NT political campaigning under the radar

Gerry Wood

On the surface at least, nothing much has changed since my first two reports on the forthcoming Northern Territory election. The mainstream media campaign is very quiet indeed, even though it’s now less than 5 weeks until polling day.  Almost certainly the parties are saving their money for an ad blitz in the last 3-4 weeks, probably with most concentrated in the last fortnight after the end of the London Olympics. By all accounts both parties are fairly well cashed up. Labor spin doctors make no secret of that claim, while it’s strongly rumoured that the CLP campaign is being heavily bankrolled by eccentric Queensland billionaire Clive Palmer.

However the dearth of MSM coverage certainly doesn’t mean the parties aren’t out there campaigning for all they’re worth.  It’s just that they’re doing it overwhelmingly by “under the radar” targetted direct marketing techniques now typical of modern political campaigning.  Swinging voters in marginal seats are carefully targetted for intensive campaign contact through a combination of doorknock visits, phone canvassing, direct mail, email and SMS.  This contact is largely invisible to the media and other observers and almost by definition impossible for the Electoral Commission to monitor or regulate effectively even if it had the power to do so. These tactics allow the major parties to deliver powerful negative “attack” messages to voters considered most likely to be susceptible to them, without running the risk of alienating safe supporters or galvanising safe voters for one’s opponent.  The Territory’s tiny electorates of less than 4000 voters are ideal for this sort of targetted “under the radar” campaigning.

I was asked by the ABC last week to comment on reports that the ALP was allegedly “push polling” in the suburb of Millner, part of the Labor electorate of Johnston currently held by retiring Minister Dr Chris Burns. The seat has been rendered vulnerable by the loss of Burns’ incumbency so it’s hardly surprising that Labor is fighting hard to retain it.  Incidentally the tactics as reported to me by the ABC didn’t amount to push polling although they were clearly fairly nasty targetted direct “attack” marketing techniques of the type described above.((In the neighbouring seat of Nightcliff (also vulnerable due to the retirement of ALP Speaker Jane Aagaard) the Labor “attack” campaign includes telling swinging voters that green-leaning Independent candidate Dr Stuart Blanch is a fundamentalist Christian who opposes abortion. The Greens achieved 23.7% of the primary vote at the last NT election so Labor clearly sees Blanch as a threat. ~KP))

On the conservative side legendary federal “black arts” guru Mark Textor has apparently been in Darwin for at least a couple of weeks orchestrating the Country Liberals’ campaign, as has the new Queensland wunderkind James McGrath, former Liberal federal deputy director, LNP campaign manager at the recent Queensland state election and advisor to London lord mayor Boris Johnson.  McGrath was also in the news recently in a slightly different context when he nominated (along with Mal Brough) for LNP preselection for the federal seat of Fisher, currently held by beleaguered Speaker Peter Slipper.

It may or may not be coincidental in those circumstances that the major apparent manifestation of CLP “attack” campaigning to date has been a “smear campaign” spreading four year old “sexual harassment” allegations against Darwin rural Independent Gerry Wood, whose vote keeps the minority Labor government in office.

The whispering campaign about Wood has been going on for at least a couple of months to my knowledge.  I heard about it around 6-8 weeks ago, well before it hit the media when Wood himself pre-emptively broke the story on 3 July:

NORTHERN Territory independent MP Gerry Wood says he has informed police of an alleged smear campaign against him from “people who are out to get me”, involving claims he sexually harassed a female staff member.

Mr Wood, who holds considerable power as kingmaker in the Territory’s hung parliament, told The Australian that people he would not identify had entered his office and intimidated him in front of his staff.

As I’m sure the mainstream media knows as well as I do, CLP operatives have been spreading the rumours, so you really would wonder at the point of such denials.

Wood has subsequently expressly claimed that the CLP is behind the smear campaign, while the CLP has denied this and challenged Wood to prove it.  As I’m sure the mainstream media knows as well as I do, CLP operatives have been spreading the rumours, so you really would wonder at the point of such denials.  You’d wonder even more about what point the smear campaign had in the first place.  There was clearly something behind the allegations, because Wood himself was quoted as saying:

When asked whether this was the case and whether he had sexually harassed a female staff member, Mr Wood said: “There are a lot of things that happen to people in their lives . . . a lot of those things have more than one side.

“I have made some mistakes in my life . . . I am not Peter Perfect.”

However these allegations clearly did not involve any form of criminal behaviour nor could they ever have evolved into a hetero version of an Ashby v Slipper civil sexual harassment action because the matter was settled by a binding and confidential agreement between the parties some 3 years ago.

Nor can one imagine that the mere existence of such allegations, even after being touted assiduously around Wood’s electorate (as they clearly were),  would have made any real dent in his margin.  Wood holds the seat of Nelson by a huge margin of 28.7%, so it’s hard to see him coming under any plausible re-election threat, even though some of his more conservative supporters may have been alienated by his decision in 2009 to support the minority Labor regime after former Minister Alison Anderson defected to the cross benches and subsequently the CLP.

The only credible motivation is that the CLP hoped that the sheer unpleasantness of the smear campaign and threat of wider exposure of the allegations would induce Wood to chuck it in and not bother to recontest the seat at all.  Certainly Wood has already qualified for parliamentary superannuation which would give him a lifetime pension of around $85,000 per year if he retired now, but if provoking a “tail between legs” retirement was the objective it appears to have failed:

Mr Wood said the sorts of threats made against him “make you feel like throwing it all in”.

