By Tom Flanagan
DARWIN — While the Northern Territory elections returned the ruling Country-Liberal Party to government (with 18 seats to Labor's seven), a significant vote was recorded for progressive candidates in a range of electorates.
The CLP appeared not to pay an immediate price for running a scare campaign on native title, and Labor lost ground, but the results are best explained by the dominance of sitting members in electorates averaging only about 4000 voters each.
Most sitting members, both CLP and Labor, increased their votes significantly. The overall swing to the CLP can be explained by that fact that it had twice as many sitting members as Labor.
The CLP ran a relentless scare campaign on native title and land claims, and came up with $100 million from John Howard for the Darwin to Adelaide rail link. Labor's election campaign began on law and order issues, promising more police, and finished up with TV advertisements presenting the CLP as pigs with their snouts in the trough.
It was left to alternative candidates to raise important social and environmental issues. The Greens fielded two Aboriginal candidates. June Mills gained 6.4% of the vote in suburban Millner, and Thomas Maywundjiwuy in Arnhem 8.3%.
Progressive independents included Lex Martin and Strider. Martin registered 10%, running on local planning issues in CLP Chief Minister Shane Stone's electorate of Port Darwin. Strider gained 6.1% of the vote in Goyder, in Darwin's rural area.
Democratic Socialist Tim Stewart's platform included opposition to racism, an end to uranium mining, repeal of mandatory sentencing legislation and defence of native title. He also raised the demand for a shorter working week with no loss in pay.
Running in the CLP seat of Casuarina, Stewart scored 5.2%. The vote indicated that there is still a long way to go to convince working people that such policies are not just desirable, but realisable and necessary. Nevertheless, for such an unambiguous platform to gain more than 5% indicates that the Democratic Socialists have a significant base here.
In the CLP-held seat of Drysdale, Australian Democrat Vic Edwards gained 14.8% (to Labor's 28%) on a platform of putting a watchdog into parliament, and by associating himself with the party's leader, Cheryl Kernot.
In the wake of the CLP win — its sixth in as many elections since self-government in 1974 — some have expressed the view that the CLP is likely to hold government as long as the NT economy continues to grow.
Such views fail to appreciate the significance of the progressive movement in forcing issues onto the public agenda.
Economic forces alone don't determine public consciousness. Rather, they provide the terrain on which the battle for public support is fought. The key task for the green and left movement is to convince the public that the situation of the vast majority can be improved through change in the social, environmental and economic spheres.