Three weeks ago, I once again showed my inestimable worth by thumbing my nose at over-informed local opinion, which was mostly of the view that Paul Henderson’s Labor government would as likely as not be returned in yesterday’s Northern Territory election, and boldly proclaimed that my money was “firmly on the Country Liberal Party”. Now that the CLP has indeed won 14 or possibly 15 of the parliament’s 25 seats, I stand proudly and triumphantly vindicated.

Or so I would like to believe. However, the honest truth is that nearly every seat I identified as vulnerable for a Labor Party that couldn’t afford to lose any of them has been retained, in most cases by fairly handsome margins. The other psephological pundit who tipped a big CLP win well ahead of time, Peter Brent of Mumble, wisely painted his prediction with a broad brush, and would no doubt have been as surprised as the rest of us by the manner of the CLP’s victory. The real story of the election – that Labor did what it needed to do where every past territory election has been decided, but was blindsided by a collapse in support in once rock-solid Aboriginal communities – was heralded by nobody, and those of us who correctly tipped the result got there purely by accident.

Armed with the benefit of hindsight, I can now see clear portents of Labor’s unfolding disaster. Labor’s defeat in three or possibly four of the six remote electorates looks a bit less astonishing if you plot the trajectory of voting in these areas at both federal and state elections over the past decade. Extracting the required results from federal election figures is an inexact science, as many of the votes were cast in mobile booths for the Lingiari electorate which also served pastoral areas. Nonetheless, the figures below tell a compelling story of an already strong Labor vote going through the roof after the Howard government introduced the intervention in 2007, but progressively collapsing thereafter.

ALP CLP ALP 2PP
2004 federal 74% 18% 79%
2005 territory 67% 26% 72%
2007 federal 84% 10% 88%
2008 territory 61% 31% 67%
2010 federal 47% 24% 60%
2012 territory 42% 44% 50%

The favoured explanations for this snowballing disaffection include a mix of federal and territory issues. Clearly the intervention has ceased entirely to be of electoral benefit to Labor now that the federal government has taken ownership of it. The troubled Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program is also said by some to have dealt a body blow to Labor’s reputation in the bush. At territory level, council amalgamations have proved enormously unpopular, placing greater distance between communities and centres of decision-making. There is also no doubt that the Country Liberals smartly capitalised on the opportunity these issues offered by identifying candidates well placed to take advantage of them and allocating significant resources to their campaigns.

However, it’s interesting to note that the swing in the Aboriginal-majority electorates was not monolithic. There were two seats in particular where Labor suffered only middling swings: Barkly, including Tennant Creek and the territory’s eastern regions, where Gerry McCarthy suffered a 7.0% swing and retained a margin of 8.6%; and Nhulunbuy in the north, where the swing against Lynne Walker was just 5.0%, leaving her with a handsome margin of 19.2%. Owing to barriers of language, distance and communications, a distant observer such as myself can only speculate why this might have been. However, there is one point of distinction between the two better performing Labor candidates and the other four which is immediately obvious to all – they’re white.

If that doesn’t seem an immediately obvious electoral asset in Aboriginal majority electorates, an interesting complexion on the matter was offered shortly before the election by locally well-connected Crikey blogger Bob Gosford. Gosford’s sources spoke of “alleged vicious whispering campaigns aimed at chasing Aboriginal votes in the dozens of small remote mobile polling booths that have been running for the past two weeks”, which revolved around “the use of intra-racial and cultural slurs … used to describe light-skinned Aboriginal people”. I personally have no way of knowing whether such claims are accurate or inaccurate, fair or unfair, complete or partial – and I suggest that a sensibly cynical observer would suspect games of this kind were played by both sides, a point acknowledged by Gosford. But the claims do, as our friends in the press gallery like to say, raise questions. As Gosford notes: “Because these remote polling booths are for the most part out of reach for what passes for the mainstream media here in the NT, these incidents are rarely reported as news. Most often they turn up after polling day following complaints to the NT Electoral Commission.” It will be interesting to see what, if anything, emerges.

