This is the third 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, a senior public servant went to Disney World for “official” reasons; the Children’s Commissioner was up on charges; the Police Commissioner was dancing for his political master as the force’s morale dropped to record lows; and the government’s flagship $10 billion remote Indigenous housing program was failing miserably.
In the last three months of the year, the usual NT madness was ramped up with the Chief Minister shouting down an ABC journalist demanding she stop asking questions – which later led to the whole ABC Darwin newsroom’s unresolved conflict of interest making national news; the public service grew again by 400 during a hiring freeze; a structural engineer was fined a cool $6k for years of signing off on unsafe transfer slabs for residential buildings; NT Police executives told the rank-and-file to lie to the public; the Gunner Government and its Treasury officials lied to the public about the state of the finances before the election; the Chief Minister was found to have been in a Sydney hotel room at taxpayer expense with a high-priced tailor; a local lawyer called out the NT legal fraternity for its failings on Indigenous issues; another local lawyer called out the NT Government for banning the free press; and another local lawyer had professional misconduct charges dropped, forcing a reappraisal of the Stella Maris scandal; a rave at the old quarantine facility called the NT’s health department’s COVID-19 procedures into question and the Chief Minister finally got a Dan Murphy’s approved that he apparently wanted all along – four years after doing everything he could to block it from happening.
And Darwin Council couldn’t let the craziness go unmatched, with an alderman praying that council would continue the Lord’s Prayer before meetings because it would be “cultural vandalism” to retire it and Darwin Mayor Kon Vatskalis’s own near-religious awakening after being visited by a woman (or maybe it was an email) who told him the proposed RSL site on the Esplanade that he had been spruiking for months was possibly, maybe, an Indigenous sacred site. It knocked him out of his chair, he claimed. But there was more to it than that as the NT Independent revealed and then a recording of a crucial council vote surfaced that showed council didn’t do its job properly.
All part of the madcap mayhem that, again – and we can’t stress this enough – we could not make up. This is how the foul year of our lord 2020 ended in the Northern Territory:
‘Cultural vandalism’: Darwin Alderman Gary Haslett slams proposal to drop council prayer
Darwin Council Alderman Gary Haslett has criticised a proposal to scrap the Lord’s Prayer from being read at the opening of council meetings, labelling any move to block it “cultural vandalism”.
Fighting the long-entrenched tradition, Alderman Robin Knox said the council process is “not very inclusive” and suggested a more “universal blessing” might be more appropriate.
‘Negligent or incompetent’: Darwin engineer found guilty of professional misconduct by building board
A structural engineer who certified non-compliant concrete for residential multi-story buildings in Darwin and Palmerston, raising serious safety concerns, has been found guilty of professional misconduct by the Building Practitioners Board.
But an inquiry into the matter also found the NT Government’s director of building control was aware of credible allegations of professional misconduct against John Scott of JWS Consultants in 2014, and delayed referring the matter for years.
Bus drivers threaten class action over violent assaults, abuse and rock throwing
A contingent of Darwin bus drivers have signed a letter to the NT Government threatening a class action arguing the government had breached its duty of care as it was “acutely aware” of thousands of cases of abuse, violent assaults and rock throwing.
But the government has denied responsibility, stating the the Territory does not owe a duty of care to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to drivers or passengers of buses from the criminal or anti-social behaviour of other passengers, either on buses or at interchanges.
‘Welcome to the hotel quarantine rave’: Howard Springs’s dangerous party
A video taken from within the NT’s Howard Springs COVID-19 quarantine facility that shows revellers dancing closely, with some ignoring advice to wear masks, has been labelled as “dangerous behavior” by the president of the Australian Medical Association NT.
The short clip posted to TikTok on Tuesday, shows a group of about 20 people participating in the taxpayer-subsidised “hotel quarantine rave” to The Jam by Kideko for a birthday party.
