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Disunity is death? The demise of the CLP government in the Northern Territory

Michael Gunner is the NT’s new chief minister following a landslide election win. AAP/Neda Vanovac

Disunity is death? The demise of the CLP government in the Northern Territory

Before Saturday’s Northern Territory election Burt, the psychic crocodile in a popular tourist attraction in Darwin, predicted a Country Liberal Party (CLP) victory. The bookmakers’ odds shifted slightly, with the price on a CLP victory falling from A$12 to A$10. Labor went from $1.01 to $1.03, suggesting the non-credulous punters were in the know.

Supporting predictions of a swing and that opinions had been formed well before the election campaign, a record number of voters had cast their ballots before election day.

In the event, as ever, the online betting agencies were the winners.

Apart from the CLP, the other losers were the sausage sizzlers. Because of a new rule banning handing out how-to-vote cards and advertising within 100 metres of the polling booth, at many booths voters were able to park between the beckoning party faithful and the booth, spelling economic irrelevance for putative sizzlers.

The big winner, of course, was Labor. On the election evening’s counting, the ALP had clearly won 13 seats, a majority in the 25-member Legislative Assembly. The CLP had won only two.

Where it was won

As I predicted, three independents were elected: in the Darwin rural area the veteran Gerry Wood and the Speaker Kezia Purick; and the ex-CLP deputy chief minister, Robyn Lambley, won Araluen, a seat in Alice Springs.

After election night I saw about six seats still in some doubt. ABC psephologist Anthony Green predicted Labor would have a final tally of at least 16, with four seats too close to call.

I suspect the CLP will still win Katherine and Adam Giles’ seat of Braitling in Alice Springs, giving it four members in the assembly. That is because of the new optional preferential voting system.

In Braitling, for example, Giles led the Labor candidate by about 450 votes on first preferences. He was faced with four independents, three unsympathetic to the CLP, plus the Greens. In a conventional election he would lose the seat on preferences.

These four candidates have twice the votes required to elect Labor on a two-party-preferred basis – if their preferences were all distributed. What we don’t know is how many of these ballot papers were not filled out except for a simple “1” for the voter’s preferred independent.

Conversely, in another tight challenge, this effect means Labor may yet win Karama in Darwin from a strong independent, former Labor leader Delia Lawrie. That would give it 18 seats.

Why was the election important?

Apart from a change of government, what is the significance of this election?

It obviously confirms that the NT and the Australian electorates are in a volatile phase. But I see it as an even more transitional election than the 2012 poll.

In 2012 the CLP swept to victory because it won the Aboriginal vote for the first time, picking up five of the six “bush” (regional) seats. In 2016 the Aboriginal vote has returned to Labor, a process evident in voting in Lingiari in the intervening two federal elections.

The return of the Aboriginal vote to Labor is not stable. The new government is going to have to do something serious about reforming bush local government, decentralising it and returning more power to communities. It is also going to have to do something about housing and community affairs.

The growth of Aboriginal assertion was evidenced by the large number of highly credible Aboriginal candidates. One Aboriginal independent in the seat of Nhulunbuy, Yingiya Mark Guyula, obtained 42% of the primary vote and gave Labor deputy leader Lynne Walker a scare.

Guyula is a senior figure in the Yolngu Nations Assembly, which is trying to establish treaty rights with the NT and federal governments. Expect more Aboriginal assertion.

Another factor in this election pointed to Darwin and the NT becoming more socially similar to the rest of Australia. Sexism, leading to the departure from the government of four women MLAs, was one factor in the CLP’s demise.

The CLP must change if it is to renew. Giles blamed “disunity” for the demise of his government. That is one description of the shenanigans that went on, but the CLP was really the victim of new times.

Michael Gunner is the first chief minister born in the NT. That itself is an indicator of the NT’s socio-demographic maturation away from its traditional “frontier” and male-dominated ethos.

Hard choices

And what of the new Labor government?

Gunner did some brave things during the election campaign. He indicated he is going to use natural attrition permanently to reduce the numbers of the overblown NT public service. This is necessary if any semblance of control over the NT’s fiscal position is to be achieved.

He also promised to allow Uber to enter the Darwin market. Privileging future consumers over existing interests – in this case taxi drivers – has not previously been an NT government attribute.

He has promised an ICAC-type body – a direct threat to the “mates” system that characterised the previous CLP government (for example, in the allocation of water licences).

However, Gunner has impending problems. A significant proportion of the community vehemently opposes shale gas fracking. Labor promised a moratorium while it considers the issue. But next year the NT is likely to enter into recession and onshore gas exports are its only likely economic lifeline. Hard choices will have to be made.

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