The Northern Territory: A COVID-19 election

By Professor Rolf Gerritsen
of the Northern Institute, Charles Darwin University

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In a sense, the current NT Legislative Assembly elections will be decided around events that occurred seven months after the triumphant victory of the Country Liberal Party (CLP) in 2012. The CLP, then led by Terry Mills, had won that election, to general surprise.

The key to their victory was that they overturned some 35 years of Aboriginal voters' support for Labor and secured their majority via winning the “bush” seats dominated by the Aboriginal vote. However, the “good ole boys” of the CLP – Adam Giles and Dave Tollner – soon overthrew Mills and a period of chaos ensued, with ministerial changes, leadership challenges and general mayhem within the government. Aboriginal support for the government rapidly dissipated. Mills nurtured a grudge and returned to the Assembly in the 2016 election and formed a third party, the Territory Alliance. This party, labelled by its leader as a “centrist” party, contained an unusual mixture of former CLP voters dissatisfied with the way that party was run, plus idealists – aka “ordinary people” (like university lecturers)  - who wanted us all to discuss our problems and reach agreement on how to solve them. The Alliance gained support.

Earlier this year, a Member of the Legislative Assembly's retirement led to a by-election for Johnstone, a seat in the Darwin-Palmerston metropolitan area that decides most elections in the NT. Labor had an attractive candidate, former Richmond star footballer Joel Bowden, and was expected to win. To some surprise Labor suffered an adverse swing of about 15% on the primary vote (down to about 28%). The Alliance came second with 22% and the CLP a dismal third with only 16%. Animus to Mills had led the CLP to preference Labor ahead of the Alliance. So Labor won the seat (on 51% in two-party-preferred terms, with 47% of CLP preferences) but the diminution of the CLP primary vote suggests that many of their usual supporters voted Alliance. Some probably out of disgust with the preference direction to Labor.

Coronavirus has turned the tide

There were two takeaways from that by-election. For the CLP, opportunist-cum-tactical favouring of traditional enemy, Labor, was not acceptable to its voting public. For the media and the “chatterariat”, it was that Labor was unpopular.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Like all other First Ministers in Australia’s political jurisdictions, the Chief Minister Michael Gunner presented himself as the Territory's saviour from Covid-19 quite successfully. Thus Labor had reason to approach the election confident that they would be returned, even if with a slightly reduced margin.

And so it seemed for the first three weeks of the campaign. The new CLP leader, Lia Finochiaro, only in her second term in the Assembly, stumbled in the media Leaders’ Debate (for example, she didn’t know the difference between conventional and unconventional – fracked – natural gas). But Finochiaro has determinedly regathered herself and has run a credible campaign.

It is clear that, in the last fortnight, CLP support has risen. Probably mostly at the expense of Territory Alliance. The CLP seems to have overcome a money shortage and regained the support of much of the business community. They have decided to preference the Alliance, which has, paradoxically, benefited the CLP more than the Alliance. So this is a real election and not a walkover.

How will it end up?

Because the NT is such a small jurisdiction of only about 145, 000 voters spread over 25 electorates, rarely do media or interest groups publicly publish opinion polls. The parties obviously do their own private polling but we "pundits" are reliant on the betting markets. These suggest that that the Labor government will be re-elected with 14 seats - a comfortable majority in an Assembly of 25 members.

Almost a third of the Territory's population is Aboriginal. Last week the NT Electoral Commissioner noted that the Aboriginal voting rate, as revealed from the mobile polling booths conducted by the Commission over the past few weeks, had slumped from around 78% in the last Federal election to below 50% in most bush booths.

For what it is worth, I would predict that Labor will secure between 12 and 14 seats and that the CLP will get about eight, though possibly up to ten. The Alliance will be lucky to get two and there will be between one and three independents elected.

Banner image: The Northern Territory's Legistative Assembly chamber in Darwin. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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