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 almighty shellacking.
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 NT News reported on a confidential party document that 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’ leadership might have played out if he were subjected to the steady drumbeat of polling that federal and state leaders have to endure.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
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 secured only 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 following 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, 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 NT News’ 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 several 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 paramount 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) …