Top of the reading list for delegates at this weekend’s Central Council meeting of the NT’s Country Liberal Party will be the excoriating review by Brian Loughnane and Scott Mitchell of the CLP’s abject failure at the 2016 NT election.
Loughnane and Mitchell don’t waste much time sugar-coating the message to CLP members. noting “significant problems” with the 2016 campaign, caused in no small part by the “dysfunctional nature of the [CLP] government and the party” between 2012 and 2016 during which the CLP had two Chief Ministers, six Deputy Chief Ministers and numerous re-shuffles and that ended with the parliamentary wing of the CLP reduced to a rump of two MLAs.
The Loughnane/Mitchell report—commissioned by current CLP president and former NT Chief Minister Shane Stone—draws in no small part from submissions by the CLP’s sorely-tested faithful members. One submission recorded the “depressing reading” in a “chronology of destruction” leading up to the 2016 poll, including this assessment of the performance of the Parliamentary wing.
There were sexual misadventures, allegations of corruption, an expressed want of confidence in the NT Police, slurs against colleagues and staff, defections, perceived conflicts of interest, a failed clumsy attempt to dislodge Adam Giles as Chief Minister capped by the Don Dale controversy. While not a complete list, any of these would alone have been enough to derail a government and when coupled with a general failure to communicate effectively on policies and decisions compounded the disengagement of the electorate from the government.
And while the Parliamentary wing was divided against itself, it was also alienated from the CLP’s Administrative wing, itself criticised as ineffective, with Central Council meetings described as farcical. Key policy and legislative decisions—not least the changes to the NT Electoral Act that introduced optional preferential voting and kicked a CLP “own goal” at the 2016 poll—were criticised as naive at best.
The CLP’s 2016 election campaign was a shambles. Loughnane and Mitchell describe a”rudderless” and dramatically underfunded campaign. The Northern Myth understands that, notwithstanding the repeated assurances during the campaign that the CLP had a campaign war chest of $1 million, it was only after the election that the party’s campaign debt of around $500,000 was revealed.
Another CLP own goal, and one that gave the party no end of well-deserved grief and provided months of sport for local media (and for The Northern Myth), was how poorly the CLP handled the rolling controversy that swirled around Foundation 51, a CLP fundraising body that was often described as a slush fund. The party’s woes around Foundation 51 will apparently have a long tail, with the fundraiser a key target of retired judge John Mansfield’s inquiry into NT political donations.
Unsurprisingly given the scale of the defeat, Loughnane and Mitchell save their harshest criticisms for the CLP’s performance in the lead up to the 2016 election. Noting that numerous signs pointing to a crushing electoral defeat were visible well before the August 2016 election, they pull no punches:
… from polling from as early February 2014 … it became very clear that the Chief Minster [Adam Giles] was a definite negative … [t]his extraordinary situation should have had members of the Parliamentary Wing deeply concerned. A subsequent poll in June 2015 showed that the Giles Government was in serious trouble, with both Giles and Tollner recording very high disapproval ratings.
In summary, successive polling from a range of sources from 2014 to 2016 indicated that the Chief Minster’s negative position continued to deteriorate. The Parliamentary leadership appear to have been dismissive of the polling … Candidates door knocking reported back a hostile reception on the door step long before Election Day … It was clearly unfortunate that those charged with the campaign and in the Party leadership were in such denial. Quite apart from the polling there were other indicators of defeat that the Party should have been alert to.
Loughnane and Mitchell identify two other key elements that contributed to the CLP’s failure at the 2016 election. The first is that—remarkably—the CLP actually lost membership while in government between 2012 and 2016, a decline that “mirrors the upheaval and dysfunction in Government and the Party’ and that “appears to have escaped all who should have had a vital interest in such matters.”
The other element concerns the political and reputational costs associated with necking an elected leader.
Political parties must understand and weigh the transactional costs associated with deposing an elected leader with a mandate. Terry Mills whatever his perceived shortcomings was a mere 8 months into his first term as Chief Minister. Adam Giles never had a mandate and never recovered from the various antics that beset his Government from the outset. It is critically important that those elected to leadership positions and appointed to Ministerial office have the necessary skill set to serve. The criticism of the Administrative Wing applies to all from the then President to Central Council. To requote one correspondent ‘’we let it happen’’.
Notwithstanding this doom and gloom, Loughnane and Mitchell retain some modest faith in the CLP’s capacity to remake itself and return to government, noting that the CLP:
… has a unique opportunity to rebuild from the ground up and return to Government. The CL still retained 30% of the primary vote. This is a solid core to work from. There is a political cycle and although a long march lies ahead the CL will return to Government and predictions of the Party’s demise have already been proved wrong … It is time to move on; the CL[P] owes it to Territorians to rebuild and once again offer a strong alternate Government which can take the Territory to a brighter future.
How long that march into a brighter future could be will, in large part, be determined by the CLP’s Central Council meeting this weekend in Darwin.
Picture: Scott Mitchell (former Federal Director, National Party of Australia), Shane Stone (CLP President and former NT Chief Minister) and Brian Loughnane (former Federal Director, Liberal Party of Australia)