Top End voters have marked down Labor, but counting still favoured the incumbent Northern Territory party forming at least a minority government late on Saturday night.
The election was the first test of an Australian political leader’s coronavirus management.
About three hours after polls closed on Saturday, Labor appeared on track to win at least 12 seats but 13 are needed to retain majority government.
Labor was in a much better position than the Country Liberal party to form government, with the opposition heading towards no more than nine seats in the 25-seat assembly.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan said it appeared the Country Liberal party could lift its numbers from a very low base of two to seven, with the possibility of nine seats.
“That would be a remarkable outcome,” he told Sky News.
The biggest casualty of the night looked set to be former chief minister Terry Mills, who formed the Territory Alliance party late last year to shake up the political system. His seat of Blain was on track to fall to the Country Liberal party.
“Those numbers are fluid still and I will let that play out,” he told ABC TV.
The Territory Alliance could still pick up two seats in the new assembly, sitting alongside two independents.
The Labor leader, Michael Gunner, had faced both criticism and praise for his tough stance on border closures, but said he had done it in the name of saving the territory’s economy and protecting Territorians’ health. He comfortably retained his inner-Darwin seat of Fannie Bay.
Territorians were unlikely to see a final result on Saturday due to social distancing requirements at counting centres, with a majority of votes cast early.
Only about 20% of voters were expected to have cast their ballots on election day itself.
“No deals. Stability and certainty, no deals,” Gunner told reporters when asked of his willingness to form a minority government on Saturday morning. “Particularly during a public health emergency.”
Labor campaigned on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw the NT suffer just 33 cases, telling voters it was the party to see them through the crisis.
“We are asking them to choose between secure borders or open borders,” Gunner said.
However, the Gunner government had been criticised for its handling of the economy – rated as the nation’s worst performer by CommSec for the June quarter.
The CLP leader, Lia Finocchiaro, had repeatedly pointed to the NT’s skyrocketing debt during the campaign, saying 11,000 jobs had been lost on Labor’s watch.
“We want the territory to be a can-do place that it used to be,” she said. “This government has squandered that opportunity to make people’s lives better.”
Finocchiaro had promised to fast-track major projects and simplify mining taxes to “signal to the world the territory is open for business”.
Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said voters had elected to “stay the course” with her party.
About 200 Labor supporters, many dressed in the party’s bright red, gathered at the Waratah Football Club in Darwin on Saturday night, where the mood was ecstatic.
“I knew we would win. Michael’s leadership has been fabulous during the crisis,” Labor supporter Rajeev Thayil said. “He has sailed through it all.”
The likely victory comes eight months after Gunner suffered a heart attack while at home with wife, ABC journalist Kristy O’Brien.
“It came from nowhere, there were no warning signs,” he wrote on Facebook in January.
He was rushed to a hospital and later underwent surgery.