Hendo’s secret campaign weapons: crocs and dingoes

NT government croc catcher Tommy Nichols

News Ltd polling guru Peter “Mumble” Brent disagrees with my assessment of the likely state of play in the run-up to the NT election on 25 August:

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

His assessment might be right, but there’s no existing public poll to tell us either way and federal and interstate polling doesn’t give us a clear line, despite Brent’s observation that “I do reckon there’ll be a big swing to the Libs in the ACT, for the same reasons as elsewhere.”

Brent’s statement infers that there is a uniformly disastrous polling situation for Labor throughout Australia, but that isn’t borne out by the polls themselves.  Queensland, New South Wales and no doubt Western Australia are all scorched earth for the ALP, as is the federal scene.  However, Victoria, South Australia and no doubt Tasmania present a quite different picture.  Labor is a bit behind in those States but not to a disastrous extent.

The Rann government in South Australia managed to retain government with a 5 seat majority in 2010 despite an 8.4% swing against it and a 2PP vote of just 48.4% against the Coalition’s 51.6%. It did so by dint of a masterful marginal seat strategy:

In the end the Liberal Party missed out because it failed to win Labor’s key marginal seats. Only four seats in the state recorded a swing to Labor. The most significant of these was Labor’s two most marginal seats, Light and Mawson, which swung to Labor rather than fall to the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party also failed to win marginal Hartley and Newland, both of which saw significantly smaller than average swings against Labor.

More relevantly for NT election crystal ball gazing purposes, opinion polling in early April this year indicates that Labor in South Australia has not lost any further ground since 2010 (although it hasn’t improved either):

Five months after taking over from Mike Rann, Newspoll reveals the new Premier Jay Weatherill is winning back core support for state Labor.

Voters overwhelmingly back Mr Weatherill as their preferred premier over Ms Redmond. Once preferences are allocated, the ALP continues to trail the Liberals by four points, 48 per cent to 52 per cent.

Similarly, at the 2010 State election in Victoria the Brumby government suffered a swing of 5.96% and narrowly lost government, finishing with a 2PP vote of 48.4% to the Coalition’s 51.6%.  Again Labor hasn’t lost any further ground since, according to Morgan Research in a poll published only last week.

In other words, Labor isn’t travelling too badly in South Australia, Victoria and (probably) Tasmania.  The question for NT analysis purposes is whether the Territory is more like them or more like the ALP disaster States of NSW and Queensland.  I don’t know the answer to that question any more than Peter Brent does, but my best guess is that we’re more like SA and Victoria.  The Henderson government has a record of quiet competence over the last couple of years, presiding over a prosperous economy with low unemployment.  There have been few if any scandals to “frighten the horses”, in contrast to NSW, Queensland and the Gillard government federally. Hendo’s spin doctors are masters of keeping politics off the front page of the NT News.

It’s much more difficult to “manage” the media cycle in larger States and federally, especially since the development of the Internet and social media have resulted in a need to find fresh content to attract reader eyeballs not just once but multiple times every 24 hours. That’s why Tony Abbott’s tactic of being the boy who cries “wolf” at every conceivable opportunity has been so successful.  Editors and journos know that there isn’t any wolf, but they have a vested interest in giving uncritical coverage to the Coalition’s patently spurious cries of alarm as long as Tony varies the script occasionally by crying “tiger” or “shark” so the punters don’t get bored.

However the outcome for the federal Labor government of this complicity between Abbott and the media, based as it is on convergent interests, is that it creates an ongoing atmosphere of chaos, confusion and seeming incompetence around a government whose actual record on almost any measure is one of remarkable success. Successful government in a political sense has always been about keeping sport and “Hey Martha” stories on the front page and political stories buried away where the average voter doesn’t even notice them, but that’s almost impossible these days at federal level and in the larger States. Abbott’s political genius has been to realise that there are no excesses he can’t get away with as long as he creates colour and movement and keeps feeding the voracious media maw.

By contrast, the Northern Territory media landscape is much more limited and more susceptible to being managed by an incumbent government with vastly greater “spin doctoring” and other resources than its CLP opponents. Somewhat ironically, the Labor spin doctors’ most successful media distraction strategy has been for the government itself to cry “croc” literally rather than “wolf” figuratively. Although the NT News has a notorious predilection for croc stories anyway (because they attract reader eyeballs), it’s no coincidence that there’s been a remarkably constant flow of such stories this year.  Government crocodile catcher Tommy Nichols is Labor’s biggest current media management asset1, along with the Lindy Chamberlain case which kept politics off the front page for most of the last week.

In the weeks to come, the London Olympics will keep politics in the background for much of the official NT campaign period. The Olympics run from 27 July to 12 August and the NT election date is 25 August. The CLP’s prospects of attracting punters’ attention during that period look pretty bleak.  Unless the existing state of the polls has the CLP much further ahead than I suspect is the case, they really should be going flat out right now to foster an Abbott-esque impression of chaos and confusion around the Henderson government.  Whether their failure to do so will enable Labor to “steal” an election as the Rann government managed in South Australia in 2010 remains to be seen, but I suspect it’s a real possibility.


  1. 1. Note the title on the NT News photo of Nichols with croc is “crocs-316” which gives you an idea of just how ubiquitous croc stories are in the local rag.[]

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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Peter Brent
11 years ago

Actually, I also expect SA Labor to take a hiding when its turn comes in 2014. These expectations aren’t based on any current polling; they’re just what I reckon.

Hendo suffered a 10 per cent swing and survived with only about 49 per cent of the 2pp in 2008. He’s already done his (2010) Rann.

11 years ago

The comments on media management in the NT got me thinking about the ACT where the major generator of stories is the Canberra Times, stories which frequently get picked up by ABC 666. While the government has a clear advantage in generating stories, it does not get a totally free run and the media rarely pick up the Opposition lines of attack without asking a few questions. So probably a bit harder for both parties to manage the media to the extent that they would like.

Unlike Peter Brent I do not see a major swing in the offing. The ALP took a hit back in 2008 with a 9.45% swing against them.

The Opposition has had some problems of its own which reflect on the competence of the leader of the Opposition in managing his own office.

The one leaked poll covered only two out of the three electorates and suggested a small swing against the government in one electorate and a swing to the government in the other with the Greens holding their ground