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State of the states: how local politics in the Northern Territory could muddy the federal vote

Solomon MP Natasha Griggs holds one of the most marginal Coalition seats, so will be hoping for more prime ministerial visits – with funding attached. AAP/Lyndon Mechielsen

State of the states: how local politics in the Northern Territory could muddy the federal vote

Ahead of polling day on July 2, our State of the states series takes stock of the key issues, seats and policies affecting the vote in each of Australia’s states and territories.


The Northern Territory is but a petite player in federal politics. It has only two lower house MPs and two senators, the fewest of any of Australia’s jurisdictions.

But NT politics is never dull, with two headline-grabbing resignations during the federal campaign so far: one involving a local MP, the other a Labor senator.

Last weekend, Territory Sports Minister and Assistant Treasurer Nathan Barrett resigned from cabinet and said he would quit politics, after The NT News revealed the married father of three had sent videos of himself engaged in a sex act to a constituent. It was the latest hit to Adam Giles’ Country Liberal Party (CLP) government.

Last month, Labor was left scrambling to find a new candidate, two weeks into the official campaign, after senator Nova Peris’s sudden resignation. Her unexpected departure followed news that she was among the front-runners for a job with the AFL.

But the departure of Peris, who wasn’t that popular, is unlikely to make much difference to the NT senate result. Needing only 33% (plus one) of the two-party preferred vote, both major parties are virtually guaranteed a senator each: CLP senator and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and new Labor candidate, former NT minister and journalist Malarndirri McCarthy. That means the only real contest is for the two lower house seats, Solomon and Lingiari.

What makes the election here different from the rest of Australia is that an NT election will be held just eight weeks after the federal poll. So the two elections have become closer than should be normal in terms of significant issues.

Key issues in the NT’s two lower house seats

In some respects the Territory mirrors the national election contest. Solomon, comprising the adjacent cities of Darwin and Palmerston, is one of the Coalition’s most marginal seats nationally. And the issues that matter are much the same as for the rest of Australia.

For example, the Coalition’s policy of keeping existing negative-gearing rules for residential property has a deal of support in Darwin. Here, senior public servants and businessmen traditionally invest for their retirement in housing elsewhere, mostly in Queensland.

The NT government is spending a lot of infrastructure money in Palmerston, such as for a new hospital. This is mostly paid for by the federal government, so for this election it is a Coalition “sweetener”; for the NT election on August 27, it will become an NT government initiative.

I predict a Labor gain in Solomon. Current CLP member Natasha Griggs is once again up against Labor’s Luke Gosling. In the last election, Gosling managed to secure a small swing to his party and almost took the seat, despite the national landslide to the Abbott Coalition.

Griggs’ hopes of re-election are also undermined by the minor parties and independents, which – aside from the Greens and some independents – mostly comprise people from her side of politics. The resulting leakage of preferences will damage the Coalition’s chances.

In Lingiari, Labor warhorse Warren Snowdon – the member for most of the past 30 years – will probably win the seat for one last time. He is a deft campaigner in Aboriginal communities. During the last election he won them on the threat to their child payments of Abbott’s childcare payment scheme. His returning CLP opponent is Tina MacFarlane, who is best known in the Mataranka-Roper area.

Snowdon looks likely to be aided by a reduced vote for the CLP in Darwin and Alice Springs. The only sleeper issue in Lingiari is a record low enrolment, which will affect the Aboriginal communities’ vote.

Labor leader Bill Shorten should be fairly confident of keeping Warren Snowdon as his right-hand man in the NT. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Back-to-back polls make it harder for the CLP

Pundits, apparatchiks and political scientists have long wondered about the relationship between federal and state issues in elections. A hopeful truism is that the voters are sensible enough to differentiate between the issues at both levels. For the NT in this federal election, I am not so sure that will hold.

On June 6, The NT News reported on an opinion poll ahead of the August 27 Territory election, which showed much-lower-than-usual votes for both the CLP and Labor (CLP 28%, ALP 24%).

The significance of this is that, if accurate, Labor’s vote has declined by a third, but the CLP vote is halved from traditional levels. According to the survey, the ex-deputy chief minister and former CLP member turned independent Robyn Lambley had a net approval rating of 40% in Alice Springs.

That poll also showed a larger-than-usual primary vote for small parties and independents ahead of the Territory poll – though not for the Greens, whose support appears to be declining in tandem with the majors. Some of these independents, including the new 1 Territory Party, are splinters on the right. They will attract normally CLP voters, but may not return preferences to the CLP. 1 Territory may even out-poll the Greens.

The Territory’s CLP government is unpopular for a variety of reasons. In 2013, it overthrew the chief minister, Terry Mills, who had brought it to power after only four months in office. Abbott-like, the government introduced an ineffective post-election horror budget. It lost most of its Aboriginal members, who are now (bar one) independent MLAs.

The parliamentary party then tried to overthrow the present chief minister, Adam Giles, but failed because he refused to resign. Pure vaudeville!

Thousands of US Marines are regularly based in Darwin. U.S. Pacific Command/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The government has privatised the Territory Insurance Office and leased Darwin’s port for 99 years to a Chinese company with links to the People’s Liberation Army. The Darwin port decision set off alarm bells among a number of defence analysts, and left former United States deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage “stunned”.

The government also tried to sack the present Speaker, Kezia Purick, who is now an independent and leading a popular revolt against the CLP over rural planning issues.

Some of these matters will surely figure in the federal election.

Looking beyond the federal election, it’s also important to note that the Territory’s population is stagnant: emigration is only just being covered by natural increase and overseas immigration. The economy is expected to worsen next year, exacerbating out-migration. That means that in the next federal redistribution, the NT is likely to lose a lower house seat and become a single electorate, as it has been in the past.

So, even if it wins both seats at this federal election, Labor is likely to lose at least one seat at the next.


This is the last piece in our State of the states series. Catch up on others.