Long way to the top

The Poll Bludger is proud to unveil his seat-by-seat guide to the forthcoming Northern Territory election, to be held no later than October 15. This guide is probably more thorough than it needed to be for a parliament representing barely enough voters to account for two federal electorates, but two factors allowed its growth to get out of hand. One was the lack of anything better to do, given that there is unlikely to be another state election until South Australia goes to the polls on March 18 next year. The other was the nature of Northern Territory politics which, despite modest stakes and bite-sized Legislative Assembly electorates of roughly 4500 voters, turned out to be a lot more interesting than I had realised.

The modern era of Northern Territory democracy began in 1974 when a fully elected 19-member Legislative Assembly replaced the partly appointed Legislative Council that was established in 1947. The first eight elections for the Assembly, between 1974 and 1997, produced comfortable majorities for the Country Liberal Party. After failing to win a single seat in 1974, Labor’s representation remained stuck at the lower end of the six-to-nine seats range, which encouraged a conventional wisdom that gave Labor little chance of ever coming to power. It was felt the party was too closely identified with policies favourable to the indigenous population to win more than a handful of seats in metropolitan and pastoral areas, and that the small size of electorates (the Assembly increased from 19 to 25 members in 1983) provided sitting CLP members with insurmountable advantages of incumbency, since they were known personally to almost every one of their constituents. The failure of Labor to unseat a single sitting CLP member at the five elections between 1983 and 1997 meant the latter item in particular appeared to be carved in stone.

The 2001 election accordingly came as a shock to long-term observers. Led by an effective media performer in Clare Martin and facing a visibly tiring Country Liberal Party government (further burdened by what was then considered an unpopular Coalition government in Canberra), Labor picked up a 5.8 per cent swing and won a clean sweep of Darwin’s northern suburbs, winning Casuarina, Johnston, Karama, Millner, Nightcliff and Sanderson from the CLP. All but the latter two involved the defeat of a sitting member. Labor thus emerged with a bare majority of 13 out of 25 seats, a slightly fortunate outcome given that they trailed the CLP 40.6 per cent to 45.4 per cent on the primary vote and 48.1 per cent to 51.9 per cent on two-party preferred. All seven northern suburbs seats were won with margins of 7.2 per cent or less, the only comparably marginal CLP seat being Araluen in Alice Springs where they survived a 17.2 per cent swing to hold on by 2.0 per cent.

With Labor now in government, few of the existing items of conventional wisdom still apply. Previously, CLP claims that the sky would fall in if Labor ever came to power were impossible to disprove. Clare Martin’s government has not been without incident – it suffered from self-inflicted wounds over its zealous policing of pool fencing laws, a cause of major irritation in the top end, and the sacking of under-performing Health Minister Jane Aagaard in 2003. Its abolition of mandatory sentencing might also still rankle among an electorate notably concerned with law and order issues. But overall, the government and in particular its leader have projected an image of confidence and competence, and have not exhausted enough political capital to counter-balance the long list of factors now weighing in their favour. Chief among these is that the incumbency shoe is now on the other foot, with Labor enjoying the advantage of sitting members in all the important marginal seats. The Poll Bludger has two reasons to think this factor will be even more pronounced at the coming election. One is the tendency of voters to give new members the benefit of the doubt whey they first face re-election, which applies in all but one of the seven northern suburbs marginals. The other is the geographic concentration of these electorates, which has presumably made it a simple matter for the Martin government to concentrate largesse where it has been most required.

Party unity is another point in Labor’s favour. Labor has had no trouble galvanising behind the first leader ever to deliver it victory, whereas the CLP has faced the inevitable upheavals associated with adjusting to opposition after 27 years in government. In December 2003 the parliamentary party dumped Denis Burke, the leader who took it to defeat in 2001, in favour of Terry Mills – only to reinstall Burke in February after Mills stepped aside, conceding that he "wasn’t up to the job". While Burke’s return to the leadership was unopposed, few will be persuaded that the splits that led to his departure have been covered over. The CLP is going to have a very hard time persuading the electorate to trade in a stable government for a leader it has already rejected once, and who lost the confidence of his colleagues less than 18 months ago.

Labor’s failures in past Northern Territory elections have stood in contrast to its performance at the federal level. Until the creation of a second seat at the 2001 election, the federal electorate of Northern Territory was held by Labor as often as not. Since then, Labor has held the non-Darwin seat of Lingiari by bigger margins than the CLP has held Solomon, which remains highly marginal. Most of the exceptional circumstances that have underwritten the CLP hegemony at the territory level no longer exist, but many observers are maintaining an unwarranted caution about Labor’s prospects. The Poll Bludger is inclined to tip a sizeable swing in Labor’s favour, but such a swing will not necessarily deliver any new seats. The aforementioned Araluen is the only real CLP marginal, and the 2001 result here was distorted by preselection squabbles and high-profile independent challengers (despite a 17.2 per cent two-party swing, Labor’s primary vote was only up 1.6 per cent from 1997). The next most marginal CLP seat is Port Darwin (7.3 per cent), but local factors suggest that an eye should be kept on Daly (9.5 per cent), Goyder (14.8 per cent) and especially MacDonnell (8.5 per cent). For their part, the CLP reportedly has high hopes of winning Sanderson from Labor, but the Poll Bludger’s judgement is that the tide will be flowing too heavily in the other direction.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.