Current political upheaval mirrors the past

PHOTOS (from top): Leadership coups against two chief ministers? Ian Tuxworth was one of them • A Centralian government minister who resigns to the backbench because of family troubles? Ray Hanrahan did • Possible disendorsement of a popular sitting member? Remember Denis Collins • Removal of a seat in Parliament in The Centre? Alex Nelson (the writer of this comment) was drafting the CLP submission in 1989. In 1990 he was elected the CLP’s member of the year. He is no longer a member of the party.

 

p2213-Ian-TuxworthBy ALEX NELSON

 

One fact that stands out from all the controversy swirling around Territory politics at present is just how closely it echoes the events of a quarter century ago that almost unravelled the CLP in the 1980s.

 

Foundation 51, with Graeme Lewis? Try the Carpentaria Trust. Leadership coups against two chief ministers? Ask Ian Tuxworth and Steve Hatton.

 

Alternative conservative party? The NT Nationals is for you!

 

A Centralian government minister who resigns to the backbench because of family troubles? Ray Hanrahan’s your man.

 

Possible disendorsement of a popular sitting member? Ah, then you must be talking about Denis Collins.

 

Investigations into the NT Police? Must be the Mulholland Police Inquiry.

 

I was an active member of the CLP’s Flynn Branch, serving in a variety of roles on the branch executive, at exactly the time the CLP erupted into controversy that led to the party fighting for its life in the late 1980s.

 

p2213-Ray-Hanrahan-1986The Flynn Branch budded off from the Alice Springs Branch of the CLP in October 1984 to support the new Member for Flynn, Ray Hanrahan, who had won the seat in the CLP’s landslide election victory of the “Let’s Rock Canberra” campaign the previous year. I joined the branch in November while still living interstate (I was in Perth) but returned home in December.

 

The seat of Flynn geographically was similar to that of Araluen today. It had been created in 1983 when the NT Legislative Assembly was increased from 19 to 25 seats.

 

Other significant changes in Alice Springs was the abolition of the seats of Gillen (held by CLP minister Jim Robertson) and Alice Springs (held by CLP backbencher Denis Collins), replaced by Araluen, Sadadeen and Braitling.

 

The CLP member for Stuart, Roger Vale, transferred to Braitling. The old Central Australian bush seats of MacDonnell and Stuart were retained – these became firmly entrenched Labor strongholds.

 

Neil Bell had won MacDonnell in a by-election in early 1981 (defeating CLP candidate Rose Kunoth-Monks), and Brian Ede took Stuart in 1983. Further north, the seat of Barkly was held by Ian Tuxworth, who became the Chief Minister in October 1984 after Paul Everingham resigned to contest the federal seat of the Northern Territory.

 

From this time onwards the CLP gradually began to unravel.

 

There’s too much detail to go into here but essentially there developed a deep animosity between Chief Minister Ian Tuxworth and his predecessor, Paul Everingham; also involving the CLP President, Graeme Lewis.

 

Matters came to a head in early 1986 with the revelation of a supposed “travel allowance scandal” in the early 1980s when Ian Tuxworth had wrongly claimed $9400 for expenses incurred for travel to his seat of Barkly (he had moved his home to Darwin due to commitments of his ministerial portfolios).

 

Tuxworth had repaid the money from a loan arranged through the Carpentaria Trust, a body set up by then-CLP treasurer Graeme Lewis in 1981 to manage funds and donations in a very similar fashion to Foundation 51 today.

 

Tuxworth’s leadership style also aggravated some of his parliamentary colleagues (shades of grievances against Adam Giles today).

 

In early 1986 the CLP’s most capable minister, Jim Robertson, resigned as the Member for Araluen, triggering a by-election.

 

There was a Melbourne Cup field of hopefuls who sought nomination as the CLP candidate (including new alderman, Dr Richard Lim, and new arrival Shane Stone) but it was widely expected that activist magistrate Timothy Hinchliffe was in the front running to get the nod.

 

However, it was the head of the NT Tourist Commission, Eric Poole, who was chosen to run for the CLP. Labor chose popular alderman Di Shanahan as their candidate.

 

Poole and Shanahan were the only contestants for the by-election held in mid April; and Shanahan attracted a swing of 16 per cent in her favour but this was insufficient to defeat Poole. Nevertheless, this result must have rung alarm bells in the CLP’s top hierarchy. (This was the last by-election the CLP won, until Terry Mills took Blain in 1999).

 

In early May 1986 pressure mounted on Tuxworth when backbencher Fred Finch indicated he would move a no confidence motion against him, minister Ray Hanrahan countered with a motion of support, and member for Elsey (Katherine), Speaker Roger Steele, threatened to resign from the party.

 

A seven hour long parliamentary wing meeting on May 7 resulted in Tuxworth triumphant, having garnered a unanimous vote of support from his colleagues. It all sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

 

However, Tuxworth miscalculated when the Tennant Creek Branch called for an extraordinary CLP Central Council meeting seeking to remove President Graeme Lewis with a no confidence motion.

