Matthew Bonson and the long-tongued Len Kiely in happier times on elevation to the Ministry in November last year
The day before Saturdays unexpectedly knife-edge NT election, Chief Minister Paul Henderson gave a politically prudent and factually correct assessment of Labors chances: A handful of votes in a handful of seats will determine the outcome of this election and Im fighting very hard to hold each and every of the 19 seats we have.
Yet at the same time his predecessor Clare Martin was scoffing at predictions of pundits (including yours truly) that Labor was likely to lose 3 or 4 seats to the CLP. She didnt think theyd lose any at all, while other ALP insiders were arrogantly dismissing leaked CLP polling showing its candidate narrowly in front in Fannie Bay, and simultaneously backgrounding the media on the alleged possibility that Opposition leader Terry Mills could even lose his seat as Denis Burke had done in 2005.
This palpable arrogance, hubris and complacency was typical of the Labor campaign. Moreover, it may well have been the decisive factor in generating a photo-finish outcome when both parties private polling had indicated a decisive ALP victory. By conveying the message that Labor would win by a country mile, and that the CLP was a joke and not remotely competitive, the ALP was giving voters who didnt want a CLP government, but had a range of individual gripes with the Henderson government, permission to register a protest vote in the assurance that Labor would win anyway. It was also implicitly (if unintentionally) telling typical disengaged voters that they might as well enjoy a beautiful dry season day and not bother to vote at all. Quite a few took precisely that message, resulting in low voter turnout figures in several Darwin electorates. Most of those absent apathetic voters think life is pretty good in the boomtime Territory and a majority would probably have voted Labor out of sheer inertia and familiarity had they bothered to turn up at all.
Update – The latest counting appears to have Labor’s lead in Fannie Bay closing very slightly from 57 votes to just 52. If that represents postal votes it may suggest that my assumption that postal votes will favour Labor will need revisiting.
Further update – Both Labor and CLP scrutineers now say that Labor is 92 votes ahead in Fannie Bay after today’s counting, with just 150 postal votes still to come in. Hence, barring a miracle/disaster (depending on one’s viewpoint) Labor will form government with 13 members to the CLP’s 11 with one Independent in Gerry Wood. Wood yesterday said he would refuse offers of the Speakership, which means he would still have a position of considerable influence despite a hung parliament no longer being a real possibility.
Much research will be needed to work out in detail the reasons for Labors unexpectedly poor showing, but I suspect that this self-inflicted wound may prove to be the decisive factor. Despite pundits hindsight prognostications about specific Labor strategic errors (e.g. a presidential campaign based around Hendersons strong 9 months of leadership was a mistake), there was little that happened during the campaign itself to induce a massive anti-Labor swing.
Moreover, the CLP ran a rather inept campaign, and suggestions that it somehow managed to tap the zeitgeist are frankly fanciful. Terry Mills prattled on endlessly about rehabilitating prisoners, and promised to slash almost 800 public service jobs in a city with a higher proportion of public servants than anywhere else except Canberra. Meanwhile leadership tensions with ambitious aspirants Dave Tollner and Gary Lambert were unhelpful and the accidental leaking of donation-begging letters carried overtones of disorganisation.
And yet the CLP is now at worst within a single seat of reclaiming government. How could it have happened, Labor is asking itself? Ironically, the CLPs poor campaign might itself have perversely worked in its favour, lulling Labor into hubristic overconfidence and relatively unconcerned voters into registering a gratuitous protest vote against particular Labor actions or not turning up to vote at all because they thought it wouldnt make any difference.
Nevertheless, the outcomes in the individual seats that have changed hands are relatively easy to understand on their own terms. For a start, the ALP-held seats of Goyder and Drysdale were notionally CLP anyway after an unfavourable redistribution, and the Palmerston-based seat of Brennan (Denis Burkes old seat) was held by unrelated namesake James Burke by just 0.6%. All three seats were by definition highly vulnerable if any significant swing at all against Labor occurred, as was always going to happen given that 2005 was a historic and almost unbelievable high water mark in the ALP vote. Although incumbency is worth more in tiny NT seats than in other parts of Australia (possibly as much as 4 or 5%), these 3 seats were always likely to change hands. That, together with the fact that the Alice Springs seat of Braitling was also set to return to the CLP with the retirement of Independent MLA Loraine Braham, led me to tip that the CLP would pick up about 4 seats.
