NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner (left) and Territory Alliance leader Terry Mills (right) (Images: AAP/Charlie Bliss, AAP/Aaron Bunch)

Saturday’s election in the Northern Territory produced a result to warm the hearts of incumbents the nation over, as a shambolic government presiding over a moribund economy secured what looks to have been a comfortable win.

The result may not have put mutterings about Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s hold on the Labor leadership to rest, but his one-note campaign on COVID-19 undoubtedly did the job, despite drawing attention to the fact that the government’s record had little else to commend it.

The exact scale of the win is still unclear, with at least a mathematical possibility remaining that Labor will fall short of a clear majority of 13 seats out of 25.

In addition to several tight contests, a number of seats remain in doubt because the wrong candidates were picked for the indicative two-candidate preference counts conducted on election night.

These particular mysteries should be solved when fresh preference counts are conducted today, and the likelihood is that they will push Labor’s present tally of 12 seats to 13, 14 or perhaps even 15 seats.

The Country Liberal Party (CLP) opposition nonetheless looks like restoring some normality to Territory politics, after being reduced to a rump of two seats in the debacle of 2016.

The party’s leader, Lia Finocchiaro, owed her position to the fact that there was literally no one else to fill it, with her colleague Gary Higgins handing the reins to her in February after announcing his impending retirement.

If nothing else, Finocchiaro has proved herself a luckier leader than Adam Giles, who led the party into the mincer in 2016, with most of the close races looking likely to land the CLP’s way this time.

Only five seats are in the bag, but today’s counts will more than likely add another one or two to that, and there is still a best case scenario where they make it to nine.

Each of the CLP’s gains is a reversion to type, with normally safe seats in Alice Springs, Katherine and the fringes of Darwin returning to the fold after the once-in-a-lifetime disaster of 2016.

However, Labor looks like retaining its lock on the nine seats of Darwin, holding on to a seat in traditionally unwelcoming Palmerston, and winning three or four of the five indigenous majority seats, where their competition comes from independents rather than the CLP.

With Labor back in power, and the CLP at least restoring credibility to the scoreboard, the biggest loser was undoubtedly Terry Mills, the former CLP chief minister who made a go of it with his own party, the Territory Alliance.

Mills was unceremoniously dumped in his Palmerston seat of Blain, which he won as an independent in 2016, managing only a distant third behind both the CLP and Labor.

Of the other two crossbenchers to have joined the new party, former Labor MP Jeff Collins proved uncompetitive in his Darwin seat of Fong Lim, and one-time CLP deputy leader Robyn Lambley is precariously placed in her Alice Springs seat of Araluen, which she had no trouble retaining as an independent in 2016.

The party’s place in the crowded graveyard of failed third-party ventures should serve as another lesson for independent and minor party MPs of the dangers of developing grandiose notions.

Whereas Australia’s two genuinely successful minor parties, the Greens and One Nation, have been representative of international trends in environmentalist and anti-migrant politics, Mills was the latest in a long line of political entrepreneurs offering a fresh alternative as an end in itself.

Other case studies have included Clive Palmer, whose expensively bought electoral success in 2013 proved short-lived; Nick Xenophon, a once all-conquering figure who returned to civilian life after the comprehensive failure of his bid to gatecrash the South Australian election in 2018; and Jacqui Lambie, whose party failed to trouble the scoreboard when it sought to launch itself upon state politics in Tasmania.

Like the Judean People’s Front before it, the Territory Alliance today stands condemned as mere splitters, whose only accomplishment has been muddying the conservative waters and helping to facilitate the return of a largely unpopular Labor government.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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