Northern Territory election preview/crystal ball gaze


The Northern Territory is facing an imminent general election, on 25 August to be precise. We know this because the Henderson Labor government introduced fixed four year terms after rushing to an expedient early election in 2008 only to be punished by the electorate and consigned to unexpected minority government status.

However, although we know the election date we don’t know much else. Political public opinion polls about NT voting intentions are almost never published, so in that sense anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s as to which party is likely to win. The conventional wisdom amongst media political pundits is that Labor is a dead set certainty to lose. That was certainly the view of Peter “Mumble” Brent when he wrote about the NT recently in the Murdoch press, although his basis for that conclusion seems fairly flimsy:

As far as I know there have been no territory-wide voting intentions opinion polls published recently (actually I don’t think I’ve ever seen one) and the current vibe seems to be that Henderson will have difficulty holding office but the opposition is a bit hopeless and a big result is unlikely.

But as the day approaches leaked party polling will presumably point to a very big swing.

The reason I anticipate a landslide is that that’s what happened in New South Wales last year and Queensland this year.

More precisely, it‘s what happened in Queensland. The Northern Territory will be the second jurisdiction to go to its second election since the 2007 federal change of government.

If voters are waiting for Hendo with baseball bats they’re very small ones and very well hidden.

That reasoning sounds glib and rather simple-minded, but it’s just the way I see these things. I can’t help it, it’s how my brain is wired.

Brent ignores the specific State level factors operating in both NSW and Queensland. The NSW government was in such rank and well deserved opprobrium that it was a miracle it survived as long as it did, while Anna Bligh in Queensland was punished for lying about her government’s intention to privatise power utilities (a distinctly uncomfortable comparison for Julia Gillard).  No such factors are operative in the Territory.  Chief Minister Paul Henderson hasn’t (as far as I know) told any major lies or broken any major promises, the economy is ticking along quite nicely, and there is no detectable groundswell of voter hostility. If voters are waiting for Hendo with baseball bats they’re very small ones and very well hidden.

ABC political pundit Antony Green has also just published his initial NT election preview post as part of the launch of his invaluable Northern Territory Votes ABC website. While rather more measured and circumspect than Brent, Green’s conclusion is similar:

Despite presiding over a booming economy that continues to attract major investments in the resources sector, Chief Minister Paul Henderson faces an uphill task to win the election and deliver a fourth term for Labor.

I’m not at all sure I agree, although I concede that Green’s psephological expertise is a lot greater than mine. On the other hand, he doesn’t live here and therefore isn’t privy to the local “vibe” in the same way that keen resident observers are.

Anyway, I take issue with most of Green’s bases for reaching his pessimistic assessment of Labor’s prospects.  I’ll deal with each in turn.

That governments reach their use by date after a decade in office is one of the observed truisms of Australian politics. After three terms and eleven years in office, the Henderson government has reached this turning point in the political cycle, the day when governments run out of credit for past achievements and credible reasons to blame past governments for current problems.

This is one of those truisms that is at best only partly true:

  • The Queensland Labor government was voted out earlier this year after 14 years in office;
  • the Rann SA government won another term in 2010 which will mean it will have been in office for 12 years when it next faces an election under new Premier Jay Weatherall;
  • Victoria’s Labor government lost office somewhat unexpectedly in 2010 after almost exctly 12 years in office; and
  • the NSW government was kicked out in 2011 after ruling for 16 years.

The record certainly suggests that “It’s Time” is a factor, but also that it’s only one of numerous factors and can be overcome by a steady, competent government (a description which clearly fits the Henderson government).

The Northern Territory’s economy may be booming, but the pace of growth is creating its own problems in housing and infrastructure, especially in Darwin. While control over indigenous affairs has largely been clawed back by the Commonwealth in recent years, the on-going social problems in indigenous communities continue to have an impact on Territory politics.

There are unlikely to be many current homeowners queueing up to vote for any party conveying an impression that it will introduce policies aimed at a rapid fall in housing prices.

It’s certainly true that housing prices and rents are very high in Darwin, but that has always been true and there’s no sign that the CLP Opposition has any answers to it. Moreover, like the rest of Australia there have been modest price falls over the last couple of years.  There are unlikely to be many current homeowners queueing up to vote for any party conveying an impression that it will introduce policies aimed at a rapid fall in housing prices.