“These people have a grudge for other reasons,” he said. “We will not be intimidated.”

Mr Wood said he would stand on his record at the election, adding: “I simply rely on people who know me.”

1hese targetted “attack” techniques … turn politics into something akin to prolonged bathing in a sewerage pond.

What most concerns me about the scientific refinement and entrenchment of these targetted “attack” techniques is that they turn politics into something akin to prolonged bathing in a sewerage pond, and almost certainly militate against nomination of quality candidates.  Territory politics is full of former teachers, public servants, police and Indigenous bureaucrats, but has almost no other professionals, although Treasurer Delia Lawrie was a journalist which is arguably a profession and the CLP’s John Elferink gained a law degree while actually in politics.  NT politics also has almost no former businesspeople as MLAs, although Gerry Wood was a chook farmer which is arguably a business.

Finally, for those interested in a bit more detail on how modern targetted political campaigning actually works, here’s a good description:

The ‘political purposes’ exclusion in the federal legislation has attracted increasing attention, with some observers expressing concern about increasingly sophisticated profiling, in particular through large-scale multi-electorate databases created by political groups for fundraising and campaigning (including mailshots and polling).

Low-level databases – often drawn from electoral rolls – typically identify voters by electorate, with contact details and basic demographic information such as gender and marital status. Higher-level databases – maintained by party secretariats or commercial specialists – enrich that data by integrating it with public/private information from other databases. Database vendor Aristotle for example sells profiles about 110 million US voters that encompass each voter’s party affiliation, education, ethnicity, occupation, income level, homeowner status, location and spending patterns (eg whether the individual has a history of making charitable or political donations, has purchased particular types of vehicles or is a catalog shopper).

In Australia the major federal political party databases are Electrac (ALP) and Feedback (Coalition). They are based on the Australian Electoral Roll – which under amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 is not available to commercial or non-profit organisations – and are installed across electorate offices to track voters who are in mail, telephone or fax contact with members of Parliament. Much data input involves electorate office staff. It has been claimed that the databases are valuable in identifying swinging voters (up to 30% of voters in marginal seats).

Peter Van Onselen & Wayne Errington in the 2003 Electoral Databases: Big Brother or Democracy Unbound? (PDF ) and 2004Voter Tracking Software: The Dark Side of Technology & Democracy (PDF ) suggest that the federal party secretariats target campaign resources (including telephone polling and direct marketing) at these swinging voters in marginal seats “at the expense of the majority of the electorate”, thereby “skewing democracy” because

the system allows the major parties to treat voters who strongly identify with either major party, particularly against their own, with contempt.

It has subsequently been suggested that the Liberal Party has on-sold to its federal and state candidate databases containing private information about voters, in breach of federal electoral legislation.


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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
11 years ago

With such small electorates NT poitics can becoem very personal.

The Cleaner
The Cleaner
11 years ago

This election will be close. Despite doom & gloom from some ALP insiders that the ‘Gillard factor’ will blow Labor away the biggest concern facing Henderson is the ‘It’s time factor’. Eleven years is a long time in NT politics these days. If Labor wins it will because of Henderson’s ability to associate himself with the booming Top End economy, especially securing the enormous Inpex LNG plant.The CLP’s lacklustre campaign appears to suggest they think they will win no matter how little they do. Conversely Henderson is all energy and announcements and the Labor ‘machine’ is humming with a heavy emphasis on ‘local’ campaigning strategies particularly nightly phone canvassing. Labor is growing increasingly confident that Sanderson will come their way on the basis of the CLP’s incumbent Peter Styles being vulnerable and local school Principal Jodie Green making a big impact on the doors.
The CLP believe that because of the loss of incumbency in the ALP seats of Johnson, Arafura and to a lesser extent Nightcliff they provide their best chances of securing a majority in the 25 seat legislative Assembly. They are pouring resources especially into Johnson and Arafura, but may fail due to preselection of poor candidates.
The ‘smokie’ on the night may be the seat of Namatjira, formerly MacDonnell, held by Alison Anderson. Labor thinks they are a chance there due to Anderson’s decision to run for the CLP this time. In addition high profile minor party candidates may choose to preference the ALP. If that is the case then Ms Anderson’s mercurial political career could come to an end and Labor’s Des Rogers may become a modern day ALP hero and the saviour of the Henderson government.
Tip: ALP 14, CLP 10, Independent 1

11 years ago
Reply to  The Cleaner

I find this a hopelessly optimistic win prediction for the ALP. On my optimum ALP vote prediction I can only muster CLP 12 ALP 10 IND 1 and two doubtful (Daly and Sanderson) Johnston is an unlikely ALP retain and I think is 80% certain to go to CLP. Overall I think CLP scrapes home with 13 seats.

11 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Vowles did nothing wrong by wanting to disclose the information. To some extent Henderson and the ALP strategy made ths situation worse given the embarrassing statement Henderson made a few days earlier about people with violent history being made ineligible to stand (or words to that effect – cant find the exact quote sorry). I think the NT News had no choice but to run with it. It was strategy mistake by the ALP and a head has rolled. Vowles if anything came out of it looking all the better for his desire to be honest.