Call of the board: Northern Territory

A deep dive into the results for the two seats of the Northern Territory, in the first of many posts that will give the federal election result the attention it deserves.

Over the coming weeks I will be going through the country region by region offering at least some commentary along the way on the result in every seat, a valuable exercise that will undoubtedly pick up a lot of nuances currently still obscure to me. I’m starting with Northern Territory as a target of opportunity, given comments made yesterday by Anthony Albanese brought my attention to the result in Lingiari.

For those not familiar with the situation at the top end, the Northern Territory is divided electorally into Solomon, which neatly accommodates Darwin and its satellite city of Palmerston, and Lingiari, accounting for the remainder. Since the territory’s population leaves it on the cusp of one seat and two when state and territory seat entitlements are determined, these electorates have enrolments of around 75,000, compared with around 120,000 for the average seat in the mainland states.

Not for the first time, Lingiari was perhaps the most under-discussed marginal seat contest in the country at this election. Since the weight of remote indigenous communities in this electorate makes accurate polling essentially impossible, both sides typically make efforts to campaign in the seat but apparently fly blind as to their effectiveness, while the journalistic default is to assume the result will once again be a fairly narrow win for Labor, as has indeed been the case at every election since the seat was created with the territory’s division into two seats in 2001.

Lingiari was of particular interest this time around due to the retirement of Warren Snowdon, who had held it for Labor since its inauguration. How Labor might fare in the absence of a personal vote accumulated through a political career in the territory going back to 1987 was one of the election’s great imponderables. The verdict is now in: Labor’s new candidate, former Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour, has retained the seat, but by only 0.9% in the face of a swing to the Country Liberals of 4.5%. But there was another aspect to the result: a fall in turnout from 72.8% of enrolled voters in 2019 to 66.8%. Asked about this at a press conference yesterday, Anthony Albanese diagnosed the situation as follows:

It’s not rocket science to know what happened here. They ripped resources out of the Electoral Commission. There was a deliberate policy of the former government to restrict people voting in the territory. They tried to abolish the seat — and we fought very hard to get two seats in the territory — they restricted the numbers of people who were working for the Australian Electoral Commission to get people on the roll. This was straight out of the right-wing Republican playbook. It was an outrage, what occurred. And then there was a lack of resources to enable peeople to vote. We have one vote, one value in this country. It’s an important principle of our democracy. And the fact that 66% of people vote means that one in three people in the electorate of Lingiari didn’t get to vote. That was a part of the former government’s design. It wasn’t by accident, and they should be held to account for it.

The claim that the previous government “tried to abolish the seat” doesn’t seem altogether fair: the seat was set to be abolished because the territory’s population fell below the level required to entitle it to a second seat under the existing formula, and it was a government-sponsored bill that effectively overturned it, although not in terms that formally guaranteed the territory a second seat in all circumstances as per an alternative bill introduced by Labor.

In any case, it’s interesting to observe that it was the remote mobile booths that bore the brunt of the drop in turnout, with the total formal vote down 14.8% compared with 3.3% for the other booths in the electorate, while declaration votes of all kinds were up 4.1%. Labor suffered swings of 1.4% on the other booths and 5.7% on the declaration votes, but of 9.7% on the remote mobile booths. I’m in no position to judge whether the size of the latter swing was fuelled in any way by under-servicing of indigenous communities. I would observe though that Labor had an indigenous candidate and the Country Liberals a white candidate this time, whereas the opposite was true in 2019.

Meanwhile, traditionally marginal Solomon swung heavily to Labor, though here too turnout was down, from 83.1% to 79.5%. The 6.3% swing to Labor member Luke Gosling has left the seat with a margin of 9.4%, comfortably bigger than the seat’s previous record of 6.0% and maintaining a clear break in Labor’s favour over the last three elections. While every booth but one swung to Labor, swings appeared to be strongest around the Darwin central business district, consistent with the broader story of the election.

The same might be said of the fact that the two-party swing was driven by a 13.1% slump in the Country Liberal primary vote rather than a surge in support for Labor, whose primary vote was down 0.6%. Less typically, the slack was taken up by the Liberal Democrats, whose candidate topped 10%. This may have been driven by her position on the top of the ballot paper; the party’s raised profile arising from Sam McMahon running as its Senate candidate after losing Country Liberal preselection; and the absence of any independents to soak up the disaffected conservative vote. For her part, Sam McMahon got 9.2% of the vote for the Senate, which has delivered its usual result of one Labor and one Country Liberal.

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.

17 comments on “Call of the board: Northern Territory”

  1. I don’t how long it will take, if ever, for the average electorate size to reach 135K? If the population of NT doesn’t change markedly, it will be hard to justify the two seats then.

  2. The good result for the Liberal Democrats, in both houses, was helped by the CLP having its name on the ballot papers with initials only (NT-CLP, possibly a version of the Liberal Candidate campaign material that doesn`t mention the Liberal party phenomenon seen elsewhere).

  3. It will always be possible to justify two seats in the Northern Territory on the basis of the third paragraph – it raises the concerns of people who are otherwise difficult for modern data to identify. If the malapportionment becomes too much to bear, we should increase the size of parliament. We should anyway; it is undersized.

  4. I was told last night by a reliable source that the Coalition had stripped the resources of the AEC in the Northern territory to the bone to the extent that they were unable to supply the usual quantity of Remote Polling Places this election, with some only having a polling place to go to that was 3 hours away!

    Hmm, I wonder who those in Remote Communities usually vote for?

  5. The almost totally dysfunctional Opposition with splits, argy bargy, desertions, drunken fist fights, and the rest of it must have fed into the Fed election results.
    The Territory Labor Government has been reasonably functional by contrast, although Gunner’s resignation during the campaign may have had an impact.
    I note in passing that Bluey nominated Lingiari as his smokey.

