Highlights of weeks two and two-and-a-half

Innumerable Bexes and five good-lies-down have elapsed since the Poll Bludger boldly amended his Northern Territory election predictions to award Labor a faintly ridiculous 17 seats out of 25. Nevertheless, he is sticking with them against his better judgement even though they no doubt flatter Labor to the tune of at least one or two seats. It needs to be stressed that when it comes to the Northern Territory, predictions like these are to be taken with a grain of salt regardless of who makes them. The list of reasons why these contests are hard to call is as long as your arm – the tiny size of the electorates, and the premium this places on local candidate visibility; the lack of polling, published or otherwise; high immigration and emigration rates between elections; and the modest scale of local media coverage. News Limited’s croc-tastic top end flagship the Northern Territory News is studiously careful to avoid boring its readers with too much politics, so much so that election tragics are likely to derive more joy from the humble weekly Alice Springs News. In this context, online forums such as Inside Politics and the one operated by the ABC’s website have taken on a new significance for those of us who just can’t get enough. As sources of information go these need to be treated with great caution, especially since they seem to be magnets for rabid CLP partisans.

The Poll Bludger has so far managed to avoid saying anything about either party’s policies, but this can be put off no longer. The centrepiece of the campaign has been the CLP’s promise to connect Darwin to the national electricity grid via a 3000 kilometre transmission line, with the $1.3 billion tab to be picked up by gentleman admirers in either the private sector or Canberra. The parallels with the Liberals’ Western Australian election promise to build a canal of similar length from the Kimberley to Perth hardly need reiterating, and the plan has received similarly short shrift from informed observers such as John Quiggin and Ken Parish. The overwhelmingly negative media response suggests that the policy will fail to achieve its objective of winning the CLP seats in Darwin’s much-touted northern suburbs, while also alienating voters outside Darwin who do not stand to gain. However, internet chat suggests Labor has a similar difficulty with its Darwin waterfront development, which has apparently fed into concerns in Alice Springs that the party is "Darwin-centric" while also failing to excite locals.

The other point of interest has been Labor’s newly acquired concern about "habitual drunks" – one of innumerable top end code words for "aborigines" – which led Clare Martin to announce a policy that would order repeat offenders to seek treatment or face imprisonment. Remarkably, this prompted Denis Burke to accuse Labor of chasing the "redneck white vote", sentiments heretofore unheard of from a CLP leader. Politically speaking, one suspects Martin has the better end of an argument that has helped neutralise resentment over Labor’s abolition of mandatory sentencing, and that Labor will accordingly enjoy a boost in Darwin and Alice Springs.

The Poll Bludger’s Northern Territory election guide remains your one-stop shop for electorate-level factoids, which will be embellished with the following nuggets when he gets time:

Goyder (Country Liberal 14.8%): Two independent candidates have added interest to this contest, with most fancying the chances of Litchfield shire president Mary Walshe. The CLP had long been trembling in fear at the prospect of a Walshe candidacy, although she may be handicapped by the circumstances of her entry. The Territory Times reported that Walshe was in "a frantic state of indecision" about whether to run when they spoke to her two hours before the nomination deadline, which she ended up meeting "just in time". She also entered the campaign with the burden of a recent 17 per cent rates hike at Litchfield. The other independent is Andrew Blackadder, chairperson of Freds Pass Management Board, whom the Territory Times reports was "knocked back for CLP preselection". The Northern Territory News reported on June 12 that internal polling results had the CLP expecting to lose to either Walshe or Blackadder. The paper seemed unduly excited to learn that a property owned by the CLP candidate, Keith Phasey, had been raided by police seeking information on the deaths of four Western Australian cancer patients who had been treated by his wife. Well-informed Inside Politics commenter "Bonnie" says "the Walshe family is the biggest name in Humpty Doo" and that "without the rates stigma, Walshe would win it by a street".

Daly (Country Liberal 9.5%): Dale Seaniger is widely being spoken of as one of the election’s most fancied independent candidates, along with the aforementioned Walshe and Blackadder. Seaniger’s job titles (variously "Thamarrurr Regional Council deputy chief executive" and "deputy council clerk at Wadeye") don’t look too exciting to me, but what would I know. The retirement of CLP member Tim Baldwin means the electorate is more precarious for the CLP than the margin makes it appear, given the enormous advantages of incumbency in the territory’s micro-electorates.

Greatorex (Country Liberal 9.0%): Opinion is sharply divided over the prospects for Labor’s high-profile candidate, Alice Springs mayor Fran Kilgariff, in her bid to unseat the CLP’s Richard Lim. Alex Nelson of the Alice Springs News reckons "no mayor of any town in the Northern Territory who has run for office in the Legislative Assembly has succeeded in translating their support at council level to the next tier of government", with the conspicuous exception of the current independent member for Nelson, Gerry Wood (Mary Walshe’s predecessor as Litchfield shire president). The Centralian Advocate reports that Kilgariff is running ads that make no mention of her being the Labor candidate.

Millner (Labor 1.2%): The Poll Bludger has variously heard it said that Paul Mitchell, the CLP member here until his defeat in 2001, is running as an independent to deliver preferences to the CLP’s Paul Mossman (by Kevin Parish), or because the CLP had lost confidence in Mossman (by the Northern Territory News). The latter theory is consistent with reports of a widespread view in the CLP that the party erred in preselecting its candidates too early, and with a Northern Territory News item on June 12 saying the party had "given up" on Mossman on the basis of internal polling, but still "hoped" Mitchell might win. The same day’s edition also carried this little item:

Two 14-year-old boys, Simeon Lawler and Tim O’Hagen, make a few dollars after school by delivering advertising material. They were letterbox dropping a brochure for Labor MLA Matthew Bonson when they noticed a man following them and removing the brochures. They confronted him – and, lo and behold, it was Paul. He told the lads the brochures had fallen out of the letterbox and he was just putting them back. They didn’t believe him.

Mossman has had a fair bit to say at the Inside Politics forum (posting as "PaulM"), or at least he did until recently. Labor spooks and local news outlets fell upon the site when it emerged he had said a 13-year-old American girl denied an abortion "should have just kept her legs closed", and that there were "plenty in line waiting their chances" to replace Denis Burke as party leader. The Northern Territory News reported on June 4 that nine people were enrolled at Mitchell’s residence, including his adult children, his sister-in-law and her partner, and a son’s girlfriend.

UPDATE (17/6/2005): The above assertion that the two online forums "seem to be magnets for rabid CLP partisans" has sparked this frank exchange of views at Inside Politics. In an unrelated development, I have decided that I should in fact withdraw a seat from Labor on the election guide, eventually settling for Araluen. That puts the tally at Labor 16, CLP six and independents three.

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.