What happened in the NT? Arrogance, hubris and complacency

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.

 

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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Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
14 years ago

Its a game chap who would predict any election result in the NT given that the population turnover is in the vicinity of 30% for any given year. Perhaps in the past when the LCP were in charge but not these days. Consequently it is very difficult to pinpoint any particular reason why ther might be such a strong swing especially in such small electorates. If 1/3 of the voters are not familiar with the local pollies then they may be just voting on the prejudices that they have brought wiyht them from down south. And who could possible predict what these might be? On the other hand voting in the NT can be very very personal.

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
14 years ago

AS I said Ken you are a brave chap – given your self confessed mispunditry. You keep missing but you keep coming back. That is not to say that your analysis is at all faulty, rather it supports my contention that it is the nature of the NT beast that defies prediction. One moment a fire breathing dragon the next a garden gnome. In fact if anyone should be able to read the NT electoral entrails it is you and the fact you miss is not your fault but a result of the witchy brew of NTness.

sssshhhhhh
sssshhhhhh
14 years ago

don’t mention The Greens.
ha…ha…ha…

Sir Roger
14 years ago

Liked the cut of your jib yesterday on Australia Talks, young lad!

Jezery
Jezery
14 years ago

I’n in Nelson, the independent Gerry Woods’ electorate. I’ve been joking for the last couple of weeks that the best outcome would be ALP 12, CLP 12 and Gerry with the balance of power. Wish I’d put some money on it now!!

I wonder if Matt Bonson was affected by the Len Keily factor? They were both dumped from the Ministry for inappropriate conduct and then re-instated at the same time as soon as Henderson ousted Clare. Maybe some of the disquiet over Labor rewarding bad behaviour rubbed off on him as well.

You’re right in that Terry Mills is too nice. I’m not sure that’s as big a disadvantage as you and Jacques seem to think. Having met him socially a few times over the years, I found the media coverage and the labor ads irritating because my personal experience is that he is better than that. Given time to sit down and talk about issues, rather than having to get a message across in a 30 second sound bite, he comes across a lot better. (I’ve met Paul Henderson at one or two social functions as well. He’s not the most personable chap you could ever come across, is he?)

“A backlash against Hendersons cynical calling of a very early election on the flimsy pretext”

Pretty much sums up why I preferenced CLP above Labor.

Alan
Alan
14 years ago

It really is mickey mouseville up there isn’t it? 40 per cent just didn’t turn up to vote and in electorates with so few people in them of course that makes a difference. I agree the ALP were sucking on the hubris lozenge and obviously made no attempt to ensure their voters were a; on the rolls and B; were going to come out and vote.
I just did the sums and it seems more people will vote in my local government area in September than voted in the whole of the NT. When I see how much Federal funding goes to my local government area and how much liquid pork flows to the NT it makes me wonder. The thing that really pisses me off is how up there they swagger around as “Proud Territorians” independent hard men and ready to show those poofy southerners a thing or two. You cop it sweet so as not to offend and you haven’t the heart to tell them their life style is underwritten by the decadent southerners. They are a prickly lot up there when you tell them they are less than perfect.
A little more gratitude would be nioe. Federal implications? Maybe but it is such a shallow pool mentally and demographically that it is hard to tell. If Kev went up and bought them all a beer they’d probably vote for him.
My big worry about Rudd is he is starting to remind me of Bob Carr the man who for ten years turned style and spin into an art form. As Sydney’s infrastructure crumbles because it was neglected for all that time so Bob and Michael Egan could spin up a nice set of accounts, Bob is nowhere to be seen. He is a greeter down at Mac Bank, a sinecure from a grateful board of directors. But they are not silly enough to actually let him do anything that might effect the bank’s bottom line. Sling him a sackful of the stuff, wheel him out when a pseudo intellectual is needed to soften the bank’s hard avaricious edge. Let Bob get on the writers festival circuit boring us sptiless with his literary wankery. Keeps him away from the office. I fear Kev is cut from the same cloth.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
14 years ago

I liked the observation that Fran Kelly offered yesterday on “Insiders” – apparently from some battle-scarred Territory pollie of yore. It ran along the lines of:

“Look, the electorate populations are so small that all you need to do is piss-off one well-connected extended Greek family in Darwin and you’re a goner.”

