Song of Solomon

I don’t have much to add to Rex’s overall post-election rant, except to suggest that this is in many respects the result that might well have occurred in 2004 had John Howard’s dishonest interest rate scare not been so successful and had Mark Latham not been a victim of his own erratic, bizarre, overtly aggressive personality.  The interest rate scare was never going to work again in the face of 6 recent rate rises, and Kevin07 exhibited a machine-like ability to stay on-message and project a soothingly conservative and professional image (even if none of that endeared him to me personally).

Instead I want to focus on the Northern territory seat of Solomon where I live.  It remains in the “undecided” column after last night’s count and will almost certainly remain that way for the next fortnight until postal, pre-poll and absentee votes are counted.  The swing to Labor looks to be substantially less than the national average of around 5.7%.  According to the AEC website, the Solomon swing to the ALP currently sits at 3.8% after counting all but the prison and hospital mobile booths (which are likely to increase the Labor swing very slightly – most patients and prisoners are Aboriginal and most of them vote Labor). The ALP has 50.99% of the 2PP vote and CLP 49.01%.   Labor’s Damian Hale is currently on 20,941 votes after preference distribution, with CLP sitting member Dave Tollner on 20,129.  That’s a lead of just 812 votes.

However, a story in this morning’s NT News asserts that : “By the end of the night, the ALP calculated a victory by 1246 votes“.   I’m not too sure how they reach that figure; possibly by adding in the scrutineers’ counts for the hospital and prison booths. 

Anyway, I’ll assume that figure is correct for present purposes. By definition it doesn’t include postal, pre-poll or absentee votes, because they haven’t even arrived yet and won’t be counted for another fortnight.  Moreover, the postals and pre-polls will almost certainly reduce Labor’s current lead substantially.  The relevant page at the AEC website currently contains no figures at all for the number of postal, pre-poll and absentee ballots actually issued,  but this morning’s NT News story says:

But with more than 8000 postal and pre-polling ballots uncounted, one Labor source said the election was still “on a knife’s edge”.

Postal and pre-poll votes split 60/40 to the CLP at the 2004 federal election, and indeed have split in roughly those proportions at every previous election I can remember.  As Antony Green’s ABC election site for Solomon observes in relation to the 2004 election:

 The CLP also commanded 57.4% of the pre-poll vote and 61.5% of the postal vote.

Postal and pre-poll votes include substantial numbers of military personnel on temporary overseas and other postings, and various other groups of people who tend to be more likely statistically to vote for the Coalition.  Again as Antony Green’s site observes:

At 8.35%, the 2001 census reveals Solomon as the electorate with the highest proportion of defence employees.

The Durack booth in Palmerston provides a fairly reliable guide to how military personnel are voting.  In 2004 Durack residents voted CLP to the tune of 71.2% on a 2PP basis.  This time (again according to the AEC site) they voted 67.14% for the CLP.  A slightly softer Coalition vote, but nevertheless on which suggests that working on a 60/40 split for pre-polls and postals remains a valid assumption.

The problem is that, even if we assume the total figure of 8000 uncounted votes is accurate, I simply don’t know the proportionate split between pre-poll, postal and absentee votes (although presumably the major party officials do).  While pre-poll and postal votes tend to split 60/40 for the Coalition, ordinary absentee votes tend mostly to follow the overall result.  If we make a “guesstimate” that there’s an even split between absentee votes on the one hand and postal/pre-poll votes on the other (i.e. there are 4000 pre-poll/postal votes and 4000 absentee votes to be counted), we could expect that Dave Tollner would pick up around a net 800 votes from the count of these votes in a fortnight’s time.  If the NT News’ ALP source is right that Hale is currently leading by around 1200 votes, he’ll probably end up winning by about 400 votes.  However, if the CLP does better than 60/40 on the pre-polls and postals (which frankly looks unlikely on the Durack booth result) or if the proportion of pre-polls and postals is higher than I’ve assumed, the final result could still be very close.

Nevertheless, a Labor win by about 400 votes looks most likely on the information available.  That equates roughly to a swing of 3.5% to Labor and a final margin of just 0.7%.   Clearly  it’s significantly less than the national average swing of around 5.7%.  Why?  My best guess is that the Howard/Brough indigenous intervention stunt played quite well in some parts of Darwin’s northern suburbs, and was the key factor in the lower than national average swing. 

Moreover, Howard cunningly played the theatrics of the intervention in such a way that his actions fed into the normal mid-term slump in popularity of the local Martin government.  They’ve recently introduced both driving demerit points and open road speed limits in the Northern Territory, moves which haven’t endeared Territory Labor to some parts of the community.  The indigenous intervention had the effect of blurring the distinction between federal and local issues, and allowed the Martin government to be portrayed (rather unfairly in my view) as muddling and indecisive in its response to the “emergency” while Howard and Brough marched in masterfully and took charge.  However stupid and ineffectual their intervention will end up proving, the macho action man approach tends to play well with some segments of the community.

This calculated blurring of the distinction between federal and state issues also allowed Tollner to run a series of ads claiming that Labor was “soft on crime” and that violent crime had risen by 80% under Labor!!  In fact these assertions bear almost no relationship to the facts.  According to the NT Office of Crime Prevention, property offences are actually down by between 30 and 55% since 2002 (just after the Martin government was elected); sexual assaults are slightly higher (4%) and ordinary assaults up by a seemingly more significant 19%.  However, as the OCP explains

In late 2004, the Northern Territory Police launched their Violent Crime Reduction Strategy, with a consequential increase in the number of recorded Assault offences in 2005 and 2006.

These increases in Assaults largely reflect the impact of operational changes the Police have made in the reporting and recording of domestic violence related Assaults; rather than an actual increase in violent crimes in the Territory.

Labor has actually toughened many aspects of the criminal law, and Territory prisons are full despite this significant fall in crime rates in many categories.   Indeed, many criminal lawyers complain that the Martin government’s “laura norder” policies are pretty much indistinguishable from those of the previous CLP government. However, as you can see, it isn’t possible to negate Tollner’s glib but false “soft on crime” line in a 10 second sound grab.   No doubt that’s why local ALP strategists elected to stay “on message” and simply ignore Tollner’s ads.  If Damian Hale still manages to scrape over the line and win Solomon, as currently seems most likely, I guess that decision will have been vindicated   

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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