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Adam Giles’ Country Liberal Party expected at least two terms in government in the Northern Territory when it won office in 2012. AAP/Dean Lewins

A moving trainwreck? Why the CLP will be swept from office in the Northern Territory

For the political voyeur, the inevitable defeat of a government is full of interest. Once they have lost the mandate of heaven, declining governments seem also to lose their luck. Stumbles become crises and bureaucratic failures scandals. There is much that is politically salacious to discuss.

This is the case for the Country Liberal Party (CLP) government in the Northern Territory. The CLP faces near-certain defeat at the polls on August 27.

A series of disasters

To general amazement the CLP captured office in 2012 on the back of winning the Aboriginal “bush” vote for the first time since NT self-government in 1978.

In 2012, the CLP swept the “bush” seats and won government. That was because of the leadership of Terry Mills and his partnership with Alison Anderson, initially elected as a Labor MLA in 2005 and the most formidable Aboriginal politician in NT history.

The CLP expected at least two terms in government. That dream is about to turn to dust.

Shortly after securing government, Adam Giles overthrew Mills as CLP leader and chief minister. This was interpreted “down south” as a panic reaction to the unexpected overthrow of Ted Baillieu in Victoria. But it had more to do with some “good old boys” in the parliamentary party seizing upon the inevitable stumbles of a new government and an opportunistic reaction to public hostility to the government setting electricity prices at a level that would maintain an efficient power generation system.

Giles was now chief minister and electricity price increases were reduced. So far so good for the CLP. But it was not to last.

A wave of misadventures rolled over the government. Dave Tollner was forced to resign as treasurer over homophobic comments; he was later reinstated.

The CLP’s Aboriginal women MPs were subject to racist and sexist slurs in the partyroom. Two (including Anderson) of the three left the government and eventually became independents.

The government began to lose public support and goodwill. It privatised government assets, like the Territory Insurance Office. But NT voters were in no mood for economic rationalism.

The government’s support further eroded, particularly when Labor rid itself of an unpopular leader (Delia Lawrie) and replaced her with an electable one (Michael Gunner). Then Mills’ former deputy chief minister, Robyn Lambley, left the government and became an independent. Suddenly, the government had lost its comfortable majority and faced a more contested parliamentary environment.

Its speaker and former deputy leader, Kezia Purick, also left the CLP and became an independent, mostly over planning issues but also irked by the sexism/homophobia of her male colleagues. The government tried to replace her as speaker but failed. This was a portent.

Defections from the CLP’s organisational wing started; a new party, 1 Territory, is contesting this election as a result.

The pace of problems picked up. Sports Minister Nathan Barrett resigned from cabinet in June after sending videos of himself performing a sex act to a constituent. And, in recent weeks, the Young CLP president, Ben Dawson, resigned from the party.

The 2016 campaign

The Don Dale Detention Centre imbroglio has dominated the election campaign. An ABC Four Corners program revealed systemic abuse of children in the NT’s juvenile justice system under both Labor and CLP administrations.

Instant national outrage led to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull initiating a royal commission to investigate the abuse.

Ironically, apart from embarrassing progressive/liberal Territorians, this scandal did not damage the Giles government, which is now campaigning on law-and-order issues – a reliable vote-winner for the CLP. Giles has even had the gall to claim that the program was politically motivated.

To a degree, all these problems were part of an existential conflict within the CLP. The Giles government is of the traditional “good old boys” developmentalist-style of the CLP: a cross between Hansonite hostility to the “other” and Bjelke-Petersen-style state subsidy of the “mates”. But Darwin has changed; the latte drinkers’ population ratio is now similar to that in southern capitals.

Greens voters now exist in the same proportion as in other Australian cities. A new conservative party is required to adjust to these realities. This sociopolitical conflict will play out after the election.

Both parties have campaigned in good pork-barrelling style and have made promises that will be fiscally unaffordable. Ratings agency Moody’s recently downgraded the NT’s credit rating. But the eventual budgetary reckoning can wait.

What to expect

In any case, it seems the content of the policies released is of little consequence; the electors have made up their minds. They are not exactly waiting with baseball bats on their porches but enough of them have made up their minds to sweep the CLP from office.

The CLP’s vote in the urban areas will decline, though not by anywhere near the 20% some polls predict. It will probably lose only one urban seat. The CLP will lose government in the bush. Is this Alison Anderson’s final political impact?

I expect Labor to win back all the bush electorates – Daly, Arnhem, Arafura, Namatjira and Stuart – that it lost at the 2012 election. It will also gain Blain in Palmerston, notwithstanding that Mills is running as an independent. It will form government with 17 seats.

The CLP will retain three seats in Darwin/Palmerston, plus Katherine and Braitling in Alice Springs. So it will be the opposition, with five seats.

There will be three independents: Gerry Wood and Purick in the Darwin rural area and Lambley in Alice Springs.

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