Three weeks ago, I again showed my inestimable worth by thumbing my nose at local opinion, which mostly seemed of the view that Paul Henderson’s Northern Territory government was a strong chance of re-election, and boldly proclaimed that my money was “firmly on the Country Liberal Party”. Now that Terry Mills has indeed led his party to only the second change of government since the Territory began taking care of its own affairs in 1974, I stand proudly and triumphantly vindicated.

Or so I would like to believe. However, the honest truth is that Labor has retained nearly every seat I identified as vulnerable for them, in most cases by fairly handsome margins. The other psephological pundit who tipped a big CLP win well ahead of time was Peter Brent of Mumble, who wisely painted his prediction with a broad brush and would no doubt have been as surprised by the manner of the CLP’s victory as the rest of us.

The real story of the election — that Labor did what it needed to do where every past Territory election has been decided, but was blindsided by a collapse in once rock-solid Aboriginal communities — was heralded by nobody, and those of us who correctly tipped the result got there purely by accident.

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With one seat still in doubt, the most likely result is that Labor will emerge with nine seats compared to the 13 it won at the 2008 election, while the Country Liberals will go from 11 to 15 (the remaining seat of Nelson having been retained by independent Gerry Wood). Remarkably, every one of the four seats that have shifted from the red to the blue column is among the seven in which Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders account for more than 40% of the population.

Not the least of the consequences of this is a dramatic change in the complexion of indigenous representation in the Parliament. Whereas Labor’s complement of indigenous members progressed from two to five over the course of its electoral triumphs in 2001 and 2005, the first such member representing the Country Liberals did not emerge until 2008. Assuming Bess Price maintains her narrow lead in Stuart, the new Parliament will have four Country Liberal members of indigenous heritage, while Labor has been reduced to one.

Armed with the benefit of hindsight, I can now see clear portents of Labor’s unfolding disaster in remote-area federal and Territory election results going back over the past decade. The figures below tell a compelling story of an already strong Labor vote going through the roof after the Howard government introduced the intervention in 2007, but progressively collapsing thereafter.

2004 Federal 74% 18% 79%
2005 Territory 67% 26% 72%
2007 Federal 84% 10% 88%
2008 Territory 61% 31% 67%
2010 Federal 47% 24% 60%
2012 Territory 42% 44% 50%

The favoured explanations for this snowballing disaffection cover a mix of federal and Territory issues. Clearly the intervention has ceased entirely to be of electoral benefit to Labor now that the federal government has taken ownership of it, although the party political dimensions of this are inevitably rather confused — among the victorious CLP candidates were two prominent advocates of the intervention in Alison Anderson and Bess Price. The troubled Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program is also said to have dealt a body blow to Labor’s standing in the bush.

At Territory level, sweeping council amalgamations have proved enormously unpopular, placing greater distance between communities and centres of decision-making. There is also no doubt that the Country Liberals smartly capitalised on these opportunities by identifying candidates well placed to take advantage of them and allocating significant resources to their campaigns.

However, it’s interesting to note that the swing in remote electorates was not monolithic. Two seats in particular produced only middling swings against Labor: Barkly, including Tennant Creek and the Territory’s eastern regions, where Gerry McCarthy suffered a 7.0% swing and won by 8.6%; and Nhulunbuy in the north, where the swing against Lynne Walker was just 5.0%, leaving her with a handsome margin of 19.2%. Owing to barriers of language, distance and communications, a distant observer such as myself can only speculate as to why this might have been. However, there is one point of distinction between the two better performing Labor candidates and the other four, which is immediately obvious to all: they’re white.

If that doesn’t seem an obvious asset in such electorates, an interesting complexion on the matter is offered by pre-election reports regarding Country Liberal tactics. Locally well-connected Crikey blogger Bob Gosford spoke 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”, which revolved around “the use of intra-racial and cultural slurs … used to describe light-skinned Aboriginal people”. This was supported by First Nations party candidate Warren H. Williams, who told Fairfax’s Russell Skelton of “vicious” personal attacks being made against a Labor candidate at a remote polling station.

While a sensibly cynical observer would guess that games of this kind are played by both sides, the claims do, as our friends in the press gallery like to say, raise questions. As Gosford notes: “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.” It will be interesting to see what, if anything, turns up.”

While the remote electorates inevitably take pride of place in any post-mortem of the result, the implications of Labor’s strong performance in Darwin should not be entirely overlooked. The swing against Labor in the capital was a modest 3.5%, which was not distributed in such a way as to cost it any seats. Darwin ranks second only to Canberra for concentration of public servants, and Labor and Unions NT ran hard on Terry Mills’ inconsistent position on job cuts and the record of conservative governments elsewhere. Clearly this had some effect, which should offer Labor further encouragement as to the potency of the Campbell Newman factor.

On a more speculative note, another potential federal implication is that Labor now has a locally well-regarded former Chief Minister looking for a new line of work, whose resume looks a perfect fit for the vacant position of federal candidate for Solomon.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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