After 13 months spent living in terror at the prospect of reduced federal parliamentary representation, Northern Territorians can again breathe easy. Last Thursday parliament legislated to overturn the Australian Electoral Commission’s determination that the Territory had 295 people too few to warrant a second seat in the House of Representatives. This had earlier led Territory Country Liberal MHR David Tollner to introduce a private member’s bill seeking a guaranteed two seats for the Northern Territory and three for the Australian Capital Territory (reverting to the state of affairs it enjoyed between 1996 and 1998), which proved too much for MPs from the states who may have had their own representation cut to keep the House’s numbers within the constitutional limit. The matter was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and the government eventually accepted its recommendation that the AEC ruling be overturned for the coming election, and that technical amendments be made to improve the territories’ chances of making it over the line in future.
This is hardly the first time that representation of the Northern Territory has presented challenges to those framing electoral laws. Between 1922 and 1968 the territory’s solitary member in the House did not have full voting rights (the same being true of the Australian Capital Territory from 1949 to 1968), and Senate representation for the territories was not secured until the Whitlam Government’s electoral reform bill passed at the historic joint sitting following the 1974 double dissolution election. As the territories’ share of the national population has grown there has emerged the present difficulty, wherein representation proportionate to population leaves the Northern Territory warranting about 1.5 seats and the Australian Capital Territory about 2.5. This means that for the foreseeable future they still face the prospect of swinging back and forth between one and two and two and three, meaning under-representation in the former case and over-representation in the latter.
However, the parliament’s decision to overrule the abolition of a Northern Territory seat could well set a precedent, even if that decision was ostensibly based on concerns surrounding the accuracy of statistics used to reach the determination. It is doubtful that such concerns would have troubled the key actors had they not decided that the maintenance of two seats was in their interests, but it appears that Labor and Liberal are both confident of winning Tollner’s Darwin-based seat of Solomon at the coming poll. The Poll Bludger has not been able to track down the calculations indicating precisely how unlucky the Australian Capital Territory was to lose its third seat in 1997 (it scored 2.4209 at the 2003 calculation) but has little doubt that the Howard Government would have scotched any move by Parliament to overturn it since the outcome was unambiguously damaging to Labor.
In the shorter term the maintenance of the second Northern Territory seat has major implications for the coming election as the seat of Solomon is the most marginal in the country. Tollner’s 88 vote margin over Labor’s Laurene Hull in 2001 is not the only reason he is lucky to be in parliament. Elements within the Country Liberal Party were gunning for his disendorsement prior to the 2001 election for a series of misdemeanours including an earlier conviction for cannabis possession, an undisclosed drink driving conviction, and a campaign observation that "the CLP is family-focused – Labor is focused on women who have six kids by six different fathers". The first transgression might be pushing it a little, but on the whole it’s not an intolerable rap sheet by the standards of Darwin politics (even after he further added to it shortly following the election when he was again done for drink driving, and also for driving an unregistered vehicle). More troubling was the fact that Tollner had run in the 1997 Territory election as an independent against endorsed CLP candidate Chris Lugg, coming within 41 votes of victory. Two significant figures in the party cited Tollner’s preselection as a factor contributing to their decision to quit – Nick Dondas, who held the Northern Territory electorate for a term after the 1996 election, and Maisie Austin, who went so far as to run against Tollner as an independent, but could only manage 5 per cent of the primary vote. Not only is Austin now back in the party fold, she has been preselected as candidate for the Territory’s other electorate of Lingiari, held by Labor’s Warren Snowdon on a comfortable margin of 5.3 per cent.
Since his drink driving conviction Tollner has made headlines mostly for the right reasons, and appears to have silenced doubters in the party enough to have avoided facing a challenge to his preselection for the coming election. As one might expect from a candidate of the right representing Darwin, Tollner has continued to call it like he sees it, describing Territory legislation to lower the gay age of consent from 18 to 16 as "rent-boy legislation". He also took a rugby match against French parliamentarians during the 2003 World Cup more seriously than the occasion demanded, boasting of having given one of his opponents a "friendly facial" during which he "spilt some French blood". Joining in the scrum at the coming election is Labor’s Jim Davidson, about whom little is known (by me at least). Paul Dyer of the Northern Territory News reported on February 16 that Davidson was a 50 year old civil engineer who "has been NT Business and Industry Minister Paul Henderson’s business adviser since January 2002". The state of Henderson’s finances is also not known. The report goes on to say that Davidson "oversaw the construction of Dick Ward Dve in Darwin, the construction of Robertson Barracks and all civil works at the Darwin Naval Base".