 

The meeting, held at the CLP Secretariat in Darwin on May 10, instead resulted with the loss of that motion and Tuxworth resigning as Chief Minister.

 

Tuxworth retreated to the backbench although still remained a member of the CLP. It wasn’t until November 1986 that, despite assurances to the contrary, Tuxworth was expelled from the party for supposed disloyalty.

 

Others weren’t waiting. Shortly after Tuxworth’s resignation as Chief Minister, rumours began to circulate about a new National Party in the NT to rival the CLP, fostered by the Queensland National Party then under the leadership of Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

 

This eventually came about, and Tuxworth became the NT Nationals parliamentary leader (initially its sole member) after his expulsion from the CLP.

 

All of this so far merely sets the scene for the controversies and instability that racked the CLP and Territory politics for the next three years, all set within the context of worsening economic conditions both locally and nationally. However, one trend was clear, namely that the population in the Top End (principally Darwin and Palmerston) was expanding significantly faster relative to the snail’s pace growth of The Centre.

 

By late 1989 there were major imbalances of enrolled voters in the NT’s 25 electorates, beyond tolerance allowed for margins of population variation.

 

The Centre was obliged to lose an electorate in favour of a new one in the Top End. Chief Minister Marshall Perron advised local CLP branches of this in 1989, and it was resolved that the party would present a submission to the Electoral Redistribution Committee separate from the CLP Parliamentary wing.

 

Two committees were organised within the party; one in the Top End and the other in The Centre, to work on proposals for their respective regions. I was one of those appointed to the Central Australian committee.

 

However, the timing for all this committee work was most inopportune as it coincided with the summer holiday season. Notwithstanding the deadline for the CLP’s submissions to be completed by mid January 1990, only one person was left to design and draft the party’s submission for electoral boundary redistribution in the southern two-thirds of the NT, and that was me. I had never undertaken such a task before.

 

Electoral divisions have three basic requirements – as near as possible they must be equal in enrolled voter numbers but allow for trends of population shifts; they must be geographically logical (that is, no gerrymandering); and they should take into account “communities of interest”. There’s no obligation to respect local members’ incumbency.

 

The situation in Central Australia by 1990 was that the CLP held Araluen and Braitling, Labor held MacDonnell and Stuart, Sadadeen was retained by former CLP member Denis Collins as an independent, and Flynn had been won by the NT Nationals’ Enzo Floreani after a by-election in September 1988.

 

The seat of Barkly was narrowly held by Ian Tuxworth. My approach was to draft boundary changes that minimized the impact for local CLP members but aim for major disruption of incumbency in seats held by other parties.

 

The entrenched Labor seats of MacDonnell and Stuart stretched from west to east across Central Australia. The CLP had completely failed to make any inroads to win Aboriginal voters’ support despite regular agitation from within local branches to counter this situation.

 

I now perceived a golden opportunity to break Labor’s incumbency by abolishing the two seats altogether and replace them with electorates oriented south to north on each side of Central Australia. On the west, stretching from the South Australian border all the way up to Lajamanu and Kalkaringi, I proposed an electoral division named “Tanami” – it’s exactly the same idea now suggested by Chief Minister Adam Giles to break the incumbency of the Member for Namatjira, Alison Anderson.

 

On the east I expanded the boundaries of the Flynn electorate (retaining the name) to the South Australian and Queensland borders and which stretched north into the Sandover and Plenty River region. I shifted the Barkly electorate southwards to abut with Flynn.

 

p2213-Denis-CollinsThe town electorates of Araluen, Braitling and Sadadeen were only slightly altered – I was confident the CLP stood a good chance to retake Sadadeen from Denis Collins.

 

I voluntarily worked solidly on this project for three days in Roger Vale’s electorate office in the Head Street shopping complex. I recall Chief Minister Marshall Perron dropped in and inspected my work.

 

Vale enthusiastically endorsed my ideas and won Perron over. I was acutely aware of how much was dependent upon me but worked in isolation from whatever the CLP’s Top End committee was designing.

 

After completion I nervously awaited the outcome as to whether my proposals would mesh with the north. Remarkably it did! I was quite astonished.

 

Even better, my concepts were incorporated with both CLP submissions (the parliamentary wing and the party) to the Electoral Review Committee. As I recall, there were minor differences between the two concerning electorates in the Top End.

 

All submissions to the Electoral Redistribution Committee were publicly revealed by January 19, 1990. There was outrage from Labor and the NT Nationals over the CLP submission which was most gratifying.

 

I was delighted by the comment made by NT News chief political reporter, Frank Alcorta, when he wrote: “The CLP’s proposal is crystal clear. Heads I win, tails you lose. Getting rid of Mr Bell, who holds the safest seat in the Territory, or Mr Floreani, who wrenched the previous CLP stronghold of Flynn, would be a formidable coup”.

 

In the hubbub surrounding various submissions one point was made assiduously clear, which was that the Electoral Redistribution Committee was beyond reproach and the whole process of electoral boundary changes was scrupulously independent and fair.