‘There’s no one there to catch you’: Illegal barra fishing rife fishos say
Illegal commercial fishing is allegedly widespread in Arnhem Bay, threatening barramundi sustainability and the Government system to catch offenders is inadequate, a local charter operator, former Indigenous ranger and a recreational fisherman all say.
The claims of illegality involve instances of commercial fishermen putting nets past closure lines, which locals say poses a threat to the safety of local fishos, and endangered marine life, as well as the future of fishing in the area.
Nepotism, false Certificates of Aboriginality found in NT anti-corruption watchdog’s third report
The NT‘s anti-corruption watchdog has disqualified a claim of Aboriginality by a former NT Government official and found the Territory Government’s recruitment process has allowed a “significant” amount of candidates to abuse recruitment processes.
Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Ken Fleming QC on Friday published his third report into an investigation of systemic corruption and improper conduct risks in the Territory Government’s recruitment and disciplinary frameworks.
Mysterious legal issue stops council’s RSL vote – not sacred site, as aldermen stay quiet
Darwin Mayor Kon Vatskalis’s sudden deferral of a crucial council vote on the RSL’s proposed Esplanade establishment was influenced by an undisclosed letter of a legal nature – not solely over claims of an Indigenous sacred site, the NT Independent can reveal.
Concerns have also been raised about council’s willingness to go along with Tuesday night’s deferral motion, that may have breached bylaws and which has led to elected aldermen bizarrely refusing to explain to the public if they even voted.
Gunner Government to scrap scrutiny body after being sworn in for second term
One of the Gunner Government’s first orders of business after being sworn in for its second term today will be to scrap the scrutiny body that provided oversight of its proposed laws, which critics say will reduce government transparency.
The NT Independent understands the government will this week cut the social policy scrutiny committee, which it billed in 2016 as being crucial to restoring trust in government.
Audio recording of council meeting reveals RSL vote did not occur
An audio recording of last week’s contentious Darwin City Council meeting has emerged that refutes council’s official claim that a crucial vote introduced at the eleventh hour to defer a decision on the RSL clubhouse proposal took place.
In the recording, obtained by the NT Independent, Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis can be heard introducing a “Mayoral Minute” to defer a decision on whether the council would provide in-principle support to the RSL’s controversial Esplanade proposal.
More than 400 public servants hired since government hiring freeze implemented: report
The NT public service continues to grow at a higher rate than the population despite the Gunner Government’s repeated pledges over the last two years to implement a hiring freeze, the annual State of the Service report shows.
There are currently 400 more full-time equivalent staff as at June 2020 compared to December 2018, when the Gunner Government announced it was in a financial crisis and would implement a hiring freeze and encourage voluntary redundancies to save money.
‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’: Gunner rebukes journalist for questioning his response
A visibly angry Chief Minister Michael Gunner demanded a journalist stop asking questions at a press conference Friday afternoon after she said his explanation for scrapping the legislative scrutiny committee “doesn’t pass the pub test”.
Mr Gunner grew frustrated after a series of questions about his government’s blackflip on one of its key integrity measures introduced in 2017 to “restore trust in government” and provide “more scrutiny on government, and to [insure] open and transparent government”.
Politics wins, principles are irrelevant with the new Labor Government: Gerry Wood
OPINION: The new Labor Government’s announcement that it will scrap the scrutiny committee process and revoke the Opposition and independents’ ability to ask all the questions during Wednesday question time sessions shows why people regard politicians down the bottom end of liked professions in our society.
In 2017, the Labor Government introduced scrutiny committees based on the recommendations of its own Opening Up Parliament to the People Committee and the recommendations of the subsequent Standing Orders Committee.
Zachary Rolfe to stand trial over death of Kumanjayi Walker
NT Police officer Zachary Rolfe will stand trial in the NT Supreme Court in Alice Springs charged with murder over the fatal shooting of Yuendumu teenager Kumanjayi Walker, after a long drawn out committal hearing that a judge found produced sufficient evidence to warrant a trial.
