Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

'Brilliant' Martin scuppered by party white ants


Clare Martin 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 supposed inaction, not to speak of the naiveté of its authors. The NT News drove the night cart, printing overwhelmingly negative letters to the editor and vicious SMS messages.

Laws to bring the Territory in line with the rest of the country, such as road speed limits, mining agreements, and rationalisation of local government by amalgamating small shires and town councils into regional councils were an attack on the 'Territorian way of life', and Clare Martin the byword for all things 'un-Territorian'.

The Howard Government set out to undermine Martin, perhaps because she was female (therefore fair game?) as well as Labor, and because it enjoyed marginalising 'territory' politics, whose laws it could (and did) override. The Intervention was meant to achieve a national advantage which, along with the Intervention itself, seems to have stammered to a halt.

Not long into her second term, though she had succeeded in achieving a massive 19 seats out of 25, her party's white-anting got busy — she may have been good enough to win power but not good enough to lead.

Neither Scrymgour nor Alison Anderson supported Martin over the Intervention. Malarndirri McCarthy crossed the floor with two other indigenous politicians to vote against the Government's McArthur River Mine legislation, which allowed the mine to divert the river and override the sacred sites issues.

And ten months ago, while Paul Henderson was in Singapore, he told local media that if Martin decided to stand down he was ready and able to take on the role — never a mention of support for his beleaguered Chief Minister. He now stands with no-one in the wings who has the simple quality of those who were ousted.

It is ever thus with Australia's women leaders, those who step up to the unbeatable foe, and win. Lawrence, Kirner, Martin — wasted. Perhaps those in the party who elevated Henderson over Martin or just failed to get behind her now rue the day.

On Friday the Territory lost one of too few politicians with integrity and courage and we will not see her like again — at least not in the Territory, and not for a very long time.

Moira Rayner Moira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.

Topic tags: moira rayner, nt election, clare martin, paul henderson



submit a comment

Existing comments

I am too long an exile to comment on this one, but it is a bloody interesting article.

Leo Donnelly E. | 13 August 2008  

One of the better articles on the recent election and the rise of the sensible, intelligent, Clare Martin.

If you lived in the Territory in the 80s and 90s and saw the abysmal behaviour that passed for politics and policy then you would only begin to understand how she pulled off the improbable in winning first time around.

Yes, she concentrated on Darwin's conservative northern suburbs because that is where the (small) masses were. However, Alice and other towns were left to the CLP.

And it wasn't only the NT ALP left who wanted more action on Indigenous issues. Many more of us do, and it is not easy nor are there quick solutions.

What next for Clare Martin? I hope whatever it is its challenging and rewarding.

Or what next for Henderson the hurried?

Jan Forrester | 13 August 2008  

Indeed this is an interesting assessment of the NT election results, taking into consideration the vagaries of political life. The influence of both the local press and the party-political apparatus is clearly evident and highlighted in Moira Rayner's article - thank you.

Jim | 13 August 2008  

Of course, the other possibility was that she was a lazy and incompetent leader who let down the indigenous community by her inaction and hence gave Howard the excuse for the intervention. Being good at winning elections or indeed, being a woman, is no guarantee that you will be an effective leader.

seajay | 13 August 2008  

Could Moira Rayner please address Paul Toohey's criticism of Martin in the Quarterly Essay, issue 30 - 'Last Drinks'. He mentions inaction on indigenous issues and the damaging power of the head of the Chief Minister's office Paul Tyrell.

The eulogy is interesting and apparently factual, but adds to my confusion on the causes of the torpor of the NT government particularly the protection of the young Aboriginal women and children, especially as Rayner claims that Martin has been ousted mainly because she is a woman.

Ann Long | 13 August 2008  

Unfortunately Moira your analysis smacks of someone with a long distance view of NT politics. Martin presided over a stagnant government following her victory in the previous election. The authors of the little children are sacred report were anything but naive with far greater first hand experience of aboriginal Australia than Martin. There are other women of leadership in the NT government. Both Marion Scrymgour and Malarndirri McCarthy opposed the MacArthur river mine legislation with great dignity - Clare made the mistake of most laborites in pitching to the right and now that government following her lead has reaped the cost.

Jack Jones | 13 August 2008  

I appreciated your article. Its a pity our beloved Claire wasn't strong enough to resist. Putting a boy in to do a manor woman's job was a disaster for the NT and the party.
I hope the next coup is to get rid of the one who almost lost government for us. Maybe Marion , Malandiri and Alison [all strong women], can bring us back from the brink.

Jaymz Daash | 14 August 2008  

"Of course, the other possibility was that she was a lazy and incompetent leader who let down the indigenous community by her inaction and hence gave Howard the excuse for the intervention."

Reality is always more complicated than that. In 2006 Martin begged Howard for help on the indigenous issue, as fixing it is simply well beyond the financial resources of the NT government. Howard not only refused to help, he wouldn't even accept there was a serious problem. Yet, magically, 12 months later, and conveniently just before his toughest election, the problem was so real and pressing that he had to intervene directly, military style. Not to mention his general disinterest in and negligence of indigenous affairs for the entire period of his government up to that point.

Excuse me if I am a little cynical about Howard's motives.

Just Me | 14 August 2008  

In response to Jack, I could have written the article myself and I am a Territorian having lived here for almost 30 years. I have seen leaders come and go and the three that stand out are Everingham, Perron and Martin.

While I may not agree with their policies and politics each in their own way had a vision and a passion for the Northern Territory and I cannot see Henderson (or Mills) with either the vision or passion that is going to take us into the future. They have blinding ambition, but ambition does not equate with vision.

A good article Moira and like Jan Forrester I too hope that Clare Martin finds challenge and reward in whatever she does next.

Myrna Bull | 15 August 2008  

Another top article Moira. Indeed Clare Martin always presented as a driven intelligent politician. Quite a rare find. NT politics will be the sadder without her. Public office in the territory is clearly at a higher price - the croc infested swamps reveal those swinging electorates - and the fickle media - have sadly claimed another victim. [loved that 'night cart' line....]

Nick Ramage | 20 August 2008  

Well, yes and no.

I thought Martin did a good job overall but got gazumped by Howard. Thought Scrymgour et al. are part of the problem of 'throwing more money at the Aboriginal welfare lobby'. See Nic Rothwell's article in The Oz yesterday called 'Indigenous insider chart and end to victim hood'.

Henderson went too early. Low voter turn out always plays in to the hands of the opposition, who I though campaigned okay.

If Rayner wants an inside story on women, white-anting and politics, speak to Cheryl Kernot.

Malcolm King | 04 September 2008  

Similar Articles

Olympics a good time to start wars

  • Gillian Bouras
  • 15 August 2008

Politics is never far from the surface at the Olympics. Even at the so-called friendly Games in Melbourne in 1956, the famous 'Blood in the Water' water-polo match reflected tensions surrounding the Soviet invasion of Hungary ten days before.


Freedom fries not to Solzhenitsyn's taste

  • Michael Mullins
  • 11 August 2008

While he was best known for his unrelenting criticism of the Soviet system, Alexander Solzhenitsyn also provided a devastating critique of the excesses of Western capitalism.