Bush Seats Grant Libs Victory In NT

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The Country Liberal Party has won the favour of Northern Territorians through law and order policies in town centres and promises of better representation out bush. After 11 years in Opposition, CLP leader Terry Mills has proven that all 25 territory seats matter, busting the longstanding myth that NT elections start and end in the northern seats of Darwin.

All eyes were on the first round of counting on Saturday as little to no pre-polling was available in the election lead-up for small electorates of fewer than 5000 voters. There was a clear divide in opinion between political analysts within the Territory and outsiders, with the latter rightfully predicting a change in government. Perhaps it was a case of forest-for-the-trees, but local pollsters believed Labor would reclaim victory with its "if it isn’t broke don’t fix it" campaign. After all, economic growth and employment in the Territory are among the highest across the country.

Even the NT News’ predictions conflicted those of its News Ltd counterpart, The Australian, whose editorial declared "enough is enough" after its newly appointed NT correspondent Amos Aikman exposed the shortcomings of its Indigenous affairs policies in the election lead-up. The NT News said Labor deserved another term so long as independent Gerry Wood retained the balance of power.

But after several hours of counting, Labor leader Paul Henderson announced his defeat after five years in office. Speculation has already stirred as to whether Henderson will run for the Darwin seat of Solomon in next year’s federal election. He polled well in his Wanguri electorate at 57 per cent in a two-horse race on Saturday, but the ABC is projecting a 5.3 per cent swing to the CLP, saying it is likely to gain bush seats Arafura, Daly and Arnhem.

Arnhem was previously held by former Local Government Minister Malarndirri McCarthy, who was grilled earlier this year after a financial audit (pdf) exposed  problems in local government bodies out bush known as super shires. CLP candidate for Stuart, Warlpiri woman Bess Price, said Indigenous people were unhappy with the shires — which oversee multiple communities under in each district — and blamed them for consuming the sparse amount of jobs out bush.

A community leader from former Catholic Mission southeast of Alice Springs, Santa Teresa, once told me he believed shires favoured communities that received mining royalties. And, while Price has received backlash from the mainstream media over a recent attack on NGO Amnesty International, her 2 per cent two-party preferred lead over Labor’s Stuart incumbent Karl Hampton shows bush voters feel differently. Price is sitting on 51 per cent of the vote after only 51.7 per cent has been counted. Counting could conclude soon, as that figure is nearing the sad 52.8 per cent turnout in the last NT election in 2008.

If Price wins it’s unlikely to be a sign that bush constituents are trying to punish Labor for extending the Intervention legislation for another 10 years through Stronger Futures. She is a strong supporter of the Howard Government’s 2007 Intervention, backing schemes such as quarantining welfare payments in Indigenous communities and town camps. In fact, her party has announced it would work with Federal Labor to abide by the legislation, saying a Territory Government is powerless to scrap it.

In contrast, Labor NT bush candidates have been outspoken against Stronger Futures, further keeping their distance from the Federal Labor brand. Labor’s Namatjira candidate Des Rogers said in a television campaign ad the Intervention "is finished", according to his party. Stuart incumbent and Minister for Central Australia Karl Hampton — Price’s nephew — is also opposed to the legislation.

The swing against Labor appears to boil down to each individual candidate’s popularity, not their party. That or bush tucker, as former CLP Member for MacDonnell John Elferink discovered in the 2001 NT election.

One good example is the Member for Namatjira, Alison Anderson. She defected from the Labor party in 2009 to run with the CLP this year. While Labor members are still howling over her break from the party, Anderson’s 69.2 per cent TPP vote shows she’s popular, no matter which team she stands with. "People vote for me," she said at the CLP’s election party in Alice Springs on the weekend. "They don’t know Des." Price has made similar statements about trust and interaction with candidates being more important to voters than policies.

Whispers of dirty politics being played out bush have also emerged. First Nations Namatjira candidate and country music singer Warren H. Williams blew the whistle on his opponents’ "cruel in-your-face tactics" to Fairfax journalist Russell Skelton. Williams refused to name names. An official complaint was also lodged by Labor MP Warren Snowdon’s electorate officer Jenny Pender against Alison Anderson but the NT Electoral Commission said the matter had been resolved between the major parties.

The three seats in Alice Springs have swung a slight 0.8 per cent to Labor, making the Country Liberal birthplace an easy win for the new government, which gained 70.7 per cent TPP. CLP Leader Terry Mills recently brought the Darwin media pack to town on his "Whistle Stop" tour through regional NT:

"Yesterday I had my back to the Arafura sea and signed a contract with the families of the Northern Territory, and I said that tomorrow I will be in the Centre. That is to demonstrate our commitment to all Territorians and, especially, to the Centre,” he told the team of reporters from Channel 9, the NT News and ABC Darwin.

His trip followed an underwhelming appearance from Paul Henderson. The only people paying attention to his Central Australia announcements were a handful of local media. Whether this indicated Mills ran a more media-savvy campaign, or was a sign he was tipped to win, is hard to say.

After declaring victory, it will be interesting to see whether the CLP can keep its promise of returning the budget to surplus whilst delivering policies Treasury said will break the bank by $100 million. Big ticket policies include two "prison farm" correctional rehabilitation centres at Katherine and Central Australia, costing $60,000 in capital costs and $40,000 recurrent costs for four years. Another standout policy is the "one punch" homicide law which holds a maximum of 16 years jail sentence. NT Criminal Law Association president Russell Goldflam pointed out to me recently that the sentence is ironically far less than manslaughter, which carries a maximum of life.

The CLP said it would save millions by culling "Labor’s spin doctors", following the former government’s attempts to silence local media weeks before the election. But talk of cutting into the public sector has the Community and Public Sector Union nervous the CLP will follow Queensland’s LNP Premier Campbell Newman, who has slashed around 20,000 jobs. The CLP has denied it would reduce jobs in the public sector, which contributes about 25 per cent of the NT’s economy.

A severe lack of affordable housing in the Territory and fears about the carbon price impacting on freight costs in the remote region were also live issues, as were fears of a recent attack by smaller states on the NT’s GST slice.

It will also be interesting to see how Mills plans to unite the Territory; 1 per cent of the nation’s population over more than 1.3 million square kilometres. Unity could also be disrupted if Mills’ leadership is challenged once again by controversial CLP Member for Fong Lim David Tollner, whose vote was last counted at 55 per cent.

While the voter turnout in the bush will determine how strongly regional Indigenous Territorians will be represented, this election has proven a vote in the bush is worth two in the hand.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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