The shape of the Northern Territory Parliament has changed yet again, and politicians are now debating who should, or needs to be, the Territory’s official opposition party.
- Territory Alliance now has the same number of seats in NT Parliament as the current CLP Opposition
- The NT Parliament could be asked to vote on which party should assume opposition status before the August Territory election
- Three MPs all have differing views on how that process should unfold
The debate was triggered after Jeff Collins, the former Labor-turned-independent Member for Fong Lim, changed his political allegiance for a second time since 2016 and joined Terry Mills’s new Territory Alliance Party on Monday.
Now, Territory Alliance has the same number of seats in Parliament as the current Country Liberals Opposition.
Currently there are 16 Labor members, five independents, two CLP members, and Territory Alliance has two members.
So what happens now, just five months out from the Territory election, that two parties have equal claim to opposition status?
Will there be a vote in Parliament?
At present, NT politicians can’t agree on what should be done now opposition status is in dispute.
But there is precedent for this within the Westminster system.
Collins joins Territory Alliance, ramping up threat to CLP
Labor-turned-independent Jeff Collins is now a member of Territory Alliance, bringing the party’s seats in NT Parliament equal to the CLP Opposition.
The precedent dictates that when two parties tie behind a majority Government, it’s up to MPs to vote on which party should assume opposition.
Territory Alliance has previously called on the Government to recuse itself from any such vote, saying it would be absurd for a Government to choose its own opponent.
“This is governed by convention, but I think the overriding convention in the interests of democracy would be that the Government should not be choosing who its opposition is,” Territory Alliance leader Terry Mills said.
But the Northern Territory’s Speaker, Kezia Purick, said there was no convention suggesting Government members should not vote in such an event.
“No that’s not correct, that’s rubbish. That doesn’t happen in our Westminster system and I’m surprised [Territory Alliance] has made that statement,” Ms Purick said.
“Clearly it’s a tricky issue. No Government wants to vote in who their opposing team is. It’s fraught with all sorts of issues and questions marks.”
“If Mr Mills wants to seize opposition from the CLP, then [he should] test the numbers on the floor.”
Confusion over whether the Speaker can decide
The Independent Member for Araluen, Robyn Lambley, said it was up to Ms Purick, in her role as NT Speaker, to decide on who should be the official opposition in the instance two parties had equal representation in the assembly.
Mrs Lambley pointed to one of Ms Purick’s own parliamentary reports to justify her claim. It reads: “If the official opposition is not clear by virtue of numbers, it is for the Speaker to decide which group shall be called so.”
But Ms Purick said she had told all members of Parliament that she “would not be choosing the opposition”.
“I cannot be forced to, there is nothing in standing orders … I choose not to. I don’t believe it’s my role,” she said.
“I have made the decision that I will not be anointing any group of members to be the opposition of our Parliament.
“I believe it’s a dangerous precedent for speakers who come after me and I’m not going to do it.”
‘Do your job Kezia or get out’
Mrs Lambley bluntly disagreed with Ms Purick’s assertion that it was not her role to adjudicate when two parties had equal claim to opposition status.
“I don’t trust any of this. Listening to Kezia Purick, the fact that she interprets her role to suit herself, she should be stepping down from that role,” Mrs Lambley said.
“If she can’t do her job as per what is described within the Australian Parliament, [and] there’s no standing order pertaining to this situation within our jurisdiction … she’s interpreted [this] to suit herself.
“So, do your job Kezia or get out.”
Independents split on preferred opposition
In the event of a parliamentary vote, Ms Purick said she would likely use her vote as Member for Goydor to support the current CLP Opposition — but added her mind wasn’t made up.
‘I’d probably favour the CLP as Opposition, but I would want to listen to the arguments put forward by the CLP and I would want to listen to the arguments put forward by Territory Alliance,” she said.
Mrs Lambley said she would support Terry Mills and Territory Alliance if a vote in Parliament arose.
Labor’s Joel Bowden wins Johnston in tight contest
The result is both a relief for the Gunner Labor Government but also cause for alarm six months out from the NT election after voters delivered a major swing against the party.
Mrs Lambley, who served as deputy CLP leader when Mr Mills was CLP chief minister before quitting the party in 2015, unsuccessfully attempted to seize opposition status from the CLP last year alongside Mr Mills and Yingiya Mark Guyula in a coalition of independents.
“The alliance that we drew up 12 months ago between Terry Mills, Yingiya Guyula and myself still remains in place, so I would be supporting Terry,” she said.
“Terry has supported me for the last 10 years as a member of Parliament. The CLP have been almost impossible to deal with from my perspective.
“I’ll stick with the person I know.”
Despite her stated allegiance to Mr Mills, Mrs Lambley said she would not be joining Territory Alliance to hand the party a clear secondary majority in Parliament.
“I’m not going to do that for the sake of knocking the CLP out of opposition status,” she said.
“I don’t want to join the Territory Alliance; it doesn’t resonate with my community. I’m quite happy … to remain an independent.
“I’m not going to join this fiasco so a party can become opposition.”
How much is there to gain as opposition?
Money and extra resources, first of all.
Territory Alliance’s plan to seize Opposition status Territory Alliance — a party calling for a “revolution” in politics — will attempt to seize Opposition status from the Country Liberals if it wins this weekend’s by-election in Johnston.
“Depending on the negotiations with the government of the day, an opposition’s office could get anything from $800,000 to $1.5 million for resources,” Ms Purick said.
“That’s a lot of staff. That’s a lot of material. Plus there’s entitlements … entitlements to airfares, entitlements to offices, et cetera.”
Territory Alliance, however, said it was seeking opposition status for the betterment of Territory politics and a fairer distribution of resources.
“Territory Alliance has come into existence because we believe the Parliament is not working well,” Mr Mills said.
“We do need a very strong Opposition in order to have a strong Government. I do not believe we’ve had that.”
What does the current Opposition think?
While Territory Alliance continues to stake its opposition claim, the current CLP Opposition Leader, Lia Finocchiaro, said the matter was a distraction.
“We have never made [opposition] status a focus. It’s entirely a matter for Territory Alliance and Jeff Collins to squabble over these things,” she said.
“We have always been focussed on Territorians and have never diverted our focus from that.”