Are there any Lessons from the Wanguri By-election Result? Antony Green


February 17, 2013
Are there any Lessons from the Wanguri By-election Result?

On Saturday night the Northern Territory Country Liberal government took a pasting at a by-election in the northern Darwin seat of Wanguri.

The by-election had been caused by the resignation of former Labor Chief Minister Paul Henderson.

In the circumstances the electorate could have been annoyed at Paul Henderson and the Labor Party for causing the by-election. The electorate could have taken their choice of reasons to be annoyed at Julia Gillard and the Labor Party, either for the way she is running the country, or for her recent “captain’s pick” to annoint Nova Peris as the lead candidate for Labor’s NT Senate ticket.

Instead, voters turned out and expressed their dislike of the actions in office of the six-month old Mills Country Liberal government.

Voters have delivered a whopping 12.7% swing against the Country Liberals. Labor’s new candidate Nicole Manison received 69.7% of the two-party preferred vote, up near Paul Henderson’s winning margin at Labor’s landslide election victory in 2005.

It is the worst swing against a first term government in two decades. The largest first term swing I can think of was 16% against the Greiner government in the NSW seat of Coffs Harbour at a 1990 by-election.

As for swings against a government in its first year in office, I can think of only two similar situations to the Wanguri result.

In 1994 the Brown Liberal government in South Australia lost the seat of Torrens at a by-election after a 9% swing, and in 1988 the new Greiner government in NSW suffered a 12.6% swing against it at a by-election in the Labor-held electorate of Port Stephens. Interestingly, both the Brown/Olsen government and the Greiner government failed to win majorities at the next state elections.

Can we read anything into the Wanguri result concerning this year’s Federal election?

In my view, not much. It might give you a hint that the local Federal seat of Solomon is no walkover for the Coalition, but past results indicates that local Territory results are not a good guide for who will win Solomon, let alone a useful guide for the nation as a whole.

The Federal seat of Solomon covers all of the Darwin-Palmerston metropolitan area. The seat was first contested at the 2001 Federal election, and takes in 12 of the Territory’s Legislative Assembly electorates.

The graph below plots Solomon results, including a retro-fit for 1998, against the total 2-party preferred results in the 12 Territory electorates within Solomon, for Territory elections from 1997 to 2012.


As the graph shows, at four of the five Federal elections since 1998, the Labor 2-party preferred vote in Solomon has been below Labor’s national 2-party preferred vote. The only time that Labor has polled above its national vote in Solomon was at the 2001 election, conducted just three months after Labor’s breakthrough Northern Territory election victory under Clare Martin.

The only time Labor has won Solomon was on the election of the Rudd government in 2007, though Labor still polled below its national level.

So there is a strong correlation between the result in Solomon and the national vote. However, as the graph shows, there is very little correlations between Territory election results and Solomon results.

In the same period that Labor’s 2-party preferred result in Solomon has stayed in a narrow range from 47.2% to 50.2%, Labor’s results in Darwin at Territory elections have ranged from 40.7% in 1997 to 60.8% in 2005.

In short, there is not a lot of evidence that Territory election results have much bearing on Federal election results.

NT Chief Minister Terry Mills will certainly need to take note of the results. He will remember that when he was first elected to Parliament at the Blain by-election in July 1999, he suffered a 20.5% swing against him. Mills will also remember the 2005 election when he retained Blain, but found himself the only Country Liberal returned from north of the Berrimah line.

Mills entered the NT Legislative Assembly on the same day as Labor’s Paul Henderson, who won the Wanguri by-election with a swing to Labor of 11.5%. In March 2000 the Country Liberals retained Port Darwin in a third by-election in the term, on the retirement of Shane Stone, and suffered a swing of 5.8%.

In August 2001 the Country Liberals lost office, the three by-elections proving to have accurately reflected public opinion of an ageing Country Liberal government.

What you can read into the Wanguri by-election is that voters in Darwin are not happy with the Mills government because of its increases in government prices, especially electricity, and because of its changes to the public service. A lot of voters view the changes as broken promises.

The by-election tells a lot about how the Mills government is currently placed in Northern Territory politics.

However, trying to read Federal implications into a by-election involving around four thousand voters in the far northern suburbs of a far northern city is just a soothsay too far. It’s an interesting result, can create some speculation about Solomon, but that is about as far as you take the result.

Posted by Antony Green on February 17, 2013 at 06:02 PM in By-election, Federal Politics and Governments, Northern Territory Elections | Permalink

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