Northern Territory election: Coronavirus campaign delivers…

Northern Territory election: Coronavirus campaign delivers...

Northern Territory election: Coronavirus campaign delivers…

Four years ago, Labor went to the polls with more than half a billion dollars’ worth of election commitments.

This time, the party made no major funding announcements, instead offering Territorians just one main promise: “saving lives and jobs”.

It was a simple slogan underlying an effective election strategy that fended off Labor’s main competitors — the CLP and Territory Alliance.

By focusing on the pandemic, Labor asked voters to judge it solely on its efforts to keep coronavirus at bay, thereby obscuring the party’s record in office, which had been marred by infighting and financial woes.

Playing the pandemic card deflected attention from Labor’s main opponents, whose criticisms of the Government’s economic management, youth crime policies and support of fracking were largely drowned out in the blanket coverage of a different concern.

Indeed, by keeping the campaign firmly linked to the pandemic, the Chief Minister was able to paint himself as a saviour, telling Territorians the NT was the “safest place” to be.

Blown out budget threatens honeymoon period

Now, after gaining enough seats to secure at least minority government, Labor has found itself in the seemingly enviable position of regaining office without a single significant funding commitment or policy promise to keep.

Instead, it only has to live up to its election slogan of saving lives and jobs — a worthy aim no doubt, but one so vague that it has no parameters.

Without specific commitments to keep, it makes it harder for the Opposition to hold the government to account.

But while Territorians have put their faith in Labor for now, the goodwill may not last long.

The Territory’s economy was grim, even before the pandemic, and any current signs of stability are largely the result of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stimulus grants covering over the cracks.

Adding to the challenge is a budget bulging in debt, which under Labor’s watch has risen from $1.8 billion to $8.2 billion — 130 per cent of the NT’s annual revenue.

Halfway through its first term, the Gunner Government was warned by its budget repair consultant John Langoulant that the only way to steer the Territory off the path to insolvency was to embark on a restructure of government spending.

That would involve trimming the cost of the NT’s large public service, which includes more than 21,000 staff and makes up the single biggest expense in the NT budget.

Labor — and the other parties — avoided this issue during the campaign, presumably fearing a backlash from the same public servants who were about to cast their votes.

Indeed, Michael Gunner paused to thank them during his victory speech last night.

“I reckon bagging public servants is the cheapest shot you can take in politics and you shouldn’t do it,” he said.

Some projects, plenty of optimism ahead

Despite the gloomy fiscal reality, compounded by the excessive spending of successive governments, Michael Gunner is promising an optimistic future

He points to the economic windfall that could come from future projects — including a proposed $20 billion solar farm near Tennant Creek and a $400 million ship lift on Darwin Harbour.

A photo of Michael Gunner smiling with Health Minister Natasha Fyles.
Michael Gunner is optimistic about the territory’s future.(ABC News: Andie Smith)

But during the election campaign, he offered no new pathways to deal with the diabolical state of the budget books.

Instead, he has sub-contracted that duty to an unelected taskforce known as the Economic Reconstruction Commission, which was announced with much fanfare before the election, but will not put forward its recommendations until later this year.

Chaired by a former Labor chief minister and an international business leader, the commission has been asked to find ways to boost the NT’s annual economic output from $26 billion to $40 billion by 2030 — an aspiration that will be difficult to achieve in the middle of a pandemic.

Nonetheless, the Chief Minister is continuing his sales pitch, promising the NT will be the “comeback capital” of Australia.

“We won’t just save jobs, we will create them,” Mr Gunner told his party faithful last night.

But over the next term, more words without substance will not be enough to solve the big challenges facing the Territory.

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