There are also parallels between the positions of Chief Minister Paul Henderson and Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Like Gillard, Henderson became leader in a surprise move against an elected and popular leader. Just two days after Kevin Rudd won the 2007 federal election, Henderson supplanted Clare Martin as Chief Minister, harnessing internal party dissent that was not well known to the public.

The alleged parallels are glib and almost certainly irrelevant. The NT Labor leadership change occurred more than 4 years ago. Hendo’s Chief Ministership was consolidated long ago. No-one questions its legitimacy publicly or otherwise, perhaps in part because Clare Martin departed politics graciously (at least in public). Unlike Rudd, she didn’t hang around to destabilise and position herself for future leadership runs.  Hendo is popular and privately a sincere and community-minded family man with comfortably conservative views on most things.  He’s effectively a local (coming to the Territory in 1983 – the same year as me) and has the “common touch” which seems to appeal to an overwhelmingly bogan urban electorate. Although his public persona is a bit boof-headed for my own whole-hearted comfort, he lacks Gillard’s nasal tones and seemingly condescending delivery which irritate many people.

Henderson called an early election for August 2008, and in another parallel with Federal politics, campaigned in sound bites that failed to enthuse the electorate. Clare Martin’s handsome majority from 2005 was wiped out, the government returned with a one seat majority achieved through a 78 vote victory in Martin’s formerly safe seat of Fannie Bay. A year later when Alison Anderson resigned from the Labor Party, the Henderson government was reduced to a minority status, forced to negotiate with cross-bench Independent Gerry Wood to stay in office.

Alison Anderson (a toxic loose cannon who defected to the CLP via the cross benches, to the relief of most on the Labor side).

Well yes, but presumably he and his campaign team have learned from that lesson.  Moreover, it’s conceivable that the 2008 result was an unexpected low point from which Labor could reasonably hope to rebound in 2012 (leaving aside the “tarnished Labor brand” factor flowing from the drastic unpopularity of the Gillard government).  The Labor/Wood minority government has been remarkably stable and effective, but for a brief bout of instability a couple of years ago flowing from drastic animosity between Marion Scrymgour (who is retiring at the upcoming election) and Alison Anderson (a toxic loose cannon who defected to the CLP via the cross benches, to the relief of most on the Labor side).

The implicit notion that minority government is necessarily unstable (and the kiss of electoral death) is arguably a product of tunnel vision obsession with the current situation of the Gillard government.  Contemporary pundits seem to forget that the NSW Labor government started as a minority regime in 1995 and consolidated its hold on government to the extent that it ended up ruling for 16 years. The Bracks government in Victoria also started in a minority situation and went on to rule for 12 years.  The Henderson government’s coalition arrangement with Independent Gerry Wood has not led to unstable or weak government, nor did Wood insist that Labor agree to electorally unpalatable measures as the price of his support (in contrast to the carbon price and poker machine pre-commitment promises Gillard was forced to make to cobble together a minority government).

The government has survived in minority for three years, but like Gillard, Henderson has suffered the loss of authority that goes with minority status. While Opposition Leader Terry Mills is no Tony Abbott and the fractious Country Liberal Party has never been as united as the Federal Coalition, the Henderson government has still found itself under pressure throughout its term.

Whether the CLP’s failure to make any headway in the media or Parliament is a result of incompetence or a deliberate “small target” strategy is not clear.

Who said? See the previous paragraph. What parallel universe has Antony Green been observing? The Henderson government has not been put under any observable pressure by the Mills CLP Opposition over the last couple of years.  They didn’t even manage to lay a glove on the government during endless hours of Estimates Committee questioning last week, despite the fact that forward estimates show that the NT Budget will remain in deficit until at least 2014-15.

Whether the CLP’s failure to make any headway in the media or Parliament is a result of incompetence or a deliberate “small target” strategy is not clear.  I suspect it might be a mix of both.  It might also flow in part from the fact that Labor’s “spin doctors” have been extraordinarily successful in taming and suborning the local Murdoch outlet the NT News.  If anything it actually seems to be moderately pro-Labor, a situation that must be the envy of Hendo’s interstate colleagues.

