Denis Burke (Australian politician)

Denis Burke (Australian politician)
Denis Burke
6th Chief Minister of the Northern Territory
Preceded by Shane Stone
Succeeded by Clare Martin
Constituency Brennan
Personal details
Born 22 September 1948 (1948-09-22) (age 63)
Nationality Australia Australian
Political party Country Liberal Party
Spouse(s) Annette Burke

Denis Gabriel Burke (born 22 September 1948) is an Australian politician. A former soldier, he served as a Country Liberal Party member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly from 1994 to 2005. He spent two years as Chief Minister after succeeding Shane Stone, but oversaw the CLP's defeat at the 2001 election, ending 27 years of continuous CLP government in the Northern Territory. Burke later served as Opposition Leader from 2001 to 2003 before being toppled, but was re-elected as leader in 2005. He subsequently took the party to its largest-ever defeat at the 2005 election, culminating in the shock loss of his own seat.


Early life

Burke was born in Townsville, and entered the army as a national serviceman in 1969.[1] In a 25-year career, he rose to become Commanding Officer of the Darwin-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment.[1] His army career included a posting with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) peacekeeping in the Middle East in 1984-85 (in Beirut, Lebanon and the Sinai peninsula in Egypt).

Political rise

In 1994 he left the army and entered politics, winning Country Liberal Party endorsement to contest the safe Palmerston-based seat of Brennan, at the expense of sitting member and Perron government minister Max Ortmann.[2] Ortmann subsequently contested the seat as an independent, but was easily defeated by Burke.[2]

Burke was first promoted to the Cabinet of the Northern Territory the following year, serving as Minister for Water and Power, Work Health and the Minister Responsible for the Territory Insurance Office. He rose through the party, and in June 1996, was appointed Attorney-General and Minister for Health. He was re-elected at the 1997 election, and was once again promoted, taking on several more minor portfolios, as well as being appointed Vice-President of the Executive Council. In early 1998, he was one of two Country Liberal Party parliamentary delegates to the territory's Statehood Convention. In October 1998 he was appointed as the Leader of Government Business, and in December, took on a new set of responsibilities - among them industry, regional development, gaming and defence support.[3]

Chief Minister

In February 1999, CLP Chief Minister Shane Stone resigned, and Burke was soon appointed as his replacement.[1] He also continued on as Attorney-General, and took on several additional portfolios.[1] Burke's term as Chief Minister is probably most remembered for his vehement defence of the territory's mandatory sentencing policy, which required a minimum of 90 days imprisonment after someone had been convicted three times, regardless of how minor the offence.[4] Though it had been introduced by the Stone government, much of the controversy surrounding the laws fell to the new Burke government.[5] The policy was eventually toned down slightly for juveniles after Prime Minister John Howard and federal Attorney-General Daryl Williams intervened.[6] While the policy led to criticism from some prominent organisations, it also created a significant debate about the issue on a national level,[7] and some national polls suggested that a majority of Australians supported the stand. However, Burke's stance was also to lead to some scandal in late 2000, when he demanded the resignation of a magistrate (Alasdair McGregor) who had criticised his mandatory sentencing laws.[7] The comments sparked contempt of court charges and angry criticism from the Chief Justice and the bar.[8]

By the time Burke faced his first election at the 2001 election, the Country Liberal Party had been in power in the Northern Territory for 27 years. He called the election on a minor high, only weeks after the beginning of construction on the Adelaide-Darwin Railway, a major infrastructure project that had been planned for decades. However, his chances suffered a blow when a planned deal concerning gas from the Timor Sea, which would have produced significant employment opportunities in the territory, ran into difficulties and had to be postponed. He also caused some controversy by deciding to preference the far-right-wing One Nation Party - which was considerably unpopular in the territory's large ethnic community - over the left-wing Australian Labor Party in five seats around Katherine. This had the effect of allowing ALP Opposition Leader Clare Martin to claim that the only way to resist One Nation influence was to vote for the ALP. Several weeks later, Burke apologised for the decision, admitting that the tactic had backfired and had cost him a number of votes.

In addition, the election fell against the backdrop of an ALP resurgence across the nation. In the preceding eighteen months, two Liberal state governments that had been thought highly secure (Victoria and Western Australia) had fallen to the ALP and two incumbent ALP governments had been easily re-elected. While there was some speculation that the ALP could win their first NT election, electoral opinion national was swinging back towards the CLP's federal counterparts. Most commentators were predicting a close result, but suggesting that the CLP would be returned. However, in a shock result, the ALP achieved majority government by one seat, and Burke, suddenly out of government, became Opposition Leader.

