Place your bets

The Northern Territory is the only Australian jurisdiction that the Poll Bludger has never graced with his presence, and it must be conceded that the election guide predictions are a little wanting for first-hand local knowledge. The laughter from up north can be heard already – Ken Parish had this to say at Troppo Armadillo:

I’m a bit surprised that Poll Bludger William Bowe is apparently so sanguine about Labor retaining Millner. Maybe he doesn’t quite realise that the CLP has a long and quite successful history of running dummy independents in close marginal seats to maximise the party’s vote. The "independent" is invariably a close CLP associate and proceeds to swap preferences tightly with the official candidate. Phil Mitchell is very much in that tradition, and with a margin of around 90 votes I expect him to have a significant influence. I reckon Millner is a lineball proposition; I wouldn’t want to call it either way. As for the Pollbludger’s prediction that Labor will win the seat of Araluen in Alice Springs from the CLP, I don’t think so sunshine. Do you want to put money on it? Alice Springs is injun country for Labor, and I don’t see anything in the tea-leaves likely to change that scenario. I’d give Labor’s Fran Kilgariff (current Alice Springs mayor and daughter of a legendary former CLP federal member) a very rough chance of unseating the CLP’s Richard Lim in Greatorex despite a margin of some 9%, but I certainly wouldn’t have her as favourite. Generally I’d be surprised to see any seats change hands in Alice Springs.

I had perhaps naively assumed that Phil Mitchell was running because he thought he might win, and concede that I might have understimated the impact a high-profile dummy independent candidate can have in a concentrated Darwin electorate. But Parish’s opinion that the seat is a "lineball proposition" encourages me to maintain my assessment that the seat will stay with Labor, since I expect them to enjoy a bigger-than-anticipated overall swing. As for Araluen, I never wanted to put money on it, but am now persuaded that Labor’s traditionally low primary vote here makes it a long shot. The 134-vote two-party margin from 2001 was influenced by a CLP dissident running as an independent and directing preferences to Labor, and this scenario does not look like it’s about to be repeated. With the adjustment of this prediction, this site’s current projection is that Labor will win 14 seats, the CLP nine and independents two. For what it’s worth, the punters appear to share my rosy view of Labor’s prospects – Centrebet is offering $1.30 for a Labor win and $3.15 for the CLP.

The following snippets from Parish’s post were news to me:

• The CLP candidate for Millner, Paul Mossman, "has found himself in all sorts of trouble over some appallingly sexist statements he made on an Internet political discussion board". Mossman posted on an Inside Politics thread regarding a 13-year-old girl in Florida who had been denied an abortion, saying she "should have just kept her legs closed in the first place". The comment has since been removed but the cached Google page remains. Other comments on the site by Mossman include one stating that there are "plenty in line waiting their chances" to assume the CLP leadership, and several supporting views expressed by fellow commenter Philippe Gregoire, a man with far too much to say.

• It is rumoured that Goyder MP Peter Maley, who was dumped first from the CLP front bench and then from the parliamentary party, is considering running as an independent. Maley’s actions in returning to his lucrative legal practice while still serving as a parliamentarian do not bespeak a man who is keen to continue in politics, but the word is that he might nominate "purely to screw Burke and deny the seat to the CLP".

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.