With polling day three-and-a-half weeks away, my seat-by-seat guide to the Northern Territory election is almost ready for action, and will be posted after a bit more proof reading leading today (UPDATE: Make that tomorrow) (UPDATE 2: No, make it Monday). Local legal academic and former Labor MP Ken Parish relates the campaign has been off to a somnolent start, with both sides keeping their powder dry until the final fortnight after the Olympics are finished.

The only published polling one ever sees for the Northern Territory comes from Newspoll on the eve of the election, so for outside observers particularly the situation is not easy to read. But with a Labor government seeking a fourth term in a traditionally conservative polity after 11 years in office, and the examples of New South Wales and Queensland etched firmly in mind, the auguries seem to indicate that Labor is headed for an almightly shellacking. So it comes as a surprise to see Sportingbet taking bets on all 25 seats individually, and offering the CLP as clear favourites in only 12 of them.

Echoes of uncertainty have also been heard from the CLP camp itself. Last week the Northern Territory News reported on a confidential party document which warned its lack of policy development might cause voters to “stick with the devil they know”. Last year the paper reported that internal polling showed the party going backwards, putting it at risk of losing Port Darwin without making compensating gains. While the provenance of internal polling is always open to dispute, it is easy enough to believe the report’s claim that Paul Henderson was shown to be “comfortably the preferred Chief Minister” in comparison with the CLP’s uninspiring Terry Mills. One wonders how Mills’s leadership might have played out if he were subjected to the steady drumbeat of polling that federal and state leaders have to endure.

As it stands, Mills had little trouble seeing off a challenge in August 2010 from David Tollner, who held the federal seat of Solomon from 2001 to 2007 before entering Territory politics in 2008. Tollner only secured two votes in the party room against eight for Mills, but he is believed to have won over another two supporters since. He also returned to the front bench after a year of penance in the wake of the leadership challenge, with yet more alleged internal polling suggesting he was the most popular member on either side of parliament.

On the other side of the coin, Paul Henderson appears to have kept internal predators at bay through a difficult period of minority government, and things seem to have been eerily quiet on the scandal front. Ken Parish also makes the interesting observation that the government has been able to “keep politics off the front page” by fiendishly exploiting the Northern Territory News’s notorious obsession with crocodiles. He also suggests Labor may be coming off an artificially low base from the 2008 election result, which had a lot to do with Henderson’s poorly received decision to call the election a year ahead of time.

For all that though, my money is firmly on the CLP. Labor has been handicapped by the effective loss of the remote seat of Namatjira (formerly Macdonnell) with Alison Anderson’s defection to the CLP, so the starting point is 12-12-1 rather than the 13-11-1 recorded at the 2008 election. Independent Gerry Wood presumably had stability in mind when he announced mid-term that he would back Labor to remain in government, and if re-elected would be open to negotiation (though he would have to look past the fact that he accuses CLP members of being behind blackmail and physical threats against him).

It would only take one extra seat for the CLP to go one better, and a number of Labor’s look hard to defend. Fannie Bay (0.9%) and Daly (5.8%) are challenging by dint of margin alone, and the latter has shown a tendency to be volatile. Candidate factors are of paramount importance in the Northern Territory’s bite-sized electorates, so the retirements of Chris Burns in Johnston (margin 6.9%) and Jane Aagaard in Nightcliff (10.7%) make life a lot tougher there than the margins indicate. Conversely, the CLP should enjoy considerable sophomore surges in seats where Labor could realistically hope to make countervailing gains (although the same can be said for Labor first-termer Michael Gunner in Fannie Bay).

What follows is a quick regional breakdown of the electoral terrain into five regions, with party status identified as per the results of the 2008 election (so not including the defection of Alison Anderson in Macdonnell/Namatjira).

Darwin (ALP 6, CLP 3). Labor’s first ever election win in 2001 was built on a breakthrough in the capital, where they previously held only one or two seats. The CLP’s only holdout was the CBD electorate of Port Darwin, with an entire bloc of the middle and northern suburbs (Millner, Nightcliff, Johnston, Casuarina, Sanderson and Karama) moving to Labor, mostly for the first time. The 2005 landslide delivered Labor a clean sweep, Port Darwin being caught up in the flood. In 2008 the CLP recovered Port Darwin together with Sanderson and Fong Lim (formerly Millner). Labor’s most obviously endangered seats are Fannie Bay (0.9%), which Clare Martin wrestled from the CLP in 1995 and Michael Gunner narrowly retained when she retired in 2008, along with Johnston (6.9%) and Nightcliff (10.7%), which are respectively being vacated with the retirements of Chris Burns and Jane Aagaard. Conversely, the CLP has modest margins in its three seats, but will likely benefit in each from sophomore surge.

Palmerston (ALP 0, CLP 3). The CLP retained its hold on Palmerston’s three seats in 2001, but only Blain survived in 2005, with one of the casualties being party leader Denis Burke in Brennan. Both Brennan and Drysdale returned to the CLP fold in 2008. The CLP has surrendered its sophomore surge advantage in Drysdale by dumping its member Ross Bohlin, who will run as an independent. The margin is 9.3%, so Labor is not likely to pose a threat.

Alice Springs (ALP 0, CLP 3). Labor has never won a Territory seat in Alice Springs, despite being fairly competitive there at federal level, and did particularly poorly in 2008. The retirement of independent member Loraine Braham helped the CLP secure a clean sweep last time, and there is no reason to expect different this time.

Pastoral (ALP 1, CLP 2, IND 1). This basically refers to four seats outside of Darwin/Palmerston and Alice Springs which do not have Aboriginal majority populations. The only one held by Labor is electorally volatile Daly on the outskirts of Darwin (margin 5.8%). Katherine and Goyder are reliably conservative, although Labor managed a narrow win in the latter in 2005. Nelson has been held very securely since 2001 by independent Gerry Wood, who despite his hefty margin would be mindful of how independents have been faring in state elections lately – especially given his mid-term determination to support Labor in office.

Remote (ALP 6, CLP 0). This encompasses the seats with Aboriginal majority populations. One of these, Namatjira (the name of which has with good reason been changed from Macdonnell), presents Labor with a serious headache. Local Aboriginal community leader Alison Anderson had held the seat for Labor since 2005, but quit the party in 2009 and joined the CLP last year. If the electorate’s track record is anything to go by, personal will trump party loyalty and Anderson will retain the seat. The other five seats are held by Labor on hefty double-digit margins. The retirement of former deputy leader Marion Scrymgour in Arafura might have been problematic, but Labor has presumably done well by landing the services of former Essendon AFL star Dean Rioli.