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What happened in the NT? Arrogance, hubris and complacency

By Ken Parish - posted Friday, 15 August 2008

The day before Saturday's unexpectedly knife-edge NT election, Chief Minister Paul Henderson gave a politically prudent and factually correct assessment of Labor's chances: "A handful of votes in a handful of seats will determine the outcome of this election and I’m fighting very hard to hold each and every of the 19 seats we have."

Yet at the same time his predecessor Clare Martin was scoffing at pundits’ predictions that Labor was likely to lose 3 or 4 seats to the CLP. She didn't think they'd lose any at all, while other ALP insiders were arrogantly dismissing leaked CLP polling showing its candidate narrowly in front in Fannie Bay, and simultaneously backgrounding the media on the alleged possibility that Opposition leader Terry Mills could even lose his seat as Denis Burke had done in 2005.  In fact, Labor lost 6 seats and just scraped back into office, now holding 13 to the CLP's 11 seats with 1 Independent MLA.

This palpable arrogance complacency was typical of the Labor campaign. Moreover, it may well have been a major factor in generating a photo-finish outcome when both parties’ private polling had apparently indicated an easy ALP victory. By conveying the message that Labor would win by a country mile, and that the CLP was a joke and not remotely competitive, the ALP was giving voters who didn't want a CLP government, but had a range of individual gripes with the Henderson government, permission to register a protest vote in the assurance that Labor would win anyway. It was also implicitly if unintentionally telling typical disengaged voters that they might as well enjoy a beautiful dry season day and not bother to vote at all. Quite a few took precisely that message, resulting in voter turnout figures 3 to 5% lower than the usual (and low by national standards) 80% average according to the Electoral Commission. Most of those absent apathetic voters think life is pretty good in the booming Territory and a majority would probably have voted Labor from sheer inertia and familiarity had they bothered to turn up.


A great deal of research will be needed to assess the reasons for Labor's unexpectedly poor showing, but I suspect that this self-inflicted wound may prove to have been decisive. Despite some pundits’ hindsight prognostications about specific Labor strategic errors, there was little that happened during the campaign itself to induce a massive anti-Labor swing.

Moreover, the CLP ran a rather inept campaign, and suggestions that it somehow managed to tap the zeitgeist are fanciful. Terry Mills prattled about educating and rehabilitating prisoners, and promised to slash almost 800 public service jobs in a city with a higher proportion of public servants than anywhere else except Canberra. Meanwhile leadership tensions with ambitious aspirants Dave Tollner and Gary Lambert were unhelpful and the accidental leaking of donation-begging letters carried overtones of disorganisation.

Nevertheless the CLP is now within a single seat of reclaiming government. How could it have happened, Labor is asking itself? Ironically, the CLP's poor campaign might itself have perversely worked in its favour, lulling Labor into an overconfident failure to convey urgency and maximise voter turnout.

Nevertheless, outcomes in the individual seats that have changed hands are relatively easy to understand on their own terms. The Labor-held seats of Goyder and Drysdale were notionally CLP anyway after an unfavourable redistribution, and the Palmerston-based seat of Brennan was held by James Burke by just 0.6%. All three seats were by definition highly vulnerable to any significant anti-Labor swing, which was almost inevitable given that 2005 was a historic high water mark in the ALP vote. That, together with the fact that the Alice Springs seat of Braitling was also set to return to the CLP with the retirement of Independent MLA Loraine Braham, led me to tip that the CLP would pick up about 4 seats.

Port Darwin was also vulnerable, being held on a margin of 1.9%.  Labor would have held it with incumbency against a 5% swing (which is what most observers expected), but with a 9% overall swing it too was a CLP gain. Unlike elections in larger states, there are no publicly released opinion polls from which pundits can make anything more reliable than educated guesses about likely swings.

Retiring former Chief Minister Clare Martin's seat of Fannie Bay was also potentially vulnerable to a larger than expected overall swing with the loss of her incumbency, given a high profile CLP candidate in ex Lord Mayor Gary Lambert. Fannie Bay was former CLP Chief Minister Marshall Perron's seat before Martin won it in a 1995 by-election when Perron retired. Consisting of mostly well-heeled middle class residents, it isn't natural ALP heartland, despite the 15.7% margin by which Clare Martin held it.   In the end Labor just managed to retain Fannie Bay, and hence government, by a margin of just over 60 votes.


The two CLP gains I didn't predict were the seats of Fong Lim and Sanderson. Fong Lim is a new seat consisting of the southern part of the old seat of Millner and the McMansions and canal estate areas of Bayview and Woolner. Sitting Millner MLA Matthew Bonson held Fong Lim on a notional margin of 11.5%, but he didn't have any incumbency advantage in Bayview/Woolner and his margin in the former Millner areas was artificially inflated by a CLP split at the 2005 election. Previous CLP Millner MLA Phil Mitchell (who had lost to Bonson in 2001) stood as an Independent after failing to gain pre-selection while official CLP candidate Paul Mossman ran an astonishingly inept campaign. This was never going to be repeated in 2008, with the CLP running a very strong and high profile candidate in former Solomon MHR Dave Tollner.  Fong Lim was much more vulnerable than the figures showed.

Lastly, the seat of Sanderson would probably have remained safe for Labor had it not been for the long tongue of MLA Len Kiely. He disgraced himself a couple of years ago by drunkenly "propositioning" a security guard at a Marrara Stadium function, allegedly telling her that "I have a long tongue and I can make you a very happy woman". Kiely was consigned to the parliamentary sin bin for a year then unwisely reinstated to the Ministry by Paul Henderson late last year. Labor's arrogance and Kiely's repulsive behaviour clearly weren't forgotten, especially after his security guard victim letterboxed the entire electorate last week urging Sanderson voters to put Labor last. Quite a few did, and Kiely was ejected with an anti-Labor swing of more than 20%.

In summary, it's relatively easy with the benefit of hindsight to see why particular ALP seats were lost. The underlying global swing of 9% is the aspect that really needs analysis. Was it a strong CLP campaign or a poorly conceived Labor one? A backlash against Henderson's cynical calling of a very early election on the flimsy pretext of securing a huge LNG project that the CLP supports anyway (after initial flip-flopping)? Was there pre-existing voter resentment that somehow wasn't detected by Labor's private polling?  Was it a reaction against the ALP being in government everywhere following Kevin Rudd's victory late last year? Somehow I doubt that any of those factors were decisive, though some may have played a role. I suspect it was in considerable part an avoidable "own goal" born of arrogance, hubris and complacency; a carbon copy of the Burke CLP government's election-losing performance in 2001 but with a less terminal outcome.

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About the Author

Ken Parish is a Darwin-based lawyer and former Labor member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. He now teaches (mostly public law subjects) at Charles Darwin University, where he founded Australia's first fully online external law degree program. Ken is no longer associated with any political party, describing himself as a "committed sceptic".

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