It stands to reason that electors will tend to have a jaundiced view of what looks like shameless opportunism on the part of an incumbent in running for the polls a year early. It worked for Peter Beattie in Queensland but Beattie, uniquely, managed to turn shameless opportunism into a loveable personality trait.

Alan
Alan
14 years ago

Ken; I agree totally just observing how small they are. But maybe the Tassie system would be fairer as in the Darwin area there are many diverse views but they don’t seem to get much of a go. You could have maybe three electorates with proportional representation in them so you could get the numbers for a parliament with a bit of go in it. You would also get more Aboriginal people in.
And it isn’t that hard in the territory to be a pollie just whinge about how little money you get from the south, blame all your problems on the south and of course all your victories are because of your wonderful abilities. I urge everyone who visits Darwin to visit their parliament and gaze in wonder at a monument to the power of the pork barrel.
It is an obscenity.
I do love the town and the territory though.

Just Me
Just Me
14 years ago

Moreover, the CLP ran a rather inept campaign, and suggestions that it somehow managed to tap the zeitgeist are frankly fanciful.

Agree with that. I suspect there was a substantial protest vote component, in combination with an expected re-normalisation of the political balance after the lop-sided 2005 result.

Alan said:
I just did the sums and it seems more people will vote in my local government area in September than voted in the whole of the NT. When I see how much Federal funding goes to my local government area and how much liquid pork flows to the NT it makes me wonder. The thing that really pisses me off is how up there they swagger around as Proud Territorians independent hard men and ready to show those poofy southerners a thing or two. You cop it sweet so as not to offend and you havent the heart to tell them their life style is underwritten by the decadent southerners. They are a prickly lot up there when you tell them they are less than perfect.
A little more gratitude would be nioe.

Try checking the per capita earned export income figures (you know, the only ones that actually count). The last set I saw had the NT second only to WA.

A little more gratitude from you whinging southerners would indeed be nice.

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

I’m about the fly up to Darwin on Friday for a very long weekend.

Is it safe or will there be riots in the streets about the close result? Will I be overcome by the inertia of the non voters and simple lay on the couch under an air-con? Am I likely to get abducted by a UFO?

Given the size of the electorates (I’ve had more friends at a BBQ) why didn’t candidates simply ring everyone in their electorate and ask them if they’d voted.

Niall
14 years ago

You know, KP, you sound just like I believed you’d sound on radio

komissar
komissar
13 years ago

I am always fascinated with the way people from down south, or east or west, view the Territory. Somehow they think that the place is full or right wing red necks ( which it is in some places) but they are ignorant about the social, cultural and ethnic mix that exists up here. I thought the same before I came to the Territory.

It is this unique mix and the small electorates that makes the NT elections interesting.

Until 2001 the NT was CLP country and looked like that it would be CLP country for ever. Then Clare Martin became the ALP leader, the CLP dumped Shane Stone and installed Denis Burke as Chief Minister. The combination of CLP arrogance, Burke’s attitude, a strong campaing by the ALP during the June 2001 elections and the CLP deciding to prefernce One Nation (here is the ethnic connection) meant disaster for the CLP. CLP lost for first time the Northern suburbs, where in some cases 1 in 4 voters were born outside Australia.

In 2005 the ALP repeated its strong election performance and won 19 seats! The reasons for that? Dennis Burke was again the leader of the CLP and enormously unpopular, the ALP run a strong campaing and of course incumbuncy. This was an unexpected (and unatural)result. The 2008 elections has corrected that “anomaly” sending at the same time a very strong message to the ALP about complacency, arrogance and listening to the people and not ignoring the regions.

However an analysis of the voting patterns in various electorates shows that the CLP did not gain extra votes – in some cases it lost votes ie Karama, but a large number of voters did not vote. There are several reasons behind it:
The weather was too good to miss a fishing or camping trip (yes it happens)or because despite the fact they wanted to punish the ALP they could n’t bring themselves to vote CLP, or because they beleived that the ALP will win anyway so they wanted to register a protest vote by staying away.

As for the extended Greek family comment – it was made by Kon Vatskalis the membe for Casuarina during an ABC interview on the night of the elections- to point out the significance of the small electorates and how a small change of votes can have a significant effect on the election results, especially when 34 people is 1% of the electorate. This is very important in view of our social situation with large extended family of Greek, Chinese and of course indigenous background with extended relationship and cultural networks. Kon must know something especially when apporximately 6% of his constituents are of Chinese origin, 10% Greeks, 9% indigenous and a lot of other smaller groups.

