The Top End Turns


Paul Henderson’s Northern Territory Labor Government has done what the Country Liberal Party couldn’t do during two decades in power – lose seats at a general election.

Saturday’s results were a far cry from three years ago, when, in an extraordinary political feat the newly re-elected NT Labor Government – then fronted by ex-ABC journalist Clare Martin – claimed the seat of Opposition leader Denis Burke. The CLP, the party that held government in the Territory for 27 years until 2001, was left with just four seats in a 25-seat parliament. Labor scooped up 19 seats, while two electorates stayed with conservative independents.

In the aftermath of that crushing defeat, former CLP chief minister Shane Stone told his party that they would have been wiped out if Martin had called the election a year earlier. Under that scenario, the current Opposition leader, Terry Mills, would have gone down in political history alongside the Australian Democrats.

Instead, Mills kept his seat in 2005 and went on to become the saviour of the Country Liberals three years later. The recycled leader, and former school principal, has managed to claw back seven seats for the party.

Labor was declared the winner in the cliffhanger seat of Fannie Bay last night, leaving it with a one seat majority of 13 seats. The Country Liberals romped home with 11 seats. The balance-of-power services of conservative independent and former chicken farmer, Gerry Wood, will not be needed in this term.

The seven-year-old Labor Government has lost six seats in the process. Between 1980 and 2001, the Country Liberals never lost a seat at a general election.

In 2008, the Country Liberals’ plan to impose curfews on kids under 16 did more to excite voters than Labor’s tenuous promise that Japanese oil and gas explorer Inpex might open a liquefied natural gas plant in Darwin. The dire living standards in far-away Aboriginal communities is not a vote-changer in the tropical, marginal seat suburbs where swinging electorates are home to an average of 4800 voters.

The Country Liberals may not have won government this time, but on present counts they appear to have won the primary vote – as they have done at all elections save the last one since Malcolm Fraser granted the Territory self-governance in 1978. This election is the restoration of the natural order.

Seven months ago, the Country Liberals dumped Jodeen Carney as Opposition Leader simply because her Alice Springs electorate was too far away from the marginal seats in Darwin’s northern suburbs. The strategy worked. The Country Liberals claimed the seats of three Top End ministers, and also won back Denis Burke’s old Palmerston-based seat of Brennan – lost three years earlier to a Labor candidate with the same surname: James Burke.

Clare Martin was pushed out of office by her own party in November last year, just days after Kevin Rudd won Labor its first federal election since 1993. Labor would at least have been reassured of maintaining her inner-Darwin seat of Fannie Bay in 2008 if the caucus hadn’t dumped their most electorally successful leader.

Paul Henderson called the election early to capitalise on disunity in the Country Liberals where, up until last week, a replacement Opposition leader was being discussed. But Shane Stone’s advice to his Labor adversaries clearly hasn’t worked. Voters were turned off by an election called a year early.

Historically, Territory voters have forgiven CLP politicians for far worse behaviour. Mick Palmer, who famously took out his false teeth to head-butt a Sunday newspaper journalist at a pub, comfortably held the Darwin electorate of Karama for 14 years.

At this year’s poll, Labor’s Environment Minister Len Kiely lost his northern suburbs seat of Sanderson after the female security guard he harassed at the cricket two years earlier letterbox-dropped his electorate. Her pamphlets explained how a drunken Kiely had boasted of his very long tongue’s ability to bring women happiness.

Sport and Recreation Minister Matthew Bonson, who once made the news for getting into a punch-up at a basketball game, lost the newly created seat of Fong Lim to the Country Liberals’ David Tollner. Tollner had lost his Darwin-based federal seat of Solomon in November.

The CLP lost the red centre seat of Macdonnell in 2005 but this time it chose not to contest the electorate – leaving Alison Anderson to be re-elected unopposed. (Former ABC newsreader Malarndirri McCarthy was also elected unopposed in Arnhem.) Macdonnell’s losing candidate in 2005 John Elferink, who once enticed bush voters with kangaroo tails, resurfaced in 2008 as the Country Liberals’ successful candidate in the cosmopolitan Darwin electorate of Port Darwin, where voters can get their kangaroo grilled at an up-market waterside restaurant.

Paul Henderson’s Labor Government was arguably more competent than Morris Iemma’s dysfunctional team in NSW which still managed to get comfortably re-elected in 2007 despite being in power for 12 years.

Like the Liberals in NSW, Labor is not the natural party of government in the Territory.

Northern Territory voters, who pride themselves on being rugged, frontier-country types are naturally conservative. Labor is not the party of choice for many voters who enjoy a spot of feral pig shooting. Barramundi fishermen worry that native title claims could jeopardise their access to tidal waters. To them, the Country Liberals are still the party that stands up to Aboriginal land councils, even though Terry Mills is much more conciliatory than Shane Stone ever was.

Labor has only won the primary vote once in a Territory election and that was in 2005 when it won a commanding a once-in-a-generation majority. To win back then, Labor had promised to lock up habitual (code: dark-skinned) drunks with the slogan "get treatment or face jail".

Three years ago, CLP stood for Clare’s Labor Party – a term of endearment for a leader who had managed to kick the Opposition leader out of his seat. This time, many of these suburban voters preferred the real law and order team – the Country Liberals – rather than an ALP outfit which talked tough, but not tough enough when it came to that unruly riff-raff on the streets.

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