Mr Rolfe appeared on Monday by audio link to hear the judge’s final decision on whether there was enough evidence to commit him to stand trial.
ABC ignores conflict of interest as Chief Minister’s Office helps arrange speaking gig for reporter
The Chief Minister’s Office helped arrange for an ABC journalist to deliver a political “morning tea” speaking engagement, sparking fresh concerns over an unresolved conflict of interest at the public broadcaster and how it covers the Gunner Government.
The event, which features ABC reporter Kristy O’Brien, has been advertised online and on billboards at the Gateway shopping centre as a chance for the public to meet the “new mum, award-winning journalist & NT Chief Minister’s wife”.
The ABC needs to address its Gunner Government conflict of interest
EDITORIAL: There is no argument Kristy O’Brien is a good journalist in a bad position.
In fact, the NT Independent editorial board as a whole, while in previous pursuits, collaborated with Ms O’Brien on a journalism project. We have the utmost respect for her personally and her talents as a journalist professionally.
‘You can’t replace Darwin’: The story behind the international rise of Richie Soong
“My story is a little bit soppy,” Dr Richie Soong says.
It’s an understatement of a tragedy, an understatement that may come from an identity forged growing up in the 1980s in a far-removed urban fringe sitting atop the Outback, surrounded by the stoic, silent, ‘nothing personal’ attitude of Australian beer drinking, football-playing, men.
Welcome to the Aboriginal Gulag: NT legal community’s inaction has led to broken system
OPINION: As you fly into Darwin you can’t fail to see through the window of your aircraft the real symbol of the Northern Territory. This initial image is no Eiffel Tower, and it’s certainly no Statue of Liberty. Neither is it some amusing giant crocodile. It’s an enormous, ugly footprint on the ground, 36 kilometres south of Darwin: the Darwin ‘Superjail’. In these Orwellian times it’s officially called the ‘Darwin Correctional Precinct’.
ABC increases ‘oversight’ at Darwin newsroom as potentially conflicted reporting emerges
The integrity of ABC Darwin’s reporting has been called into question with at least three stories written by Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s wife Kristy O’Brien over the last two years flagged as potentially biased and serving Mr Gunner’s political interests.
The stories were sent to the NT Independent last week after it was revealed the Chief Minister’s Office helped to facilitate a speaking engagement for the ABC reporter in contravention of the public broadcaster’s integrity policies.
‘Dead letter’: Budget repair measures fail ahead of 2020 NT Budget
Taxpayers were charged nearly $18 million for fifth floor ministerial staffers and media managers last financial year, newly released government documents show, that helped contribute to another departmental budget blow-out.
According to the Department of Chief Minister’s annual report, the department has blown its budget for the 2019-20 financial year, despite strict measures placed on chief executives to rein in spending in the face of the ongoing financial crisis.
Chief Minister defies Freedom of Information laws to keep secret China agreements hidden
Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s office has refused to release the agreements he has signed with Chinese officials since coming to power in 2016, failing to provide a valid legal reason for blocking the public’s right to know.
The NT Independent filed a Freedom of Information application in June to force the Gunner Government to publicly release all of the agreements signed with Chinese officials.
NT Budget 2020: Spending continues with no plan to address financial crisis
Chief Minister Michael Gunner has delivered his first NT Budget as Treasurer that will see spending continue relatively unabated over the next decade as the Territory continues to plunge into record debt and deficit.
Critics have argued the budget shows no commitment to rein in spending, despite a government announced financial crisis two years ago that it still shows no current plan for getting out of.
‘That has not been raised with me’: ABC boss grilled over Darwin newsroom’s conflict of interest at Senate Estimates
ABC managing director David Anderson has committed to personally review how the Darwin newsroom has managed a conflict of interest concerning Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s wife Kristy O’Brien, following questions by CLP Senator Sam McMahon at Senate Estimates in Canberra.
