CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Northern Territory election: why the CLP lost
, September 8, 2001
Labor hard man Senator Robert Ray remarked caustically after the massive Keating Government defeat in 1996: "The only thing worse than a change of government, is no change of government".
In other words, even for the most die-hard political partisans in Australia, democracy is better served when governments occasionally change hands.
And so it was with the recent Northern Territory elections where the Labor Party surprised many by taking power in what had been the proverbial one-party state since self-government two-and-a-half decades ago. That brilliant grassroots politician, Paul Everingham, founded and built the CLP stronghold, and it seemed that while each successive CLP leader tried to emulate Everingham's populist style, each was a lesser chip off the old block.
While Everingham had skill, intelligence and vision, the later CLP leaders had little more than bluster and prejudice.
The CLP hybrid party modelled itself largely on the style of the New South Wales right wing of the Labor Party, holding on to government by power and patronage, and by never giving the opposition the slightest of breaks.
The CLP was basically a socially conservative, but pro-development party. Its terrible enemy was always "Canberra", which never received the slightest piece of gratitude for basically funding the place.
For most "southern" commentators any discussion about the CLP Governmeent was always done in terms of its alleged racist positions, but little mention was ever made of the entrenched business relationships the party had built which verged on corruption, and the politicisation of the Territory's public service.
The blackest mark in recent years, of course, was when former Chief Minister Shane Stone tried to test the Territory's right to self-government by being the first lawmaker in the world to permit euthanasia. In one of the most brazen acts of political hypocrisy, Stone fought the good fight for euthanasia while declaring his own personal and religious opposition to the practice.
The Northern Territory also has the only government with no freedom of information laws, and as a consequence, has been the least transparent administration in the country - despite the enormous subsidies it receives from the States. Its politicians are the highest paid, despite having constituencies of just over 4,000 per electorate - which is about one twentieth of the size of electorates in New South Wales and Victoria.
And the Parliament meets less frequently than any other state - possibly less than many local councils when you add up all the interminable weekly meetings.
It is worth noting that not one commentator picked with certainty a Labor win. The election showed once again that Australian voters are no longer "rusted on" to any party, and that resentment toward the major political parties is such that no government is safe.
The Australian electorate is presently very fickle; the people seem content to throw out a government given half a chance.
Furthermore, the Territory election reinforced yet again the phenomenal rise of the Independents, who have overtaken One Nation as the major third force in Australian politics. In Queensland, Western Australia, and Victoria Independents have either won seats or played a decisive role in the result.
People have become tired of the similarity of the major parties on economics and other issues, and of the suffocating nature of party politics, which prevents individual politicians from speaking their mind on even minor issues.
The next election could be won or lost on the preference strategies the major parties adopt with regard to the independents in individual seats. The bad news for the Howard Government is that while most of the Independents are conservative by nature, with some actual renegades from the Liberals and Nationals, preference leakages are going to cause enormous problems for the Coalition, particularly in rural and regional Australia.
The National Party is still oblivious to the walls crumbling around its castle - despite election, after election, after election - where its vote has shrunk.
Only a few decades ago it would have been a political truism that no voters were more loyal than those who voted for the Country Party. But as with any great dislocation in peoples' personal lives, once a diehard voter breaks with a lifetime of practice in protest, and finds the sky has not fallen in, he or she is liable to do it again. The first great break with the National Party came with Pauline Hanson, and the same voters have been doing it ever since, even to the extent of voting Labor at the last Victorian election.
It is conceivable that the National Party could be almost totally wiped out at the coming poll - either by Independents or, by default, Labor candidates.