Another link that ties the Gillard and Henderson government’s together is the brand name Labor. In the last two years the Labor Party has lost office in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, the last two defeats by record majorities. In the same period the Gillard Labor government in Canberra has plumbed new depths of political unpopularity.

Well yes, but as I observed above you can make a plausible case that Bligh’s demise and Gillard’s seemingly certain emulation of it flow from specific instances of “JuLIAR” conduct, while the Keneally etc government’s demise in NSW is explained by a sustained record in government that would make Tammany Hall look like a Catholic convent by comparison.  Of course there remains a distinct possibility that their efforts, not to mention those of Tony Abbott in exaggerating and generalising them, have indeed succeeded in tarnishing the Labor “brand” beyond repair. That this is the case at least to some extent (and that it reflects in Labor’s private opinion polling and focus groups) is suggested by the fact that you can’t see the word “Labor” anywhere on most of Hendo’s political posters and advertising we’ve seen to date.

These events down south will not decide the Territory election. The Territory election will be decided by whether voters feel the Henderson government can be trusted with another term in office, and whether the Country Liberal Party has painted itself as a credible alternative. After 11 years of Labor government, is it time for change, or are voters concerned that the change offered can’t be trusted? …

One would suspect that few people are even aware at this stage that a general election is imminent. It’s a lovely dry season and most people have better things to do.

Again “well yes” is about the only reasonable response. Certainly the CLP Opposition manifested quite serious public divisions not all that long ago, and there are still occasional rumblings of discontent, although they’ve mostly managed to keep these under wraps over the last few months.  It’s doubtful that the average punter would have any real impression of disunity in relation to the CLP (or for that matter Labor).  One would suspect that few people are even aware at this stage that a general election is imminent.  It’s a lovely dry season and most people have better things to do.

This is despite the fact that Northern Territory elections are almost always decided by a few hundred voters in the handkerchief sized electorates of Darwin’s northern suburbs. While objectively the state of indigenous welfare is the Northern Territory’s biggest issue, and certainly the issue of greatest national importance, the municipal concerns of Darwin voters and the personal foibles of sitting members will almost certainly decide the result.

Again, well yes.  However, with the noteworthy exception of the seat of Fannie Bay (Clare Martin’s old seat retained in 2008 by new boy Michael Gunner by a margin of just 78 votes), all of Labor’s urban Darwin seats are classified by Antony Green as either safe or very safe.  It rather confirms my earlier proposition that one would normally see the 2008 result as a low water mark for Labor.  All its seats that were held by small margins have already been lost.

However, that argument is complicated by the fact that two Darwin-based sitting Labor members are retiring at the upcoming election; Dr Chris Burns in the northern suburbs seat of Johnston and Speaker Jane Aagard in the beachside seat of Nightcliff (where I live).  Burns holds the mostly working class and aspirational seat of Johnston by a margin of 6.9%, down by over 8% from his previous margin as a result of the 2008 near-debacle.  However, leaving aside a general wipeout should it transpire that the generic Labor brand really is terminally knackered, it’s hard to see Labor not holding onto Johnston.  Incumbency has historically been more powerful in the NT than elsewhere because electorates are so small, but it’s still worth at most 2-3%.  Labor’s candidate is Ken Vowles, a well known and liked local sporting personality and a member of a large local urban Indigenous family.  With Johnston encompassing the suburbs of Millner and Coconut Grove where many urban Indigenous families live, it’s hard to see Vowles losing.  That’s especially so gven that the CLP’s candidate, Jo Sangster, is a previous Territory electoral bridesmaid with a somewhat “silvertail” demeanour not obviously suited to the demographic of Johnston.

In one sense Nightcliff is slightly harder to pick, in that Labor candidate Natasha Fyles doesn’t have Vowles’ high profile persona.  However she’s local born and bred with a strong record in local community affairs, facing a CLP opponent in Kim Loveday who appears to be a fairly recent “blow-in” to the Territory with few local connections and again something of a “silvertail” demeanour.  Moreover, Labor holds Nightcliff on a margin of 10.7%, so again it’s hard to see Labor losing this seat.