Ms O’Brien’s conflict of interest was recently raised again after the Chief Minister’s office helped facilitate a speaking engagement for the ABC reporter at a local shopping centre last month that heavily promoted her husband in advertising for the event.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s secret night in Sydney with high-priced tailor revealed
A mysterious trip Chief Minister Michael 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 was kept off official travel reporting records while still being picked up by taxpayers, the NT Independent can reveal.
Documents released under Freedom of Information laws show the November 2017 official government trip to Hawaii, that included flights for Mr Gunner between Alice Springs, Sydney, Honolulu and back to Sydney and Darwin, were not properly lodged through the NT Government’s official travel requisition database, in contravention of strict protocols established to protect taxpayers against fraud.
‘We are retrofitting some funky stuff here’: Government’s rushed liquor licence changes called into question
The Gunner Government has been accused of weakening the independent oversight of the liquor commission and sending a dangerous message to investors, after rushing through changes to liquor licence laws.
The government said the legislation was rushed through to fast-track the approval process for two liquor licences, that would see a decision on the long-delayed Dan Murphy’s application within 30 days, but that number was doubled to four on Thursday as the government rushed to address several issues raised by its changes.
Unfinished Business: The Territory’s ugly truth
Historians at the University of Newcastle are mapping Australia’s colonial frontier massacres. The team includes Dr Robyn Smith from the Northern Territory who delivered a lecture at Charles Darwin University’s Truth Telling webinar series in August.
Aboriginal people are warned that this piece contains images of deceased Aboriginal people.
READ full story here: https://ntindependent.com.au/unfinished-business-the-territorys-ugly-truth/
‘It’s pandemonium’: Alice Springs swamped with SA COVID refugees as govt charter flight to Darwin grounded
Questions have been raised over the NT Government’s preparedness for COVID-19 hotspot declarations after a bizarre series of events unfolded in Alice Springs Tuesday night, following an influx of travellers from SA looking to take up the free quarantine offer that expired at midnight.
The Alice Springs COVID-19 quarantine facility quickly filled beyond capacity on Tuesday, as hundreds fled by air and road into the NT, forcing the government to announce it would charter a flight to Darwin for roughly 80 people to quarantine at the Howard Springs facility, as cars full of other travellers continued to flood in.
‘Cronyism and lack of ethics’: ABC’s claims that Darwin conflict of interest resolved are untrue, staff say
The ABC’s claims that it has managed its conflict of interest with Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s wife Kristy O’Brien have been dismissed as untrue by ABC journalists speaking to Media Watch.
The ABC Darwin newsroom’s conflict of interest was the focus of the venerable program on Monday night, raising new questions over the integrity of the newsroom.
‘It raises much bigger questions’: Gunner Government’s explanation for Alice Springs COVID chaos refuted
The Gunner Government’s explanation for its chaotic response to COVID-19 procedures in Alice Springs last night has been called into question, raising concerns over whether it could handle a bigger coronavirus emergency.
The accuracy of the government’s claims is also being challenged in the fallout from Tuesday’s bungle that saw people who were supposed to be under strict quarantine orders permitted to move freely around the town late last night.
NT Chief Minister’s failed power play against Morrison Government revealed
Chief Minister Michael Gunner attempted to exclude an elected federal politician from participating in a media conference concerning federal funding to the Northern Territory, the NT Independent can reveal.
Commonwealth Government sources with knowledge of the event told the NT Independent that Mr Gunner attempted to exert his authority to bar NT CLP Senator Sam McMahon from Thursday’s ship lift press conference, before being told by Minister for Northern Australia Keith Pitt’s office that the media event would be held without him if he insisted on banning Ms McMahon.
New details of Gunner’s secret night in Sydney reveal flight change fees, limo costs billed to taxpayers
Newly released internal documents show Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s taxpayer-funded trip to Hawaii in 2017 – that included an overnight stay in Sydney to meet a high-priced tailor for his wedding suit – was extended just two weeks before the official trip occurred with re-booking penalty fees covered by Territorians.
