By Bernie Brian
DARWIN — The defeat, once again, of the Labor Party in the June 4 Northern Territory elections has sparked a call for the formation of a new Aboriginal party. Labor looks like holding on to seven seats (a loss of two) in the 25-seat Legislative Assembly, which means the incumbent Country Liberal Party (CLP) will have an overwhelming majority.
The Green candidates, Andrea Jones and Ilana Eldridge, received 6.9% and 10.2% of the vote in the seats in which they stood. Eldridge told Green Left that it was a victory for the environment that 500 Darwin voters put environmental issues up front. The Territory Greens have now established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
The Labor Party has lost all but one of its urban seats. Defeated Labor candidate Ken Parrish blamed his loss on the Greens, which did not distribute preferences to either party.
But Eldridge believes the swing against many incumbent ALP candidates had more to do with their record in the community rather than the Green opponents. She believes personal following and community links play a big part in the NT's small electorates. The total population of the Territory is approximately 170,000, making it similar in size to many local government areas elsewhere in Australia.
Ironically, Labor gained its highest primary vote in a Territory election. While it gained over 43% of the primary vote, it will receive only 28% of the seats. However, Labor cannot blame this gerrymander alone for its loss.
On polling day it appeared that many of Labor's supporters at the booths were resigned to the likelihood of a CLP victory. There was also a good degree of anger at the conservative campaign strategy adopted by the party. Rather than take on the CLP's poor record on social justice (a term CLP leader Marshall Perron finds "frightening") and the environment, the ALP chose to highlight economic mismanagement and law and order as the key issues.
Labor leaders have blamed the racist fear campaign of the CLP for its loss. The CLP can certainly be accused of this. One of its most frequently run television ads asserted that the ALP was out to create two laws — one for blacks and one for whites. This strategy, coupled with the promotion of crude parochialism and development-at-all cost programs, has been successful for the CLP in the past.
Rather than challenge this strategy, the ALP tail-ended it. The voters chose the devil they knew rather than the devil they didn't.
Many Aboriginal leaders have accused the Labor Party of ignoring the Territory's Aboriginal population in an attempt to win a greater share of the white urban vote. Labor leaders also believed that an announcement on the eve of the elections that the Dangalaba people had filed a land claim for all vacant crown land within the Darwin city limits had scared off many white voters.
There are suggestions from some Labor supporters that the land claim was CLP-inspired, but Eldridge says this was not the case. She points to the fact that the Dangalaba people have been fighting for land rights for years. Eldridge believes Labor leader Brian Ede's comment that the land claim would never succeed did not win him much support among Aboriginal people and supporters of land rights.
Labor has traditionally relied on the vote of the 22% of Territorians who are Aboriginal; this explains Labor's rural base of support. The CLP is now claiming that one of the reasons for its victory is that many Aboriginal voters have shifted allegiance. However, it seems more likely that disenchantment with both parties has led many Aboriginal voters to give the polling booths a wide berth.
Former ATSIC commissioner Sol Bellear and Jawoyn leader John Ah Kit have both supported the idea of independent black candidates in the next elections. Northern Land Council director Darryl Pearce wants to see a strong third party but does not support the idea of a black party. Pearce was quoted in the June 8 Northern Territory News as saying, "Non-Aboriginal people are also finding the two party system a bit of a millstone around the Territory's development neck. I do not believe in a specific Aboriginal party."