Territories are hotbeds of interest for federal election
Federal election results in the territories this year might prove interesting.
Federal politics in the territories looks like being especially interesting this year.
The Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, while very different in many ways, still have a lot in common politically. The two smallest jurisdictions each elect two senators and two members of the House of Representatives. Each had territory elections last year at which there was a big swing against the incumbent Labor governments. Labor survived in the ACT but lost office in the NT.
In both cases the swing was uneven and there was a big swing in the southern parts of the territories - Tuggeranong in the ACT and the rural parts of the NT.
These swings have given hope to the Coalition parties in both territories that they might gain a seat. At the moment Labor holds the two ACT seats in the House of Representatives and Labor and the Coalition each has a NT seat. Importantly, Labor holds the seats where the biggest swings took place. Veteran member Warren Snowdon holds Lingiari (NT) by 3.7 per cent and new member Gai Brodtmann holds Canberra (ACT) by a much more comfortable 9.1 per cent.
The Senate seats are split between Labor and the Coalition in each territory.
The small number of federal seats in the ACT and the NT means that ambitious prospective candidates have few options. It is quite common for experienced local political leaders to move to to the federal sphere. Former chief minister Senator Gary Humphries has done this for the Liberals in the ACT and the late Bob Collins, formerly leader of the opposition, did it for Labor in the NT.
On this occasion it would be an absolute coup for the Coalition if it could win an extra seat in one of the territories, either Lingiari or Canberra, or even both. Labor, on the other hand, cannot afford to lose either, and instead would love to win back the marginal Darwin-based seat of Solomon (1.7 per cent).
This is the background to the major-party machinations in the two territories this year.
The one that has received most national publicity has been Julia Gillard's decision to exercise what she has called a captain's pick to effectively install the indigenous Olympic gold medallist Nova Peris in place of 15-year veteran Trish Crossin as Labor senator for the NT.
The issues surrounding this decision include, among other things, Gillard's style, celebrity candidates, insider versus outsider MPs, indigenous politics, NT Labor politics, Gillard-Rudd tensions and factional politics.
But let's concentrate on the electoral issues. Labor has never had a federal indigenous MP, while the Liberals have had two and the Democrats one (though in fairness, Labor has had more state and territory indigenous MPs than the Coalition). Gillard mentioned this blight on Labor's record when unveiling Peris. Last year Gillard missed an opportunity to support the indigenous candidate Warren Mundine to replace retiring senator Mark Arbib and instead brought in Bob Carr.
At the NT elections in August, Labor lost its traditional support among the indigenous community (and one of its former indigenous MPs, Alison Anderson, switched to the Country Liberal Party after first becoming an independent). The indigenous community outside Darwin supported the CLP. If this pattern was continued at the federal election Labor might lose Lingiari, but it would not lose its Senate seat.
If Gillard was to exercise her authority to put an indigenous candidate in a winnable seat, the NT was one obvious place to try. Tackling a sitting Labor senator in one of the states would have been more risky and without obvious House of Representatives implications. She could, of course, have tried to replace Snowdon with an indigenous candidate such as Peris, or chosen one of the established local indigenous Labor MPs such as Marion Scrymgour to replace Crossin.
There has also been considerable local speculation about the ACT candidates in the federal election, though without much national interest. The selection of Simon Sheikh, former GetUp! director, as the Greens Senate candidate has attracted attention but the Liberal Party is the bigger game.
This revolves around the future inclinations of the Liberal Leader in the Legislative Assembly, Zed Seselja. Liberal nominations for all ACT federal seats are open and the choices will be made by late next month.
There are suggestions that a move to federal politics is on the minds of Seselja and his supporters. ACT Opposition Leader is a hard grind, with the next Assembly election not until 2016. He may opt to seek preselection for Canberra and would win it, but that would have two downsides. First, his chances of winning the ultimate election would be small unless the Gillard government loses in an absolute landslide.
Second, his career in federal politics is likely to be short. The evidence of the careers of previous Liberals John Haslem (1975-80) and Brendan Smyth (1995-96) suggests that unless there is a sea change in voter preferences in the ACT, a Liberal cannot hold a House of Representatives seat for more than two terms at best.
Standing for Canberra would be brave but personally risky for Seselja. However, no other Liberal could win Canberra, so he would be sacrificing his personal interests for the party.
This leaves the Senate. Gary Humphries has given no indication that he is ready to stand down, so if Seselja was to stand for preselection it would be a tough, inevitably divisive, contest. Furthermore, like Peris in the NT, it will not help the party increase its numbers overall as the Liberals are hot favourites to win a Senate seat no matter who stands.
Whatever the outcomes of the Peris and Seselja situations, more than usual attention will be focused on the two territories at the election. Even if the major party candidatures for the Senate turn out to be uncontroversial, the contests in Lingiari, Solomon and Canberra will attract special national attention.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.