29 May 2014
Indeed this is the Northern Territory, a place of limber rules and lax enforcement, where “she’ll be right” often passes for an ample explanation. And that can be endearing. But here’s the rub: after decades as a frontier province, the Territory wants to be something more; it wants to lead the nation.
Launching his government’s submission to the federal parliamentary inquiry into northern Australia in February, Chief Minister Adam Giles boldly stated: “No other jurisdiction can beat the Territory’s abundant natural resources, room for growth and strong trading links with Asia’s biggest economies.
“There is no doubt that Darwin is the logical capital of the north,” he continued. “What we want to do is put our view quite clearly that the Northern Territory should lead this debate.”
That’s a big ask, given the Territory is home to only about 1 per cent of Australia’s population, and contributes roughly the same to gross domestic product.
Committee chairman Warren Entsch quickly rebuffed Giles’s “chest-beating parochialism”. There seems little chance Canberra or the states will relinquish control anytime soon.
Nevertheless, what happens in the Territory affects Australia’s image, particularly because the Territory has a large indigenous population and is close to Asia. Sadly, scenes around parliament lately have depicted its political class as at best dysfunctional — unable to manage dissent, or withstand or apply proper scrutiny — and at worst almost out of control.
Parliament has all but broken down as a venue for serious debate, sinking repeatedly into extraordinary exchanges that concern allegations of racism, bullying, nepotism and corruption. One of the most dramatic was the mocking of indigenous MP Alison Anderson by Dave Tollner, for which the Treasurer apologised.
Many of the allegations have not been properly investigated, leaving open questions about the integrity of elected representatives. Meanwhile, the government has become used to forcing through legislation using its numbers, often overlooking calls for the most controversial pieces to be scrutinised further.
The latest furor began when parliament resumed earlier this month, shortly after three indigenous backbenchers quit the ruling Country Liberal Party last month to form a Territory branch of the Palmer United Party. Their departure brought the CLP perilously close to losing its first-term majority, a near-death experience interpreted by some as a demonstration of Giles’s impotence as a leader.
The new PUP recruits used parliamentary question time to expose the CLP for allegedly concealing political donations made via a shadowy private company known as Foundation 51. One of the PUP trio, Larisa Lee, also accused Attorney-General John Elferink and a serving magistrate, Peter Maley, of criminally trying to bribe her to remain with the CLP in February.
According to opposition government accountability spokesman Ken Vowles, Foundation 51 is “a front company set up and deliberately designed to avoid disclosure of donations”. Vowles says there are “very close parallels between Foundation 51 and the murky entity Eightbyfive”, established by NSW Liberals.
Giles denied the claims, telling parliament there was “no connection between Foundation 51 and the CLP as a legal body’’, and insisting his party was “open, clear and transparent” about political donations. He also said he was “not aware” of how Foundation 51 operated.
Leaked emails tabled by Labor, sent in March, show that CLP treasurer and Foundation 51 director Graeme Lewis informed CLP president Ross Connolly he had “on many occasions” discussed Foundation 51 with Giles.
Lewis also said the foundation had “already contributed significantly” towards a recent by-election, “in retrospect not clever, in view of this current interrogation!”, and suggested it might handle millions of dollars before the end of the next election year.
Foundation 51 is not declared as a politically associated entity and has not lodged donor returns.
According to Australian Securities & Investment Commission records, Foundation 51 was established in 2009 by Lewis and then CLP opposition leader Terry Mills’s chief of staff, James Lantry.
Sources say it began as a membership-based organisation, conducting demographic research and polling on behalf of businesses and the party, and accumulated several hundred thousand dollars in fees in its first 18 months.
Documents accessible online appear to describe Foundation 51 as “an initiative of the CLP” that shared a post-office box with a party branch. The domain name foundation51.com.au was registered to the CLP until last month, and there was a link from foundation51.com.au to a smiling picture of Giles on the CLP website.
Responding to opposition attempts to censure Giles for “lying”, Tollner explained the CLP would “often raise money or receive donations from members of Foundation 51”. “They do not do that as members of Foundation 51 but as independent businesspeople in the community,” he said. Party members attended some Foundation 51 events, along with others who “coincidentally contributed money to the election of the CLP”.
The Australian has been told businessman Clive Palmer was once guest speaker at a $10,000-a-head fundraising dinner organised by Foundation 51 and held at the home of a prominent Darwin developer. Neither Lewis nor Connolly responded to questions.
Labor complained to the Northern Territory Electoral Commission after Giles rebuffed calls for an inquiry. The NTEC and the Australian Electoral Commission are considering how to proceed.
