Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Northern Territory: January to June 2009

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Northern Territory: January to June 2009

Article excerpt


When a former Deputy Chief Minister made the decision to quit the Labor Party and sit on the cross-bench as an Independent, Territory politics suddenly became a lot more exciting. The chain of events leading to this position unfolded throughout the first six months of 2009. The lost sheep promised not to block appropriation or support a censure motion but the decision left the Henderson government teetering in a perilous balance, only holding power by the casting vote of the Speaker.

A Balance of Power

Following rolling strikes by teachers throughout 2008, fuelled by controversy about government attitudes towards bilingual education, and ongoing criticism about the government's handling of health issues, in February Chief Minister Paul Henderson reshuffled his cabinet. In the change he took on the Education portfolio himself, replacing Deputy Chief Minister and Indigenous Affairs Minister Marion Scrymgour who nonetheless picked up Attorney-General and Justice from Chris Bums. Burns lost Health as well and, in the words of the local paper, was "demoted" to the minor portfolios of Business, Tourism, Trade, Asian Relations and Defence Support. Kon Vatskalis took up the Health portfolio (Northern Territory News, 4 February 2009). Less than a week later, Scrymgour announced her decision to move to the back bench because of health issues. Delia Lawrie took on the positions of Attorney-General and Deputy Chief Minister (Australian, 10 February 2009).

In early May the Chief Minister and Indigenous Affairs Minister, Alison Anderson, made a joint announcement regarding Indigenous policy plans to establish twenty "growth towns" within five years to serve as regional economic hubs in the remote Territory. Despite the boost to urban development, Henderson warned that funding for homeland centres could only continue if people could prove they lived at the outstation for at least eight months of the year (Northern Territory News, 21 May 2009). He was strongly supported by Anderson who argued for "proper towns" and "a whole new approach to the way government works with remote Territorians" with standards of education, health and accommodation commensurate with services elsewhere in Australia (Northern Territory News, 23 May 2009).

At the time of this announcement Scrymgour was absent, recovering from surgery for a thyroid condition. On her return to work, and with no apparent warning, Scrymgour gave an interview to Murray McLaughlin broadcast on the 7.30 Report on 1 June where she expressed serious dissatisfaction with the government's handling of Indigenous Affairs. She said that while away she had had occasion to revisit some of her earlier policy positions including the lack of consultation on the issue of bilingual education. Then she dropped the bombshell: Scrymgour said she would not rule out leaving the Labor party and sitting as the Independent member for Arafura if she could not gain some major policy shifts from the government.

Lex Hall from the Australian predicted that this action "would throw Labor's one-seat majority government into turmoil" (Australian, 2 June 2009). Scrymgour was portrayed by the local media as "intelligent" and "acting on principle" but also "fragile" (Northern Territory News, 3 June 2009). At first a rapprochement seemed possible. Under the banner "Tears and remorse as Marion repents", local media described the scenes behind closed doors--how the "renegade backbencher Marion Scrymgour [...] burst into tears and apologised". Chief Minister Paul Henderson was paternally forgiving: "lessons [had been] learned" and that it was all a part of working things out in "our big Labor party family" (Northern Territory News, 4 June 2009). Perhaps the Chief Minister should have remembered that it is within families that some of the bitterest fighting occurs. Scrymgour read this version as a betrayal. The following day she announced to the press: "I quit [. …

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