The Northern Territory goes to the polls on 22 August this year with the Gunner Labor government seeking re-election against the backdrop of a stagnant local economy and problems with the Territory’s public finances.
While this will be a tough environment for a first term government, Labor is helped by the weakened state of the opposition Country Liberal Party after its spectacular ejection from office in 2016.
The 2020 election will be fought on new electoral boundaries released last September. On paper the boundaries cost Labor a seat, but also boost the party’s prospects in two marginal seats.
But margins matter little in the Northern Territory given the average enrolment per electorate is only 5,500. This creates geographically huge electorates in the sparsely populated outback, but tiny seats of a few dozen streets in Darwin and Palmerston. Candidate profile is as important as party vote in determining who wins seats in the Northern Territory, especially after redistributions.
The 2016 Result
The defeat of the Henderson government in 2012 ending 11 years of Labor administration looked to have restored the old order. Labor was back in opposition and the once dominant Country Liberal Party (CLP) back in office.
The 2012 election delivered the Country Liberals 16 of the 25 Legislative Assembly seats. Labor was left with just eight seats, the final seat held by Independent Gerry Wood.
But anyone familiar with NT politics could see the electoral basis of the CLP’s 2012 victory was very different from its long period in office from 1974 to 2001. Where once the CLP’s grip on suburban seats in Darwin kept it in office, victory in 2012 was by gaining the remote seats of Arafura, Arnhem, Namatjira and Stuart. The economic and social problems of the majority Aboriginal population in these remote seats was very different from those in relatively affluent urban seats.
These differences eventually tore the CLP government apart, producing coups and counter coups, a revolving door ministry, and the departure of enough members to force the government into minority. If you want to know the lurid details of the CLP government that Chief Minister Adam Giles took to the polls in 2016, check out my preview of the 2016 NT election.
The table below summarises the results of the 2016 election and show the thrashing dished out to the CLP by voters. The swing elected Labor to office with 18 of the 25 Assembly seats while the CLP was reduced to just two seats. Five Independents were elected, three of whom had past links to and scores to settle with the Country Liberals.
2016 Northern Territory Election Result
|Australian Labor Party||25||18||+10||41,476||42.19||+5.74|
|1 Territory Party||13||..||..||3,520||3.58||+3.58|
|Shooters and Fishers||2||..||..||523||0.53||+0.53|
|Citizens Electoral Council||4||..||..||189||0.19||+0.19|
|Total Votes / Turnout||100,304||74.02||-2.89|
Note that seat changes are compared to the 2012 election and do not take account of members switching party. I’ve prepared a statistical summary of the 2016 election results that you can find here.
Compared to the 2012 election, the CLP lost 14 of its 16 seats. Labor won back all the remote districts it had lost, won rare victories in Palmerston, and broke into Alice Springs for the first time by defeating Chief Minister Adam Giles in his seat of Braitling. Labor astonished by also winning Katherine.
Two of the four CLP defectors were re-elected, Kezia Purick in Goyder and Robyn Lambley in Araluen. Joining them on the cross bench were former Chief Minister Terry Mills, winning back his old seat of Blain as an Independent, and Yinglya Mark Guyula, who narrowly defeated Labor’s Deputy Leader Lynne Walker in Nhulunbuy.
Since the 2016 election, Labor has suffered its own defections with Ken Vowles (Johnston), Jeff Collins (Fong Lim) and Scott McConnell (Stuart) moving to the crossbench. Labor will soon face a by-election in the northern Darwin seat of Johnston with Ken Vowles resigning, while McConnell will not contest the next election.
Terry Mills, elected as an Independent in 2016, has since founded a new party, the Territory Alliance.
The new boundaries mainly tinker with existing lines, except in the case of Namatjira. Rapid enrolment growth in Alice Springs has pulled Namatjira into more conservative voting urban areas of Alice Springs while transferring Labor voting remote districts into other electorates. Labor MP Chansey Paech won Namatjira with a margin of 8.5% in 2016, but on the new boundaries the seat appears to have a 2.0% CLP margin. That doesn’t mean Paech stands no chance of holding the seat. Incumbency is a powerful force in NT politics.
Labor’s position is strengthened in its two surprise gains in 2016, the Labor margin in Braiting boosted from 0.3% to 3.0%, and Katherine from 0.5% to 1.6%. Even with this boost, Labor’s poor past record in Alice Springs and Katherine suggests it will be hard for Labor to hold both seats.
Ignoring party resignations, and noting that Namatjira notionally switches from Labor to CLP, the electoral pendulum for the next election is set out below.
Electoral Pendulum for 2020 Election
|Labor Seats (17)||Country Liberal Seats (3)|
|ALP 1.6||Katherine||CLP 1.7||Daly|
|ALP 2.6||Brennan||CLP 2.0||Namatjira (Labor MP)|
|ALP 2.8||Port Darwin||CLP 15.3||Spillett|
|ALP 5.2||Drysdale||Independent Seats (5)|
|ALP 5.6||Fong Lim||IND 0.1||Mulka (v ALP)|
|ALP 7.3||Arafura||IND 1.4||Blain (v CLP)|
|ALP 10.5||Sanderson||IND 8.6||Araluen (v CLP)|
|ALP 10.5||Arnhem||IND 23.0||Nelson (v CLP)|
|ALP 11.5||Casuarina||IND 25.3||Goyder (v CLP)|
|ALP 12.5||Fannie Bay|
Of the 17 seats listed on the Labor side of the pendulum, the first five are seats that Labor has only won at landslide elections. A reversion to more normal voting patterns would see Labor lose these seats, reducing the government to only 12 seats. Such a scenario makes the seats of Namatjira and Mulka (formerly Nhulunbuy) critically important.
