Good n’ gammon XXX: The Little Emperor’s authoritarian bubble edition

by | Nov 20, 2020 | Opinion | 6 comments

Another week in the Territory and no escape from this horrible political bubble we find ourselves in. From the Little Emperor running from another press conference, to the new NT power broker super friends, to a continuing gross failure of transparency and accountability. This is what is good and gammon this week.

And to begin with, the good

There is no good this week.

Having no good to write about is gammon.

The Little Emperor runs again

Increasingly becoming the Territory’s own Little Emperor, Michael Gunner, has once again seemingly skipped from a press conference to avoid the NT Independent.

As late as 11pm on Wednesday the federal Assistant Minister for Northern Australia Michelle Landry, and NT Senator Sam McMahon were to be joined by Scotty’s Mick on the lawns of the NT Legislative Assembly for a press conference to announce the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loan for the ship lift.

History is a set of lies agreed upon:

Come 8.30am Thursday it had been moved to inside Parliament house and Shifty Mick had been swapped out with Deputy Chief Minister Nicole Manison. Very soon after newly minted ministerial spin doctor Alex Cannon set eyes on the NT Independent, security approached us to say the ‘press conference’ was invite only.

In decades of combined journalism experience it is only since we started the NT Independent have we ever heard the phrase “invite only” at a press conference.

We’re starting to think we may not be popular.

But this was his pet project. The ship lift and the Chief Minister who loved it.

It is hard to imagine that with all the spruiking he has done on getting this ship lift that he would not be out front to take the glory.

Something really must have spooked the little fella. And making matters worse, he actually attempted to ban CLP Senator Sam McMahon from participating in the press conference before being put in his place by federal Minister for Northern Australia Keith Pitt’s office.

Is he really that scared of NT Independent editor Chris Walsh’s questions?

The Chief Minister running from the media (again) is gammon.

A very special anniversary

This happened on the 161-day anniversary of the day Shifty Mick first ran away from the NT Independent on Stokes Hill wharf. Since then his refusal to speak to this paper has brought on the condemnation of the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, an Australian organisation that monitors and advocates for press freedoms across the Asia-Pacific, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which advocates for press freedom worldwide, and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, among others. Here is what the brightest minds – outside of the fifth floor – have to say about what the Gunner Government’s press ban means, including raising questions about whether the constitution has been breached and also the Self Government Act of the Northern Territory. And then there is the Legislative Assembly (Members’ Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards) Act 2008, which they are also breaching.

Media Watch called the ban “crazy” in June and said the government needed to sort it out.

This is not aimed at anyone in particular.

How to silence critics

We know there are ministers who disagree with it, and there are Labor people who are obviously ashamed by it. But the Little Emperor set the tone for those who disagreed with him in December 2018 when he dumped his minister and mate Ken Vowles from caucus, as well as backbenchers Jeff Collins and Scott McConnell for speaking out about Labor’s handling of the Territory’s economic crisis.

Which is still something Gunner has not dealt with properly. And now, with the former treasurer Nicole Manison having told him to stick the job, and to do it himself, he has taken on that role and further reduced scrutiny and given himself more power in Cabinet.

Who is going to tell him no now? He may as well take on the Attorney-General’s job himself. It’s not impossible for that to happen. And just why did he take that job off the only other person in the Cabinet seen as a threat to his leadership, and give it to the relatively unknown and powerless Selina Uibo? We have no idea of course, and we guess we just have to accept we may never know.

And then there is former Richmond star Joel Bowden who won the Johnston by-election for Labor at the end of February, replacing Vowles. He could be seen as the other threat to Gunner, and a man while admittedly in his first year as a politician, who is highly educated and has experience running his own businesses as well as running Unions NT. And yet despite his professional experience pre-politics, he is not made a minister. Maybe he didn’t want to be. But added to all this, and to say this in the kindest way we can, Gunner has been spreading ‘seeds of doubt’ about him.

Who among the MLAs would now speak out against their leader on press freedom, even though they are all breaking the Legislative Assembly (Members’ Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards) Act 2008. When he can make his colleagues break the law what does it say about the way we are governed? That is some kind of crazy group-think. They should stop and think for a bit if the Little Emperor ever asks them to drink Kool-Aid.

