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'Brilliant' Martin scuppered by party white ants

  • 13 August 2008

Paul Henderson, the pro tem chief minister of the Northern Territory, squandered a 15-seat majority in the eight months since he prised Clare Martin out of the shoes of power.

At Saturday's election, cynical and disengaged Territory voters stayed home in their hundreds, and those who bothered voted for an independent or CLP candidate they didn't respect any less than they didn't respect Labor, Henderson style.

Ironically, the administration was preserved by a squeak-through win in Martin's vacated seat of Fanny Bay.

Martin, who retired prior to the election after nine months on the backbench, had been a brilliant leader. In August 2001 she swept the CLP out of its 27 year sinecure. She offered justice for all, especially to the Territory's indigenous citizens, with whom the CLP had played race politics for 20 years, embedding intolerance and fear in Darwin's predominantly middle class northern suburbs, where all important Northern Territory elections are won or lost.

She concentrated on those northern suburbs to be re-elected in 2006 with a huge majority, but alienated the Left and the too-long neglected citizens of the bush and the margins. Little had been done about the living conditions of indigenous children by 2006 and she was forced to flirt with the mean beasts of Canberra over land rights policy, indigenous and other infrastructure and local influence. Her own party mutinously plotted.

By the time of the Howard Intervention the Territory's five new Indigenous MPs seemed convinced Martin had been captured by 'southern' advisers and over-cautious bureaucrats. Marion Scrymgour, a Tiwi Island MP, condemned the Intervention as a 'vicious new McCarthyism' in late 2006.

By 2007 Henderson and 'Labor strategists' were testing support for his future leadership. Martin became the whipping boy on government inaction in child protection. In November 2007 a tired Martin and her Treasurer Syd Stirling resigned. Henderson got the top job and Scrymgour became his Deputy.

You had to be there. Clare Martin slipped from saint to sacrificial lamb because local media led the charge and the party followers thought they had won government all by themselves. And could do it better.

Most female MPs accept that having a public profile means having dung thrown at you. Clare Martin did, but it was particularly malodorous. Many in her party didn't take the long view about the damage this might do to them.

It just stuck. The 'Little Children' report triggered the Intervention because of her government's