The Office of the Chief Minister released the more complete travel records on Monday, 10 days after the NT Independent first reported on the mysterious trip, and three months after a Freedom of Information application for all documents related to the official travel was first filed.
‘Just explain it’s a busy shift’: Officers in Darwin division told to mislead the public over staffing shortage
An internal police memo instructing officers in the Darwin division to mislead the public when they are the only van on duty and offer only the “minimum response” has further exposed a police force “near breaking point”, the NT Police Association has said.
The email to officers, which was sent by a superintendent and viewed by the NT Independent, states that the officers in charge are “cognisant of the stressors placed on people when staffing falls below the desired two to three vans”, but that if they find themselves as the only van on call they should not reveal the truth about the staffing shortage to the public.
RSL’s Esplanade club proposal dead after council moves to turn carpark into green space
The RSL’s controversial plan to build a club on the Esplanade appears to finally be dead, after Darwin City Council passed a motion at its meeting last night to turn the carpark at the centre of the proposal into green space.
Alderman Justine Glover brought the motion forward and said debate was “tense” but passed five votes to four.
Jabiru township and millions of taxpayer cash to be controlled by new entity while previous group faces investigation
The Federal Government is handing back the Jabiru township – the centrepiece of a $446 million rejuvenation master plan – to an organisation that shares directors with an Aboriginal corporation currently under investigation by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations for alleged financial impropriety.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt announced on November 25 that the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation Jabiru Town (GACJT), a new entity, would hold the lease following the passing of legislation to allow its handover in September.
The NT’s ‘new’ post-COVID economic recovery plan unveiled
The much-hyped Territory Economic Reconstruction Commission’s plan for saving the Northern Territory’s economy post-coronavirus has come down to plans already in place: further developing natural gas reserves and expanding the mining sector, while also simultaneously moving to achieve a “decarbonisation plan” to reach net zero emissions by 2050, with a focus on renewable energy.
There were also vague platitudes for attracting much-needed but to date elusive private investment to the NT.
READ full story here: https://ntindependent.com.au/the-nts-new-post-covid-economic-recovery-plan-unveiled/
‘Governments that avoid questions undermine democracy’: Peter Greste calls for Gunner to lift ban on NT Independent
Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s ongoing ban of the NT Independent undermines basic democratic values and is contributing to the erosion of integrity in government, says journalist Peter Greste, who was jailed in Egypt for more than a year while on assignment for Al-Jazeera in 2013.
Greste, who is now the spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom (AJF), an Australian organisation that monitors and advocates for press freedoms across the Asia-Pacific region, said Mr Gunner’s undemocratic ban on the free press needs to end.
‘Falls short of a rational response’: Darwin lawyer says Gunner’s ban of NT Independent appears to breach code of conduct
Pressure continues to mount on Chief Minister Michael Gunner to lift his ban on the NT Independent, after a member of the Darwin legal community joined a growing group of journalism and legal experts across the country calling for the ban to be rescinded, while suggesting the government has breached its own code of conduct.
Ward Keller partner Leon Loganathan said on ABC Radio Darwin Friday morning that the Gunner Government appeared to be breaching the MLA Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act, which mandates that all parliamentarians respect the freedom of the press and also respect the independence of the public service.
Federal money for NT roads diverted to boost public servant numbers, consultants: DIPL
The Gunner Government is taking federal cash intended for private companies to build and upgrade the Territory’s roads and using it to hire more public servants, while at the same time paying more consultants for “specialist advice”, the Estimates Committee was told by a senior public servant.
Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics (DIPL) chief executive Andrew Kirkman made the surprise revelation after being asked by the Opposition to explain how DIPL was finding cost efficiencies in the face of a government fiscal crisis that will see debt increase to $8.4 billion this year from $1.8 billion in 2016.
Senate passes unanimous motion calling on NT Government to lift ban on free press
The Australian Senate has publicly rebuked Chief Minister Michael Gunner, unanimously passing a motion last night calling on the NT Government to rescind its ban on the NT Independent.