Fall, second coming, final fall and new beginnings

As Opposition Leader, Burke struggled to impact on the government, and presided over a disunited party that found it difficult to come to terms with being in opposition. Amidst this environment, speculation soon began that Burke would step aside in favour of rival Terry Mills. Burke was determined to remain leader, however, and fended off several challenge attempts by Mills, with the support of several influential MPs, such as Jodeen Carney. He was also briefly boosted by victory - despite a significant swing against the party - in the 2003 Katherine by-election. His support began to evaporate, however, when he made comments on radio suggesting that he had tolerated marijuana use in his unit while an army officer, allegedly prompting the Chief of the Defence Forces, Peter Cosgrove, to call him a "goose". While Cosgrove quickly backed away from the comment, it had nevertheless damaged his leadership. The final straw came when Burke refused to allow a conscience vote on the issue of lowering the age of consent for gay males; Carney crossed the floor to vote with the ALP and shifted her support to Mills, and was soon followed by newcomer Fay Miller. Mills subsequently launched a formal leadership challenge, and Burke was easily defeated.

After being toppled as leader, Burke's political career seemed largely over. It had a sudden revival, however, when fourteen months later, Mills abruptly resigned from the leadership. Burke nominated for the vacancy, and was unanimously re-elected as leader on 7 February 2005.[9] He led the party to the 2005 election, but was soundly defeated, losing his own seat of Brennan in a shock result. Burke had already said that he would resign as leader if he lost the election, but his unprecedented defeat in his own electorate came as a surprise to almost everyone in the Territory - including the ALP candidate, James Burke (no relation).

Burke now works for the Sovereign Wealth Fund of the Emirate as a high level advisor.[10] His main function in this position is to oversee the application of funds within the Emirate and the restructure of various local government bodies. Burke has been highly successful in this role and rountinely advises members of the royal family.

He is married with two children, Sam Burke (prosecutor with the Department of Public Prosecutions) and Tom Burke (lawyer at global law firm Allen & Overy). He also has two daughters from his first marriage, Lisa and Angela. His second wife, Annette, was elected Mayor of Palmerston in 1998 and resigned in 2007 after winnng consecutive elections. Annette now works with Denis in the United Arab Emirates as the executive director of a local consultancy firm.


  1. ^ a b c d David Carment (December 1999). "Northern Territory". The Australian Journal of Politics and History. Retrieved 5 Feb 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Antony Green (28 June 2005). "Brennan". Northern Territory Election 2005. Retrieved 6 Feb 2010. 
  3. ^ David Carment (June 1999). "Northern Territory July to December 1998". The Australian Journal of Politics and History. 
  4. ^ David Carment (December 1999). "Northern Territory". The Australian Journal of Politics and History. Retrieved 5 Feb 2010. 
  5. ^ David Carment (December 2000). "Northern Territory". The Australian Journal of Politics and History. Retrieved 5 Feb 2010. 
  6. ^ David Carment (December 2000). "Northern Territory". The Australian Journal of Politics and History. Retrieved 5 Feb 2010. 
  7. ^ a b David Carment (June 2001). "Northern Territory". The Australian Journal of Politics and History. Retrieved 5 Feb 2010. 
  8. ^ Murray McLaughlin (24 July 2001). "Burke guilty of contempt". 7.31 report transcript. ABC TV. Retrieved 6 Feb 2010. 
  9. ^ Anne Barker (7 Feb 2005). "Denis Burke back as CLP leader". PM. ABC Radio. Retrieved 6 Feb 2010. 
  10. ^ Chong, Florence (8 January 2008). "Australians finding themselves hot property in booming United Ar". The Australian.,,23019459-23850,00.html?from=public_rss. 

More info

Preceded by
Shane Stone
Chief Minister of the Northern Territory
Succeeded by
Clare Martin
Preceded by
Clare Martin
Opposition Leader of the Northern Territory
Succeeded by
Terry Mills
Preceded by
Terry Mills
Opposition Leader of the Northern Territory
Succeeded by
Jodeen Carney
Preceded by
Max Ortmann
Member for Brennan
Succeeded by
James Burke

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