With 20 minutes to go before entries closed, we decided to enter this fine piece from Hillary Bray into the features category of the 2001 Walkley Awards to be held in Melbourne on November 29.

Hillary Bray is a pseudonym for Crikey Media’s Canberra insider, whose identity cannot be revealed. For this reason Crikey publisher Stephen Mayne is the formal nominee for this award.

Hillary is one Australia’s more prolific political commentators and is the most widely read contributor to Australia’s most visited political website, www.crikey.com.au.

“In Burke’s Backyard” was a feature piece on the Northern Territory election which sought to entertain and inform the readers of www.crikey.com.au by providing colour on the grassroots campaign.

The piece required extensive research and significant local news gathering during the election and is available for viewing on the Crikey website until November.

Hillary’s acerbic wit and incisive commentary made this the definitive colour feature article published anywhere on the Northern Territory election.

It was downloaded almost 2000 times during the period it was on the site.



By Hillary Bray

Published August 16, 2001

Like any good artist, Hillary is suffering for her chosen profession this weekend. Having swapped freezing Canberra for the heat of Darwin, she has managed to shift from the air-conditioned comfort of her room just enough to get a sense of the campaign.

You have to get out and about here to know the news, as the local newspaper, the NT News, is not known as the “Empty News” for nothing. It gives the campaign only as much coverage as is deigned decent, normally preferring to devote space to croc yarns and crime committed by the local indigenous population. Mind you, the recent outback murders did give circulation a bit of a boost. Unfortunately, it may not be good for long-term tourism numbers. Killing and hiding the bodies of tourists is never well reported overseas.

Anyway, Hillary sees certain things in common between Canberra and Darwin. For instance, the air-conditioned concrete bunkers people live in, though personally Hillary finds they lack a certain tropical allure. An old joke up here is Darwin Hospital, constructed after Cyclone Tracy, and built using the plans for Woden Valley hospital in Canberra. To this day, it still has snow shields over the windows.

At least Hillary’s room has local de51cor. The huge shower and spa opposite the bed, the satin soft furnishings, the mirror on the ceiling, all very Darwin. Hillary is fascinated by the helpful guide to local ladies of the night, as well as the location of late night shops for that important bit of bondage equipment you forgot to bring with you.

The sophisticates of Darwin, in their exclusive housing estates clustered around the private marinas, like to think their town is suave. But this is feral town. Not Newtown or Fitzroy feral, more One Nation feral. Sure, lots of tats, but more mullets than dreadlocks, and definitely less body piercing. (It is uncomfortable in the humidity, and attracts lightening in the wet.) The tattoos are more daggers through hearts and girlfriend’s names rather the sort of Celtic arm-art worn by Lachlan Murdoch. We also doubt Lachlan would go for the blue singlets, beer guts and tatty beards. But you never know.

Anyway, enough of the local wildlife. What about the politics.

Small Scale, Local with Pictures to help

Your average NT electorates has just 4,200 enrolled voters. Now if you don’t know the names of most of your constituents, and regularly consult about their problems you are not working hard enough. Darwin has a large transient population, people moving up here for a few years for work. Isn’t it nice of the local MP to pay you so much attention when you arrive.

And just in case you can’t remember his name, they include a picture on the ballot paper. Now, pictures on ballot papers are common in the third world, but the Northern Territory is the first world, isn’t it? And who wants candidates names cluttered up with party names. And why not just list the candidates in alphabetic order. Just ‘cos they do that everywhere else in Australia doesn’t mean the north has to follow.

Then there is the fact that elections in the NT elections are always held on the Saturday after the payment of social security. Helps keep down the black vote, as a fair few will still be too drunk to stir.

August 18 is useful as it is show day in the remote aboriginal town of Borroloola. In the marginal Labor seat of Barkly, which the CLP is trying to recover, the bacchanalia of drinking that accompanies the day may yet harm Labor’s chances of holding the seat.

And the winner is ..

