The 2020 Northern Territory election: a quick guide

11 November 2020

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Dr Damon Muller
Politics and Public Administration Section


The 2020 Northern Territory (NT) election was held on 22 August 2020. It was the first Australian state or territory election held during the COVID-19 pandemic. This quick guide summarises the election and its results, and the political context in the lead up to the election and immediately following.

The writ for the election was issued on Thursday 30 July 2020. Early and postal voting began on Monday 10 August, as did mobile polling involving polling teams travelling to remote communities to collect votes. The election results were declared on Monday 7 September 2020.

The election saw the Gunner Labor government returned for a second term with a reduced majority.


The Northern Territory has a unicameral Legislative Assembly with 25 electoral districts, each electing one member. The Electoral Act 2004 (NT) requires that a general election be held for the NT Legislative Assembly on the 4th Saturday in August every four years.

In terms of Australian elections, NT elections are relatively distinctive for a number of reasons. Electoral districts in the NT are relatively small by population, averaging around 5,600 voters per electorate at the 2020 election. Some commentators have noted that this translates into a much more personal approach to politics, with candidates potentially able to personally meet each one of the electors in their electorate. The NT is also the only Australian jurisdiction where ballot papers feature photographs of all of the candidates.

NT elections also have historically low levels of turnout, with only around half the enrolled electors in one electorate, Arafura, voting at the 2020 election. The NT has a large number of remote communities, with many votes taken by mobile polling teams who travel from community to community in the early voting period. Some electorates have no traditional polling places—with all votes taken either from mobile polling or postal voting.

The NT’s electoral system has changed twice in recent years. Optional preferential voting was introduced for the 2016 territory election. The 2016 change to optional preferential voting was introduced by the Giles CLP government and aimed to reduce the level of informal voting. In 2019 the NT Assembly legislated to revert to compulsory full preferential voting, and the 2020 NT election was conducted on this basis. The reasons given for the 2019 change back to compulsory full preferences were consistency with local and federal government elections, both of which use compulsory preferencing, and to ‘encourage the full engagement of voters in [the] electoral system’.

The previous election was held on 27 August 2016 and, as noted above, was conducted using optional preferential voting. At the 2016 election the Australian Labor Party (ALP) won 18 seats, compared to two for the CLP and five for independents (the 2016 election is discussed in a previous Library publication).

An electoral redistribution in late 2019 resulted in only minor changes to the boundaries of electorates. The new boundaries notionally moved one seat (Namatjira) from Labor to CLP, but improved Labor’s margins in two marginal seats, Braitling and Katherine. 

Due to defections, resignations and the formation of a new party since the 2016 election, the composition of the Assembly just prior to the 2020 election was quite different from the Assembly that convened after the 2016 election.

Leadership and other party changes

In early 2020 the NT Opposition Leader Gary Higgins announced that he would be standing down as Leader and would not contest the 2020 election. He was replaced by Deputy Leader Lia Finocchiaro (the only other CLP member in the Legislative Assembly).

In late 2018 Labor Chief Minister Michael Gunner sacked three members of caucus—Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ken Vowles and backbenchers Jeff Collins and Scott McConnell—for criticising the Government. Vowles resigned in early 2020, triggering a by-election for his electorate of Johnston. At the 2020 election Collins and McConnell unsuccessfully stood as TA and independent candidates respectively.

The advent of the Territory Alliance

The formation of the Territory Alliance was first mooted by former CLP chief minister Terry Mills in September 2019 as a conservative-leaning party targeting disaffected voters. Mr Mills had lost the leadership of the CLP, and position as Chief Minister, when he was replaced by Adam Giles in 2013. He then re-entered Parliament as an independent in 2016. The TA party was submitted for registration in September 2019.

The first group of candidates presented by the TA in November 2019 were characterised by media reports as ‘familiar faces from the far right side of politics’. One of the new party’s first acts was to nominate a former CLP candidate as their candidate for the Johnston by-election (see further below). 

By March 2020 a Labor backbencher (Jeff Collins) and a former CLP-turned independent MLA (Robyn Lambley) had joined the party, resulting in the TA having three members in the Legislative Assembly compared to the CLP’s two members. This change in numbers left the TA as the official Opposition in the Assembly, which according to media reports was ‘unprecedented in Territory parliament history’. That situation only lasted a week, however, until a vote in the Assembly on 24 March assigned the CLP the status of official Opposition party.

The TA nominated candidates in 21 of the 25 seats at the August 2020 election but won only one seat, Robyn Lambley in Araluen. However Ms Lambley left the party shortly after the election, choosing to sit again as an independent. This means that, as at time of publication of this paper, the TA has no members in the NT Legislative Assembly.

