This is the second instalment of the NT Independent’s 2020 Year in Review, in which we reflect on the stories that made news this year, and in a lot of cases, stories that would never have come to light had the NT Independent not existed.
When we last left you, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly had resigned following the ICAC’s findings that she acted corruptly, the NT was being saved by a fearless Chief Minister who stared down unspeakable challenges and obstacles to follow national advice on travel bans and health protocols – then banned independent media from his press events in the middle of a public health crisis; and serious allegations of corruption in departments were remaining hidden.
In keeping with this year’s absurd script, the show continued from July into August’s general election and through until the end of September in classic soap opera fashion.
We could not make this up because nobody would believe us that an Australian jurisdiction actually operates like this, but here are the highlights of the top stories the NT Independent covered between July 1 and September 30:
One of the NT’s most powerful public servants charged taxpayers to go to Disney World – then claimed a private company he will have a say in approving taxpayer money for paid for it and there were no consequences; the Children’s Commissioner was charged for abuse of office; the Police Commissioner used his office to publicly and politically criticise the Prime Minister on behalf of the Chief Minister; the Administrator’s high-flying taxpayer-funded international trips were revealed; the government justified the sad taxpayer-funded “tropical lights” exhibit by suggesting more people attended it than the V8 Supercars; debt grew; police morale hit all-time lows; the public service grew; the net debt hit even new heights; the Administrator turfed the NT Independent from the grounds of Government House; the Turf Club had a government investigation into unsafe building concerns dropped within hours; the NT Government was forced to publicly declare everything was fine at TIO Stadium ahead of the AFL Dreamtime match when it clearly didn’t have proper occupancy permits; a couple of old Labor hacks were paid handsomely with taxpayer money to tell pollies not to publicly report their taxpayer-funded travel; and a long-time fisho was forced to declare he’s a “mature gentleman” in the face of allegations he was running a protection racket at a popular fishing spot.
Oh, and the Gunner Government’s 2016 election pledge to transform Indigenous housing through a $10 billion program that aimed to provide “room to breathe” was found to be a debacle after four years with no oversight, little outcomes and no way to gauge if it was actually working.
Again, we couldn’t make this stuff up if we tried, and this is only what transpired in 90 days in the middle of 2020, with no consequences for anyone involved:
Gunner Government’s ‘Room to Breathe’ remote housing program suffocated by bungles, lack of oversight: AG Report
The Gunner Government’s Room to Breathe remote housing program continues to be plagued by massive failures and departmental ineptitude, a new Auditor General’s report has revealed.
The program has been so poorly administered that the government cannot properly “assess whether its objectives are being achieved economically, efficiently and effectively” and that serious changes are desperately needed if it wants “to effectively deliver the program”, Auditor General Julie Crisp found.
The Gunner Government: A collision between Budget misuse and democratic responsibilities
This is an essay by Dr Don Fuller looking at the characteristics of good government including the principles of transparency and accountability and how the five core attributes of good government make for the foundation of strong economic and community development. Dr Fuller then uses these characteristics to evaluate the Gunner Government, which swept to power in 2016 and famously tabled a document to Parliament entitled, Restoring Integrity to Government– Trust and Integrity Reform Discussion Paper.
Tropical Light attracts more visitors than V8 Supercars: Major Events
Over 46,000 people came to Darwin to see Bruce Munro’s Tropical Light exhibition, the NT Government claims – more than four times the number who came to the V8 Supercars at the event’s peak.
The “conservative” figures were based on a methodology that saw visitors counted by event volunteers, except over Christmas and when it was raining.
Senior NT public servant’s taxpayer funded trip to Disney World revealed
The Territory’s second-most powerful public servant took a taxpayer funded excursion to Disney World while on a mysterious trip to the United States late last year that he now claims will be reimbursed to taxpayers, the NT Independent can reveal.
Department of Chief Minister deputy chief executive Andy Cowan charged taxpayers $29,000 for the trip to the US last November that included stops in San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC, as well as a solo jaunt to Epcot Centre in Orlando, Florida – a Disney theme park known as the “Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow” that offers exciting rides “around the globe, under the sea and into outer space”, and the chance to meet Disney characters.
Halikos given $55 million to build new youth prison after objecting to original location
The Gunner Government has awarded a $55 million contract to build the new Darwin youth detention centre to Halikos Group – the company that objected to the facility being built in its original location because it infringed on free land they were given by the government.
