Just returned from an evening at the central tallyroom in Darwin. I confess that I failed to disguise a quietly malicious joy at the crestfallen pain of all the old CLP apparatchiks who used to gloat without restraint during Labor’s many dark nights of the soul through the 1980s and 90s.
Latest figures suggest that Labor will probably end up with 18 seats (out of 25), with the CLP retaining just 6 and 1 Independent (although this is still fairly fluid at the time of writing). And CLP leader Denis Burke lost his seat as well as the election! I must admit that Pollbludger’s prediction, which I regarded as wildly optimistic for Labor, was much closer than mine.
In most senses, it’s humble pie I’m happy to swallow. And in any event, the CLP debacle was exacerbated by a major fiscal cockup in the last two days of the campaign, when Treasury unearthed a $60 million mathematical error in Burke’s calculation of the cost of his election promises, not to mention highlighting the fact that he refused to reveal where he would make $218 million worth of spending cuts that he claimed would pay for those promises. It just added to the picture of chaotic incompetence whose most egregious symbol was the $1.3 billion mythical power line from southern Queensland to Darwin.
Even so, such a smashing victory isn’t necessarily unalloyed good news even for NT Labor, let alone democracy in the Territory. Clare Martin will certainly end up with a large and fractious back bench which will include a substantial proportion of dead wood MLAs who wouldn’t normally have had a snowball’s chance in the tropics of getting elected.
The Party rank and file is also going to take a lot of convincing that there’s no choice but to persist in the cautious-to-the-point-of-intertia brand of semi-compassionate conservatism that has characterised the last 4 years of the Martin government. It’s an identical approach to the tried and true template of ALP state governments throughout Australia, but with extremes of poverty in a population that is 30% indigenous it’s rather more difficult to persuade impatient ALP members that a glacial pace of reform and a policy stance only marginally distinguishable from the Coalition is the only viable approach. Martin has managed (through ruthless factional manoeuvring) to avoid holding a Party Conference in the last couple of years, but it seems unlikely she’ll be able to stave off internal democracy for much longer. Still, with the budget already slightly in deficit and the highest per capita state debt in Australia, the grim fiscal reality is that there probably isn’t much room for bold social justice measures even if Clare and her minders were so minded (and they’re not).
The Martin government’s “lock up serial drunks” policy also creates a significant cloud on the horizon for the ALP. It certainly played well in Darwin’s northrn suburbs and undoubtedly contributed to the big swing to Labor, but there’s a fairly high probability that a significant number of indigenous leaders will now conclude that Labor in government is merely a whiter-shade-of-pale CLP, and decide as a result that the only sensible option for gaining some meaningful leverage in the political process is to establish a specifically indigenous political party and aim at achieving a balance of power situation in the Territory Parliament.
But still, any politician would much rather be Clare Martin right now than Denis Burke. And despite my silent bout of schadenfreude, I can’t help feeling just a little sorry for two time loser Denis Burke. Even though he’s a boofhead who ran a hopeless campaign, he doesn’t seem like a bad bloke and he mostly resisted the temptation to play the race card despite the fact that he would certainly have been well aware of the desperation of his party’s plight and would have been surrounded by minders telling him that a traditional black bash was the only way of salvaging something from the wreckage. There are worse political epitaphs.