The Johnston by-election

On 29 February 2020 a by-election was held in the division of Johnston, located in suburban Darwin, with Labor winning the seat (although with a swing against), narrowly beating the TA. As noted above, the by-election was triggered by the resignation of Labor minister Ken Vowles.

Before the by-election the TA had been tipped to win Johnston, which had traditionally been a safe Labor seat. Some commentators suggested that the Labor win was at least partly due to the Country Liberals and the TA ‘fighting one another’.

The swing against Labor prompted an apology from the Chief Minister, saying that Labor ‘need[s] to work even harder to earn your vote back’.

COVID-19 and the election

While the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic loomed over the election, the overall effect turned out to be relatively minor. In April 2020 the Government confirmed that it was still intending to hold the election on the expected date and that voting would still be in person, appropriately socially distanced.

In the early days of the pandemic restrictions were imposed on travel to remote communities, however by the time the election commenced these restrictions had been lifted and did not affect access to remote voting. However the restrictions did result in the suspension of the Northern Territory Electoral Commission’s (NTEC) remote enrolment programs.

Consistent with the trends seen in other Australian elections during the pandemic, voters were encouraged to use postal and pre-poll voting. The NTEC published a COVID-19 Management Plan outlining how it would conduct the election safely.


In late June a poll commissioned by the Territory Alliance found that Labor and the TA were each likely to win at least seven seats, with the CLP likely to win at least two, two likely to go to independents, and seven too close to call.

Immediately before the election the betting markets had Labor as favourites to win, with Sportsbet paying $1.35 for a Labor win. The betting odds a bit earlier, at the start of September, had tipped a Labor win, with the chances of a TA minority government being seen as more likely, at $3.25, than a CLP government (at $4.00). Regular NT News election analyst Burt the psychic crocodile was consulted, and tipped the CLP to win—although, having tipped Labor leader Bill Shorten to win at the 2019 federal election, it appears that Burt is not infallible.

NT News polling found CLP leader Lia Finocchiaro to be preferred Chief Minister, with 56 per cent of the vote.


The ALP won 14 of the 25 seats, with the CLP winning eight, the TA winning one seat, and two seats going to independents. A summary of the primary votes and seats won is in Table 1 and Figure 1 below. The full two-candidate preferred results by electorate are in Appendix A. Appendix B lists appointees to the post-election Cabinet.

Table 1: Summary of first preference votes and seats won

Party Votes Votes (%) Seats
ALP 40 291 39.4 14
CLP 32 021 31.3 8
TA 13 184 12.9 1
Ind 10 977 10.7 2
GRN 4 453 4.4  
FP 942 0.9  
BFFCPW 226 0.2  
AJP 78 0.1  

Source: Parliamentary Library analysis of NTEC results. See Appendix C for party abbreviations.

Close results, with margins of 100 votes or fewer, necessitated recounts in the divisions of Araluen, Arnhem, Barkly, Blain, Daly and Namatjira.

Figure 1: Votes and seats won by party at the 2020 NT election

Votes and seats won by party at the 2020 NT election

Source: Parliamentary Library analysis of NTEC results.

Early voting

The August 2020 election saw a notable increase in early voting, however the figures generally followed the election-by-election increase in early voting trend over the past few elections (see Figure 2 below). Votes issued over the early voting period are in Figure 3 below.

Figure 2: Votes issued for postal, early and remote mobile voting at NT elections, 2008–20

Votes issued for postal, early and remote mobile voting at NT elections, 2008–20

Note: Figures for previous elections are from NTEC election reports for the respective elections (2008, 2012 and 2016). Figures from 2020 election supplied by the NTEC. Figures represent numbers of issued votes, which do not necessarily exactly correlate to the numbers of votes counted.

As noted above, early and postal voting was encouraged by the NTEC as a COVID-safe measure. According to figures provided by the NTEC, early voting represented 57.0 per cent of the votes counted at the election, with postal votes accounting for 9.7 per cent and remote mobile polling 11.4 per cent. In total, only 22 per cent of the vote was cast at static polling places on election day.

Figure 3: Early votes issued by day for the 2020 NT election

Early votes issued by day for the 2020 NT election

Source: Data supplied by the NTEC.

Turnout and informality

The final turnout for the election was 74.9 per cent, which was slightly above the 2016 election turnout of 74.0 per cent, and generally in line with recent elections.

The NTEC released a statement that the remote voting turnout in ‘bush’ electorates had been poor. The statement attributed this in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to low levels of enrolment and engagement in remote communities.

The rate of informal voting was 3.5 per cent, which was an increase on the informality rate at the 2016 election of 2.0 per cent. The requirement for full preferential voting likely resulted in the increase in informal voting compared to 2016, where optional preferential voting was used.