  6. The same NT voter turnout story in Lingiari and Solomon was reported just now on ABC Breakfast. No, WB was not on the show.

  7. Ven – well, the Prime Minister did talk about it at a presser yesterday, it’s not a surprise it’s getting a run in places other than here.

    And going back in time a bit to the issues being raised before the election:

    There appears to be two issues – one being the lack of enrolment of voters in remote Aboriginal communities between elections (and the AEC’s lack of effort in pursuing their enrolment compared to basically everyone else in Australia) and the other being the lack of remote polling booth resources.

    Given the lack of enrolment, the 66.8% turnout of enrolled voters figure is even worse than it appears.

    Like William I am not sure of the basis for the claim about the government trying to abolish the seat unless this goes back a long way to some past submission (maybe a decade or more ago) from the Libs to the AEC. The AEC determination in 2020 to reduce the NT to one seat was entirely mathematical with no discretion involved. It did result in a rather harsh situation where the ACT kept its 3rd seat by the absolute skin of its teeth after allowance for error in the determination of its population while the NT missed its 2nd seat on the same allowance by the skin of its teeth. And the government did agree to pass a bill to change the formula and restore that 2nd seat, also giving the ACT a bit more surety for its 3 seats.

  8. Mr Bowe, in your third paragraph that has this sentence ” Since the weight of remote indigenous communities in this electorate makes accurate polling essentially possible to conduct, …………….”, should the word be impossible?

  9. Felix the Cassowary says:
    Thursday, June 9, 2022 at 7:01 am

    “It will always be possible to justify two seats in the Northern Territory on the basis of the third paragraph – it raises the concerns of people who are otherwise difficult for modern data to identify. If the malapportionment becomes too much to bear, we should increase the size of parliament. We should anyway; it is undersized.”

    I have no opinion on the size of federal parliament. I am furious about malapportionment!

    If I was an NTer and was reduced to one seat of 150k electors, I’d be pissed off. Not because 150k is a bit bigger than the average 115-120k for mainland state seats, but because it is almost double the 80k average for seats in Tas.

    I can tolerate 5 guaranteed seats for Tas as long as that state’s average electors per seat serves as the national benchmark.

    Using this formula…
    ACT gets 4 seats
    NSW 68
    NT 2
    QLD 44
    SA 16
    TAS 5
    VIC 54
    WA 22
    Total 215

    Then adjust the Senate to 108.

  10. A bit out of kilter to call for two seats in the NT and then in the next breath go on about one vote, one value.

    Not sure Albo totally got his argument right there.

  11. ALP submissions to JSCEM will be interesting this time.

    I suspect the independent wave will significantly reduce any appetite that may have existed to expand Parliament to deal with the issue of the relative seat sizes in Tassie and territories vs the rest of the country on one vote one value grounds, as diluting the Indies and making their seats smaller or radically changing their margins will go over like a lead balloon. I always thought it grossly unfair of the AEC to screw over Peter Andren in Calare before cancer made it moot anyway. At least with redistributions in city areas it isn’t as hard for an independent to get known with their new constituents as it is in a country area.

  12. Arky at 7.51

    I am one of 122k electors in Paterson. My vote is worth 34% less than the average TAS elector.

    I really don’t care about individual candidates: I want one vote one value regardless of jurisdiction.

  13. Re Boerwar at 7.56 am

    Bluey not familiar with key areas in the Red Centre, though this seat has a huge tropical coastline?

    Alice Springs result was crucial, showing Mr Ryan had less appeal than some in the media presumed.

    Minor swing to Ryan in named Alice Springs booth on 21 May (1.3%) overshadowed by a larger swing to Scrymgour (1.5%) in the Alice Springs pre-poll (4 times the size). Only big town booth where Ryan got a large swing was Tennant Creek (14%). Solid swing to Labor in Christmas Island (3.2%), where Labor vote with preferences is 80%, higher than all booths in Eden-Monaro except Tanja (88%), the wee Greens stronghold north of Tathra. Voters in Christmas Island familiar with Home to Bilo struggle.

    So-called “voter ID” bill was aimed at disenfranchising remote Indigenous voters. No surprise that the media did not highlight how Libs pursued this racial discrimination by other means. Very unlikely to be repeated, but the AEC as an independent authority should be able to call for resources as needed.

    Informal vote in Lingiari is 7.4%, higher even than in NSW (6.2%), the highest of all the states.

  14. What I found interesting in Lingiari is that Labor held its own in booths in and around Alice Springs despite the CLP having the Mayor or former Mayor of Alice Springs as its candidate. Despite very small swings, Labor’s vote in Braitling [46.84%], Gillen [45.05%] and Sadadeen [60.69%] held up. Labor’s 2PP in the A/Springs PPVC was 51.32% with a swing of +1.50%. In the main A/springs booth it was 53.11% [-1.34%]. That’s pretty good considering the resources tipped into the NT by the Nationals who expected to win Lingiari. In this regard, there should be an investigation into why the vote was so low. The new PM believes he knows why.

  15. I’d add that the increase in the Greens’ vote in both Solomon and Lingari by roughly 3%, I’m guessing mostly at Labor’s primary vote expense, is an interesting phenomenon difficult to trace to other electorates with a strongly regional character.

    Further, if the Liberal Democrats had any strong organisational structure, they’d view this result in Solomon as an enthusiastic endorsement that they should be trying really hard at the next territory election. The CLP looks weaker and weaker by the day. Not that the LDP would win any seats, but they could pivot to become “the One Nation of the Top End,” so to speak.

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