The amount of energy Shifty Mick and his highly-paid taxpayer-funded advisers put into to avoiding not just the NT Independent but scrutiny in general, is incredible and amounts to mico-movements towards authoritarianism in governance.

Then add in the continued vengeance and obstruction against those who do defy him, and high ranking departmental figures, and you have a level of ugliness and intimidation that is making this place sick.

You do not have to have a literal dictator to make for an oppressive environment. The government has so much control in the joint as it is, with the isolation, the percentage of the population who are in the public service, or who are married or in a relationship with a public servant, or whose business relies on government contracts.

Gammon! Gammon! Gammon!

Those high-paid folks in your neighbourhood

With a recent morale-shattering re-organisation of the fifth floor, the Chief Minister has surrounded himself with four trusted advisors. The Fab Four, if you will. One of those is his chief of staff Emily Beresford-Cane. She came in after his former chief of staff Alf Leonardi was sacked following the Darwin Turf Club debacle, which Gunner told ICAC about, and was taken from then Attorney-General Fyles’ office, which may have been a power play in itself.

Another is his brother-in-law, former deputy chief of staff and failed alderman Ryan Neve. He was also brought in after Alf was sacked, replacing the now completely removed and voided Kieran Phillips. Now Neve has wandered back – due to a quirk of the public service and the requirement to hold jobs for people – to the safety of a non-political job in the Department of Chief Minister, (he was formally director of communications there), after having a significant part in the chaos that came with the sacking and recruitments of that fifth floor shake-up. But he now has an informal role with the Chief and may act as Gunner’s insider in the now engorged DCM.

The Little Emperor’s super friends. (Clockwise from top left) Kent Rowe, Emily Beresford-Cane, Chris Grace, and Ryan Neve.

Then there is Kent Rowe, who has the interesting title of “director of Parliament, caucus liaison and stakeholder engagement” and came from Campaign Edge Sprout but was credited with helping the party win a second term of government and was actively working on behalf of Mr Gunner and the party throughout the campaign while collecting his private company paycheque.

Finally there is Chris Grace, who was Gerry McCarthy’s chief of staff. Neve, Rowe and Grace go way back with Gunner in the NT Labor party.

Having friends around you is good. Give these very powerful people a wave if you see them in the street, and tell them you love how they’re running the Territory. 

Consolidation and control of ‘the message’

Adding to these moves was the offing of most of the media advisers who were not likely to bow before the altar of head spin diva Maria Billias. You know, the ones with minds of their owns. Only those who are obedient to authority with one significant exception are left. Then they created new roles for people just to do ministers’ social media.

We also hear Billias was moving to have them sitting closer to her so she could keep a closer eye on them. Billias is not included with the other four power brokers, as she is more likely to be obedient to authority as well, and is more a pawn of the machine who whips the others into line.

You can read about her embarrassing flip flopping attitudes about media freedom here. It make for some special reading.

NT Government head of comunications Maria Billias

Maria Billias. Ask her what she thinks about government transparency.

 

 Then when you consider the fact there are more media advisers across government than journalists in the Territory you can imagine the level of control.

The control and lies through media managers is gammon.

Other considerations

And let us not forget the amount of Labor family members and friends who are employed in jobs they are not qualified for on the fifth floor.

Then there are those who are booted out of the fold and still hold some blind obedience to authority. In the Mafia they call their code of silence the omertà. The Labor party operates in similar ways without the drug dealing and the murder. Well, certainly without the murder.

We don’t know if they have an equivalent word for it, but the code of silence operates within the NT Labor party at the moment like it’s a highly disciplined crime family. You know, one that says it stands for honour and loyalty and then acts in the exact opposite way and will slaughter their own for a perceived slight?

And with this we have the great, and dangerous NT echo chamber and political bubble.

Political echo chambers are gammon.

An un-related photo from the move The Godfather.

 

An example of lack of responsibility

As we said, the Gunner Government has become increasingly hostile to transparency, and now openly lie when questioned by the media or when defending their moves to reduce oversight.

