Lingiari: unique, but still a mirror of the broader contest?

Indigenous health minister Warren Snowdon ought to be concerned about the growing disillusionment towards the ALP of Aborigines in his Lingiari electorate. AAP/Dean Lewins

Recently, Lingiari MP and Minister for Indigenous Health and Veterans’ Affairs Warren Snowdon made a big fuss in the local NT media about a A$4,500 grant for a new stove for the ailing RSL club in Alice Springs.

This showed that he is genuinely concerned for his seat. As I will outline below, so he should be.

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For a combination of reasons Lingiari is a unique electorate. It is very large: at 1,347,849 sq kms it comprises 99% of the land area of the NT, excluding only Darwin and Palmerston (which make up the electorate of Solomon). But it is not unique for this reason: the electorate of Durack in Western Australia is larger. Surprisingly, Lingiari has the Christmas and the Cocos-Keeling Islands in the electorate, notwithstanding that these islands are jurisdictionally part of Western Australia.

The electorate also has a very high “churn” amongst the non-Aboriginal population. In any election, about one-third of the non-Aboriginal voters have never voted in Lingiari previously. This makes predictions difficult because we don’t know whether these people still retain the particular attitudes to politics they had when they arrived, or are influenced by local issues.

However, Lingiari is mostly singular amongst federal electorates in its high proportion of Aboriginal voters - more than 40%. This group of voters also comprise most of the 44% of the electorate who do not speak English as a first language at home.

In the past, a large Labor majority of Aboriginal votes has made Lingiari safe for Labor. This has recently changed. In the 2010 Territory Assembly election, the Country Liberal Party (CLP) won five of the seven “bush” seats - three from Labor ministers - as Aboriginal voters systematically shifted their vote to the conservatives for the first time since self-government was introduced to the NT in 1978.

Voting patterns

In 2001, Labor obtained 55.3% of the two-party-preferred (TPP) vote in Lingiari. It increased this margin in 2004 and the Labor vote peaked at 61.2% of the TPP vote at the 2007 election, which saw the return of Labor to office.

Again in sync with national patterns, the Labor vote fell by 7.46% of the TPP vote to 53.7% in 2010, though this was by more than the national average. This presaged the growing disillusionment with Labor in the Aboriginal bush communities as seen in the subsequent NT election in 2012.

We can break Lingiari down into separate voting blocks. Historically, the core Labor voting areas are the remote Aboriginal communities, Nhulunbuy and Tennant Creek (both mining and services towns). The Country Liberals’ main support has come from the towns of Alice Springs and Katherine and the rural southern margins outside Darwin.

However, these patterns are no longer absolutes, as we can see from a comparison between the “typical” 2007 election and the “atypical” 2010 election in the figure below.

We can see here several anomalies from the “usual” pattern of voting. Firstly, there was a huge swing against Labor amongst Aborigines in the bush, here classified as remote mobiles because they have mobile not fixed polling stations.

Yet Labor, unusually, won Alice Springs and had swings to it in Katherine and the Darwin rural area. This was probably because the CLP candidate (Leo Abbott) was embroiled in controversy over a domestic violence order against him. Then-CLP leader Terry Mills tried to remove Abbott but was overridden by the CLP state council, thereby keeping the issue in the spotlight. Presumably as a consequence, Labor won more of the female vote among the non-Aboriginal electorate.

Issues in Lingiari

In a rough sense, voting in Lingiari parallels national voting patterns. The national campaign will therefore be important and many voters will vote on national issues. The problem that Labor has is that none of the local issues that are important in the Lingiari electorate are to the Labor government’s advantage.

The major case in point is Aboriginal affairs. This is usually couched in terms of the NT Intervention, initiated by prime minister John Howard’s government and continued by Labor under the rubric of “Stronger Futures”.

The Labor government has not handled this very complex set of issues well. Those in the Aboriginal community who support the intent of this policy set - including most of the CLP’s Aboriginal Territory Assembly members - lambaste the federal government for the failures of its remote housing program and the overbearing attitudes of the Commonwealth bureaucracy.

The rest of the Aboriginal community (and a good number of “whitefellas”, working for NGOs, parastatal organisations and service delivery agencies) are opposed to its diminution of Aboriginal self-determination. The negatives for Labor of this set of issues will surely be highlighted by Aboriginal Territory Assembly members during the election campaign.

There are minor local issues that may have a marginal effect in the election. Former prime minister Julia Gillard’s “captain’s pick” of former Olympian Nova Peris as Labor’s number one Senate candidate may dilute some ALP members’ enthusiasm for electioneering. The advent of the First Nations party might have a minor anti-Labor effect on the allocation of preferences. Local disputes over the proposed nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station near Tennant Creek may also impact. None of these issues are to Labor’s advantage.

There is lingering anger in much of the community of Lingiari over Labor’s unilateral ban on live cattle exports. This badly affected many Aboriginal-owned cattle stations, so it is a negative in parts of the Aboriginal community as well as amongst non-Aboriginal pastoralists. Recent discussions between Kevin Rudd and Indonesia about the restoration of that trade will not ameliorate that disadvantage for Labor.

Conclusion and prediction

The result in Lingiari will probably be closer than it has ever been since the seat was created for the 2001 election. Labor will suffer a swing against it in Alice Springs and Katherine, possibly of a sufficient margin to lose the seat though that is hard to predict. Ironically, given that Snowdon was one of Gillard’s strongest supporters, the resurrection of Rudd makes Labor’s chances better.

If Rudd maintains his current level of support and Labor manages to win the federal election, then it may just hold on to Lingiari: though I think it will not unless it restores its Aboriginal vote.