Keep the NT weird: Tales from the campaign trail

Helen Davidson on the the fear and weirdness fatigue that characterised the NT’s 2016 elections. Cartoon by Chips Mackinolty. From Issue 87 of the Walkley Magazine.

I’d pitched it to the news desk as an afterthought. The NT News was reporting that a Member of the Legislative Assembly seeking reelection had allegedly been implicated in the illegal theft and slaughter of a cow, using a government car she wasn’t supposed to have because hers had been confiscated.

“It’s another weird NTpol scandal, but comparatively small,” I offered. Take it or leave it.

Obviously, in hindsight, they were right to take it.

This was the level of weirdness fatigue I had reached, 10 days out from the August 27 election.

The thing about reporting on the Northern Territory campaign, which closely followed an eternally long federal campaign and three years of extraordinary and creative controversy, was that it was actually a break.

The message had long been clear from the electorate. There was no way the Country Liberal Party was going to win. There wasn’t even a guarantee it would survive.
The increasingly Australian trope of political disunity had spelled out its annihilation.

Scandals and infighting led to several resignations and the parliamentary split went from 16 CLP, eight Labor and one Independent to 12, seven, and six. There were 18 reshuffles, two chief ministers and six deputy chief ministers.

Territorians had gone through the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull years too and they were sick of it. The CLP wasn’t any different, just a little more colourful.

There was the police commissioner charged with perverting the course of justice; a staffer on corruption charges for which he’d later be found guilty; a $5,000 taxpayer-funded bar tab in Tokyo; a suspected slush fund; endless insults — “pillow biter”, “asking for a slap”, “a nest of vipers”; a taxpayer-funded study tour of Cape Canaveral in case the NT one day hosted a space program; the fall of the deputy chief minister over his near-investment in a dragonfruit company with strong conflict-of-interest implications; the 99-year lease of the Darwin port; and of course, the infamous midnight coup, when Willem Westra van Holthe announced at a 1am press conference that he’d seized control from Adam Giles, only for Giles to keep refusing to step down.

Cattle duffing aside, the media felt it could largely look forward to a predictable or even boring campaign. For a few weeks the NT media pack could sleep safely at night, knowing we wouldn’t miss a 1am press call for a leadership spill.

Locally, the privatisation of the Territory Insurance Office — which provided affordable policies for the disaster-prone region — blindsided the electorate. And impatience was rising at delays in delivering Palmerston hospital, not assuaged by a clumsy media stunt in which ministers ceremoniously oversaw the “first concrete pour”, only for it to be filled in and smoothed over once the TV cameras had left.

People worried about jobs as construction of the Inpex gas project wound down, and they considered the effect of Labor’s promise of a fracking moratorium.

Cattle duffing aside, the media felt it could largely look forward to a predictable or even boring campaign. For a few weeks the NT media pack could sleep safely at night, knowing we wouldn’t miss a 1am press call for a leadership spill.

We wouldn’t wake up to find out the speaker of the house was almost booted because the government didn’t like how much she used Facebook.

And it was unlikely there would be another MLA busted sexting a constituent from his office, although he did keep the story rolling a little longer with a Facebook post haranguing the media for omitting the fact that “it was a Sunday” when he did it.

Then about four weeks before polling day Four Corners broadcast its investigation into the Don Dale Detention Centre, prompting national outrage and the immediate establishment of a royal commission.

The 24-hour news channels broadcast live press conferences with the chief minister, Adam Giles, and almost every hard-hat-and-fluoro-vest campaign stop focused on the state of juvenile detention.

The episode upset and appalled people in the NT, particularly Indigenous Territorians. But there was also a community tired of high rates of property crime, and deciding which side to play for seemed a hard decision for Giles, whose messaging changed almost daily.

At a televised people’s forum on the casino lawn, Giles lacked preparation but made up for it with the confidence he’d brought to the entire campaign. Asked for his biggest regret, he said poor communication with the electorate. Opposition leader Michael Gunner won the crowd.

Labor coasted, all but assured of victory. Having minimal policy detail and its own history of leadership woes made barely a dent.

The government’s only hope seemed to come from Crocosaurus Cove where Burt, an ageing five-metre psychic saltie with a perfect record, picked Giles over Gunner.

Polling day started quietly, as almost half of eligible voters had taken the opportunity to vote early. Reports of low turnouts filtered in from the bush. The ABC set up in the hall of parliament house for rolling coverage, and journalists drove around to as many seats as possible for final interviews.

Most media followed the evening story to the Labor party at a Darwin sporting club. The CLP event nearby was more sombre, albeit with better food. Giles opted to stay in Alice Springs.

Two hours and five minutes after polls closed,the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green called the election, the only surprise at the time being the scale of the CLP’s defeat as seat after seat fell.

Giles spoke first.

“Tonight no doubt is a landslide. It’s a thumping,” he said. The result was a lesson that “disunity is death in politics.”

Weeks later came the bigger surprise: Burt was wrong, and Giles had been narrowly defeated in the seat of Braitling.

Gunner entered the Labor election party as the first Territory-born person to be elected as its chief minister.

“A boy born in Alice Springs, who grew up in Tennant Creek, who now stands here as chief minister of the Northern Territory,” he said.

But after hours of celebration, the crowd was by now worse for wear and his speech went out over an endless stream of chatter.

At the end of the night there was an 18 per cent swing against the CLP and six seats — including Giles and his deputy — still in doubt.

After recounts and postal votes the CLP would have just two seats, less than the independent crossbench. Elections aren’t won but lost, and the government had done a convincing job of losing.

No one believed it would be the end of political controversies, which are as much a part of Territory life as the wet season rains. But the demise of the CLP marked the end of one of the most extraordinary Australian political terms in recent memory.

Helen Davidson is Guardian Australia’s Darwin Correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @heldavidson. Chips Mackinolty is a Darwin-based artist and writer who has worked for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organisations for over four decades as an advocate, researcher, journalist, artist and graphic designer;