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Labor faces tough fight in NT election

The sight of campaigning politicians will ramp up in the Northern Territory on Thursday as the election writs are issued and the Gunner government goes into caretaker mode.

Labor handed the scandal-plagued Country Liberals one of the worst defeats of a sitting government in Australian history in 2016 but the election set for August 22 is expected to be much closer.

A uniform swing of just more than three per cent against the government of Chief Minister Michael Gunner could deliver a hung parliament.

The idealism of four years ago has given way to the reality that the Territory’s economy is struggling after a resources boom during construction of the Inpex gas project.

The government has been dogged by its handling of the economy – rated this week as the nation’s worst performer by CommSec for the June quarter – and Treasury coffers after budget debt and deficit soared to record levels.

That came into focus on Wednesday when it released an update on the finances, showing the impact of the coronavirus crisis will result in a $1.28 billion jump in the deficit from the previous forecast for this year to more than $2.28 billion.

Net debt will also hit a predicted $8.25 billion, about $1.35 billion more.

The government had resisted releasing the financial update with no budget this year due to the pandemic but bowed to political pressure.

Mr Gunner has been lauded for his efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus, bolstering his hopes of Labor retaining office.

The territory has had only 32 COVID-19 cases and no community transmission or deaths so far.

The election is set to be a three-horse race, with the new Territory Alliance party led by former Country Liberal chief minister Terry Mills regarded as a legitimate contender.

It finished second and received more votes than the CLP at the Johnston by-election in February, which Labor star candidate Joel Bowden won thanks to the split conservative vote.

In 2016, Labor won 18 out of 25 seats in the NT Legislative Assembly.

The Country Liberal opposition was left with only two seats, with five members on the cross bench.

Three MLAs including Mr Mills are now Territory Alliance MLAs, which arguably entitled them to opposition status and extra funding but that was blocked in a March parliamentary vote.

CLP Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro, a 35-year-old lawyer who took over in February, has a huge task to take her party to victory, although Mr Mills indicated on Mix radio in Darwin on Wednesday that he would consider forming government with them.

Labor’s 2016 majority has reduced to 16 after sacking three Labor caucus members after a bitter public row.

That included Ken Vowles, who resigned although Labor retained his seat in the Johnston by-election despite a swing of 12.1 per cent against it; Scott McConnell, who is now an independent, and Jeff Collins, who joined the Territory Alliance.

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