What’s all the fuss about?
Wasn’t Speaker Kezia Purick (at left) just engaged in what passes for political activity in the Northern Territory, frequently squalid, usually behind the public’s back, rarely to the maximum benefit of the constituency, and with a wholly inadequate control over expenses politicians are getting from public funds with which the NT is blessed to an extraordinary extent – until it’s all smiles at election time?
Ain’t that business as usual?
ICAC Commissioner Ken Fleming QC opened a Pandora’s Box with his investigation of the Speaker’s conduct in the early phase of the Territory Alliance’s formation.
He concluded that Ms Purick’s actions amounted to corrupt conduct, exacerbated by lying on oath when challenged to tell the truth.
He is at pains to stress that “a finding of corrupt conduct is not a finding that a person is guilty of, or has committed an offence.
“The decision to take forward a prosecution belongs to the Director of Public Prosecutions,” says the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption in a statement.
“The determination of such prosecution is entirely a matter for the legal process in a court.
“However, corrupt conduct is defined … as conduct that constitutes an offence for which the penalty is a term of imprisonment of 2 years.”
“The potential breach by [her Executive Officer, Martine Smith] was immediately known to Ms Purick. The failure by [her] to report such suspected conduct is a failure to uphold a law of the Territory, namely the ICAC Act.”
And Mr Fleming (at right) adds: “The ICAC will refer a brief … to the Director of Public Prosecutions for his consideration.”
That brief will be based on an immensely detailed examination of matters dating back to late 2018, and a complaint on June 5, 2019, from Robyn Lambley and Terry Mills, “alleging misconduct and anti-democratic activities by the Speaker”.
Ms Purick won the seat of Goyder for the CLP in the 2008 election, and was made Deputy Leader of the Opposition under Mr Mills (Blain), holding this position until the 2012 election.
It was won by the CLP with Mr Mills as Leader.
“In an ABC News report Mr Mills stated, only days before the election, that Ms Purick was his deputy, and if successful at the election she would become the Deputy Chief Minister,” says the ICAC report.
Mr Mills with Ms Lambley (at left) and Braitling candidate Dale McIver.
“Mrs Robyn Lambley, the Member for Araluen, was ultimately elected as the Deputy Chief Minister.”
Ms Purick was elected unopposed as Speaker on October 23, 2012, became an Independent Member in July 2015 but retained her role as Speaker with the support of both parties.
The matter investigated by ICAC was mostly about naming the party now known as Territory Alliance, and efforts by Ms Purick to prevent it from being called North Australia Party.
Ms Purick and Ms Smith were working out how they could register that name, or get someone else to, before Mr Mills could.
Is such a petty endeavour worth ICAC’s time and a report of nearly 20,000 words?
The answer lies in how the events relate to some fundamental issues of our democracy: What is the role of the Speaker? What is proper for her to do while she is sitting in the Speaker’s chair – literally?
What is the proper use of provided assets – “her authority as Speaker, and public resources allocated to her, including staff, offices, phones and computers, paid from the public purse”.
So the issues were, firstly, not what Ms Purick was doing, but where and when she was doing it.
And secondly, was it proper for her to plot, during working hours, against a fellow Member of the Legislative Assembly to which she was obliged to “provide trusted and impartial service” following “the principles of integrity, honesty, accountability, responsibility and public interest,” as the report describes it.
Examining the “where and when” became the subject of painstaking effort by Mr Fleming, tracking phone calls and text messages and other communication between Ms Purick and Ms Smith.
The standard and nature of these conversations is illuminating: “Mills is not a nice man, a religious zealot, homophobic, doesn’t like women.
“Mills is about revenge pure and simple. He came back into politics to get even with Giles, Tollner etc and when he got elected, they didn’t, so he sat there for three years doing nothing.”
She texted another MLA: “Mills is a dick, whack him!!”
Back to November 2018: Ms Purick washed her hands of the party name saga, blaming her “staff” for unauthorised actions.
The report quotes a media statement from her that said in part: “At no time did I give direction to the staff member to make contact or any enquiry and as a consequence the staff member has been reprimanded for the actions and acknowledges her lapse in judgment and has expressed regret.”
Mr Fleming’s answer to that: “I find from that evidence that Ms Purick had made an assessment of how much the press knew. She then crafted the message around what the press knew, not the true facts, and she blamed Ms Smith for the episode.
“The press did not know what I now know. The degree to which Ms Purick was prepared to mislead was carefully calculated … she was involved in the whole process. She was directing the actions of Ms Smith on 1 November 2018.”
Mr Fleming expands on an issue that has developed into an existential threat to democracy in the NT: The role and power of ministerial advisers – minders – a subject of frequent comment from former Labor MLA and now Independent, Scott McConnell.
Mr Fleming says in his report that fixed term (contracted) employees such as Ms Smith are not subject to the formal disciplinary provisions under Public Sector Act.
“Ms Smith states that she was never reprimanded by Ms Purick. A search of Ms Smith’s employment records discloses no record of a reprimand.
“There is clear evidence that Ms Smith was not reprimanded, as insisted by Ms Purick.
“Ms Purick has conducted correspondence on [the party name issues] from the Speaker’s chair, and while performing her Speaker function.”
Most of the emails from her have the footer “Hon. Kezia Purick MLA” and a media statement on November 16, 2018 concluded: “My office will make no further comment on this matter. Hon Kezia Purick MLA, Speaker and Member for Goyder.”
The ABC has reported Ms Purick as claiming she has not been treated appropriately in the ICAC process. She did not respond to an invitation from the Alice Springs News to comment.
Mr Fleming says: “I note that Ms Purick … has not denied any of the facts in the messages or emails, or any other facts, which were set out in the draft report and the relevant exhibit references given to her on 14 May 2020” and “containing the relevant facts, and references to the relevant exhibits.”
He writes in the report: “I have made a number of recommendations in response to the improper conduct risks identified in this report in order to prevent or minimise the occurrence of improper conduct and restore trust in government.
“However, the restoration of trust in government will only occur once political leaders respect and abide by their duty to the communities in which they serve.”
Mr Fleming says Ms Purick, including statements by her on oath, misled him over three issues, each of which constitutes corrupt conduct:–
• When she denied that she directed Ms Smith, or knew anything about the actions taken by Ms Smith, in relation to the North Australia Party.
• When she denied that she ever told anyone to delete text messages between her and Ms Smith.
• When she denied that she told [a witness called AB] to deny communications that she had with AB, stating “if you get asked deny, deny, deny”.
Despite widespread and persistent disquiet regarding the conduct of some members, the Legislative Assembly has not used its powers to investigate the conduct of members in this, and the preceding two parliaments, says Mr Fleming: “Improper conduct risk is heightened when those with power and authority to govern are subject to limited oversight, especially where those with authority are unwilling to intervene … there is limited risk of detection, and staff will be more reluctant to challenge high-status individuals.
“The Chief Minister is the responsible entity with authority to deal with matters relating to staff employed” under the Contracts Act 1978.
The current electoral allowance for members ranges from $60,500 to $118,500 per electorate, says the report.
“Expenditure is incurred at the sole discretion of members in servicing their electorate.
“Expenditure of this allowance is far from transparent, making it difficult to determine whether or not the behaviour of members is in line with community expectations.
“A lack of oversight also increases the risk that members will misuse government resources.
“Members and their staff communicated sensitive work information using private online messaging services.
“This represents a significant information security risk to the Northern Territory Government.
“Even information that appears to be benign in isolation could, along with other information, have a considerable security impact.”