There is now a very real question as to whether the Northern Territory general election on August 25 — and in the bush mobile polling booths in the fortnight before — was the dirtiest election we’ve seen in the NT’s short self-governing history.

As I wrote about past elections the day before this year’s poll:

“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.”

Terry Mills, leader of the victorious Country Liberal Party, was short on detail when he responded to early allegations from Labor’s new leader Delia Lawrie of bad play in this year’s poll by the CLP in the bush, Mills accusing Labor of being “the party of dirty tricks”.

I could go on for some length about the argy-bargy that went on in the bush — and the towns — during this year’s election. But all that was but fun and games compared to some very serious allegations that have emerged that go to conduct not by the parties but by NT Electoral Commission officers charged with getting in the vote.

I’ve been closely involved in the conduct of a couple of elections in the NT. In the mid-1990s I worked on two federal elections, one as a team member, one as the leader of a small group of three core electoral staff at remote polling stations. On both occasions we had a great time in light planes for a week or two. Sometimes we’d take votes at two or three small communities or cattle stations in a day, picking up local interpreters and assistants at each place as needed.

All of the core staff had a couple of days training in Darwin and we were all thoroughly vetted for political bias and drilled in the finer points of law and policy involved in the proper conduct of an election in what could occasionally be tense or trying situations.

The local staff — the interpreters and assistants picked up for the day at most mobile booths — played a crucial role, but only received basic instructions as and where possible. They were the people who advised us about the complex arrangements required to ensure that “wrong-skin” people didn’t find themselves in too-close company inside the booth, they’d help with language and gender issues and they’d be the go-to people of choice in a minor crisis.

The first I heard of the serious allegations of misconduct during this year’s NT election was three days after the poll in an ABC Radio piece that reported Labor’s formal complaint about the behaviour of a polling official or two at the small township of Nyirripi, 500 kilometres or so west of Alice Springs in the Central Desert. Nyirripi is in the seat of Stuart, won by the CLP’s Bess Price.

There, a polling official was alleged to be directing people to vote for the CLP candidate while that official was performing their official duties. I also understand that person was alleged to be checking with people that they had actually voted as directed.

I’ve heard of another allegation of similar conduct by a locally engaged polling official at the large Aboriginal town of Wadeye, south-west of Darwin. Wadeye is in the seat of Daly, won by the CLP’s Gary Higgins and the first of Labor’s remote seats to fall.

In relation to that allegation, I asked the NT Electoral Commission: “As I understand it at the Wadeye booth on August 25 (or at a nearby mobile booth or booths) the NT EC engaged a local interpreter/assistant by the name of XXXX XXXX … I am informed the person prompted or told people in language that they should vote for the CLP.”

I also asked the NT Electoral Commission to confirm whether any specific complaints had been made about these matters and whether they had started or were considering any formal investigations into the alleged conduct. Despite a verbal assurance that I would get a response later that day, I heard nothing further. I asked again on September 10 and again yesterday morning. I’m not alone in the media — locally or nationally — in getting little of any value out of the NT Electoral Commission in response to serious questions.