The reaction of many people on hearing the news that Labor looked like winning government in the Northern Territory for the first time was one of astonishment and even disbelief. The comment of one frequent contributor to the Onlineopinions forum pages was typical: "The ALP simply does not win Northern Territory elections - history shows that."
Certainly the prospect of Labor winning in the Territory has always seemed an impossible dream, even to ALP insiders. However, with the invaluable benefit of hindsight, that was only because it had never happened. Darwin has always been theoretically very winnable for Labor, and the ALP has consistently enjoyed solid majorities in most
rural (and predominantly Aboriginal) electorates. Darwin's northern suburbs are demographically similar to Labor heartland outer urban seats throughout Australia. The profile is somewhat younger, with slightly higher incomes and greater ethnic diversity, but those are not factors one would normally expect to count against the ALP.
Many observers in "the south" (as we Territorians regard the rest of Australia) have assumed that the CLP's dominance reflected a population made up of drunken, racist rednecks. However, that has never been true. This assumption has been a distressing phenomenon for those (like me) who love the
Territory and regard it as the best place in Australia to live and raise a family. We have a 13-year-old adopted daughter of Asian ethnic origin, and we know from personal experience that Darwin is a far more tolerant, ethnically diverse, and "unracist" place than any other Australian city.
The reasons for the CLP's 26-year dominance of Territory politics are much more complex than might be suggested by such simple-minded caricatures. The party that won the first election after Territory self-government in 1978 was always going to have a flying start on the loser. The Fraser government was pouring massive and generous funding
into the Territory, for the rebuilding of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy. The newly-elected CLP government was able to bask in the reflected glory and take credit for this amazing Federal largesse, then later reposition itself to take equal credit for "standing up for Territorians" when the Hawke government began cutting this exceptional
funding back to more normal (but still generous) levels.
Just as importantly, the combination of incumbency and tiny seats has made the CLP's position look all but impregnable until now. Territory electorates typically have a little over 4,000 voters, meaning that a local member can develop a somewhat personal relationship with almost every one of them. On the other hand, that assumption may now
have to be re-examined too. Several of the CLP members who lost their Darwin seats (notably Mick Palmer, Phil Mitchell, Steve Balche and Peter Adamson) had been in office for a number of years, and the much-vaunted personal relationship with their constituents had no measurable effect on
the outcome. The percentage swing against the CLP was just as strong (around 8%) in seats with incumbent members as in those where a new CLP candidate was standing following the retirement of a sitting member (e.g. the seats of Nightcliff and Sanderson).
The other main factors in the CLP's 26-year dominance have been its shameless use of "pork-barrelling" and its unerring ability to identify (or create) "hot button" issues and exploit them ruthlessly for electoral gain. Of course, the CLP is hardly alone among governments in its use of "pork-barrelling". But
the combination of small seats, rural Aboriginal constituencies that could safely be ignored (because the CLP was never going to win them anyway) and generous federal funding meant that it was able to spread the pork around rather more liberally than most other states can manage.
Similarly, the CLP's ability to find "hot button" issues has been a remarkable feature of its success. Most, though not all, of these issues have focused on (and perhaps helped to foster) the racial divide between Aboriginal people and everyone else. The most recent and obvious example has been mandatory sentencing: the CLP's
blatantly race-based "law and order" campaign was the key factor in allowing it to win the last Territory election in 1997, despite evident and increasing unpopularity.
The 1994 election (which both parties' private polling showed the ALP could have won) had been an even more spectacular example of the awesomely effective CLP political machine in action. A saturation negative mass-media advertising campaign was followed by a carefully choreographed native title claim on Darwin, announced in a blaze of
media publicity only three days out from the election. Finally, two days before election day (and after the media blackout had begun) the American-invented "push polling" technique was employed for the first time anywhere in Australia. It was devastatingly effective, and the CLP swept back into office with an increased majority,
despite being saddled with a series of financial disasters much larger comparatively than WA Inc, State Bank of South Australia, or Tricontinental (each of which had led directly to the downfall of the responsible State government). It was perhaps this victory, more than any other, which created the myth of CLP invincibility.
So what was it that made the wheels fall off this amazingly successful CLP political machine? The roots of the malaise can be traced back to former Chief Minister Shane Stone's unsuccessful 1998 Statehood Referendum. Territorians learned that they could vote against the CLP and the sky wouldn't fall. More importantly, the Referendum loss
led directly to Stone's overthrow and replacement by the less overtly arrogant Denis Burke. Despite a bloodless and typically efficient coup, huge internal divisions in the CLP were opened up, and have never healed. Stone (who is now Federal Liberal Party President) continues to enjoy strong support in some sections of the CLP, and many of
those people never swung in behind Burke's leadership. No less than four former senior CLP figures deserted the Party and stood as Independents in last week's election. The CLP portrayed them as "sore losers" who had missed out on pre-selection, but the impression of a party bitterly divided was palpable. The CLP even disendorsed its
only sitting Federal member, Senator Grant Tambling, only a couple of months ago, for daring to vote in favour of the Coalition's anti-Internet gaming legislation (former Chief Minister Marshall Perron is said to be a significant shareholder in one of the Internet gaming operations). Tambling immediately launched a court challenge against the
disendorsement decision, which was due to be heard in the Supreme Court only days after the Territory election.
These evident bitter internal divisions were clearly an important factor in the CLP loss: people don't vote for a divided party, a fact the Federal Coalition learned to its cost while Howard and Peacock were fighting for political ascendancy. However, even worse was the end result of fiscal decisions, particularly the impact of having to
absorb almost $200 million in subsidies for the fabled Darwin-Alice Springs railway. It is now clear that Burke had planned to coast back into office on a wave of pro-development euphoria following the commencement of the railway project and the clinching of a deal to pipe gas onshore from the huge Timor sea gas fields (a multi-billion dollar
project). The CLP's election campaign was launched with a glossy full colour brochure on the gas project delivered into every home in Darwin. However, within 24 hours Phillips Petroleum announced that the project had been shelved indefinitely, due primarily to escalating revenue demands by East Timor. Burke must have known this was about to
happen, and his decision to call an election in such a situation can only be described as bizarre. Whether it sprang from arrogance or panic is something only the CLP inner circle currently knows.
The $200 million Darwin-Alice Springs railway subsidy had another immediate effect on the political outcome, one that most commentators have so far not fully appreciated. After years of extravagant federal-financed spending (e.g. a $100 million Parliament House for 25 politicians who sit for just over 30 days per year), the CLP no longer
had any money in its kitty for the usual lavish "pork-barrelling" exercise, while at the same time the benefits of the railway itself are yet to be felt.
A more diffuse but nonetheless real factor has been a general slowing in Territory economic growth, most clearly seen in flat and even falling real property prices and a slight increase in the unemployment rate. The flat spot has been caused partly by the end of the decade-long defence build-up in the north (capital spending for which has
underpinned Territory development), and the need for the CLP government to rein in its own ordinary capital works spending so that it could deliver the massive railway subsidy without destroying its budget. As a party which had always marketed itself as the deliverer of growth, prosperity and jobs, 18 months of economic stagnation seemed less
than a glowing advertisement for its much-vaunted managerial competence.