Labor pre-selection for Namatjira could be crucial. Current MP Chansey Paech has expressed a desire to switch to Gwoja (formerly Stuart), but the Labor Party might prefer him to stay and fight to retain Namatjira on its new boundaries.
In Mulka, former Labor Deputy Leader Lynne Walker will try to avenge her eight vote defeat by Independent Yinglya Mark Guyula in 2016.
Two other seats to watch are Daly and Nelson. In Daly, the CLP’s Gary Higgins is retiring and the seat will be vulnerable given the size of his personal vote in Wadeye at the 2016 election. In Nelson, the CLP should regain this safe conservative seat with the retirement of Gerry Wood, though the area has a long history of electing Independents.
If Labor loses its majority in August, a hung parliament becomes a strong possibility given the size of the cross bench.
The table below sets out the old and new margin in each seat with a brief summary of the major change brought about by the redistribution.
Summary of Redistribution Changes
|Change in Margin||Notes on Changes|
|Old||ALP 4.7||Strengthened for Labor with the transfer of around 600 voters in Jabiru and Kakadu National Park from Arnhem.|
|Old||IND 8.2 v CLP||Loses around 700 voters to neighbouring Braitling and Namatjira, slightly increasing the margin of Independent MLA Robyn Lambley. The estimated CLP two-party margin increases from 5.3% to 5.7%.|
|New||IND 8.6 v CLP|
|Old||ALP 14.3||Loses around 600 voters in Jabiru and Kakadu National Parl to Arafura. Gains a similar number of voters from Barkly.|
|Old||ALP 12.2||Loses around 600 voters in the north to Arnhem while gaining around 1200 voters in Central Australia from Namatjira and Stuarty (Gwoja).|
|Old||IND 1.4 v ALP||Loses around 300 voters in Rosebery to Brennan but the margin of Independent Terry Mills is unchanged. The estimated Labor 2-party margin increases slightly from 4.8% to 5.0%.|
|New||IND 1.4 v ALP|
|Old||ALP 0.3||Loses around 1800 voters including the suburb of Larapinta to Namatjira while gaining around 300 voters from Araluen. These changes boost the Labor margin from a narrow 0.3% to an estimated 3.0%.|
|Old||ALP 2.6||Gains around 300 voters in Rosebery from Blain but the Labor margin is unchanged.|
|Old||ALP 11.3||Only minor changes, gaining around 240 Alawa voters from Johnston and around 120 in Muirhead from Wanguri.|
|Old||CLP 2.1||Gains around 230 remote voters in the south from Stuart.|
|Old||ALP 5.2||Margin unchanged with only a minor boundary adjustment involving only around 40 voters.|
|Old||ALP 14.2||Gains the rest of Ludmilla from Fong Lim while losing the rest of Coconut Grove to Johnston and Nightcliffe.|
|Old||ALP 7.8||Loses Ludmilla to Fannie Bay while gaining The Narrows, Winnellie and parts of Berrimah from Spillett.|
|Old||IND 25.3 v CLP||Unchanged. The estimated Labor 2-party margin was 2.0% v CLP.|
|New||IND 25.3 v CLP|
|Gwoja (formerly Stuart)|
|Old||ALP 25.4||Now runs from the South Australian border to Joseph Bonaparte Gulf. Gains around 1,100 voters in the far south of the Territory from Namatjira, losing voters further north to Barkly and Daly.|
|Old||ALP 14.7||Loses a part of Alawa to Casuarina and gains parts of Coconut Grove from Fannie Bay.|
|Old||ALP 13.0||Gains around 200 voters south of McMillans Road from Spillett. Note that in 2016, the Labor margin versus Independent ex-Labor MP Delia Lawrie was only 0.8%.|
|Old||ALP 0.5||Loses 600 voters including the Tindal Air Base to Arnhem.|
|Mulka (formerly Nhulunbuy)|
|Old||IND 0.1 v ALP||Unchanged. The Labor 2-party margin is 15.9%.|
|New||IND 0.1 v ALP|
|Old||ALP 8.5||Radically altered, losing extensive remote areas with a large indigenous population to Gqoja and Barkly, while gaining a number of Alice Springs suburbs. Based on 2016 voting patterns, this wipes out Laor’s 8.5%, the seat transformed into a notional CLP seat with a margin of 2.0%.|
|Old||IND 23.0 v CLP||Unchanged. Sitting Independent MLA Gerry Wood has announced he will not contest the 2020 election. The CLP 2-party margin is 7.0%.|
|New||IND 23.0 v CLP|
|Old||ALP 26.9||Gains more of Coconut Grove from Fannie Bay.|
|Old||ALP 10.5||Margin unchanged after gaining 9 voters from Spillett, but the area of the electorate is more than doubled with the inclusion of Darwin Airport.|
|Old||CLP 13.1||Moves east closer to Palmerston, losing areas from Berrimah to the west transferred to Karama and Fong Lim.|
|Old||ALP 19.9||Margin unchanged, losing around 120 voters in Muirhead to Casuarina.|