The Northern Territory’s new anti-corruption watchdog has fired its first serious shots and the target is a big one — the speaker of the Northern Territory Parliament.
The Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) has found long-serving speaker Kezia Purick responsible for breaches of public trust that amount to “corrupt conduct”.
It all relates to a plot hatched in her office to frustrate the plans of old political friends-turned-foes Terry Mills and Robyn Lambley.
Ms Purick denies her actions amount to corruption and says, at worst, they were “political pointscoring”.
But politicians from all sides are calling for her resignation.
Here’s what commissioner Ken Fleming has found, and some of the text messages and emails he came across along the way.
What prompted the investigation?
The commissioner was investigating a complaint lodged by Mr Mills and Mrs Lambley into the scandal surrounding their failed attempt in 2018 to launch a new political outfit called the North Australia Party.
At the time, Ms Purick apologised to NT Parliament for what she said were the actions of her personal assistant, Martine Smith, who had solicited objections to the registration of the proposed party name.
Why Ms Smith did that, Ms Purick told the media at the time, “[was] obviously a mystery”.
Ms Purick repeated in Parliament what she had also told the media — that she had never directed her assistant to make any such contacts, and that Ms Smith would be reprimanded.
But the commissioner has published the following emails, sent while Ms Purick sat in the Speaker’s chair in Parliament:
November 1, 2018
11:06am Ms Smith to Ms Purick
I got to thinking, what if the North Australia Party is already a registered business or party and what would that mean. Annnnnddd it is already a registered business name in QLD… Another interesting fact is the business name has not even been registered here — if someone wanted to they could pip Mills and Lambley at the post and register the name today.
11:07am Ms Purick to Ms Smith
Ooo you be the clever one, I could get someone to register…
11:08am Ms Smith to Ms Purick
That is exactly what I was thinking …..ha ha
11:09am Ms Purick to Ms Smith
Ok can y U get me some forms to register a business name please?
11:12am Ms Smith to Ms Purick
It is all online. $36 for a year – $84 for 3 years.
11:18am Ms Purick to Ms Smith
We have to find someone unrelated to us who is also devious?
In his report, the commissioner said Ms Purick’s later denial to the media about knowledge of the plan was crafted “around what the press knew, not the true facts”.
He considered that dishonest conduct, and that Ms Purick had misused the resources and position of her office.
“The degree to which Ms Purick was prepared to mislead was carefully calculated,” he said.
Does this amount to corruption?
According to Ms Purick, no. According to ICAC, yes.
Ms Purick’s response included in the commissioner’s report is that the allegations fall “so far short of corrupt conduct” that they may not even constitute improper conduct under the legislation.
The episode was part of the “rough and tumble of politics”, she said.
“At worst, the conduct under investigation may be regarded as the pursuit of a political opportunity [pointscoring] by Ms Purick and/or Ms Smith intended to further embarrass Mr Mills, who at the time was continuing to make public claims about the role of the Speaker in choosing the Opposition, as well as promoting himself and the independent MLA’s as an alternative Opposition,” the response said.
Ms Purick also said she was not given an adequate chance to understand or respond to the commissioner’s findings.
The commissioner found Ms Purick’s actions met the threshold of corruption as a serious breach of public trust by a public officer in connection to public affairs.
He said the conduct was contrary to the Speaker’s obligations of impartiality, good faith and equal service to all members of Parliament.
Mr Fleming also found that Ms Purick misled the ICAC on multiple points during its investigation, including by denying that she had told another member of Parliament to deny communications with her.
The ICAC report says she told the commissioner she did not recall sending the following text to an unnamed MLA:
“[Sky News journalist] Matt Cunningha [sic] onto me doing research into qld red [sic] question of name of party for mills and co. If you get asked deny deny deny.”
But she conceded the message was sent from her phone.
What happens now?
Chief Minister Michael Gunner said today that he had offered Ms Purick the chance to resign as speaker before Parliament resumes on Tuesday.
Terry Mills, now the leader of Territory Alliance — one of the NT’s opposition parties — said Ms Purick should resign from Parliament altogether.
The anti-corruption commissioner’s conclusion is not the same as a court’s finding of guilt for a criminal offence.
But the matter has been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, which means charges could be considered.
The watchdog made a number of recommendations about extra training for members of Parliament and staff, and the creation of a code of conduct for personal staff members.
Mr Fleming also said the whistleblower protection policies in the Department of the Legislative Assembly were also in need of review.
The commissioner himself has not spoken about the findings, but it’s expected he will once they are tabled in Parliament.
In his report, he states that the recommendations made were a bid to “prevent or minimise” 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 which they serve,” the report reads.