Saturday’s by-election in Darwin could be pivotal, with a bad result for Labor casting doubt over Michael Gunner’s position as NT chief minister and an independent win putting the Country Liberal Party’s opposition status in peril.

The vote in the northern Darwin seat of Johnston was sparked by the resignation of former minister Ken Vowles last year, who was removed from caucus after a public and bitter row with Gunner.

Labor has held the seat since it was formed in 2001 and its candidate, former AFL star Joel Bowden, is favoured to win.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner.


While Labor holds 16 of the 25 seats in the NT with the general election to be held in August, much of the goodwill of its 2016 election win is gone.

The NT’s economy is rated as the nation’s worst performer by CommSec, and is struggling under record budget debt and deficit.

Mr Gunner’s leadership is also under pressure over a $12 million grant to the Darwin Turf Club in his electorate. His former chief of staff, Alf Leonardi, was involving in helping it apply and the construction contract went to a company co-owned by club chairman Brett Dixon.

Mr Gunner this week rejected speculation a bad result on Saturday might prompt moves to replace him, saying by-elections were “more opposition turf and voters vote in a different way than they do at a general election”.

“I am going into the by-election as chief, I am coming out of the by-election as chief,” he told reporters at a press conference with Mr Bowden.

He said he believed Territorians were “extremely confident in our plan, we have got a jobs-led recovery and how we are on the right track and when you are you don’t go back.”

The CLP and its candidate Josh Thomas have one eye on Labor but another on the new Territory Alliance party formed by former CLP chief minister-turned-independent MP Terry Mills.

If Territory Alliance candidate Steven Klose wins over enough disillusioned voters, the party would have the same number of seats in parliament as the CLP – two.

Mr Mills says he would seek half of the opposition funding the CLP get, and could automatically secure that if it convinced a sitting MP to defect.

That could happen, with Labor-turned-independent MP Jeff Collins and CLP-turned-independent Robyn Lambley possible recruits.

Unusual preferencing could influence the result too, with the CLP taking the extraordinary step of putting Labor second among the seven candidates to hurt Territory Alliance and the Greens preferencing Labor last, behind conservatives.