Halikos had launched a legal objection against the government building the detention centre at the site of the current Don Dale facility in 2018 because it bordered on their existing development known as North Crest – the land that was gifted to Halikos for free in 2016 by the NT Government, despite a $30 million offer from another developer.
Behind the scenes of the Colleen Gwynne ‘abuse of office’ charge
ANALYSIS: The serious abuse of office charge laid against NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne has exposed troubling integrity issues in the NT’s public institutions and raised some uncomfortable questions for the Gunner Government ahead of the Territory election next month.
Chief among them is why Attorney General Natasha Fyles, who knew about the allegations surrounding improper hiring processes in the Office of the Children’s Commissioner two years ago, renewed Ms Gwynne’s contract in May – just two months before the charge was laid.
Gunner heard about Colleen Gwynne investigation but ‘didn’t know’ about it
Chief Minister Michael Gunner says he heard “something” about NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne being investigated by the NT Police but didn’t make any inquiries to verify it before her contract was renewed for a further five years in May.
Ms Gwynne was charged by NT Police last week with a single count of abuse of office, which she has indicated she will contest.
High-flying Administrator Vicki O’Halloran’s taxpayer-funded travel revealed
NT Administrator Vicki O’Halloran racked up nearly $100,000 in travel expenses in less than two years, including a massive trip to London under the pretence of celebrating an assistant receiving an award, that cost taxpayers 14 times more for her than the public servant being honoured.
Travel records released by the Department of Chief Minister show Ms O’Halloran spent 10 days in London at a cost of $17,350 in February 2019, while long-serving Administrator’s assistant Helen Wiffen, who was there to be honoured with the Royal Victorian Order, had her trip limited to only three days at a cost of $1,291.
Bloated public service: Northern Territory blows away comparable states on executive contracts
A new analysis of NT Public Service executive contracts shows the Northern Territory has more “senior executive services” staff than Tasmania and the ACT combined, despite a quarter of the population.
The figures come as economists predict the NT Government will lose $500 million in federal GST revenue over the next two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Australian economy – on top of the NT’s already dire financial situation.
‘I’m not gonna be campaigning’: Gunner says crime not an issue ahead of election, won’t be ‘politicking’
Chief Minister Michael Gunner says crime is not a big election issue for Territorians and that he’s more focused on “saving lives and jobs” to campaign in the lead up to the August 22 election.
Mr Gunner appeared on Mix 104.9 Monday morning to discuss a variety of issues including his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fragile state of the NT’s economy.
Top NT public servant had Disney World trip paid for by private company seeking government cash
The Northern Territory’s second-most senior public servant Andy Cowan had a trip to Disney World paid for by a private company seeking government funds to build an interpretive centre at Jabiru which appears not to have been disclosed, the NT Independent can reveal.
The NT Government has strict rules around public servants accepting gifts, however it appears Mr Cowan did not register the free travel as a gift, despite his position on the Jabiru Steering Committee.
‘We’re at crisis point’: NT Police Association boss
NT Police Association president Paul McCue says the force is “at a crisis point,” and with the AFP leaving on Friday, he is concerned for officers’ mental health following a hectic period of altered shifts and reduced leave that will only get more hectic in the months to come.
Mr McCue made the comments on Mix104.9 on Tuesday, the day after the Gunner Government announced $20 million will be spent on 66 additional frontline constables, 30 Aboriginal liaison officers, 10 Aboriginal community police officers and 25 support staff.
READ full story here: https://ntindependent.com.au/were-at-crisis-point-nt-police-association-boss/
Territory net debt estimated to hit $8.2 billion this financial year but real numbers not disclosed
NT Treasurer Nicole Manison has said net debt is projected to hit more than $8 billion by the end of this financial year, $1.35 billion more than the November forecast, and two years before expected.
But she offered no actual figures of how the 2019-20 financial year ended, stating those would come after the election.
READ full story here: https://ntindependent.com.au/territory-debt-hit-to-hit-8-2-billion-this-financial-year/
‘Perfect storm’: Turf Club’s Silks bar construction raises serious safety concerns
The Darwin Turf Club’s newly constructed Silks Club is alleged to be “unsafe and not suitable to occupy”, according to a whistleblower who has lodged a formal complaint with Northern Territory authorities over several alleged building non-compliance issues that “could put lives at risk”.
The complaint comes as the Turf Club gears up for the annual Darwin Cup races this weekend, where nearly two thousand drunken revellers are expected to occupy the new club.
Freedom of Information request into Gunner China deal stalled until after election
The details of a secret deal Chief Minister Michael Gunner signed while in China last year will remain secret until after the election at the earliest, following a decision by Mr Gunner’s department to block the release of public information.
