The Northern Territory government will only learn its lesson if it suffers the same “humiliating” defeat as its Country Liberal party predecessor, the leader of the opposition has said, amid both financial and political crises.
Chief minister Michael Gunner on Friday sacked three NT Labor ministers for their public criticism of the government’s handling of the fiscal crisis, long forewarned but revealed in detail last week.
Gunner, who has been on leave, returned on Saturday to deal with the fallout in his party after sacking resources and Aboriginal affairs minister Ken Vowles, as well as assistant ministers Jeff Collins and Scott McConnell.
Vowles had been expelled from cabinet for “breaking cabinet confidentiality” in a leaked email which likened the government to a business “trading insolvent”.
Gary Higgins, leader of the NT opposition said on Saturday Labor would only learn a lesson if they suffered “the same humiliation” the CLP went through at the last election, when it was reduced to two seats in parliament – fewer than the independent crossbench – after a consistently controversial term.
He said the CLP had not punished him for voicing opinions on behalf of constituents during various crises in their four year term.
“At no time did anyone threaten to kick me out of the party,” he said. “The party should not come first.”
The Plan for Budget Repair interim report last week revealed the dire state of the Territory’s finances, including the revelation it is borrowing money to pay public service wages and interest on its debt with a forecast deficit of $1.5 billion this year.
Unless urgent action is taken, a broke NT government would not be able to afford an annual $2bn interest bill by 2029-30 and net debt will have increased tenfold from $3bn to $35.7bn.
Vowles had given “an honest assessment of how this government is functioning,” Higgins said.
“This government continually for the last two years has held that high moral ground and criticised the previous government. This means they are infinitely worse than that previous government and should be held to account on that.”
Asked if there was something “inherently wrong with Northern Territory politics”, Higgins said: “democracy can work in strange ways”.
Charles Darwin university law lecturer and former NT Labor MP, Ken Parish, said the focus on individual party members was “an unfortunate distraction”.
“Everybody, especially those in the parliamentary Labor party should be working out what is the best way to improve the financial situation, given it is dire,” he told Guardian Australia.
“It’s certainly not helped when you’ve got this chaos and the message is that anyone who sticks their head above the parapet with suggestions, if they’re not suggestions Mr Gunner likes they’ll get their head shot off.”
Parish said there was “a degree of truth in the way [NT treasurer Nicole] Manison and Gunner have characterised it as… a perfect storm”, with the wind up of the Inpex project, reduction in payroll tax revenue, and cuts to the NT’s share of the GST, among other major factors.
“But given all of those things have been known for most of the time Labor’s been in power they could have and should have been doing more.”