Appendix A: Two-candidate preferred results

Electorate Votes Percent Winner
ALP CLP Ind TA Total ALP CLP Ind TA Turnout Informal  
Arafura 1 388 1 203 2 733 50.79 44.02   52.70 5.2 ALP
Araluen 2 161 2 203 4 521 47.80 48.73 78.70 3.5 TA
Arnhem 1 508 1 416 3 156 47.78 44.87   58.10 7.4 ALP
Barkly 1 717 1 724 3 597 47.73 47.93   63.20 4.3 CLP
Blain 2 095 2 082 4 315 48.55 48.25   75.80 3.2 ALP
Braitling 2 141 2 254 4 532 47.24 49.74   77.70 3.0 CLP
Brennan 2 138 2 242 4 526 47.24 49.54   78.80 3.2 CLP
Casuarina 3 035 1 566 4 718 64.33 33.19   83.60 2.5 ALP
Daly 1 890 1 984 4 131 45.75 48.03   73.50 6.2 CLP
Drysdale 2 261 1 644 4 109 55.03 40.01   70.50 5.0 ALP
Fannie Bay 2 588 1 757 4 430 58.42 39.66   80.90 1.9 ALP
Fong Lim 2 197 1 978 4 305 51.03 45.95   77.50 3.0 ALP
Goyder 2 030 2 665 4 884 41.56 54.57   87.50 3.9 Ind
Gwoja 1 760 898 2 806 62.72 32.00   52.80 5.3 ALP
Johnston 2 850 1 434 4 434 64.28 32.34   79.80 3.4 ALP
Karama 2 491 1 678 4 293 58.02 39.09   78.30 2.9 ALP
Katherine 1 853 2 033 4 037 45.90 50.36   70.20 3.7 CLP
Mulka 1 843 2 252 4 191 43.98 53.73   68.40 2.3 Ind
Namatjira 1 792 1 814 3 786 47.33 47.91   66.10 4.8 CLP
Nelson 2 658 1 903 4 707 56.47 40.43   85.50 3.1 CLP
Nightcliff 3 286 1 139 4 515 72.78 25.23   80.30 2.0 ALP
Port Darwin 2 241 2 060 4 413 50.78 46.68   77.40 2.5 ALP
Sanderson 3 044 1 351 4 502 67.61 30.01   82.60 2.4 ALP
Spillett 1 730 3 219 5 075 34.09 63.43   86.60 2.5 CLP
Wanguri 3 349 1 627 5 117 65.45 31.80   83.70 2.8 ALP
Totals 47 354 42 536 5 984 2 203 101 642 48.28 43.37 6.10 2.25 71.97 3.5  

Source: NTEC

Appendix B: Post-election Cabinet

Chief Minister  
Hon Michael Patrick Francis Gunner MLA Treasurer
  Minister for Major Projects and Territory Economic Reconstruction
  Minister for Strategic Defence Relations
Hon Nicole Susan Manison MLA Deputy Chief Minister
  Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services
  Minister for Mining and Industry
  Minister for Northern Australia and Trade
  Minister for Defence Industries
  Minister for Agribusiness and Aquaculture
  Minister for International Education
Hon Natasha Kate Fyles MLA Minister for Health
  Minister for Tourism and Hospitality
  Minister for National Resilience
  Minister for Major Events
  Minister for Racing, Gaming and Licensing
  Minister for Alcohol Policy
Hon Eva Dina Lawler MLA Minister for Renewables and Energy
  Minister for Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics
  Minister for Environment
  Minister for Water Security
  Minister for Climate Change
  Minister for Essential Services
Hon Lauren Jane Moss MLA Minister for Education
  Minister for Children
  Minister for Youth
  Minister for Seniors
  Minister for Women
Hon Selena Jane Malijarri Uibo MLA Attorney-General and Minister for Justice
  Minister for Treaty and Local Decision Making
  Minister for Aboriginal Affairs
  Minister for Parks and Rangers
Hon Paul Andrew Kirby MLA Minister for Small Business
  Minister for Jobs and Training
  Minister for Recreational Fishing
  Minister for Veterans' Affairs
  Minister for Public Employment
  Minister for Corporate and Digital Development
Hon Kate Jane Worden MLA Minister for Territory Families and Urban Housing
  Minister for Disabilities
  Minister for Sport
  Minister for Multicultural Affairs
Hon Chanston (Chansey) James Paech MLA Minister for Local Government
  Minister for Central Australian Economic Reconstruction
  Minister for Remote Housing and Town Camps
  Minister for Indigenous Essential Services
  Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage

Note: The ministry was sworn in on 8 September 2020.

Source: NT Government

Appendix C: Party Abbreviations

AJP Animal Justice Party
ALP Australian Labor Party NT Branch
BFFCPW Ban Fracking Fix Crime Protect Water
CLP Country Liberal Party of the Northern Territory
FP Federation Party Northern Territory
GRN The Greens
Ind Independent
TA Territory Alliance


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