It is different world up here -but an exciting one.

Mangoman
Mangoman
13 years ago

It was lovely on the booths to see the large extended family of our local CLP candidate, Wayne Connop, turn out for the CLP. People who for years have been rusted on Labor running around in CLP T-shirts was a sight to behold. As Kon said on Saturday night, those large, old families can have an effect but normally only if the political skills of the MLA are so bereft as to allow that to happen.

komissar
komissar
13 years ago

The small Territory electorates demand that the local member has to be out there all the time, doorknocking, at school assemblies, local events and listening to the voters not only during the campaing period but also during the electoral period.

It is the personal relationship that the local member develops with his constituents that provides a buffer against a backlash which maybe directed to the party as in this occasion. If the local member is close to his constituents then the large families will stick with the sitting member rather than change it.

Look at Jane Aagard, Chris Burns, Delia Lawrie, Kon Vatskalis, Paul Henderson who may have suffered a swing against them in their electorates but the CLP did not gain any ground there, it was simply the voters who did not want to vote Labor sending a message to the ALP thus bringing the overall numbers down.

I bet Mills is happy that Lambert lost Fannie Bay.

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
13 years ago

we have no data to really make an opinion but anyway why not have a go.

People do not like early elections when the reason is a crock.

governments with large majorities get arrogant.

Perhaps even a Borbidge effect is evident. People voted against the ALP to protest never realising they would produce such a close result.

In the end it seems to me N/T needed a change of government so it is a shame it didn’t happen

Mangoman
Mangoman
13 years ago

Komissar – Terry Mills would be just a little pleased I suspect that Lambert is not there but he still has big Dave to contend with along with Jodeen, Matt Conlan and probably Peter Styles in due course. Even John Elferink will think he has a chance. Once the dust settles, and they start to realise it wasn’t the voters wanting the CLP to come back, I would punt that moves will start.

Michael – the Labor Government has not been doing well over the last year or two but a change to what? The CLP? That would mean that they had learnt all of the lessons that should have been taken from their defeats in 2001 and 2005. I can’t see any evidence of that in the campaign they have just run. Ignorant populism on law and order, a new hospital to be built 15 minutes drive from another which struggles to achieve good economies of scale and clear the land in the Daly thus mucking up environment for the dubious benefit of large scale cropping of cotton and peanuts?

Labor needed a smack in the mouth. They have had one. Hopefully they will learn. If not then they will go in 4 years. With any luck the CLP will have sorted itself out by then with a few policies that actually have some value.

Spiros
Spiros
13 years ago

Great analysis. Very informative.

Obviously the voters in Sanderson don’t like a shrewd polyglot.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Yes, very informative. It’s always a good feeling when you can increase your knowledge of some topic by a factor of ten in a five minute sitting.

If it all comes down to hubris, you have to wonder why NT Labor departed from the new norm that any party, whatever its objective prospects insists on ‘underdog status’.

komissar
komissar
13 years ago

Mangoman

I had come to same conclusion about the CLP and Terry Mills’ future. The party is divided, that was obvious during the election day when a number of CLP candidates were not supported by the local branch members. In addition, like it or not the Berrimah line also exists in politics, there is a clear division between the urban CLP and the Alice Springs CLP.

If I was Terry I would watch my back especially after the realisation of no swing to CLP settles in. It is going to be intersting: Dave can not stand Jodeen, Jodeen dislikes Dave and the old men who now control the CLP do not like Jodeen for a number of reasons.

As the hubris, I think the ALP paid mistakes made not by Hendo only but from the previous leadership team. After all he has been in the job for 9 months only!

I also found unbelievable for Clare to come out just before the election and declare that the ALP would not lose any seats! In which planet did she live?

Hendo was right. A handful of votes could have decided to a CLP government or a hung Parliament, God Forbids. I can not imagine what Gerry Wood would have demanded for his vote.

As I said before the natural environment for the ALP in the Territory now is around 55-59%, any extra point is due to the local member hard work, and this translates to 14 possibly 15 seats.

The ALP now has a unique opportunity to rejuvenate itself and I think from the messages coming out of the ALP the message has been received loud and clear.

Kevin Rennie
13 years ago

My reflections, as an ex-Territorian, on possible lessons are at NT election: Waking from a Bad Dream
Strange place!