The starter’s gun has almost been fired on the forthcoming Federal election which will almost certainly now be held on 2 July. However, there is also another Australian election due to take place soon after that: the Northern Territory election due on 27 August under the fixed term election rules that now apply. With almost exactly 4 months to go until that election, it’s high time for us to survey the current political situation in the Territory and try to read the electoral tea leaves.
A Northern Territory News opinion poll published in March suggested that the CLP government would be smashed if an election had been held then with Labor winning a very strong majority (effectively duplicating a poll the NT News conducted in July 2015) . A notional Two-Party Preferred result showed the ALP with 62% of the vote and CLP with just 38%. If there really was a uniform swing of that extent at the forthcoming election the CLP might not win a single seat. However, there is never a uniform swing and incumbency remains a very important factor in the Northern Territory given the tiny size of electorates.
However there is an even more important factor suggesting that the ALP’s position may not be quite as unassailable as many commentators seem to think. First preferences in the NT News poll show the ALP winning just 33% of the vote with the CLP winning an even lower 28%. A massive 38% of voters were either undecided or intending to vote for Independents or minor parties. In order to reach its notional 2PP result, the NT News must have allocated about 29% of those votes to the ALP and around 9% to the CLP on preference distribution. Opinion pollsters typically allocate preferences of Independent and minor party voters to the two major parties in the proportions in which they flowed at the last election (in 2012).
But things are different this year.
The Giles government rammed through electoral “reforms” a couple of months ago. They introduced Optional Preferential Voting (“OPV”) at Territory elections for the first time, along with a prohibition on distributing any election material including how-to-vote cards within 100 metres of a polling booth. In Queensland (which has had OPV for some time) almost 70% of voters opt only to vote 1 and don’t fill in any other squares on the ballot paper. Together with the ban on handing out how to vote cards (which will make it more difficult for disengaged voters to effortlessly and exhaustively express their voting preferences), it is very likely that something like 80% of Territory voters will choose only to vote 1. If that happens, as few as 6% of those 38% undecided/minor party votes may flow to the ALP and only around 2% to the CLP. The remaining votes will be “exhausted” That would mean the major parties’ respective actual average 2PP percentages would be about 39% ALP and 30% CLP. Those figures suggest a much closer result than the NT News poll indicates. With a well targeted campaign strategy to “save the silverware” and the benefit of a much larger number of incumbent MLAs than Labor, the CLP might well be able to save many of its current 12 seats.
That will of course be heavily dependent on their maintaining a much more disciplined approach to government than they have managed for the last 3 ½ years. However, in the last few months they have more or less achieved that, with the noteworthy exceptions of erstwhile Chief Ministerial aspirant Willy Westward Caravan Halted and A-G and Health Minister John Elferink, whose enthusiasm for ramming both feet in his mouth at every opportunity remains undiminished despite his announced intention to retire at the forthcoming election. At least they’ve managed to keep the egregious Dave Tollner gagged most of the time since the Party disendorsed him and sent him into premature involuntary retirement.
Another unremarked but important factor that can be expected to operate in the CLP’s favour is that the Party appears to have mended its fences with the NT News. The local Murdoch paper ran an unremittingly hostile campaign against the CLP government up until the second half of last year, following an unwise decision by then Chief Minister Terry Mills back in 2012 to remove display advertising from the NT News and concentrate on the Internet instead. It was probably a sensible decision in a policy sense given the decreasing importance of print newspapers, but in an immediate political sense it was a catastrophe. The NT News ran virulent campaigns against CLP power and water rate increases, the sale of the Territory Insurance Office and a number of other issues. However, a peace treaty now seems to have been negotiated. Prominent NT Government print display advertising has reappeared and recent NT News political coverage has been much more benign for the CLP.
