Drilling down into the NT federal election result

As part of my duties as CDU’s designated political analyst/commentator for NT electoral purposes, I’ve been delving into the interstices of the booth by booth results in the NT seats of Solomon and Lingiari.  The results are quite fascinating, especially in Lingiari.

Starting with Solomon (essentially metropolitan Darwin and Palmerston), the result is not too surprising.  I confess I expected the ALP’s Damian Hale to hang on narrowly, partly because he hadn’t done a bad job but also because of an outbreak of Country Liberal Party infighting over the last week of the campaign.  However, the infighting arose from revelations that the CLP’s Aboriginal candidate for Lingiari Leo Abbott had not only been subject to a Domestic Violence Order but had also been subject to recent court action for breaching it.  CLP NT Opposition Leader Terry Mills, supported by his federal counterpart Tony Abbott, called on the party’s management committee to disendorse Leo Abbott.  However the management committee refused to do so, with one of its central Australian members suggesting publicly that Mills’ demand was part of a “mean and tricky” tactic orchestrated by former Liberal Party National President Shane Stone to make Leo Abbott a sacrifical lamb so the CLP could generate a renewed focus on similar (though arguably less serious)  domestic violence allegations against the ALP sitting Member for Solomon Damian Hale.  The whole fiasco ended up with CLP Alice Springs MLA and former parliamentary leader Jodeen Carney announcing her immediate resignation from Parliament, other CLP MLAs refusing to campaign for Leo Abbott and CLP President Rick Setter resigning early this week.

However the immediate electoral wash-up from the fiasco is less clear.

There is no obvious sign in the Solomon result that this CLP infighting rebounded against it.  Instead Labor’s Damian Hale experienced a 2.8% swing against him, slightly more than the national average anti-Labor swing.  If CLP disunity had impacted significantly you might have expected the swing to have been smaller than that.  In fact it looks if anything as if the focus on the  Leo Abbott fiasco in the last week of the campaign may well have had the effect the CLP clearly desired, namely to generate renewed focus on older domestic violence allegations against Damian Hale (and a couple of nightclub incidents where Hale wound up in minor confrontations).  The Greens vote in Solomon was 12.68%, higher than their national vote of 11.39%.  Only about 10% of those Greens votes (or about 1% of the total vote) appear to have leaked to the successful CLP candidate Natasha Griggs, which isn’t an unusually large preference leakage.  Nevertheless, with a margin on the current count between Griggs and Hale of around 2,500 votes it’s not insignificant.  It’s reasonable to hypothesise that the high Greens vote flowed in part from the ALP’s abandonment of its Emission Trading Scheme initiative but also from more local factors including Labor’s breach of an election promise relating to a proposed nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station near Tennant Creek, and perhaps also the Damian Hale domestic violence allegations.

Overall, however, the fact that the anti-Labor swing in Solomon was only a little higher than the national average suggests that none of these specific factors were overwhelmingly important.  It’s possible that public opinion about Labor’s resource rent tax was more important than any of the specific local factors discussed above.  The NT is after all a resource state along with Queensland and Western Australia, albeit without any coal mines and not much iron ore.  On the other hand, the disparity in two party preferred swing between Queensland and Western Australia might suggest that factors other than the mining tax were predominant in the states which registered anti-Labor swings.  In Queensland the anti-Labor swing was a massive 5.15% while in WA it was just 1.79%.  As I mused the other day, it rather suggests that the unpopularity of the relevant state or territory governments may be more important than anything else.  In WA Labor has already received its just desserts whereas in NSW (anti-Labor swing of 4.09%) the voters are waiting with the proverbial baseball bats to deliver a richly merited fate to the Keneally government, and they warmed up by delivering a few hefty wacks to federal Labor candidates in the meantime.  In Queensland and the NT the respective state ALP governments were re-elected only 18 months-2 years ago, comfortably in the case of Anna Bligh’s government but by the narrowest margin in the case of the NT’s Henderson regime.  Both governments have had a fairly rough passage since then and have engendered significant voter displeasure.  In Queensland that was probably compounded by greater voter anger at the manner of fellow Queenslander Kevin Rudd’s removal as PM.

In summary, it’s difficult to draw any conclusive messages from the Solomon result in the absence of reliable exit polling or other research.  Incidentally, do any Troppo readers know if exit polling was done in Solomon?

