This Saturday, Territorians, as we like to call ourselves, go to the polls. Finally, from the party that gave us “the recession we had to have”, and from the electoral division that gave us arguably the most unexpected election result in Australian history, we get the sequel: the election we didn’t have to have.

Sure, one can argue that, having deposed his predecessor shortly after the last federal election, Chief Minister Paul Henderson wanted “his own mandate” (whatever that really means).

Sure, one can argue, as did the Chief Minister, that imminent major gas deals with overseas players needed the security of a government that would still be in power one year hence (though, personally, it makes me uncomfortable to think of our election cycles as being dictated by overseas interests).

And, sure, the timing might perhaps have avoided one or two uncomfortable by-elections where people might have been a bit more willing to take a chance on a few Opposition candidates than at a real election.

But the reality is that in the Northern Territory, a Chief Minister can call an election pretty much when he or she chooses. Not that the election rules allow that exactly; this particular election is almost at the limit, being nearly one full year before we had to have it. It’s just that Territorians are, how can I put it, comfortable.

Cocooned from international or domestic recessions by levels of federal subsidy that would surprise most Territorians and frighten almost everyone else, Territorians don’t need a change of government. We don’t seem to need elections. It’s why the Country Liberal Party, or CLP, was the Territory’s only government, without effective opposition, for our first two decades of self-rule. And it’s why the ALP could stay in power not only until next year, but for another decade.

Be assured then that overseas investors astute enough to know they can make a killing from a place willing to subsidise the flogging off of its natural resources didn’t need an election now to be pretty certain of that.

The 2001 election was a rare combination of circumstances: a CLP leader in Denis Burke who had assumed a mantle of arrogance that alienated even long-term supporters; a new opposition leader who, not unlike the late Peter Andren, had made her way into the living rooms of almost every Territorian every week of the year courtesy of the ABC’s 7.30 Report which she had previously hosted (sounds familiar?); and a CLP election campaign that was both racist and looked more like the offerings of an underfunded opposition. Clare Martin, by comparison, preferring to invest interstate as her government has continued to do ever since, imported the formula for its campaign from across the border, along with the Brisbane production company that helped Peter Beattie hold onto the reigns of power so successfully.

Next Saturday’s election does not offer that particular cocktail. It provides, instead, a strong argument for those in favour of the fixed-term elections that occur in many other parts of the democratic world. Incumbents have enough advantages without getting to choose a date that suits them best and inconveniences their opponents most.

Though CLP Opposition leader Terry Mills had, in private, long predicted an August election, the Country Liberals, as they’re now to be known, have struggled even to get a candidate for each seat, let alone develop the sort of media profile needed these days to oust an incumbent government.

Even before the election, they’ve already conceded the seats of Arnhem and MacDonnell (which includes Uluru) for want of a candidate. It’s tough, really, when there are only four of you in an Opposition! And it’s hard for democracy to thrive when you can’t even get two candidates in every electorate.

In truth, the NT election provides a rather strong argument for having no government in the Northern Territory at all. With a total population of around 220,000 – that’s less than Wollongong – of whom a third are aboriginal people many living in remote communities (and so, effectively, now governed from Canberra anyway), a staggering 10% or more of the population that’s available for regular employment is employed by government.

With a high proportion of bureaucrats – safe in the knowledge that they can always get money from Canberra or by giving the go-ahead to the next gas plant or uranium mine – it’s hardly surprising that they fill their time and use our money not with developing policies to create sustainable, income-generating private sector companies, but with stifling and competing with the private sector they’re meant to be fostering.

Meanwhile the government, like many with pioneering ancestry, continues to confuse its role of building an economy with, well, building buildings. I’m told the medical term is “an edifice complex”. And it’s already created enough white elephants to repopulate the Masai Mara.

The Chief Minister will, one day, get to put his name on a plaque on completion of the $1 billion waterfront development that has drained the coffers of funds for any less glamorous but more sustainable and widespread uses of government money.

And, if he’s ever in Alice Springs for long enough, he’ll be able to christen the nice new swimming pool that was offered at the last election. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to buy the local vote so, this time round, following the ignominious encounter of ex-Chief Martin with angry Alice Springs folk complaining about how the town was being completely ignored, the Darwin government has come up with a new strategy: to completely ignore Alice Springs! No, sorry, this time they’re getting a uranium mine.

The Territory’s a wonderful place for a holiday, don’t get me wrong. Just don’t come here looking for policies that build a vibrant, sustainable private sector, or for a shining example of democracy. After all, it’s a place where we don’t really have to have elections.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey