the commissioner but also in — apparently — failing to lay the essential groundwork for the effective and efficient conduct of the inquiry. Add to that terms of reference that need drastic revision and it does not make for a good start.

Gunner didn’t identify (he didn’t have to) the cause of much of the lack of Territorians’ trust in their government; the four years of chaotic rule of the NT by the Country Liberal Party from 2012 to 2016 under now-independent MLA Terry Mills and his successor as chief minister, Adam Giles, are still fresh in our minds. (For those in need of a refresher, check The Northern Myth’s archives here — or grab a copy of Crocs in the Cabinet, the best account of that most turbulent time in the NT’s brief political history as chronicled by NT News writers Christopher Walsh and Ben Smee.)

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Proposals for a local inquiry into political donations — and its ugly cousin election funding — have been around for a while. In mid-August 2014, in a move that caught the CLP napping — literally — independent MLA Gerry “Ich bin ein chook Bauer” Wood presented a motion for a broad-ranging inquiry into political donations aimed directly at the conduct of the CLP and its “mental and monetary creature” Foundation 51.

More on Foundation 51 shortly, but as I wrote here the next day:

“In the normal course of events the CLP Government would have squashed that motion like a bug on the windscreen of a Toyota ute. But … it appears that the CLP was caught asleep at the wheel and the motion passed on the voices … Leader of Government in the Assembly, John Elferink, opposed the motion but didn’t have the numbers present in the Assembly to defeat the resolution. According to reports, the Government only had five members — or less — in the House at the time the motion was bought on.”

It took a couple of months but the CLP eventually overruled that motion by a rescinding vote where it managed to round up the numbers to kill the Humpty Doo chook farmer’s motion.

Political donations and election funding were a constantly scratched itch for the remainder of the CLP’s troubled term. Following Labor’s inevitable election win in late August 2016, the new Gunner government introduced a motion to establish “Options for Political Reform” and tabled Labor’s election policy paper “Restoring Integrity to Government”, a grab-bag of tepid proposals that argued for — among other things — a local ICAC and reforms to political funding and electoral processes.

As tabled by Gunner on November 30, 2016, the terms of reference for the Mansfield Inquiry call for that process to be finalised within 12 months. The first six references, while relatively uncontroversial, are poorly drafted and imprecise and look more like a working draft than a final document designed to inform and direct any particular lines of any serious inquiry. For mine, it is inappropriate to ask Mansfield to make conclusive recommendations about matters like a cap on political spending (references (1) and (4)); full or partial public funding (references (2) and (3)); and whether there have been any breaches of the NT Electoral Act in relation to political party and candidates donations (reference (7)) during the previous 10 years — without directing him to broader aspects of the electoral law.

Surely it would have been better to provide a more general focus, such as directing the Mansfield Inquiry to an examination of “Part 10 — Financial Disclosures” of the NT’s Electoral Act?

Notwithstanding those limitations — and it is unclear whether the terms of reference will be amended or revised — Mansfield should be able to construct clear lines of inquiry from at least the first seven references, which are largely directed to legislative and policy issues.

However other, more serious administrative and procedural issues remain to be clarified.

As yet no discussion paper has been produced or is available. That is an essential document that will — or should — provide key focal points for the attention of Mansfield and his support staff and of any members of the public, political parties or others — think property developers or other classes of donors — that might be affected by or interested in the inquiry.

*Read the rest at Crikey blog Northern Myth