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Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner at a press conference
Aaron Bunch/AAP

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner resigns. Could this help Labor in the federal election?

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner has resigned suddenly, making the announcement just after delivering the NT budget in parliament. He will stay on as a backbencher.

“My head and my heart are no longer here, they are at home,” said Gunner, who is the Labor leader and had recently celebrated the birth of his second child.

“I have grappled with this decision for some weeks and welcoming little Nash into the world sealed the deal.”

The news initially came as a surprise to me. But looking closely at the forward estimates in today’s budget papers, it became clear he’s planned it for at least a month. The forward estimates promise a return to surplus earlier than most people thought; given the years of deep deficit, I thought that seems highly improbable.

But he wants to be remembered for a budget that suggests economic and fiscal recovery is underway. He won government in 2016 promising the elimination of the budget deficit. What he has in mind is a legacy budget.

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Federal implications: the seat of Lingiari

Gunner’s resignation may have federal election implications in the division of Lingiari, which covers most of the Northern Territory.

The seat is in play due to the resignation of Labor’s Warren Snowden, who has held the seat since 2001.

Labor’s opponent is the Country Liberal Party (known as the CLP), which has been running hard on crime in its federal election campaign. Crime is usually a state issue but the CLP aimed to link crime rates with Gunner’s legacy as chief minister, and by association, Labor federally.

So with Gunner stepping down, it takes the wind out of the CLP’s sails in terms of its capacity to associate crime rates with Labor in the federal election campaign. It may end up helping Labor retain the seat.

A cunning and resolute politician

The first Territory-born chief minister, Gunner is a resolute and cunning politician.

He’s been the subject of vituperative attacks in the media, but I believe him when he says he wants to spend more time with his family. A lot of politicians say that, but in his case the idea has more credibility than usual. He has an impeccable personal behaviour record, so the stated reason for his resignation makes sense. It’s not covering for something else.

His wife is an ABC journalist and in his resignation press conference he mentioned he’s looking forward to supporting her in the way she has supported him.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner touring Howard Springs quarantine facility
Gunner’s resignation may help federal Labor retain the seat of Lingiari. Charlie Bliss/AAP

Gunner is member for the state seat of Fannie Bay and was first elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in August 2008.

As well as chief minister, he was – until today – treasurer. He took over that role after Nicole Manison, who is currently deputy chief minister and will probably be the next leader.

As treasurer he faced a real challenge managing the NT’s spiralling deficit, which revealed constrained opportunities to raise revenue along with large, recurrent expenditure commitments.

A mixed legacy

When he was elected chief minister in 2016, Gunner restored stable government after the chaos of leadership under former CLP chief minister Adam Giles. He won a second term in the 2020 election, the first of the successful “COVID election” first ministers.

But I can’t say he will be remembered for much.

We have had lots of rhetoric from the Gunner government about Indigenous housing and conditions, but not a lot of action. He was vocal on health and on crime but we haven’t seen great improvements in those areas.

He lifted a moratorium on fracking, which earned him the ire of environmentalists, and he was increasingly at odds with the police force, who were angry at his defence of the police commissioner over the Zachary Rolfe case.

So he will not be fondly remembered by key constituencies like police, conservationists and, to a degree, older people living in urban areas who are angry about crime rates being high.

But his departure will help Labor in Lingiari; it removes a lightning rod for dissatisfaction.

Correction: Michael Gunner was elected Chief Minister of the Northern Territory in 2016, not 2015 as previously stated.

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