Today’s lesson in electoral history takes us all the way to the top: to Darwin, focal point of the electorate of Solomon, held by David Tollner of the Country Liberal Party on a margin of 2.8 per cent. The top end’s history of federal parliamentary representation goes back to the creation of the Northern Territory electorate in 1922, but the seat did not come with full voting rights in parliament until 1968. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was granted shortly after it fell to Sam Calder of the Country Party after a long period of Labor control. Calder was involved with the foundation of the Country Liberal Party in 1974, a local alliance of Liberal and Country Party members formed to contest elections for the newly established Northern Territory parliament. Grant Tambling succeeded Calder as CLP member in 1980, going on to lose the seat to Labor when the Hawke government was elected in 1983 (he would return as a Senator four years later). Northern Territory subsequently changed hands with great frequency: former Chief Minister Paul Everingham recovered it for the CLP in 1984, Warren Snowdon won it back for Labor in 1987, Nick Dondas held it for the CLP for one term from 1996, and Snowdon returned in 1998.
The territory was divided into two electorates at the 2001 election, Darwin and Palmerston forming Solomon and Lingiari taking up the vast remainder. This looked set to be reversed at the 2004 election, when the Northern Territory was found to be 295 residents short of the number required to maintain its second seat. Since both major parties felt they could win them both (a more sound judgment in Labor’s case), the second seat was essentially legislated back into existence. This was done through the expedient of adding “two standard errors” to the official calculation of the territory’s population, which is known to be underestimated in census counts, thereby boosting its quota determination from 1.498 to 1.517. The raw figures ahead of the current election had the population still further below the decisive 1.5 mark, but the second seat was again preserved when the standard error adjustment lifted it from 1.471 to 1.505. This has left the two Northern Territory electorates with by far the lowest enrolments in the country: at the time of the 2004 election, Solomon had 54,725 voters and Lingiari 58,205, compared with a little under 70,000 for Tasmanian seats and a national average of around 87,000.
Solomon’s distinguishing demographic characteristics are a high proportion of indigenous persons (10.3 per cent compared to a national figure of 2.3 per cent) and a low number of persons aged over 65 (5.3 per cent against 13.3 per cent). Darwin is divided between Labor-leaning post-war suburbs in the north, including Nightcliff, Jingili and Sanderson, and the town centre and its surrounds south of the airport, an area marked by higher incomes, fewer families and greater support for the CLP. Even stronger for the CLP is Palmerston, a satellite town established 20 kilometres south-east of Darwin in the 1980s. This area is somewhat less multicultural than Darwin and has a high proportion of mortgage-paying young families, and the booths here take votes from the nearby Robertson barracks (for a clearer view of the lie of the land, see my 2004 booth result maps at Crikey). At the time of the 2001 election, Solomon had a notional CLP margin of 2.3 per cent while Lingiari had a notional Labor margin of 3.7 per cent. Warren Snowdon naturally opted for Lingiari, and Solomon emerged as an extremely tight contest between Labor’s Laurene Hull and David Tollner (right) of the CLP. Tollner suffered a 2.2 per cent swing against the national trend, but was able to hang on by just 88 votes. He had a slightly more comfortable time of it at the 2004 election, picking up 6.9 per cent on the primary vote and 2.7 per cent on two-party preferred. The swing was especially strong in Palmerston, which accounts for just over a quarter of Solomon’s voters.
Close margins are not the only reason Tollner is lucky to be in parliament. Party colleagues had been gunning for his disendorsement in 2001, and failed to secure it only because party rules would not allow it so close to an election. At issue was a drink driving charge and an earlier cannabis conviction, which exacerbated ongoing hostility over his attempt to win the territory seat of Nelson as an independent in 1997. Running on opposition to gun control, Tollner had come within 41 votes of defeating the CLP’s Chris Lugg. Two significant figures in the CLP cited Tollner’s preselection as a factor contributing to their decision to quit the party – Nick Dondas, the member for the Northern Territory electorate from 1996 to 1998, and Maisie Austin, who went so far as to run against Tollner as an independent, but managed only 5 per cent of the vote. Austin later returned to the party and ran as its candidate for Lingiari in 2004. Tollner has continued to cut a colourful figure since entering parliament. In early 2004 he was forced to apologise for misbehaviour on a Qantas flight: he had reportedly “annoyed” Liberal colleague Christopher Pyne by “ruffling his hair”, and had to be told to sit down three times as the plane came in to land. In August, just weeks after the government announced its intervention in remote communities, Tollner was one of a number of party functionaries seen on a boat on which alcohol was consumed very near a dry Tiwi Islands community. As police investigated the discovery of empty beer bottles at the community’s airport, Warren Snowdon used parliamentary privilege to accuse Tollner and Senator Nigel Scullion of illegally taking alcohol on to the land.
Labor has nominated Damian Hale (left), who coached the Northern Territory Football League club St Marys to three successive premierships from 2003 to 2005. Hale made national news in June after an incident in a Darwin nightclub involving wayward AFL star Chris Tarrant. Hale says he expressed his “disappointment” with Tarrant after he “pulled down his trousers and bared his backside” at a female companion, to which Tarrant responded by punching Hale in the face. Tarrant copped a three-match suspension for his efforts, but Hale declined to press charges. Hale was preselected in February ahead of Darwin lawyer and rugby coach Wayne Connop, marine scientist Stuart Fitch, and two candidates associated with the territory branch of the Australian Nursing Federation: former president Denis Blackford, and organiser Matthew Gardiner. Darwin sports broadcaster Charlie King had earlier been named as the front-runner, having also contested preselection for the 2001 election (hats off to the Northern Territory News sub who came up with the headline “King: Solomon’s mine”). However, he withdrew from the race after what the Northern Territory News described as “pressure from ABC management”.