Northern Territory Labor ‘manufactured’ leaks to drive out dissenters over budget crisis, politician says
One of a trio of dumped Northern Territory Labor Government members has said that there had been a “concerted effort” to drive them out of the party, with damaging email leaks manufactured by Government advisors.
- The NT Labor leadership group fear the capabilities of dumped minister Ken Vowles, seeing him as a threat to the Chief Minister, Jeff Collins says
- He said leaks were manufactured to boot him, Mr Vowles, and backbencher Scott McConnell from the Caucus
- The Government does not cope with criticism or counter-views very well, Mr Collin says
Aboriginal Affairs and Primary Industry and Resources Minister Ken Vowles, Assistant Minister Jeff Collins and backbencher Scott McConnell were ejected from the Labor Caucus on Friday after a series of leaked emails earlier this week exposed dissent within the party regarding the NT’s ballooning debt and how the Government is handling it.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the three were dismissed for “breaking the caucus values and standards signed up to at the beginning of our term”.
“I think there’s been a concerted effort against Ken [Vowles] in particular for some time, and I think there’s a fear amongst the leadership group about Ken and his capabilities,” Mr Collins told the ABC on Saturday.
A confidential letter Mr Vowles sent to the Northern Land Council regarding a decision made about fishing at Blue Mud Bay was also leaked recently, following a long-running standoff about non-traditional owners having access to intertidal fishing zones.
In the letter, he offered a $10 million package to buy out commercial fishing licenses, and he said Alf Leonardi, Mr Gunner’s powerful chief of staff, had wanted the letter leaked.
“I said no don’t do that,” Mr Vowles told the ABC in a statement.
“Then an hour after sending the email with the offer to the NLC from my office it was on the NT News website. Only five people had that email. Me, my chief of staff, Leanne my media adviser, Alf and Michael.”
He said the NLC leak was engineered to separate the Government from the NLC.
“It was about ensuring the boat owners in Palmerston knew it was all about the NLC blocking them out [from fishing areas] not the government,” Mr Vowles said.
“Once again, to be re-elected and not respecting the NLC and the rights of traditional owners.”
Mr Collins said he firmly believed the correspondence was leaked, “so as to discredit Ken and try and bring on this type of dispute”.
“I have no doubt that was why the emails were leaked as well … to manufacture this sort of dispute so this sort of action can be taken to remove Ken, Scott, and myself form the caucus,” he said.
Fifteen of Labor’s 18 caucus members attended a meeting on Friday in which the motion to expel the three members was moved and passed.
Mr Vowles said he was banned from attending by the Chief Minister, “denying me procedural fairness and natural justice to defend myself in caucus”.
‘There’s no discussion, no input, no buy-in’
If the three men are dumped from the Labor Party completely, as Mr Vowles has said he expects his colleagues will try to do, Mr Collins said it would be an “extraordinary” attempt.
He said he had been a Labor Party member for 30 years, longer than many of his colleagues who voted against him.
“It would be setting an incredibly dangerous precedent for Labor parties and Labor governments around the country to talk about expelling members simply because you had a difference of opinion? That’s outrageous,” Mr Collins said.
He said none of the three had voted against the Government.
The damaging independent audit of the NT’s financial position was released on Friday 14 December, before the Chief Minister flew to New Zealand for a hiking holiday with his wife.
Mr Gunner did not front the media that day, leaving it to his deputy and Treasurer Nicole Manison to break the news to the public before Christmas that the audit projected the NT’s $3 billion deficit would increase tenfold to $35.7 billion in 2029-30.
“We simply expressed our concern about the state of the budget and how we go about dealing with that problem, and personally I made a simple comment about, ‘if I were leader I would have fronted the media on Friday’,” Mr Collins said.
“That’s the extent of my crime, and I’ve been expelled from the Labor Caucus for the remainder of the term.”
The next election will be held in August, 2020.
In a statement, Mr McConnell said: “I know I am more Labor than the current Chief Minister.”
Mr Collins said he would sit as an independent Labor member, and said he hadn’t considered quitting and forcing a by-election.
“I will sit as a member of the Legislative Assembly until the end of the term,” he said.
Scott McConnell has been dumped from caucus along with two others. (Supplied: Scott McConnell)
“I have to say, if I have to run as an independent again, I actually think that the leadership’s actions yesterday have done me a great favour.”
He said he, Mr Vowles and Mr McConnell were viewed as the main opposition within the Labor Caucus.
“My experience in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been there is they don’t deal with criticism or counter-views very well at all, they expect all members to simply support whatever’s provided to them by the leadership group and that’s it,” he said.
“There’s no discussion, there’s no input, there’s no buy-in, there’s no ownership of what’s going on.
“It’s a matter of, ‘You’ve been elected, your job is to simply support whatever we say. We’re not going to discuss that with you, we’re not going to include you in any discussions about the development of that’.”
Mr Gunner is flying back to Darwin and will address the media on Saturday afternoon.