I also regarded Port Darwin as vulnerable though defendable by Labor, being held on a margin of 1.9%. Labor would have held it with incumbency against an underlying global swing of 5% or so (which is the sort of swing I and most other observers expected), but with a 9% global swing it too was a CLP gain. Keep in mind that, unlike elections in larger states, there are no publicly released opinion polls from which pundits can make anything more reliable than educated guesses about likely swings.
I also thought (and said) that Fannie Bay was potentially vulnerable because of the loss of Clare Martins incumbent popularity, a high profile CLP candidate in ex Lord Mayor Gary Lambert and an undistinguished ALP candidate (and former apparatchik) no-one had ever heard of. Fannie Bay was former CLP Chief Minister Marshall Perrons seat before Martin won it in a 1995 by-election when Perron retired. Consisting of mostly well-heeled middle class residents, it isnt natural ALP heartland, despite the 15.7% margin by which Clare Martin held it. With the loss of incumbency, it too was (and remains) vulnerable in the context of a global swing of 9%. Fannie Bay is the seat which may yet deliver minority government to the CLP (though Labor will probably manage to hang on with a more intensive drive for postal votes than the cash-strapped CLP could manage).
The two CLP gains I didnt predict were likely to change hands were Fong Lim and Sanderson. Fong Lim is a new seat consisting of the southern part of the old seat of Millner (which I briefly held in the early 90s) and the McMansion/canal estate areas of Bayview and Woolner. Sitting Millner MLA Matthew Bonson held Fong Lim on a notional margin of 11.5%, but he didnt have any incumbency advantage in Bayview/Woolner and his margin in the former Millner areas was artificially inflated by a CLP split at the 2005 election. Previous CLP Millner MLA Phil Mitchell (who had lost to Bonson in 2001) stood as an Independent after failing to gain pre-selection while official CLP candidate Paul Mossman ran an astonishingly inept campaign. This was never going to be repeated in 2008, with the CLP running a very strong and high profile candidate in former Solomon MHR Dave Tollner. With local knowledge I should have realised that Fong Lim was actually much more vulnerable than the figures showed.
Lastly, the seat of Sanderson would probably have remained safe for Labor had it not been for the long tongue of its MLA Len Kiely. He disgraced himself a couple of years ago by drunkenly slagging/propositioning a security guard at a Marrara Stadium function, allegedly telling her that I have a long tongue and I can make you a very happy woman. Makes Troy Buswells chair-sniffing in WA look positively genteel by comparison, doesnt it? Kiely was consigned to the sin bin for a year then unexpectedly (and unwisely) reinstated to the Ministry by Paul Henderson late last year. Labors arrogance and Kielys repulsive behaviour clearly werent forgotten, especially after his security guard victim letterboxed the entire electorate last week urging the voters of Sanderson to put Labor last. Quite a few did, and Kiely was ejected with an anti-Labor swing of more than 18%.
In summary, its fairly easy with the benefit of hindsight to see why particular ALP seats were lost. The underlying global swing of 9% is the thing that really needs analysis. Was it a strong CLP campaign or a poorly conceived Labor one? A backlash against Hendersons cynical calling of a very early election on the flimsy pretext of securing a huge LNG project that the CLP supports anyway (after initial flip-flopping)? A reaction against Labor being in government everywhere following Kevin Rudds victory late last year? Somehow I doubt that any of those factors were decisive, though some of them may well have played a role. I think it was in large part an avoidable own goal born of arrogance, hubris and complacency; a carbon copy of the Burke CLP governments election-losing performance in 2001 which may yet yield the same outcome.