The Poll Bludger’s guide to the August 9 Northern Territory election is now in business, as indeed is Antony Green’s definitive effort. It is tempting to dismiss the election as a foregone conclusion, with the Country Liberal Party needing to increase its representation in the 25-member Legislative Assembly from four to 13, and looking in no state to do so. The four-member parliamentary party is currently headed by the recycled Terry Mills, whose first stint last term ended with him admitting he was not up to the job. The leadership was then resumed by former Chief Minister Denis Burke, who led the party to a defeat so disastrous that he lost his own seat with a 20.9 per cent swing.
The electoral pendulum clearly points to four seats which are low-hanging fruit for the CLP, two having been made notionally theirs by redistribution (by the reckoning of Antony Green, who cautions that such calculations for the Territory’s small electorates can be heavily influenced by arbitrary split booth estimates). On the CLP side of the ledger are the Palmerston seat of Drysdale, where Labor member Chris Natt who has built a high profile as Mines Minister, and the outer Darwin rural seat of Goyder, which Ted Warren won in 2005 with a 16.4 per cent swing. The two Labor seats are the erstwhile CLP strongholds of Brennan (Burke’s old seat, located in Palmerston) and the Darwin city seat of Port Darwin.
Anything beyond that requires a double-digit swing. However, candidate factors are notoriously important when the average enrolment per electorate is less than 5000, so consideration needs to be given to the three Labor seats not being contested by sitting members. These include Clare Martin’s electorate of Fannie Bay (margin 15.7 per cent) and former deputy leader Syd Stirling’s seat of Nhulunbuy (25.5 per cent). Fannie Bay was held by the CLP before Martin won it at a by-election in 1995, and will be contested this time by Garry Lambert, who until recently was lord mayor of Darwin. Nhulunbuy on the other hand is Labor’s safest seat, and the CLP’s nomination of a local indigenous leader in a seat dominated by a mining town does not suggest they are confident. Of more interest is the new seat of Fong Lim, to be contested for the CLP by David Tollner, the recently defeated federal member for Solomon. Labor’s candidate Matthew Bonson is the member for abolished Millner, which provides the new seat with fewer than half its voters.
Two naturally conservative seats are held by independents, one of whom is retiring. Loraine Braham is a former CLP member who has held her Alice Springs seat of Braitling for two elections as an independent, and is now bowing out. Braham won Braitling only narrowly in 2005, and it seems likely to return to the CLP despite Braham’s endorsement of independent Eli Melky. However, the CLP is unlikely to have much luck in the outer Darwin seat of Nelson against sitting independent Gerry Wood, who won lost time by 16.2 per cent. One other seat that might warrant scrutiny is Sanderson in northern Darwin, where Labor member Len Kiely has proved a subject of controversy: first when he was stripped of the Deputy Speaker position in July 2006 over a sexual harrassment incident, and then in November 2007 when Paul Henderson overlooked his indiscretion to reward him with a cabinet post as Environment Minister. Any further gains for the CLP would be greatly surprising, remembering that surprises do happen in Territory elections.
It would thus seem that the rosiest scenario for the CLP involves them retaining their four actual seats and two notional ones, further picking up two Labor marginals, prevailing against the odds in Fannie Bay, Fong Lim and Sanderson, and recovering Braitling from Loraine Braham. That would put them one seat short of a majority, leaving independent Gerry Wood with the swing vote. However, it seems much more likely that their gains will be limited to about four and this assumes they do not lose their existing seat of Katherine, where member Fay Miller is retiring and her nominated successor has just had to stand aside due to staff bullying allegations. Two very different voices could be heard on ABC Darwin radio on Monday estimating a CLP gain of four seats: Ken Parish, former Labor MP and Club Troppo blogger, and Peter Murphy, former adviser to multiple CLP Chief Ministers.
UPDATE (28/7/08): Candidates and ballot paper order have been announced by the NT Electoral Commission. At first glance, the most noteworthy independents appear to be Eli Marky in Braitling, who has the endorsement of outgoing member Loraine Braham; Katherine councillor Toni Tapp Coutts in the vacated seat of Katherine; and Randall Gould, former mayor of the recently abolished Tennant Creek Town Council, in Barkly.