By rights, the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party leader Terry Mills should have won government 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 party reduced to a rump of four MLAs.

Henderson paid the price for bad choices and worse advice and just squeaked home 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 advisers — and realised that government 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% 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 Stuartwhere 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% 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 of 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 60 or s0 small community government councils into 11 “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 local councils allowed local “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.