A region-by-region run-down of the damage:

Darwin/Palmerston

ALP CLP
Primary 42.9% 48.3%
Swing -5.8% 2.6%
2PP 48.7% 51.3%
Swing -3.4% 3.4%
Seats 6 (-) 6 (-)

The swing to the CLP would have cost Labor one seat if it had been uniform, but as was very widely anticipated, that didn’t happen because the most marginal Labor seat, Fannie Bay, swung substantially in their favour (5.6%). The only other seat to swing to Labor was Sanderson, a CLP seat that some were tipping as a possible gain for them. However, the 3.6% swing fell short of the existing 5.2% margin. Country Liberal sophomores who turned in particularly strong performances were Peter Chandler in Brennan (a swing of 11.7%) and John Elferink in Port Darwin (8.7%). By contrast, Peter Styles in Sanderson would look to have some work to do.

Alice Springs

ALP CLP
Primary 19.8% 65.2%
Swing 3.0% 2.6%
2PP 29.3% 70.7%
Swing 0.8% -0.8%
Seats 0 (-) 3 (-)

Labor copped a 17% swing in Alice Springs in 2008, so it stands to reason there was no further slack to be taken up. The result is nonetheless interesting as another example of Alice Springs heading in the opposite direction to the remote areas which surround it.

Pastoral

ALP CLP OTH
Primary 23.5% 55.9% 20.6%
Swing -8.8% 13.9% -5.1%
2PP 29.3% 70.7%
Swing -13.1% 13.1%
Seats 0 (-1) 3 (+1) 1 (-)

Presumably the factors which drove the swing in remote areas applied at least in part here as well. Contribuing to the defeat of Labor member Rob Knight in Daly was his failure to carry the booth of Wadeye, where 91% of residents identify as indigenous. Boosting the average was a 15.0% swing to CLP sophomore Willem Westra van Holthe in Katherine.

Remote

ALP CLP
Primary 41.9% 43.7%
Swing -19.2% 17.2%
2PP 50.3% 49.7%
Swing -16.8% 16.8%
Seats 2 (-4) 4 (+4)

Definite inclusions on Labor’s casualty list are Arnhem, where Malarndirri McCarthy has been unseated after failing to even attract a CLP challenger at the 2008 election; Arafura, which was vacated by the retirement of former Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour; Namatjira, which Alison Anderson has well and truly kept in the CLP column after defecting to the party from Labor; and possibly Stuart, where Labor incumbent Karl Hampton trailed by 44 votes at the close of counting. Much will rightly be made of the triumph of Francis Xavier’s long record of local hard graft over the star power of former AFL player Dean Rioli in Arafura, even if it is wisdom after the event.

Federal implications:

• Coming after the electoral tsunamis which swept all before them in New South Wales and Queensland, Labor can take heart at having turned in a creditable result in Darwin. Since Darwin ranks second only to Canberra for concentration of public servants, it’s very easy to believe that Labor enjoyed a dividend from the Campbell Newman’s job-slashing in Queensland, which both Labor and Unions NT went to great lengths to emphasise in their campaign advertising. Labor will be further encouraged that this might prove of advantage to them federally.

• The Darwin results give Labor reason to hope they might be able to recover Solomon, where they were narrowly defeated in 2010. As Adam Carr notes in comments, Labor now has a locally well-regarded former Chief Minister looking for a new line of work, and whose resume looks pretty well suited for the position of federal election candidate.

• On the other hand, Labor’s member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, has cause to feel very nervous. The 2010 election saw his margin slashed from 11.2% to 3.7% which, as previously noted, was driven by huge swings in remote areas that were counter-balanced by a 8.4% swing in his favour in Alice Springs. The territory election result suggests the former trend might not yet have run its course.

• The result will presumably focus attention on the federal government’s handling of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and in particular the responsible minister, Jenny Macklin.

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