In a twist of fate, the motion passed the Senate with support from all parties – including Labor – while Mr Gunner was in Canberra on an official trip to curry favour with federal politicians.
‘I am unable to conclude whether the Buy Local plan has had a positive effect’: Buy Local advocate
The NT Government’s Buy Local advocate has said he is unable to conclude whether the Territory’s Buy Local plan actually increases local procurement, that there is still no agreement of what constitutes a “Territory enterprise”, and concerns remain over the government’s ability to accurately record where it has made purchases.
In his third annual report, Denys Stedman concluded he did not expect the situation would change in the next year.
Gunner Government’s pre-election COVID-19 financial report ‘misleading’: Auditor General
Financial figures released by Chief Minister Michael Gunner before the election – as well as wild claims that close to 100,000 Territorians would be infected with COVID-19 at a cost of $200 million if it weren’t for him – have been found to be “misleading” by the Auditor General.
After delaying the NT budget until after the election, and not producing a pre-election fiscal outlook, Mr Gunner and Treasurer Nicole Manison released a “COVID-19 Financial Report” on July 29 – one day before entering caretaker mode that was billed as providing Territorians with a look at the NT’s true financial position.
Tribunal finds Alistair Wyvill justified in criticising Justice Southwood’s ‘politically partisan’ Stella Maris decision
Professional misconduct allegations filed against former Labor leader Delia Lawrie’s lawyer Alistair Wyvill have been dismissed, five years after they were made, in a decision that has raised fresh questions over how the Stella Maris Inquiry and subsequent Supreme Court action were handled.
The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal dismissed the allegations brought against Mr Wyvill by the Law Society NT, finding that his allegations against Supreme Court Justice Stephen Southwood were warranted and that he did not advise Ms Lawrie to make false statements during the inquiry.
Timing of Chief Minister’s early holiday leave questioned
Deputy Chief Minister Nicole Manison said Chief Minister Michael Gunner did not leave for Christmas holidays four days early because he wanted to avoid questions about the Dan Murphy’s approval.
But it remains unclear exactly why Mr Gunner left for holidays on Thursday – four days before he was scheduled to leave and amid an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Sydney Northern Beaches area that has been declared a coronavirus hotspot by NT health authorities.
READ full story here: https://ntindependent.com.au/timing-of-chief-ministers-early-holiday-leave-questioned/
Dan Murphy’s approved by NT Government four years after blocking it
The NT Government has approved a Dan Murphy’s store in Darwin, four years after initially blocking it over concerns it would contribute to ongoing rates of alcohol-fuelled violence.
The announcement that the NT’s director of liquor licensing had approved the store was leaked to favoured media late on Thursday, following recently passed urgent legislation by the Gunner Government that stripped the independent liquor commission of any role in determining liquor licences, after it had previously knocked back the Dan Murphy’s application.
The uncertain future of 40 people caught up in a mega $446 million redevelopment plan
The future for more than 40 Indigenous people living in a Jabiru town camp slated for demolition to make way for a makeover worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including a luxury hotel and glamping, is in limbo with no official response on what will happen if, as proposed, the land is handed back to the traditional owners next year.
The group are residents of the Manabadurma town camp and are mostly descendants of people who moved into the area from Arnhem Land up to 100 years ago, according to long-term Kakadu resident, former ranger and now manager of the Buffalo Farm in the park David Lindner, and thus not members of the traditional owner group, the Mirarr people.
Chief Minister’s taxpayer-funded $7k trip to Nhulunbuy with family revealed
Chief Minister Michael Gunner charged taxpayers more than $7,000 for a one-night trip to Nhulunbuy in the lead up to the NT general election that included costs for his wife and newborn baby, newly released government travel records show.
Mr Gunner and ABC journalist Kristy O’Brien flew to Nhulunbuy in late June and brought their then-two-month-old baby to the region, who featured in photos posted to the couple’s social media accounts, including a picture of the baby in a healing ceremony held by Indigenous elders.