The NT Independent filed two separate Freedom of Information applications with the Department of Chief Minister in mid-June: one seeking all costs, lists of meetings and the nature of all agreements Mr Gunner signed with Chinese officials since taking office; and the other one into the amount of taxpayer money paid to Donghai Airlines to run flights between Darwin and Shenzhen, China.
‘This should have been stopped’: Darwin Turf Club’s grandstand safety concerns raised
A day after serious allegations were levelled at the Darwin Turf Club for alleged building non-compliance issues with its Silk’s Club bar, new documents have surfaced that raise questions about the safety of the controversial $12 million publicly-funded grandstand.
The NT Independent has obtained a memo from the whistleblower behind the formal complaint to authorities over the safety concerns at the Silk’s Club, as well as internal Turf Club documents, that raise concerns around six alleged non-compliance issues involving the grandstand.
‘The matter has been investigated’: NT Government dismisses Silks Club safety allegations
The NT Government has dropped an investigation into allegations of serious safety and building non-compliance issues with the Silks Club bar, according to a brief, four-sentence letter by the NT’s director of building control addressed to Darwin Turf Club chairman Brett Dixon.
The Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics and fire safety authorities declined the NT Independent’s multiple requests for comment concerning a formal complaint that was filed last week alleging the Silks Club building was “unsafe and not suitable to occupy”.
Here are the blokes you paid $318 an hour to recommend pollies not report their travel costs
Former Labor treasurer and party president Syd Stirling is one of two men who were paid an average $318 an hour to run the NT Remuneration Tribunal – the committee that recommended scrapping politicians’ requirements to report their travel expenses to the public.
According to documents released by the Department of Chief Minister, Mr Stirling and committee chair Michael Martin were paid $27,047 of taxpayer money between them for a little more than two weeks’ worth of work in the 2018-19 financial year.
ABC airs controversial Gunner campaign ad sparking formal complaint
Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s politicisation of the coronavirus pandemic is the focus of a fresh complaint filed with the ABC, after the public broadcaster aired a Labor political ad which is alleged to have breached its editorial policies.
Territory Alliance filed the formal complaint late last week, alleging the broadcaster breached its “production guidelines” by airing Labor advertising material in the announcement spots it affords all major parties in the lead up to the NT election.
‘Cancel your Christmas holiday plans’: Gunner says border restrictions to remain for 18 months
The Northern Territory’s border control measures may remain in place until 2022, Chief Minister Michael Gunner said Tuesday while suggesting another 18 months of border restrictions and the possibility of adding more coronavirus hotspots.
Mr Gunner said restrictions on travellers coming from Victoria and Greater Sydney could remain for more than a year, as cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in those areas.
‘Shockwaves’ through the NT hospitality industry following Gunner border remarks
Tourism operators in the Northern Territory say they have been swamped with cancellations from interstate tourists who had booked to come to the Top End later this year, following Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s claims the Territory’s “hard borders” will be restricted for the next 18 months.
Tourism Top End General Manager Glen Hindley said a number of members made contact yesterday to say that they’re now getting emails pouring through, directly cancelling their trips. Some of the tourists were saying that they’re not from Victoria or NSW and they thought it was safe to come to the Territory.
Some Territory hotels charging higher room rates for tourism voucher scheme
One of the Territory’s largest hotel groups may stand to pocket thousands of extra dollars from the Gunner Government’s tourism voucher scheme, after an NT Independent investigation found it was charging higher fees for people redeeming vouchers.
A series of calls by the NT Independent to more than a dozen Territory hotel operators revealed some, including Halikos Group, have been charging up to $160 extra for accommodation purchased via the NT Government’s tourism voucher scheme.
Bravos found not guilty of rape charges
Former NT Police assistant commissioner Peter Bravos has been found not guilty of raping a female police officer nearly 16 years ago.
The Supreme Court jury returned the unanimous not guilty verdict Friday on two charges of sexual intercourse without consent, stemming from incidents which occurred in late 2004.
READ full story here: https://ntindependent.com.au/bravos-found-not-guilty-of-rape-charges/
ICAC assessing alleged anti-democratic conduct ahead of election, including Labor email account
The Independent Commissioner Against Corruption is currently assessing alleged breaches of the Electoral Act in the lead up to the August 22 election that the NT Independent can reveal includes allegations the Territory Labor Party set up a taxpayer-funded email address for campaign purposes.