It was telling this week with the chaos that came from their unpreparedness in Alice Springs to deal with needing to quarantine people coming from South Australia, how two ministers dealt with the issue in the media. Minister for Territory Families Kate Worden, who is responsible for quarantine facilities, was pre-scheduled on Mix 104.9 the next morning coincidently, and showed no humility whatsoever when asked about it. ”

“It was fine. Couldn’t have gone better. We purposely plan clusterfucks,” she, in a very non-direct way, said.

No mea culpa. No owning responsibility. To begin with she couldn’t even name all the hotels and facilities they quarantined people in (and there were only two extra ones). At one point she blamed hotels for not taking people in, and then denied they had people spread out everywhere, despite admitting they had 100 people quarantining in private homes across the town.

We have never heard government get up previously and say they would quarantine people en-masse in their homes. Actually they exact opposite. They say there are no exceptions – despite the fact there are some.

Health Minister Natasha Fyles held a press conference at the same time where she blamed birds and hotels (click here to find out what the hospitality industry thought of that little maneuver), and it took about 17 minutes to get to some kind of apology. We don’t know what she was apologising for though, as far as her and Worden were concerned, this clusterfuck was all part of their grand plan.

And let’s not forget Gunner’s own ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ moment when a journalist was asking reasonable questions about him killing off a scrutiny committee (see more below).

It really is indicative of how this government operates.

The government response to the Alice Springs COVID chaos was gammon.

The moves that show the motives

Leading into the August election, instead of spruiking policy and talking about their legislative ambitions, Labor was really only focused on scaremongering on COVID-19 and taking personal credit for the work of those in the Health Department who were formulating the pandemic response. Of course, alongside that was the Chief Minister and former treasurer trying to avoid having to show the Territory’s finances.

Since being returned, their first act in the Legislative Assembly was to scrap the social policy scrutiny committee, which they billed in 2016 as being crucial to restoring trust in government. Their reasons for its necessity in 2016 and the reason given for its axing were hypocrisy at its finest. Charles Darwin University needs to start offering a Bachelor of Hypocrisy course and get these Labor ministers in as lecturers.

What can we say really? So far from good. 

Silencing other kinds of independents

In September the Gunner Government announced, by way of release of the 14th assembly sitting dates, that Budget Estimates hearings would be cut from six days, reducing the amount of time for scrutiny from the Opposition and independents.

In the first sitting of this parliament, the government also changed Question Time, giving the Labor Government more time to ask itself questions, thereby reducing opposition questions. Independents now can only ask one question per sitting week, down from roughly four or five. That is just 11 questions per year on the parliamentary record.

And to this the ridiculous rate of rejection of freedom of information applications, despite a 2016 promise to reform the information act.

A good recent example was Mr Gunner’s office blocking an FOI to get access to the secret document he signed with an unidentified Chinese official during a trade mission to Shenzhen last year, which the NT Independent revealed in June with a photo that originally appeared on a Chinese website.

FURTHER reading: ‘NT leads the nation in secrecy’: Territory Alliance pledge more money for ICAC, FOI reforms

Nothing to see here

The Gunner Government also scrapped the requirement for Territory politicians of all political persuasions to publicly report their travel as of 2018 – despite a 2016 election promise to make all taxpayer-funded travel more accessible to the public.

In a “Restoring Integrity to Government” 2016 campaign document, Michael Gunner committed to reporting “itinerary, costs and the names of people undertaking travel … online every quarter on a website”.

Instead, the Gunner Government made changes to allowances to conceal all member travel as of January 1, 2018, under the auspices of a “recommendation” of the Remuneration Tribunal, which sets wages and benefits for MLAs and which is directed by former Labor party president Syd Stirling and former NT under-treasurer Michael Martin.

Why keeping track of politician’s travel is important came in the form of a stark example last week in an NT Independent article about a mysterious trip Mr Gunner took to Sydney to meet a high-priced tailor in a hotel room on the way home from an official international state visit in 2017, which was kept off official travel reporting records while still being picked up by taxpayers.

This too is, you guessed it, all gammon.

We sounds like a broken record but have a look

We have highlighted the Restoring Integrity to Government document so many times, but it is the most glaring piece of evidence of the path this government promised to take and then, for whatever their own reasons are, mostly chose to walk away from.

You can read it here but it is not a fun experience.

For more fulsome exploration of these failures read: GOOD n’ gammon XXIV: The saluting the court jesters of democracy edition

This really is all buljit.

 

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