Chief Minister Michael Gunner has prevented the Opposition from questioning head public servant Jodie Ryan at estimates hearings over why the apolitical public service appears to be carrying out a political directive to not respond to the NT Independent.
CLP Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro had asked Mr Gunner if he had made a directive to the departments not to respond to the NT Independent during March parliamentary sittings to which he responded, “No, no directive has been given”.
She said during estimates on Tuesday that she found that strange given that the public service does not respond to the NT Independent.
“So, if I can ask the CEO of DCM about why they don’t respond to the NT Independent?”
Mr Gunner claimed the question was “not relevant to the budget” and would not allow Ms Ryan to answer it.
“It’s one thing Chief Minister for you not to view a news outlet as a news outlet and ban them, that’s a matter for you,” Ms Finocchiaro said.
“But for an entire public service to do the same thing, even though there has been no direction is really quite extraordinary. And so how is it that if there has been no directive, as you say, that no government agency responds to the NT Independent?”
Mr Gunner again said it was not a budget-related question and would not be answered.
Ms Finocchiaro then asked how much the Department of Chief Minister’s media unit costs.
Ms Ryan said the media and communications team will cost taxpayers $11.95 million in 2021-22.
Mr Gunner said the media unit “does respond to the media”.
“And that doesn’t include the NT Independent,” Ms Finocchiaro said. “Why does your department just miraculously not respond to the NT Independent?
“Will you allow me to ask Jodie Ryan these questions?”
“I believe I’ve answered your questions,” Mr Gunner shot back. “I believe I’m indulging you in answering these questions because at the moment they’re not really relevant to the budget.”
“So, you won’t let Ms Ryan, the CEO of all of government, answer very simple straightforward questions?” Ms Finocchiaro asked.
Mr Gunner rejected her appeal.
Ms Finocchiaro then asked if the departmental media unit has to liaise with Mr Gunner’s political advisers before responding to media.
“I guess sometimes, if it’s relevant to my office,” he said. “That’s not a standing direction.”
Independent MLA Robyn Lambley then jumped in.
“You just answered that question which has nothing to do with the budget,” she said.
“Any other question the Opposition Leader asked about the NT Independent, you’ve shut her down. Now, we’re all paid by the public of the Northern Territory, we all have a responsibility as public servants … to be transparent and open about all the decisions we make on behalf of Territorians.
“I think Territorians have a right to a full and open disclosure about what’s going on here. To impede or in any way stifle the freedom of the press is in contradiction to our code of conduct. I think you have an opportunity here to explain why you’re making certain decisions. Like everyone around this room, every decision I make I’m open to be questioned [about] and I think this is of interest to the people of the Northern Territory.”
Mr Gunner reverted back to his earlier claims that it wasn’t a question about the budget and would not respond or let Ms Ryan respond.
“I can’t understand why you are so slimy about this issue,” Ms Finocchiaro said.
The Gunner Government has banned the NT Independent from attending press conferences, and from receiving information from departments, since it started in March 2020.
The illegal and unconstitutional move drew international condemnation, including from peak journalism bodies from across the world and was unanimously denounced in the Australian Senate, including by Mr Gunner’s own federal Labor Party.
In February, Ms Lambley attempted to refer Mr Gunner to the NT Parliament’s disciplinary committee for “unfair and unethical” conduct by banning this publication in direct contravention of the MLA Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act, but the government used its numbers to kill debate before it started.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), constitutional law experts, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, the ABC’s Media Watch program and others have all called for the ban on the NT Independent to be lifted and for the Gunner Government to respect basic democratic principles.