Like most of the local wildlife, Chief Minister The Berk is not known for his intelligence. We’ve already reported he only got the job after Mike Reed spoiled his chance with his famous gay porn purchases in Sydney. (Jokes about ‘Hot Firemen’ and ‘Highway Hunks’ still get a good laugh up here.)

No one expects The Berk to get rolled by Labor’s Clare Martin. Labor just can’t get away from the ‘black party’ tag, no matter how much they try to disown their black MPs. Poor old Jack Ah Kit, despite being brighter than most of his colleagues, recently got dumped for what is rumoured to be disputes about tactics on The Berk’s problems over the Chief Magistrate appointment. That wasn’t the reason given, but no satisfactory reason has ever been offered.

The election on August 18 happily avoids the conflict with the beginning of court proceedings on August 20 into the appointment of Chief Magistrate Hugh Bradley, and Grant Tambling’s appeal against the CLP dumping him as a Senate candidate.

But after all this time in office, the CLP is getting a bit on the nose. And this time, they don’t have a mad railway promise to launch. This time it is already being built.

The Gravy train again

When just before the 1997 election, Shane Stone promised the railway contracts were about to be signed, no one took much notice. One commentator was inspired to observe that it was hard to know whether all the squealing and grunting was the sound of snouts in the trough or pigs on the wing.

And pigs were certainly the talk of the 1997 campaign. The Labor Party ran two ads, one portraying the CLP as a bunch of pigs squealing and grunting in a pen, and another showing neck down shots of a pretend cabinet meeting over dinner, complete with ministers eating with their hands and also groping the waitresses.

Well, locals missed that there was anything wrong with groping waitresses or being unsophisticated about dining utensils. But still, everyone thought it was great fun, expressing what people thought about the CLP. And the CLP particularly hated the ads.

Unfortunately, the ads didn’t give many reasons why people should vote Labor. Shane Stone led the CLP to its best result since self-government, even winning the predominantly Aboriginal electorate of MacDonnell. Now they are pulling out all stops to hold the seat.

Candidates Missing in Action

Unhappily for John Elferink, the sitting elected CLP MP for MacDonnell, he lost his best voting area in a redistribution. He had won in 1997 when the long term Labor MP, the Pitjantjatjara-speaking John Bell, resigned very late and Labor pre-selected an uninspiring white union official for the predominantly black and outback electorate. Elferink won thanks to a local black spokesmen, Ken Lechleitner, running as an Independent and directing preferences to Elferink. Labor accused Lechleitner of being a CLP stooge. This time he is a CLP candidate in neighbouring Stuart.

So with its margin cut by the redistribution, the CLP needed a new tactic to hold the seat. At the last moment they nominated a second candidate, local aboriginal community police officer Phillip Alice. Nominated at the last minute, the alphabetic order of ballot paper sees him number one on the ballot paper, helpfully just above the CLP. Helpfully his skin is also much darker than that of Labor’s candidate, CLC project officer Harold Furber.

Oddly, Alice never appeared on the CLP’s website as a candidate. Only one set of CLP how-to-vote cards surfaced, and they didn’t show a first preference for Alice. Even more interestingly, four days after nominating, Alice suddenly withdrew from the contest. However, he still appears on the ballot paper.

The CLP accused the Labor Party of putting pressure on Alice, suggesting that when he moves to Darwin he will lose his culture, drink too much and sleep with other women. Quite why he would want to imitate the white MPs, Hillary is not sure. The whole issue sounds very suspicious.

CLP Claims Olsen and Howard gone

With The Berk having been one of the participants in the famous picture under the “end of the line” sign after turning the first sod on the new railway, the CLP seems to have gone out of its way to ensure no one is confused about which conservative political leaders are facing only a limited future.

The first ads of the campaign warned Territorians their lifestyle would soon be at risk, with Labor in government everywhere else in Australia. The ad illustrated Labor governments everywhere else, including Canberra and South Australia.

We’re sure the Rodent and Buffy will be happy to hear such confidence expressed in their prospects at looming electoral battles.