Commissioner Ken Fleming released a statement on Friday stating that his office has received “numerous reports of alleged anti-democratic conduct” relating to election activities.
The Gunner Government’s Greatest Hits: Volume 1
The Gunner Government has been in office for four years and to some, many maybe, they are the governmental equivalent of the Crazy Frog song.
We see them more as It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy or some song by David Hasselhoff that was big in Germany..and maybe Palmerston for awhile.
READ full story here: https://ntindependent.com.au/the-gunner-governments-greatest-hits-volume-1/
TIO Stadium fiasco: NT Government says AFL games will proceed despite lack of proper permits
The NT Government has admitted TIO Stadium does not have a proper occupancy permit but says the AFL games scheduled for this weekend will go ahead anyway.
The Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics was forced to issue an extraordinary public statement on Thursday afternoon which claimed TIO Stadium is “safe” but did not explain how people will be permitted into the building while proper occupancy certificates remain outstanding or how they determined it to be “safe” in the absence of official documentation.
‘I’m angry I’m on the electoral roll’: The saddest election in the NT’s history is wearily observed
Out at Humpty Doo Hotel, no one is seemingly thinking about the election. It actually seems, from the way people are dressed – less blue singlets or big, rabbit powered hats for a typical Saturday afternoon – like there are many there who have sought refuge from the city and the election.
At the Humpty Doo polling booth, one woman, who says she doesn’t want to give her name because she works for government, sums up what many probably feel: “I am very angry that I’m on the electoral roll”.
Labor wins NT election, but size of majority remains uncertain
The Gunner Labor Government has been re-elected but by late Saturday night it remained unclear how big its expected majority will be.
The Territory Labor party is tipped to easily hold on to 12 seats, with more expected by Sunday and in the coming days.
New federal laws not expected to affect Darwin port lease, but Gunner’s China dealings to be exposed
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s proposed new bill that would ban state and territory governments from entering into agreements with China without federal approval is not expected to affect the Darwin Port lease but will provide greater scrutiny around Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s dealings with China, a Darwin-based Chinese policy expert says.
The Foreign Relations Bill, expected to be introduced to Parliament next week and passed later this year, will clarify the Commonwealth’s constitutional powers to oversee state, territory and local governments’ dealings with China and provide veto power for any current or future arrangements.
Labor files complaint over postal votes after setting up government email account to solicit postal votes
Territory Labor have filed a complaint with the NT Electoral Commission over postal votes allegedly being cast after the election night cutoff in a twist of election irony, after Labor itself was the subject of a complaint for setting up a taxpayer-funded email account to solicit postal votes.
As of Friday morning, there were four seats that are too close to call where postal votes are expected to determine the winners over the next week.
‘No sane person would go through this’: NT Government’s fruit picking campaign more trouble than it’s worth
At 73 years of age, Graeme Hockey has had more than a dozen jobs in his lifetime, but he’s never endured a more “frustrating” process than applying to be a mango picker in the Northern Territory.
Never has a process been more obstructed by what he calls “endless impediments”.
Restoration, the future for remote Aboriginal people and the long-term survival of all Australians
From invasion through massacre, a Victorian attitude of “smoothing the pillow of a dying race”, through to assimilation, self-determination, and the schism between urban and bush Aboriginal people. CDU emeritus professor Alan Powell sees a future for remote Indigenous people that rejects neo-liberal projections and sees the creation of a special Central Australian environmental reclaimed zone that uses bush skills to put flora and fauna and culture above profit and becomes a template for saving Australia from itself environmentally.
Trial date set for alleged Darwin gunman Benjamin Hoffmann
The trial of alleged Darwin gunman Benjamin Hoffmann has been set for March 29, 2021 and is expected to run for nine weeks.
Mr Hoffmann, 46, is facing four counts of murder and seven other serious offences during the alleged drug-fueled shootings in the inner suburbs of Darwin on June 4 last year. His matter was mentioned in court on Thursday.
READ full story here: https://ntindependent.com.au/trial-date-set-for-alleged-darwin-gunman-benjamin-hoffmann/
Jabiru to be handed back to traditional owners through corporation under investigation
A landmark bill that will return the town of Jabiru into the hands of traditional elders has passed the lower house but could put the land under the control of an organisation being investigated by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.
The legislation, debated in federal parliament on Monday for a second time, amends the Aboriginal Land Rights Act to allow a long-term township lease.
NT Election 2020 finally ends: Labor wins 14 seat majority government, CLP takes eight
Nearly four weeks after voting started, the longest and most drawn-out NT election in history finally concluded at a Winnellie warehouse late Friday night where recounted and scrutinised votes were tallied one last time.