On the other hand, the Greens have always done well in Nightcliff.  They will almost certainly field an official candidate again this time, and former Environment Centre Director Dr Stuart Blanch is also standing as an Independent (having failed to gain Greens favour, possibly in part because he committed Green heresy by publicly supporting the Inpex natural gas project).  Two Green-leaning candidates may result in a certain amount of leakage of the Labor vote, but it’s still hard to see Labor losing this seat.

Bush seats could at least in theory be a bigger concern.  As I highlighted in a post on Troppo at the time, federal Labor MHR for Lingiari Warren Snowdon experienced huge swings against him in bush mobile polling booths at the 2010 federal election:

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.

Many if not most remote indigenous communities are organised around entrenched networks of patronage, influence, nepotism and even outright corruption.

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 Austin 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.

I doubt that the Henderson government will be blamed by Aboriginal voters for the federal Intervention policies.  However there is still quite a lot of resentment about the shire councils, and that is a direct NT government responsibility. Even so, just about all Labor’s bush seats are held on huge margins.  In the absence of the sorts of swings Warren Snowdon experienced in 2010 they are unlikely to be at risk.  The one possible exception I can see is the seat of Daly held by Rob Knight.  Not only does he hold it by just 5.8%, but for most of the time since 2008 he has been the Minister for Local Government directly responsible for the deeply unpopular shire councils policy. Daly is a seat to watch.

Nevertheless, my courageous bet at this stage (in a Sir Humphrey Appleby sense) is that the August election will see no change in seats.  Both Labor and the CLP will retain all their existing seats and Gerry Wood will still hold the balance of power. Of course my guess is no more reliable (but also no less) than Antony Green’s or Peter Brent’s.


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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paul walter
paul walter
11 years ago

Why do modern New Labor politicians all look like fish-headed nerds? Another one who immediately sets up an animus, shouldn’t have looked at the photo..

11 years ago

Why do modern New Labor politicians all look like fish-headed nerds?

Inbreeding most likely. The party is so on the nose now that only a family member would touch them.

paul walter
paul walter
11 years ago

Sorry Ken.
A local reason colours my view on them at the moment, to do with developers and parks, where Ilive in Adelaide its a sort of Anna Bligh, Paul Lennon or NSW Right sort of moment. It’s visceral, I have to cool off but at the moment could wring certain necks like chickens. One New Labor incident too many, after too many years of it.
No smiley gravitars this morning.

Peter Brent
11 years ago

My dear Ken,

There’s a big swing a-coming to your Territory, and you have two months (or less, if we get some public polls for once or parties leak theirs) to come up with Reasons. There must be a broken promise or some other breach of trust on which it can be hung. Or perhaps some tectonic plate-shifting “event” between now and then.

The Reasons follow the results.

11 years ago

The person you are thinking of hasn’t been COS for a number of years now, Jacques.

JB Cairns
JB Cairns
11 years ago

do not worry Peter.
Our Ken missed the landslide to the ALP despite living there which was pretty obvious to others living elsewhere.

He miss this landslide as well.

Peter’s reasons are impeccable

11 years ago

I am waiting for Peter’s announcement of a big swing to come in the ACT election in October. If a big swing is good enough for the Northern Territory in August why not in the ACT?

11 years ago
Reply to  Doug

The ACT is populated by public servants who have spent their life on the teat of government. They would still vote Labor even after Gillard personally shot their parents in the face.

Peter Brent
11 years ago


I don’t think so sunshine. You still have two months to come up reasons for the big pro-CLP swing.

Doug, you’re right, I do reckon there’ll be a big swing to the Libs in the ACT, for the same reasons as elsewhere. But given the voting system and the left-leaning electorate it may not be enough to give the Libs (minority) govt.

But it might. There’s probably an even chance of a change of government.

Luke Weyland
Luke Weyland
11 years ago

Time to reject the CLP/Labor Duopoly
Time to reject the hightly discriminatory intervention with its basics card,
the racist laws that make it a crime a an Aboriginal person to have a drink at his/her home.
It is time to re-allow Indigenous people to be taught their own language in class.
Vote Green or vote independant – but put both the CLP and Labor last.