Turning to the seat of Lingiari (essentially the whole of the NT outside Darwin and Palmerston) the results are even more fascinating.  Lingiari was a story in two contrasting parts.  Modest but respectable swings TOWARDS Labor in the towns but huge swings AGAINST Labor in remote communities, the net effect of which is that Snowdon now holds Lingiari on a margin of just 4.25%!!!! Snowdon previously held it with a margin of more than 11% and has experienced a net anti-Labor swing of about 6.5%.  However Alice Springs and indeed all Lingiari town booths except Tennant Creek (where Labor’s nuclear waste dump sellout no doubt explains the anti-Labor swing)) recorded fairly strong swings in favour of Labor’s Warren Snowdon.  Alice Springs, historically not strong Labor territory, voted 56.27% FOR Snowdon, while Katherine booths (previously hostile country for the ALP) still went slightly in favour of the CLP but recorded a pro-Labor swing of around 5%.  The mining townships of Jabiru and Nhulunbuy recorded their usual strong ALP vote of more than 60%. On the other hand, nearly all mobile/remote polling teams recorded HUGE swings of between 20 and 60% AGAINST Snowdon and the ALP.  Fully six of the 22 mobile teams actually recorded a net pro-CLP vote, something that to the best of my recollection has never happened before in my 25 years observing NT politics.  It looks like the Abbott DVO factor rebounded strongly against Abbott/CLP and in favour of Snowdon in the towns, but that people in remote Aboriginal communities didn’t give a rats about it (and possibly didn’t even know).  Given the massive endemic violence levels in most remote communities, it’s hardly surprising that Abbott’s record of “minor” domestic violence didn’t count against him there.

Of course, the remarkable results in Lingiari’s mobile booths need explaining.  I doubt that it’s merely the fact that Leo Abbott was an Aboriginal candidate in a predominantly Aboriginal seat.  The CLP has tried running an Aboriginal candidate in Lingiari before (Maisie Austln in 2004) with no obvious success, and has been equally unsuccessful in various similar attempts in bush seats in NT elections.  I suspect that Labor’s continuing prosecution of the Coalition’s Intervention policies, especially income management, may well have been a factor.  Even though most Aboriginal people are well aware that the Intervention was a Howard government creation, there is significant resentment that Labor has seen fit to continue and even extend it.

Another, and possibly even more important, factor may well be the impact of the new system of shire councils implemented by the NT Labor government with the encouragement of federal Minister Macklin.  The previous small local councils in each remote community have been amalgamated into much larger regional.shire councils.  While the shire councils implementation has been somewhat botched, I doubt that we’re witnessing righteous indignation about this on the part of indigenous Territorians.  Sadly, I suspect that the real reason is far more negative.  Many if not most remote indigenous communities are organised around entrenched networks of patronage, influence, nepotism and even outright corruption.  Influential families and individuals enjoyed great power and influence as a result of their effective control of local councils and their associated enterprises.  In several communities with which I gained close familiarity during some 20 years as a NT lawyer, powerful local indigenous leaders appeared to take it in turns to plunder the assets of the local council or associated enterprises, sometimes interspersed with equally rapacious behaviour by employed “white” managers.

Most of these perks and privileges have disappeared with the advent of larger shire councils.  The former beneficiaries, the most influential people in their communities, are very angry with the Labor Party.  It is this aspect of the federal election result that must be causing greatest concern to NT Labor strategists.  If something isn’t done about it they are almost certain to lose bush seats at the next NT election due in just under 2 years.  As a minority regime already (holding just 12 of the 25 seats in the NT Legislative Assembly), the Henderson government can’t afford to lose even a single seat.  But how would they plausibly unwind the shire councils initiative, when the real reason would be to win back Labor support by facilitating a resumption of networks of patronage and corruption?!  An enquiry by a “suitably” qualified expert who ends up recommending restoration of local autonomy and genuine grassroots “self-determination”?  Perhaps I’m being too cynical by half, but if you see the NT government laying the groundwork for changes to shire councils you’ll know the real reason it’s happening.

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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13 years ago

the other interesting factor was the 12.6% Greens votes by the Indigenous candidate Barabara Ward running as far as I can discern from here on an anti NTER platform.

Ken were you looking at the 2PP vote for Snowdon in Alice Springs? How much of that was a Green vote? I didn’t have a detailed look but noted that Barbara polled 22% in one of the alice S[prings booth

11 years ago

I read your response to Antony Green’s NT Electoral Analysis with some interest and some scepticism. Although Im not bolted on to either party – since I see both as somewhat behind the times – I think you missed the anti-Labor feeling entrenched in the electorate and best reflected in the numbers of Anti ALP comments in places like the NT News especially the online comments section which is less edited. Although special interest groups like university academics, some of the legal profession and threatened public servants have an entrenched bias towards keeping the ALP in office, the wider community of small business, tradies and generally working people dont have the same affinity for the ALP. The CLP in contrast stayed in power for such a long period because it was perceived they were generally looking after Territorians, a perception the ALP just hasnt managed to create despite several years in office. Given the very marginal hold the ALP has at present and the historically large swings that territory elections are noted for it wont take much anti labor sentiment for the balance of power to fall to the CLP. The numbers after all are what decide the result and we do have one vote-one value to a large degree. Personally I don’t see the rise of the CLP as a desirable result since most of the nation builders in the old CLP have long since left government influence to make private wealth for themselves and are no longer motivated. What we are left with are the barking dogs of the right wing not dissimilar to Jeff Kennets fanatical fanboys in the Victorian years. Electoral reality appears to be favoring a change of office purely based on the political science and I bleive this is what Antony Green was alluding to.