Set against a backdrop of damning revelations about political donations by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, it seems extraordinary that so many unresolved questions could remain in the Top End.
Elferink said there was “no doubt Foundation 51 has shared information with the CLP in the past”. Yet he saw no problem with his government appointing Lewis — who is a member of the CLP’s management committee, as well as party treasurer and a Foundation 51 director, and in the 1980s served a three-month good-behaviour bond in a case related to political donations — to several taxpayer-funded positions, including chairman of the Land Development Corporation and chairman of the Darwin Waterfront Corporation, crucial organisations for developers.
Elferink also saw no problem with magistrate Maley, a former CLP MP, political donor and personal friend, handing out party how-to-vote cards and holding a Foundation 51 directorship.
Maley later resigned from the party, telling the ABC: “I now recognise that it is not appropriate for judicial officers to be a continuing part of the political process.”
Generous water licences have come under scrutiny, although Tollner denied impropriety.
“We are very proud of the fact we are making water available, and we are making it available for more than the one or two people the opposition would like to focus on,” he said. Last year the CLP was forced to deny awarding large licences without due process to failed federal election candidate Tina MacFarlane.
In another dramatic parliamentary moment this year, the government used its numbers to block Lee from tabling documents she says support her claims Elferink and Maley offered inducements including “my own cheque book” for her to remain with the CLP, and threatened loss of “protection” if she left.
“If this is just ‘he said, she said’, why would you block the evidence?” Labor Opposition Leader Delia Lawrie asked.
Giles dismissed Lee’s claims as ridiculous. It later emerged that Speaker Kezia Purick had shown Lee’s complaint, lodged in February, to Elferink, apparently without Lee’s consent or knowledge, and suggested referring it to a committee he chaired for investigation. Elferink and Maley acknowledged speaking to Lee, but rejected suggestions they had acted improperly.
Purick dismissed the matter on procedural grounds before it became public. Vowles says the mere fact Maley’s call took place justifies investigation. He asked: “Why is a magistrate calling an MP?”
Viewed in isolation, these events might be taken as political posturing. But critics argue that they are part of a trend, describing the Giles government as “arrogant” and averse to scrutiny.
In the midst of the chaos, independent Gerry Wood issued a press release reading: “FOR SALE/ONE PARLIAMENT/DAMAGED BEYOND REPAIR/NEEDS NEW OWNERS/CONSTITUENTS LEAVING TERRITORY/ANY SENSIBLE AND MATURE OFFERS CONSIDERED/RING 000.”
Purick responded by lecturing Wood on conduct unbecoming of “the office for democratic institutions, rights and freedoms and the principles of good governance”.
Last month, Purick was revealed to have deliberately leaked secret cabinet information to Labor in an attempt to damage her own government during leadership struggles. She justified her actions on the grounds “no one enters public life to be a doormat”.
In a separate incident, Health Minister Robyn Lambley was forced to out her colleague, Tourism Minister Matt Conlan, for allegedly using foul language against a female MP, rather than be part of a “cover-up”.
Giles initially appeared to deny the incident occurred, even though Conlan had by that time already apologised to all government members. Earlier this year, Giles denied knowing he co-owned a racehorse with senior figures in the alcohol industry, despite being pictured with them and the animal last year.
Early in his leadership, Giles set a precedent by launching a $500,000 probe into a suspicious lease awarded to Unions NT by Labor in the dying days of the Paul Henderson government. However, he seems unwilling to apply the same scrutiny to his own side.
Asked if he would consider introducing legislation to create an ICAC-like corruption watchdog in the Territory, Giles replied abruptly: “No.” He also rebuffed calls for inquiries into Foundation 51 and his government’s handling of water licences.
Of course, it is possible CLP members’ denials are entirely justified. No proof to the contrary has been made public. It is possible some allegations and counter-allegations now circulating are, to varying degrees, confected for political ends. But, in the absence of transparency, suspicion remains.
The trouble for the Territory is that the sort of major investors needed to foster long-term growth are not those likely to tolerate much more political risk.
Mineral licences cancelled in NSW, following revelations by ICAC, show the folly of approving projects by a wink and a nudge.
Concern about the Territory’s unstable political environment has been steadily heightened by legislative changes that deprive independent bodies of power, placing it instead in ministerial hands.
If the Territory wants to grow up, it cannot go on pretending standards considered normal elsewhere do not apply. Sometimes “she’ll be right” just doesn’t cut it.
Courtesy of The Australian