It might even be that public memories of unpopular public asset sales (privatisation of Darwin Bus Service and the sale of TIO and Darwin Port) might have started to fade by election day. After all, at least in my view, those decisions were perfectly reasonable and responsible in a policy if not political sense. Nevertheless, the fate of the former New South Wales and Queensland governments, which both presided over extensive public asset sales, suggests that the public has a long memory for those sorts of decisions and may well be “waiting with baseball bats” for Adam Giles and his beleaguered team.
I’m not suggesting that the Giles government has any real chance of retaining a parliamentary majority after this year’s election. But I think there is a very good chance that the ALP might also fail to achieve a majority in its own right. We may well see another hung parliament, with the spoils of government depending on how many Independents each major party can persuade to agree not to block Supply or support a “no confidence” motion in the government.
I expect the ALP to retain all of its existing seven seats, and probably win both Fong Lim and Port Darwin from which long-term CLP MLAs Dave Tollner and John Elferink respectively are retiring. Labor would also be hopeful of winning the seat of Sanderson from incumbent CLP Minister Peter Styles (he holds it on quite a small margin) as well as the three CLP-held seats based on Palmerston. I understand that polling shows the CLP doing quite badly in Palmerston. Nevertheless, I at least expect Peter Chandler to retain his seat of Brennan, and the CLP is clearly pulling out all stops to retain the other two Palmerston seats as well.
Despite that, the ALP could reasonably hope to pick up five Darwin/Palmerston-based CLP seats taking it to 12 in the 25 seat Legislative Assembly and the CLP down to 7. In other words, the major parties’ positions would be effectively reversed.
Likewise, I don’t expect the CLP to lose any of its existing bush or Alice Springs-based seats, despite its current poor opinion poll results, and they might even pick up a couple of seats currently held by Independents (see below)
Of the present 6 Independent MLAs (most of them CLP defectors) I expect most to be re-elected. Certainly I would be surprised if Darwin rural area MLAs Gerry Wood and Kezia Purich are not re-elected. Bush Indigenous Independent MLA Larissa Lee should also retain her seat. However, the positions of the other three Independents, Alison Anderson in Namatjira, Robin Lambley in the Alice Springs-based seat of Araluen and Delia Lawrie in the Darwin-based seat of Karama, are much less certain.
The boundaries of Anderson’s seat of Namatjira have been radically reshaped by the recently completed redistribution (Antony Green’s analysis). Anderson has lost her central powerbase communities of Kintore, Hermannsburg and Papunya to the seat of Stuart held by CLP Minister Bess Price, with the whole of the southern part of Alice Springs being added to the seat instead. There is a good chance that the CLP candidate Heidi Williams, wife of legendary indigenous country music star Warren H Williams, could pick up this seat.
Similarly, Lambley is a CLP defector and poorly regarded at least by some in Alice Springs. The CLP has a strong candidate in Lambley’s seat of Araluen, namely Alice Springs Deputy Mayor Steve Brown. I would fancy him to win the seat back for the CLP.
In the Darwin-based seat of Karama, former Labor leader Delia Lawrie now sits as an Independent after being disendorsed by Labor in the wake of the Stella Maris scandal. She is opposed by a strong ALP candidate in Ngaree Ah Kit. The CLP also has a strong candidate in former NTFL star footballer Jarred Ilett. There is a significant likelihood that OPV will result in preferences not flowing between Lawrie and Ah Kit as would previously have been expected, creating a real possibility that Ilett could sneak through the gap and win Karama despite the CLP’s general unpopularity in metropolitan Darwin.
Let’s assume that the CLP picks up two of the three shaky Independent-held seats. That would put the CLP on 9 seats, ALP on 12 and 4 Independents. Gerry Wood would certainly support Labor in that situation, just as he did with the Henderson minority government between 2010 and 2012. The ALP would then have a bare working majority with Wood’s support. Kezia Purich and Larissa Lee would almost certainly support the CLP in such a situation.
The Territory may well be facing a continuation of somewhat chaotic but interesting political times even after the August election.