When I first heard about this book last year, I thought it would be amusing to read. From down south in Melbourne where politics is for real, what I saw in the media about the antics of the recent CLP government looked like high farce, and Crocs in the Cabinet, Northern Territory Politics, an instruction manual on how NOT to run a government seemed like light-hearted entertainment. After all, the population of the entire NT is smaller than many local councils; it’s hard to take their government and its pretensions seriously, I thought.
But through a well-timed slap to my condescension, by coincidence yesterday I read an anguished article by twenty-something Alex McKinnon in The Guardian, entitled ‘Morrison and Co are kneecapping my generation’s future. And laughing about it. This article, triggered by the Question Time antics of the Turnbull front bench, is a salutary reminder that politics isn’t an amusement, it’s about people’s lives:
Malcolm Turnbull’s government is almost as proudly negligent on the growing existential question of climate change as Tony Abbott’s was. Morrison’s little Punch and Judy show came as Australia’s eastern states braced for a heatwave of unusual length and severity, at the end of a summer that is already – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – the hottest on record.
It is enormously galling that my life, and the lives of the people I care about, are held and crushed in the hands of people as proudly mediocre and ignorant as Morrison and Joyce. They, and the rest of the sneering brats on the government front bench, will most likely not have to live with the consequences of their own laziness and brute stupidity. I will.
And of course, in the interim there has also been the Trump catastrophe. I am still getting used to the idea that we in The Rest of the World have to take this man seriously.
So I came to my reading about the NT’s chaotic government in a changed frame of mind. Intolerant of high jinks, for a start, and recognising them for what they are. Also depressed and angry about the failure to prioritise the needs of vulnerable people, especially indigenous people who’ve been short-changed in the NT over decades and who’ve had to suffer the indignity of The Intervention because of the indifference of their governments. No wonder Territorians voted against statehood. From down here, the No vote looked like a bizarre result, but now I think I would have voted No too.
Crocs in the Cabinet – like many books rushed into print in the aftermath of an election – isn’t analytical reading. It’s a reportage of events, the journalists often quoting their own articles from the newspaper so often mocked on the ABC’s Media Watch, the notorious NT News (NewsCorp). (Just Google NT News + Media Watch to see what I mean). The cover blurb and inserts of full cover reproductions of the tabloid NT News front pages don’t encourage the reader to take the book seriously.
Find out exactly how bonkers the NT parliament really was, as you read of …
– a drunk Territory minister, a seedy Tokyo ‘cabaret’ club, a $5000 bar tab and taxpayer-funded credit card. Priceless!
– the lewd videos a masturbating minister sent someone, not his wife
– the anguished words ‘WE ARE IN LOVE!’ echoing from the floor of parliament
– a Chief Minister defying a coup by throwing his phone in a pool
– the ‘gone fishing’ MP who chose baiting up instead of turning up
– the minister, charged with assault, who sold her ‘MY HUSBAND IS HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH MY NIECE’ story to TAKE 5 magazine.
This is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail meets Fawlty Towers.
You can see the style from the author’s introduction:
This is not a political book.
It’s about politicians, but it’s not about politics. The Mills and Giles CLP government failed for many reasons, but not because of ideology or its political leanings. This book is about the fall of an empire – about the power struggles and missteps and flawed characters that took the CLP from the Northern Territory’s dominant political force to near extinction, from an election win in 2012 to holding just two seats in Parliament four years later.
As the empire crumbled, the internecine nature of Darwin’s elite society was laid bare. The carnage exposed a sort of frontier Gotham City; corrupted by an interconnected web of public service fiefdom, lawyers, judges, police, politicians, businesspeople and the media. (p.ix)
Once the reader has grasped the central thesis i.e. that narcissistic personalities were the cause of the government dysfunction, the breathless style detailing the succession of events begins to exhaust itself. I admit to scanning some pages; I was in no mood to read them. But the book improves as it moves along, perhaps a product of its joint authorship, perhaps just because events were more recent in the mind and the patterns began to form.
It crossed my mind as I read about various corruption scandals, bribery allegations and fake publicity stunts that I would need to be very careful about what I write here. Hachette, the publisher, has deep pockets and has presumably had its lawyers carefully check the book. But I will confine myself to generalities just in case.
Firstly, Smee and Walsh identify the two causes of the electorate’s disenchantment with this government. For a while Territorians were prepared to tolerate the outrageous public and private behaviour of their politicians, because they were getting things done. But the essential bond between government and electorate – trust – was lost over the privatisation of the TIO (Territory Insurance Company) which had a record of prompt payouts after the NT’s numerous natural disasters and the sale of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese businessman, creating security implications if Australia gets into a stoush over the South China Sea. The authors don’t say so, but there’s a moral for voters in this. An electorate ought to hold its politicians accountable for their ethics or lack of them, in all things, at all times.
Secondly, towards the end of the book, Smee and Walsh remind readers that governments have two equally important roles in western democracies.
The first is to actually govern. To develop policy, to pass laws, to manage departments and to do tangible things in the interests of constituents.
The second is to deliver good government. That means forging a consensus when the right action might not be the popular one…[…]… It means being community leaders and acting in a way that reflects the values of voters. And it means standing for something – something more than a group of personalities playing the power game. (p.236).
In the electorate wipeout that followed, the CLP lost government and opposition. (They only won two seats which means that independents currently form the opposition). But IMO the electorate lost more than that, they lost confidence in their democracy, and no doubt the blame game is hard at work. My question (not tackled in the book) is, how well is the party system working, when people like those were endorsed as candidates and some rose to become leaders? If the talent pool is too small to throw up good candidates, what is the party doing to increase its membership and to improve its candidate base, and what are governments of all persuasions doing to encourage the wider electorate to participate in the democratic process?
It isn’t enough to complain around the BBQ as if it doesn’t really matter. The disaffection vote is growing and it’s not a pretty sight.
Authors: Ben Smee and Christopher A. Walsh
Title: Crocs in the Cabinet, Northern Territory politics: An instruction manual on how NOT to run a government
Publisher: Hachette, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Hachette