Third party flops in the Territory

Australian voters show many signs of discontent with major party politics. At last year’s federal election the combined major party vote was just 74.8%, the lowest on record and a drop of more than ten points in 12 years.

Nonetheless, when actually given the opportunity to elevate a minor party to major status, the voters always seem to draw back. On only three occasions has a party from outside the Labor/Coalition duopoly* managed to clear 20% of the vote at a state election: the Queensland Labor Party did it in 1957 with 23.4%, One Nation (also in Queensland) in 1998 had 22.7%, and the Tasmanian Greens in 2010 reached 21.6%.

In 2018 there were high hopes for Nick Xenophon’s party, SA-BEST, in South Australia; some polls had suggested it could be in a position to form government. But by election day it had faded and could manage only 14.1% – not enough to win a seat, and not even a record for South Australia (the Liberal Movement in 1975 had 18.3%).

And now comes the Northern Territory, which is not a state but behaves like a miniature version of one. Again, a new third force attracted lots of publicity and seemed to have good prospects: Territory Alliance, led by Terry Mills, a former leader of the Country Liberal Party. But in the election held on Saturday it fell well short.

The single house of parliament consists of 25 (small) single-member districts. Before the election Territory Alliance held three seats (two elected as independents and one defector from the ALP), one more than the CLP – leading to a dispute over which of them was the official opposition. Two of them (including Mills himself) have lost their seats, and the third is hanging on by the skin of her teeth, currently leading by 26 votes.

Another two Territory Alliance candidates did well, but were still unable to break out of third place. Overall the party has 13.0% of the vote, a distant third behind Labor on 39.4% and the CLP 31.6%. The only other party to trouble the scorers was the Greens, with 4.3%; not enough for a seat, but within striking distance in Johnston, in Darwin’s northern suburbs.

The territory’s Labor government has been returned, although it has lost some ground and earlier in the count it seemed possible that it could be forced to rely on an independent for its majority. Best guesses at the moment put Labor on 15 seats as against seven for the CLP, two independents and one Territory Alliance. (Official results here; Antony Green is giving updates on late counting and Kevin Bonham as usual has detailed analysis.)

The Northern Territory has weathered the health crisis pretty well, with life now mostly back to normal: presumably voters have given the government some of the credit. That’s also a good omen for Queensland’s Labor government, which will go to the polls in just over two months time.

But more generally, it suggests that Australian voters are not as dissatisfied with the existing two-party system as they sometimes make out.

 

* Counting, that is, both Liberal and National parties and their predecessors, even on occasions when they were not actually in coalition.

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