Mandatory Sentencing

One of those special things mentioned to be at risk was mandatory sentencing. You have to hand it to the CLP. Prick anyone in a shopping centre up here, and they know the line. “Do the crime, do the time” is quite a mantra.

Hillary had to bite her tongue, and avoid suggesting that locking up a couple of black kids for pinching biscuits in some outback squat didn’t seem to be having much effect on the crime rates in Darwin. Nor does all the money directed to jails seem to be doing very much for the clear up rate on Darwin burglaries.

Of course, following the outback murder case, the NT police have been exposed to the world with their investigative skills. As the Azaria Chamberlain case showed, up here standard police practice is follow your preconceived notion rather than indulge in evidence-based research.

Not the Barra!

To everyone’s amazement, the CLP have announced they intend to buy back all commercial barramundi licences. The recreational fishing lobby is so big up here, the government is even prepared to abolish a local industry to give Territorians the right to keep catching barra.

After all, the CLP used similar scares before the last two elections to get locals on side. Ideas about Aboriginal fishing claims were used as part of last minute scare campaigns. The last two elections have seen previously unknown branches of the local Larrakeayah people make late (and very politically convenient) land claims on Darwin harbour. The great surprise is the same stunt has yet to be repeated.

Or perhaps that’s because one of the CLP’s own policies are causing a bit of a fuss over Darwin Harbour. The proposed east arm gas processing project, currently delayed over tax issues with East Timor, will have a major impact on the harbour and the fish breeding grounds in its mangroves. Perhaps best not to attract attention to the Harbour this time.

How to win foreign friends and influence them

The NT government has been absolutely desperate to get the agreement of an international consortium to bring gas from the Timor Sea on shore at Darwin and develop a local gas industry.

The election date had been long delayed as the government desperately negotiated the details of the agreement. In the end, knowing the project was about to fall over, the government made it an issue by arguing that a Labor government couldn’t be trusted to do the negotiations. As if the current government has covered itself in glory on the issue.

First there was the famous wine and dine of East Timor reps in Darwin. Unfortunately, the businessmen the CLP brought in were not associated with Fretilin, who were doing the negotiations on the contract. Fretilin didn’t appreciate the CLP sticking its noses into East Timorese affairs.

This was after The Berk had started to speak out about the Timor Gap treaty. First he was calling on Lex Loser (Alexander Downer) to hurry up the process, and in fact happy to give the Timorese as much of the royalty payments as they wanted, despite this being a Federal issue. In another attempt to hurry up the Timorese, he suggested they would not have many friends left in the region if they didn’t speed up the process. Good one Denis!

Makes you think Australia was very lucky that Burke resigned his position at the top of Darwin’s Robertson Barracks and entered politics. Had he not, then The Berk rather than Peter Cosgrove might have ended up leading the forces in East Timor.

But then, The Berk isn’t from the Territory. He may have just picked up bad habits from the CLP.

Labor’s Dodgy Polling

Shock horror! Labor puts out a press release saying One Nation will poll 37 per cent in the Katherine region, and the CLP’s decision to give preferences to One Nation could put them into Parliament.

Yeah right! (That’s the CLP’s advertising joke line this campaign.) Look at the detail. A poll of 150 done by UMR, the ALP’s own pollster. And they didn’t actually ask voting intention, merely if they thought it OK for One Nation to be in Parliament.

It doesn’t take many brains to work out that if One Nation have 37 per cent, then in all likelihood, Labor is running third. So in that case, Labor would help elect the CLP in those seats. Not really a threat then.

What Press Secretaries are for

Labor did get a better yarn out the day before, a leaked document explaining how government press secretaries were going to train CLP supporters how to write letters to the editor and participate in talk back radio.

Well, those tactics are pretty common everywhere. Hillary has never had a problem running a bit of campaign disinformation. But you do wonder if the CLP see any difference between government work and CLP work. It is a line they regularly blur.

Anyway, enough tales from the deep north. We are still trying to get more confirmation on the really good yarns. Libel laws can be such a pain.

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