Darwinian evolution

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.

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.

77 comments on “Darwinian evolution”

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  1. The unopposed candidate in the 1983 WA election was Peter Vernon Jones of the National Country Party in the seat of Narrogin, which was abolished at the 1989 election.

    Source: David Black & Valerie Prescott, “Election Statistics: Legislative Assembly of Western Australia 1890-1996”.

  2. Antony at 50,

    Couldn’t you give the whole electorate(s) at full count to the ALP candidate and a big fat zero to the non existent CLP canidate, because this is the actual default result of not contesting. Both the zero and the CLP candidate are place holders only.

    Sure this will bolster the 2PP for the ALP overall and diminish it for the CLP but isn’t this the reality? Just because it is humiliating for the CLP doesn’t mean that all votes still don’t have a full value! A count of only one flies in the face of one-vote one-value.

  3. Katherine may be the sleeper rather than Barkly. Labor is tipping in resources on the basis that the Katherine business community wants to see a representative in government not opposition and the CLP has been forced to campaign harder than usual, promising a new prison farm for the elctorate.Tini Tapp Coutts preferences will decide the reult.

    The fact that the CLP has not been able to find candidates for Arnhem & Macdonnell seems to suggest to many that they are a disorganised rabble. Look out for ALP attack ad like “The CLP want to to govern the Territory but they can’t even turn up with a full team!”

  4. The ALP ads so far have been going hard at Terry Mills’ suitability for leadership. Classic negative campaigning, including unflattering photos, etc.

  5. Have they called him Terrance yet? That’s one for those who remember Marshall Peron’s campaign against ‘Terrance’ Smith in 1990.

  6. 56
    Antony Green

    Have they called him Terrance yet?

    Not yet.

    I suspect that Labor may have quickly nailed the main vulnerability of the CLP, it’s leader (or more accurately, its lack of a good choice for leader). Mills is a nice enough fellow, but he is a bit like Brendan Nelson, doesn’t have the killer instinct, or the political skill to do faux outrage properly, it just comes across as artificial, forced and hyped.

    Mills also has some personal political history against him: He once before voluntarily gave up the leadership, saying he did not think he had what it took to be a good leader; and he has also changed his position on a number of important issues, such as the proposed gas plant in the Darwin harbour, which he initially opposed. Needless to say, Labor are exploiting these things heavily in campaign ads.

  7. Just Me


    Certainly Dave Tollner didn’t think Terry Mills was answering the ABC questions with enough “faux rage”. Last night on the ABC News instead of standing behind Terry Mills and playing noddy (as Candidates are supposed to) – he cut his leader off and responded to the question (with rage etc) … Terry Mills managed to wrest the interview back off him but it was a telling moment.

  8. Grace

    Didn’t see that. Certainly interesting, and not surprising, Tollner has ambitions, though whether they match his abilities and political luck remains to be seen.

  9. The last thing needed in an election is industrial action against the incumbents and the teachers strike next Thursday is a damaging blow.

    The Country Liberals 14% offer over three years is already out there.

    Is it true the ambit claim is 20%?

  10. Hendo was the cannier politician today, announcing sweeteners for the public service. A few years I ago I calculated that outside safe Labor seats, the margin of incumbency is less than the number of resident public servants. By themselves the NTPS can swing elections.

  11. Antony,
    Is there any reason that you didnt include the “sitting member factor in your Port Darwin assesment like you have in the other marginals?

  12. 61
    dartboard Says:
    The last thing needed in an election is industrial action against the incumbents and the teachers strike next Thursday is a damaging blow.

    The Country Liberals 14% offer over three years is already out there.

    The opposition has also said they will be cutting the public service elsewhere, and the government is asking the inevitable tough question about where the cuts are going to be made. Will it be police, nurses, etc? This could be interesting.

    In other election news:

    Tiger Airlines, a budget airline, has just announced it is pulling services from the NT. But their competitor, Jetstar, has agreed on a five year deal to make Darwin the base for its operations into Asia.

    Opposition promises five child care centres located at schools.

    Greens say land clearing most important issue in determining their preference flow.

  13. Bookies say there is little money going on the CLP, the vast bulk is on Labor. They expect Labor to lose a small number of seats, but definitely not the election.

  14. I think Antony Green needs to make comment about the proposed uranium exploration 21km from Alice Springs. This is having a huge impact on the direction of election debate. Whilst in the end nothing will alter the fact the Country Liberals will win the 3 urban seats, you have to take note of the shift in debate and the rise of the Green vote. The next few elections in the southern region could very well change the traditional outcome quite soon.

  15. Sorry Antony I was not very clear. In your “Key Seats” guide Brennan, Goyder and Drysdale as having the benifit of incumbency in their assesment and this is not mentioned in Port Darwin.

    I was wondering if this was an oversite or you think that incumbency is not a great factor in the seat.

  16. … you have to take note of the shift in debate and the rise of the Green vote.

    K David: Port Darwin has worse turnover than other seats because more and more it’s dominated by flats and apartments. A substantial portion of the electorate changes every six months, not to mention every 4 years!

  17. … you have to take note of the shift in debate and the rise of the Green vote.

    People might take the Greens vote seriously when it stops being composed almost entirely of disgruntled ALP voters.

  18. It is significant that in the March local Govt elections in Alice springs, after preferences were distributed, the Greens candidate for Mayor came second of 8. This is a huge shift in attitude for Alice Springs – and labor has never polled that well – so apart from disgruntled labor, there must be some disgruntled CLP’s and maybe even some genuine people who could think for themselves.

  19. With regards to council elections, both parties have yet to “formally” cross the line and put up branded candidates for Mayor or Alderman.

    The Greens have been the first and only ones to do so and thats why they got second in the Alice.

    While each side may have favourites for election, any of the Mayors will tell you they are “100%” independent.

    A classic is John Bailey, previously Labour MLA and now Alderman. Peter Adamson while previously CLP wasnt supported by them while campaigning. Ex-Aldermen Jo Sangster and Garry Lambert are now CLP candidates, but not recognised as such during their council elections.

    Two cases come to mind where the line has been clearly approached this year, in Darwin – Kerrie Kyriacou for Alderman, and in Palmerston, Brendan Cabray for Mayor.

    Maybe next time, and the Greens will be third again.

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