The NT Electoral Commission issued a statement at 9:35 pm indicating that vote counts at Winnellie and at the Alice Springs scrutiny centre for all 25 electorates across the NT – that had been ongoing since Saturday August 22 – were now complete and the results official.
Administrator sparks constitutional concerns after ejecting NT Independent from event
The Queen’s representative in the Northern Territory may have violated the Constitution by ejecting the NT Independent’s reporters from covering the ministerial swearing-in ceremony at Government House today, a leading constitutional law expert says.
It’s believed to be the first time in Australian history that an administrator or governor has ejected the free press from an event they were legally entitled to attend.
Protection racket allegations: ‘I’m a mature gentleman’, says fishing base owner mired in controversy
At the gateway to some of the Northern Territory’s best waterways, where fishos snap happy-pics of their impressive hauls, there is a sinister underbelly spanning almost a decade that has seen cars mysteriously torched, scratched, and left tyre-less.
Territorians who have been victimised have told the NT Independent their cars have been damaged while parked outside a secure compound at Leaders Creek Fishing Base, about an hour’s drive from Darwin.
NT Government seeks to retroactively certify TIO Stadium … again
The NT Government has quietly awarded a contract to retroactively certify TIO Stadium – just weeks after allowing thousands of footy fans into the uncertified facility – and more than a decade after first becoming aware the building had non-compliance issues.
The NT Independent revealed late last month that the stadium had no occupancy permit and was not properly certified, according to internal government documents, that showed rectifying certification concerns had been inexplicably put-off by bureaucrats since 2009.
Parrtjima festival events cancelled and relocated as Alice Springs rock throwing incidents escalate
The 10-day festival lighting up Alice Springs and its economy has been rocked following reports of “total mayhem” during a crime spree leading to the cancellation and relocation of events away from the CBD.
The lights and sounds of Parrtjima were officially flicked on last Friday, September 11, with a Welcome to Country at Alice Springs Desert Park and hundreds of people flocking to Todd Mall, a pedestrian walkway in the centre of town.
‘Wonder why we have a huge debt’: Private consultancy contracts balloon as NT public service grows
The Gunner Government has billed Territory taxpayers $121 million over the last three years to outsource general government responsibilities and internal decision-making to private consultancy firms, an NT Independent analysis has revealed.
Released NT Government figures show a massive 65 per cent spike in spending in private consultancy contracts over the last financial year alone, jumping from $33.6 million in 2018-19 to more than $55 million in 2019-20.
Gunner lets slip the real reason for relocation of Parrtjima events
Chief Minister Michael Gunner has finally revealed that the real reason Alice Springs’ Parrtjima Festival events were cancelled and relocated from the centre of town was due to concerns around crime and public safety.
Last week, NT Major Events called off a string of events due to take place at Todd Mall in the centre of Alice Springs’ CBD and relocated some more than eight kilometres away to Desert Park.
Government’s ‘double standards’ has Noonamah Rodeo owner questioning TIO Stadium scrutiny
Tony Innes has spent the past two years fighting bureaucratic red tape and the government’s “double standards” to keep an iconic rodeo afloat, while government-owned facilities are not being held to the same level of compliance as private businesses, he says.
Mr Innes has asked the Planning Minister why TIO stadium has continued to operate without a certificate of occupancy for almost 30 years, while he has been forced to retrospectively comply with the building code.
An attack on staff and vandalism leads to Wadeye pool’s surrender by council
The Wadeye swimming pool has been offered to the local Catholic school to run, and if they didn’t want it, the West Daly Regional Council, at one point, said it would fill it in, after being sick of attacks on staff, vandalism – including new lawnmowers being thrown in the water – and increasing costs, but it would leave the council with six years’ worth of rent to pay.
Documents for the August 26 council meeting show councillors unanimously voted to offer the pool to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Thamarrurr School in Wadeye, which had offered to take over the lease. Council has long been discussing handing the pool over the the school.
NT Police Commissioner gets political, calls out Prime Minister
NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker has ramped up his political attack on the Federal Coalition Government, suggesting Prime Minister Scott Morrison is ignorant of the challenges facing Indigenous people across the Northern Territory.
In the “extraordinary” public criticism of a federal political leader by a Northern Territory public servant, Mr Chalker said Mr Morrison lacked “a deep understanding” of Indigenous issues in the Northern Territory and implied he was responsible for a lack of money hitting the ground in remote communities.