 

Not everyone felt that way when the final boundary redistribution proposals were released for public comment in June 1990, in particular NT Nationals leader Ian Tuxworth.

 

He was most unimpressed to find he had lost Elliot and gained Ali Curung (a Labor stronghold) in his marginal seat of Barkly. He alleged that he was being targeted for removal by the NT Government, even if it meant sacrificing Barkly to the ALP. Both the CLP and Labor criticised Tuxworth in turn for casting aspersions on the Electoral Redistribution Committee.

 

The other NT Nationals member, Enzo Floreani, suffered worse. The seat of Flynn, where the CLP copped a 20 per cent swing against it in the by-election some 18 months earlier, was abolished.

 

The rural portion south of the main range was incorporated into the extremely safe Labor seat of MacDonnell, held by Neil Bell, while the urban portion was included in the new seat of Greatorex. Greatorex also incorporated part of the old seat of Sadadeen, held by independent Denis Collins, which meant that he also suffered significant disruption to his incumbency.

 

A part of Sadadeen, including some of the Old Eastside, was now ensconced in the CLP’s safest seat of Braitling, held by Roger Vale.

 

A similar situation prevailed in the Top End where maverick independent Noel Padgham-Purich, a former CLP minister, found her seat of Koolpinyah had vanished. She had the option of standing for either new seats of Goyder or Nelson.

 

The only CLP member to face real difficulty with changes to his seat was Terry McCarthy, the member for Victoria River, as it was now likely to favour the ALP. However, overall the new boundary changes favoured the maintenance of the status quo of the two main political parties in the NT at the expense of minor parties and independents.

 

In the NT election campaign of October 1990, Ian Tuxworth and Terry McCarthy competed for the seat of Goyder in the Top End. McCarthy won, bringing Tuxworth’s political career since 1974 to an end.

 

p2213-Alex-Nelson-CLPEnzo Floreani opted to contest Araluen against CLP ministerial incumbent Eric Poole but was easily beaten. No other NT Nationals candidate was successful and the party vanished from existence.

 

Denis Collins chose to run for Greatorex which he narrowly won on preferences over the CLP candidate Bob Kennedy. Collins lasted only one more term, losing to the CLP’s Dr Richard Lim in 1994.

 

In the Top End, Noel Padgham-Purich (the mother of Kezia Purick) proved far more resilient as she took the seat of Nelson and held it until retiring in 1997.

 

The CLP’s Chris Lugg scored the seat that year, only to lose it in 2001 when the CLP was turfed out of office for the first time.

 

The new member for Nelson was independent Gerry Wood, who retains the seat to this day. Gerry Wood provides one of the few links to the political intrigues of the late 1980s as he was the chairman of the Koolpinyah Rural Branch of the NT Nationals in 1987.

 

It’s ironic, to say the least, that Mr Wood has sought (and nearly got) an independent inquiry into donations for Territory political parties, as controversy erupted over Foundation 51 and its chairman, Graeme Lewis, who also is so intimately linked to the those times.

 

So what of the future? It seems inevitable that the southern NT must lose an electorate in favour of the Top End, just as in 1990.

 

Or indeed it is the whole of regional NT that must lose a seat in favour of Darwin and Palmerston; there is, after all, a significant loss of population in Gove (a very safe Labor stronghold) following the closure of the alumina refinery there.

 

Adam Giles has stated openly at a branch meeting that the CLP may target the seat of Namatjira to disrupt Alison Anderson’s incumbency. And if history is any guide, don’t be surprised if that other thorn in the side of the NT Government, Gerry Wood, will also be forced to find a new seat.

 

 

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2 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Posted March 3, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Interesting to note today (March 3) that an opinion poll of Territory voters just published shows a comprehensive collapse of support for the Country Liberals in the three main urban centres (Darwin, Palmerston, and Alice Springs) of the NT.
    Of particular interest is that there is a swing of about 18 per cent against the CLP, leaving that party with a primary vote of just 30 per cent; however, this hasn’t translated into an equivalent swing in support for the ALP. There is a large number of voters who are undecided, looking for an acceptable alternative option.
    These contemporary figures compare almost exactly with the results of the Flynn by-election in Alice Springs, held on September 10, 1988.
    On that occasion there was a swing against the CLP of 20 per cent, leaving that party with a primary vote in its favour of 30 per cent of the total vote. On that occasion Labor did well, with candidate Di Shanahan topping the primary vote count; however, there was a large number of voters who opted to support the NT Nationals candidate, Enzo Floreani, placing him second in the primary count.
    No candidate achieved an absolute majority so the preferences of the bottom-placed CLP candidate were distributed, enabling Floreani to overtake Shanahan and win the seat.
    We now see an equivalent situation developing across the whole of the NT; and there is certainly sufficient time for an alternative party to be created before the next NT election campaign to capitalise on the current situation.

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  2. Roger W Miller
    Posted February 19, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Most interesting article, Alex. Will share with others.

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