Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Northern Territory-The curious case of the midnight leadership coup

A rather odd situation is currently taking place in the Northern Territory. Incumbent Chief Minister Adam Giles has been removed as Liberal leader, and has been replaced with Westra van Holthe, the Minister for Mining, Energy, and Fisheries and former Deputy Chief Minister, in a late night ballot. Giles was defeated with nine votes for van Holthe to five votes for him. However, in a rather odd twist, Giles has refused to resign, apparently on the grounds of 'because I can'.

The Giles story

Adam Giles was elected to the Northern Territory Parliament in the 2008 election in the safe Country Liberal (the name for the Liberal party in the Northern Territory) seat of Braitling. The Labor Party won that election, but only narrowly. 

In the 2012 election, the Country Liberals were elected to government under the leadership of Terry Mills. However, Mills proved unpopular, and Giles replaced him as leader on 13 March 2013. As one can imagine, though, Mills reacted maturely and sensibly to the news that Giles had been removed as leader.
A retweet on Terry Mills' Twitter account.  Mature and sensible.
Giles, however, has proved to be unpopular. A program of privatisations, mining industry closures, and the resignation of the Commissioner of Police over claims he interfered in a criminal case, have led to his party turning against him. While there are no opinion polls in the Northern Territory, the loss of Campbell Newman, who instituted a similar program of privatisation, may have led Country Liberal MPs to make the final push.

The constitutional issue

After the defeat of Giles in the leadership ballot, van Holthe assumed that Giles would go to the Administrator (the Territory Governor) and resign, thus paving the way for him to be sworn in. All Australian party leaders have done this after being sacked, no matter how acrimonious the circumstances around the sacking.

However, Giles decided to make a break with tradition, and refused to resign. A planned swearing-in ceremony for van Holthe and his Cabinet had to be called off, and, given that he only has the support of 9 MPs (thirteen are needed in the 25 member NT Parliament) to form government, there is no constitutional basis for him to ask to do so. And yet, Giles only has five votes. This means that he has no basis with which to form government either.

It is likely that unless a compromise between the van Holthe and Giles forces can be brokered, the Administrator, John Hardy, will have to step in. If Giles refuses to back down, appointing van Holthe would be controversial, and if Giles stays as Premier, the Country Liberals will be likely to sack him as a party member. 

As far as I can see, if Giles won't resign as Premier or back down and support van Holthe, the only option is an election, and if this leadership fiasco is anything to go by, that will be won by the Opposition. It would be in the best interests of the Country Liberals for Giles to resign; whether he will do that is still unclear.


The crisis is over, with van Holthe backing down, and Giles getting to be premier again. Van Holthe will be Deputy Premier. At one point, it looked like van Holthe would be Country Liberal leader, but Giles would be Premier. This was rather impractical, and it now appears that, despite not being the choice of the party, Giles will stay.

This sets a poor precedent for future Australian leadership changes. If Julia Gillard had refused to resign as Prime Minister after being defeated by Kevin Rudd in a leadership ballot, it would have set off a messy constitutional process, with the possibility of Tony Abbott becoming prime minister without an election. This seems unlikely in the more disciplined Labor Party, or indeed in any place outside the Northern Territory. However, the idea is a worry for parties wanting to remove their leaders in narrow parliaments.

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