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Northern Territory

Sep 8, 2017

How the ‘dysfunctional’ Country Liberal Party lost the Northern Territory

It's a long, slow march back to power for the CLP.

Bob Gosford — Editor of The Northern Myth

Bob Gosford

Editor of The Northern Myth

Former Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles concedes defeat in the 2016 state election.

Top of the reading list for delegates at this weekend’s central council meeting of the Northern Territory’s Country Liberal Party will be the excoriating review — prepared by former federal Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane and former federal Nationals director Scott Mitchell — of the CLP’s abject failure at the 2016 NT election.

Loughnane and Mitchell don’t waste much time sugar-coating the message to CLP members, noting “significant problems” with the 2016 campaign, caused in no small part by the “dysfunctional nature of the [CLP] government and the party” between 2012 and 2016 during which the CLP had two chief ministers, six deputy chief ministers and numerous re-shuffles and that ended with the parliamentary wing of the CLP reduced to a rump of two MLAs.

The Loughnane-Mitchell report — commissioned by current CLP president and former NT chief minister Shane Stone — draws in no small part from submissions by the CLP’s sorely tested faithful members. One submission recorded the “depressing reading” in a “chronology of destruction” leading up to the 2016 poll, including this assessment of the performance of the parliamentary wing:

“There were sexual misadventures, allegations of corruption, an expressed want of confidence in the NT Police, slurs against colleagues and staff, defections, perceived conflicts of interest, a failed clumsy attempt to dislodge Adam Giles as Chief Minister capped by the Don Dale controversy. While not a complete list, any of these would alone have been enough to derail a government and when coupled with a general failure to communicate effectively on policies and decisions compounded the disengagement of the electorate from the government.”

And while the Parliamentary wing was divided against itself, it was also alienated from the CLP’s administrative wing, itself criticised as ineffective, with Central Council meetings described as farcical. Key policy and legislative decisions — not least the changes to the NT Electoral Act that introduced optional preferential voting and kicked a CLP “own goal” at the 2016 poll — were criticised as naive at best.

The CLP’s 2016 election campaign was a shambles. Loughnane and Mitchell describe a “rudderless” and dramatically underfunded campaign. The Northern Myth understands that, notwithstanding the repeated assurances during the campaign that the CLP had a campaign war chest of $1 million, it was only after the election that the party’s campaign debt of around $500,000 was revealed.

Another CLP own goal, and one that gave the party no end of well-deserved grief and provided months of sport for local media (and for The Northern Myth), was how poorly the CLP handled the rolling controversy that swirled around Foundation 51, a CLP fundraising body that was often described as a slush fund. The party’s woes around Foundation 51 will apparently have a long tail, with the fundraiser a key target of retired judge John Mansfield’s inquiry into NT political donations.

Unsurprisingly given the scale of the defeat, Loughnane and Mitchell save their harshest criticisms for the CLP’s performance in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Noting that numerous signs pointing to a crushing electoral defeat were visible well before the August 2016 election, they pull no punches:

“… from polling from as early February 2014 … it became very clear that the Chief Minster [Adam Giles] was a definite negative … [t]his extraordinary situation should have had members of the Parliamentary Wing deeply concerned. A subsequent poll in June 2015 showed that the Giles Government was in serious trouble, with both Giles and Tollner recording very high disapproval ratings.

“In summary, successive polling from a range of sources from 2014 to 2016 indicated that the Chief Minster’s negative position continued to deteriorate. The Parliamentary leadership appear to have been dismissive of the polling … Candidates door knocking reported back a hostile reception on the door step long before Election Day … It was clearly unfortunate that those charged with the campaign and in the Party leadership were in such denial. Quite apart from the polling there were other indicators of defeat that the Party should have been alert to.”

Loughnane and Mitchell identify two other key elements that contributed to the CLP’s failure at the 2016 election. The first is that — remarkably — the CLP actually lost membership while in government between 2012 and 2016, a decline that “mirrors the upheaval and dysfunction in Government and the Party” and that “appears to have escaped all who should have had a vital interest in such matters”.

The other element concerns the political and reputational costs associated with necking an elected leader.

“Political parties must understand and weigh the transactional costs associated with deposing an elected leader with a mandate. Terry Mills whatever his perceived shortcomings was a mere 8 months into his first term as Chief Minister. Adam Giles never had a mandate and never recovered from the various antics that beset his Government from the outset. It is critically important that those elected to leadership positions and appointed to Ministerial office have the necessary skill set to serve. The criticism of the Administrative Wing applies to all from the then President to Central Council. To requote one correspondent ‘we let it happen’.”

Notwithstanding this doom and gloom, Loughnane and Mitchell retain some modest faith in the CLP’s capacity to remake itself and return to government, noting that the CLP:

“… has a unique opportunity to rebuild from the ground up and return to Government. The CL still retained 30% of the primary vote. This is a solid core to work from. There is a political cycle and although a long march lies ahead the CL will return to Government and predictions of the Party’s demise have already been proved wrong … It is time to move on; the CL[P] owes it to Territorians to rebuild and once again offer a strong alternate Government which can take the Territory to a brighter future.”

How long that march into a brighter future might take will, in large part, be determined by the CLP’s Central Council meeting this weekend in Darwin.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Northern Myth

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4 thoughts on “How the ‘dysfunctional’ Country Liberal Party lost the Northern Territory

  1. graybul

    Whatever the right or wrongs that led the Party to being so deservedly “snotted” . . . it is overtime to re-engage with the electorate at large. These are increasingly unpredictable times and Territorians deserve/need, a far better deal/governance, no matter which ideology reigns.

    Whilst neither a member/supporter. I believe in good governance and am not too fussed so long as that is the end result. It may be a long and painful road back for CLP; but more so for the Territory. So, sans invitation here’s a few priorities from someone ‘outside the tent.’

    1 CLP should identify at least three individuals possessive of genuine leadership potential i.e. Chief Ministerial. If three can’t be found; don’t grasp for power.
    2 Ensure professional mentoring of prospective candidates is available.
    3 Ensure said candidates closely engage with all prospective Ministerial hopefuls.
    4 Ensure the administrative wing cultivates competency, vision and unity at every step.

  2. Pedantic, Balwyn

    Anyone watching Adam Giles on Fox News programs would rapidly come to the conclusion that the guy is all over the place; his arguments lack coherence and invariably lack any purpose that would serve the better interests of his “former” electorate. Not sure how Loughnane and Mitchell can have any faith in the CLP recovering whilst Giles and kindred spirits remain in the Party.

  3. klewso

    The CLP ‘Last Chance Salon’?

  4. Bob the builder

    The CLP will always have a future in the NT as long as there is a rump of racists in the urban centres. Even in Katherine, which they lost for the first time ever, they still got a decent primary vote, despite a former prominent member standing as an independent, widespread concern about fracking from across the political spectrum and the sitting Member having committed a range of sins in his personal, financial and political life. With all that, Labor only just squeezed in and I’d be surprised if they’re re-elected, no matter how good the local Member is.

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