Terry Mills & Paul Henderson. Photo: ABC Darwin

By rights Northern Territory Country Liberal Party leader Terry Mills should have won government in the Northern Territory in 2008.

Back then Labor Chief Minister Paul Henderson – spooked by bad advice, sensing a chance to further monster a weakened CLP and seeking a personal electoral mandate after rolling Clare Martin the previous November in a bloodless coup – ran to an election a full year earlier than he needed to.

Going into the 2008 election Labor held 19 of the 25 seats in the NT Parliament, with Mills being the sole CLP representative north of Alice Springs in a a CLP reduced to a rump of four MLAs.

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Henderson paid the price for bad choices and worse advice and just squeaked home over a resurgent CLP with a one seat majority won by 78 votes in the inner Darwin seat of Fannie Bay. That Mills didn’t take full account of the splits in Labor’s ranks in 2009 that saw Labor hang on to power by minority government was seen by many as a sign of weakness. That impression wasn’t helped by a clumsy CLP leadership challenge in 2010.

But Mills and the CLP got smart – and got some smart advice and advisors – and realised that government in the NT was theirs for the taking – not by the usual head-butting over seats in the northern suburbs of Darwin but by concentrating on what had long been accepted as Labor’s heartland, the bush seats. And they didn’t forget that they only needed one seat to get them over the line.

By close of the count Saturday night the CLP had taken government. The rural seat of Daly was the first to fall and saw the CLP’s Gary Higgins defeat Labor’s Attorney-General Rob Knight followed by Arnhemwhere unknown first-time candidate Larissa Lee rolled Local Government Minister Malarndirri McCarthy with swings of 11.2 and a crushing 29.6 per cent respectively.

The CLP is also ahead in the bush seats of Arafura – where Francis Xavier Maralampuwi may take the seat vacated by the retiring Marion Scrymgour from Labor candidate Dean Rioli and Stuart where the CLP’s Bess Price took on her nephew and NT Environment Minister Karl Hampton.  As at the close of counting Saturday night both seats were showing swings of over 16 per cent against Labor.

What is truly surprising about these results is that no-one that I’ve been able to find – in the media or what passes for the commentariat here – picked the CLP’s bush seat strategy. It seems that only the bookies – who had long had the CLP at short odds – got it right.

In the past, as NT Senator Nigel Scullion said on Saturday night, bush candidates were “Given a tank or fuel, a bundle of corflute posters and told ‘See you later’. No more.

This time the CLP’s bush candidates were relatively well resourced and appear to have been given a very short play sheet with two chief tactics – hammer Labor on the Shires – Labor’s local government reform program – and do some reflective listening on the gripes that bush people had.

This last point was driven home by past CLP President Sue Fraser-Adams, who referred to a ‘listening tour‘ that she and her husband undertook in their light plane around the bush seats.

That the CLP would target Labor’s local government reforms is, in hindsight, a no-brainer. In July 2007 – immediately after the announcement of the Brough-Howard NT Intervention – then Chief Minister Clare Martin announced a radical and long overdue re-structure of local government in the NT.

The Shire reforms were implemented in late 2008 (and thus not in full play at that year’s election) and saw the amalgamation of sixty or so small community government councils into eleven ‘super-shires’. The double-whammy impacts of the local government reforms and the NT Intervention – which amounted to an effective coup over large parts of the NT’s physical and administrative jurisdictions – were not lost on people in the bush.

The local government reforms were poorly designed and clumsily implemented and as implemented had two fundamental flaws – the removal of local representation and decision-making, which would in large part move to centralised offices in Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine.

Under community government, control of councils allowed “big men” – and women – to create local power bases and political clout and to make decisions locally. This created its own problems – community councils were often under-resourced, dysfunctional, riddled with small-time corruption and nepotism and were easily manipulated by the central government of the day. The small councils had minimal revenue raising capacity and were often poorly staffed and run. While many of these rotten boroughs needed fixing the Shire reforms ended up creating more problems than they solved.

