Was the NT election outcome a shockwave or a regional ripple?

Terry Mills has been sworn in as new chief minister of the Northern Territory. AAP Image

The recent Northern Territory election attracted an unusual amount of media attention amongst the “politically informed public”, especially in the south-eastern states of Australia. Media reporting saw it as a historic shift in Aboriginal support away from Labor, and it was.

In the bush seats, swings to the Country Liberals’ (CLP) Aboriginal candidates ranged from about 16% to Alison Anderson’s nominal swing of 34%, (the CLP did not stand a candidate against her in the previous election when she was Labor). Territory Labor painted the defeat as a vote against the Brough-Howard Federal Emergency Response (the “Intervention”) of 2007 and Federal Labor’s continuation of that policy package as the “Stronger Futures” policy. A counter-view formed in the NT media claimed it was the NT government’s forcible amalgamation of the small Aboriginal Community Governments, into the so-called “super shires”, that alienated the Aboriginal vote from Labor.

The reality is more nuanced than this simple dichotomy allows. For a start, at least two of the CLP candidates – Anderson and Price - were strong supporters of the Intervention. Bess Price, in Stuart, was even slated for this.

There were three reasons for NT Labor’s defeat and they all hold implications for the next federal election.

First, Labor treated the Aboriginal communities unjustly. On coming into office in 2001 the ALP inherited a system where general purpose horizontal equalisation grants to the NT from the Commonwealth (the GST disbursement) were redistributed to the benefit principally of the “whitefella” residents of Darwin. Having surprised themselves by winning the supposedly crucial seats of Darwin’s northern suburbs, Labor continued this system. This, coupled with Clare Martin’s smooth appeal, paid a dividend with the Labor landslide in the 2005 election. This inequity became internalised.

An example of this inequity in process is earlier this year. ERA, the company that owns the Jabiru uranium mine, gave the NT 1,000 surplus concrete culverts. The NT Government spends about two thirds of its Commonwealth roads monies on roads; the surplus goes to boat ramps for recreational fishers, subsidised AFL matches, the V8 Super Cars, and so on (Darwin circuses rather than Aboriginal bread). These culverts should have been a welcome capital input to roads works in the bush.

Instead, the NT spent $1.5m putting these culverts into the sea to form an artificial reef for the recreational fishers of Darwin’s northern suburbs. This seemed self-evidently smart – ie northern suburbs - politics for NT Labor, eventually Aboriginal people in the bush communities noticed and drew the obvious conclusion as to why their roads and services were under-funded. Discontent simmered. The shires issue was emblematic rather than causal. Unless the Federal Government recognises and corrects this perversion of social justice, it will lose support in remote Aboriginal communities.

Second, NT Labor put Aborigines in a mould. They were supposedly rusted-on Labor voters because the CLP governments of the 1980s and 90s attacked land rights. So Aborigines could be ignored or patronised. The possibility that, like other Australians, Aborigines could become instrumentalist and vote for the party that best suited their interests was not entertained or even imagined.

But the major reason Labor lost was that the CLP pursued a canny strategy for the bush. Credit for this must go to Alison Anderson and the CLP leader Terry Mills. When Anderson left the Labor Party in 2010 she initially sat in the Legislative Assembly as an independent. She was evaluating the possibilities. Anderson did a deal with Mills that if the CLP would allow the communities, rather than the party machine, to select the candidates and would listen to the communities, then she would join the CLP. Labor was caught napping. Their Aboriginal candidates were pre-selected by the party machinery; they were Darwin-focused and unable or unwilling to challenge the fiscal status quo.

No matter what the reasoning was for the shift to the CLP, the question that needs to be answered now is what are the federal implications of this sea change in NT politics?

On the NT election figures, Labor would lose the seat of Lingiari in the next federal election. But that is not necessarily certain. If federal Labor learns the lesson that Aborigines are sick of being treated like errant children and want to be properly consulted and allowed to participate in determining their future then the situation becomes more fluid. Terry Mills wisely allowed Aboriginal communities to choose their own candidates.

Can Minister Macklin (and her bureaucrats) actually listen to Aboriginal communities? They are not doing so now.

The Aboriginal vote for the CLP was a vote for change and recognition. If federal Labor does not recognise that, then there will be federal electoral consequences. What happens to Labor’s claim to the high moral ground in Aboriginal affairs if the Aboriginal communities of remote bush Australia vote for Abbott?