“Traditional”, “culture”, “yella-fella”, “ceremony man”, “malaywi”. Sources tell me these are the keywords in a series 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, in the lead-up to tomorrow’s Northern Territory election.

It is at these mobile bush booths that NT electoral politics gets face-to-face and personal as no static booth in a large town or city can.

What I am hearing from the remote booths is that the Country Liberal Party’s “four traditional Aboriginal candidates” and their supporters appear to be leading a well-planned charge against their Labor opponents that involves the use of intra-racial and cultural slurs. Sources tell me this is happening in local languages and thus remains well under the radar of polling officials and the few local media that make it to these far-flung booths.

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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.

The lack of extensive polling makes it challenging to pick the result in tomorrow’s election, where Labor’s Chief Minister Paul Henderson is seeking another term at the expense of CLP leader Terry Mills.

Henderson’s team won’t win government outright, but may well retain minority government on the back of independent candidate and chook-farmer Gerry Wood’s continuing support. Wood, who has held the balance of power in the NT under a curious deal between he and Henderson forged just over three years ago, has indicated that his preference would be for a government of “Territory unity” composed of Ministers from both major parties.

But the long-running animus between Wood and Mills’ CLP — particularly evident in an ugly spat where Wood accused the party of running a smear campaign — means that any deal between Wood and the Country Liberals would be unlikely.

Sometime early next week Henderson and Wood may find themselves sitting down to nut out a new deal. And while the Country Liberals may moan about it, seems we’ve grown to like the delicious tensions and uncertainty inherent in a hung Parliament. Since 2009 Wood has played a straight bat and there are few indications he would seek to extend the reach of his power — or that Labor would reject any reasonable proposals from him.

Today’s NT News editorial — “In Gerry Wood we can trust” — drives the final nail in the Country Liberal’s electoral coffin. In a thinly-veiled comment on the instability caused by Labor rat Alison Anderson (now a CLP candidate), the NT’s only daily paper noted: “a narrow CLP victory will see the Territory back in the same mess we faced in 2009 — just one dummy spit away from a crisis”.

While the NT News can’t bring itself to enthusiastically endorse Labor, it has no qualms about supporting Wood: “Without any great conviction, we believe the Henderson Government deserves to be re-elected. The best result for Territorians will see Gerry Wood retain the balance of power.”

And the rumoured use of the race card in the campaign may not change the likely result.

Anderson, ex-Labor Minister, independent and now CLP candidate, and an unforgiving political street fighter, is fighting to retain the seat of Namatjira (formerly Macdonnell). A complaint has been lodged with the Electoral Commission over Anderson’s alleged conduct outside the pre-polling booth in Alice Springs, where Anderson is alleged to have torn Labor how-to-votes from the hands of voters, substituting them with her own. Out bush it seems the election campaign has been even more aggressive, with Labor election posters defaced or torn down, and reports of a vicious whispering campaign.

Anderson may have good reason to be worried. In the 2008 general election the Country Liberals failed to run a candidate against her (she was then a Labor Minister) and Anderson was elected unopposed. This time around she has is facing very real opposition from two Aboriginal candidates, neither of whom are directing preferences to Anderson. She may face her first political defeat in many years.Elsewhere Bess Price, CLP candidate for the massive seat of Stuart (think Victoria plus Tasmania), kicked off her election campaign with an attack on local Amnesty International workers and a senior Aboriginal activist that smacked more of Pauline Hanson’s politics than the sedate election campaign conduct we are used to in Territory politics.

Price went on national TV to join a debate that for most in the NT had long faded into history — intra-racial envy. Price’s latest comments against “southern white activists” and “white-blackfellas” were enthusiastically picked up by The Australian and the egregious Andrew Bolt, but got little traction in the NT.

It was obvious that Price was running a line unauthorised by CLP head office and she was soon told to stop talking about it. But that doesn’t mean that the dog whistle isn’t still blowing, however far away from the major centres of Darwin and Alice Springs.

In the northern seat of Arafura, which includes the Tiwi islands and some Arnhemland townships, Crikey has been told of clashes at polling booths following comments to voters from CLP polling workers that the Labor candidate Dean Rioli was “malaywi”, a derogatory term in the Tiwi language but well-known on the coastal mainland used to describe light-skinned Aboriginal people. The inference is that to be malaywi is to have no culture, language or family.

This has echoes of a previous campaign for CLP candidate Tiwi Land Council member Bernard Tipiloura against then incumbent Maurice Rioli (Dean’s uncle, now deceased). In that campaign the CLP ran with the phrase “Put a ceremony-man into parliament” — code for “don’t vote for a malaywi (Maurice)”.

The Country Liberals are the past masters at playing the race card in NT politics. The old tactics — the push-polling about blackfellas taking your backyard by Native Title or land rights claims, taking a truckload of grog out to the fringe of small black towns the day before polling, or denigrating Aboriginal people in the press (think ex-Chief Minister Shane Stone’s “whingeing, whining, carping black” comment) are relics of the past. Or they should be.

Both sides of politics have played that ugly game, but the Country Liberals played it better than Labor. Stone was replaced by the unlamented Dennis Burke, who to his credit ended the CLP’s overt use of race as an electoral weapon during his brief stint as Chief Minister, although he still directed Country Liberal preferences to One Nation above Labor at five bush seats in 2001.

Burke’s successors as Country Liberals leader have left the race card in the bottom drawer. Jodeen Carney was too smart for that rubbish and Terry Mills is a nice bloke but an ordinary politician.

But one week out from the NT election The Weekend Australian’s editorial was a predictable beat-up over housing in remote NT communities in the long tradition of The Oz’s shameless Labor-bashing. The kicker was in the last paragraph:

“One of the most fascinating aspects of Saturday’s poll will be the impact of four traditional Aboriginal candidates for the CLP in remote seats … They understand how badly their people have been sold short and want better education and jobs to break the welfare culture. They know, as we said four years ago, that Territorians deserve better.”

Spot the dog-whistle?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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