Kerry Moir, then President of the Local Government Association of the NT had early concerns about the interaction of the Commonwealth’s NT Intervention and the Shire reforms. As I reported in July 2007 she was scathing about the combined effect of these policies on small communities:

Moir is particularly concerned that the Commonwealth intervention has been so poorly thought out that it will only worsen the current situation … that there appears to be no effective coordination between the NT Government’s Local Government Reform program and the elements of the Commonwealth intervention that will affect local community administrations:

Some communities are dysfunctional, but there are others who struggle, with good people in charge, to try and do something about the housing, do something about the infrastructure. They’ve just never had enough money to do so.

My members are fearful for their jobs, they are incredibly worried about their own circumstances and for their communities. I mean, imagine how you would feel if you saw a statement from the NT government that it ‘…will seek to use the Commonwealth appointed administrators to deliver its programs’ – that is the jobs of my members that the government is talking about. Of course there is fear and uncertainty.

This intervention, and the confusion about the roles of both the NT and Commonwealth government will result in further disempowerment of local communities. Good people working for these Councils are going to say: ‘Well, if we’ve no longer got a say in what’s happening in our community, we can no longer decide that we want to run programmes like say, a suicide prevention program where we’ll take kids out bush and fishing to get them to know some of their Aboriginal law’. If it doesn’t happen to be on the Commonwealth manager’s radar then those programmes just won’t be run. The people who have had pride in their communities will see that they no longer have any say in what’s happening in their community.

Little has changed since 2007. The Shire reforms stumbled along – from chronic failure in the basic financial management systems (see my posts here and here) – to a damning report released two months out from the 2012 election that could only have given heart to the CLP’s campaign.

The Australian’s Natasha Robinson reported in late July:

A report commissioned by the NT government has found that all 11 of the Territory’s so-called supershires, formed when former Aboriginal and other local councils were amalgamated into a new shire system in 2008, are operating with deficit budgets and are financially unsustainable in the long term. The report, by auditors Deloitte, warns of infrastructure backlogs and cuts in service delivery unless the financial position of the councils improves, which seems unlikely without a radical increase in grant funding from the NT and federal governments.

In light of the CLP’s claim that the Shires reform policy was the key to their electoral success the CLP’s one-page Shire Reform policy deserves a closer look.

The CLP identifies three elements as key to their Shires reform policy – giving locals a “real say“; locating service managers in each region (they already are); and “improving business opportunities for Shires and Regional Councils.” Of the mooted Regional Councils details are scant and they will apparently be established where there is “support from a majority of residents” and where “Business modelling” supports a regional council’s “financial sustainability.

What is clear that this policy envisages (another) ‘root and branch‘ overhaul of local government in the NT, most particularly in the bush, but the policy is very short on important details. If this policy is to form the basis of the CLP’s return to power there will be a lot of people out bush, in the public service and in the parliament who will want to see some flesh on these very skinny bones – and soon.

Mills may have won the battle of the election but whether he can control the exultant demands of the CLP parliamentary wing for the spoils of victory is another thing entirely.

At least two of the new members – Garry Higgins in Daly and Bess Price (if she wins Stuart) will have their hands up for Ministries (see the last Henderson Ministry for an idea of how many hats each member wears) and Alison Anderson – previously a Labor Minister for the Arts among other things – will also put in a strong bid.

For mine Mills’ biggest problem will be managing the rise and rise of Dave Tollner and his supporters – which may include several of the new members.

One comment by ex- CLP President Sue Fraser-Adams on Saturday night gave an indication of just how much of the coming man Dave Tollner may be.

Fraser Adams – correcting the interviewer’s statement that she had been the ‘campaign manager‘ for the CLP’s bush-seats campaign – said that the bush campaign had been run by Dave Tollner. If this is correct then Tollner will walk into the first meeting of the new CLP government with some serious political credibility that will be hard to deny.

Finally I made some calls this past week that I got wrong, and for that all I can say is to repeat my words from late Saturday night: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.

On Monday last I wrote:

Absent any dramatic events over the next few days, Paul Henderson’s NT Labor is a shoo-in to win the NT election next Saturday. Not because its policies or political performances are any better than the opposition Country Liberals (they aren’t) or because it has won the battle for the hearts and minds of the NT electorate (what battle?) but because it has sold the party to voters better on screen and in the press.

I was wrong. Mea culpa.

On Friday I wrote:

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.

Again I was wrong. Mea culpa.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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