Labor has survived the first major political test of the Covid-19 pandemic by retaining government at the Northern Territory election.
Counting of votes was set to continue on Sunday, but Michael Gunner told supporters in a late-night speech he would lead a Labor government.
“Labor is in front on the votes, Labor is in front on the seats and tonight I can tell you I am very confident Labor will form the next government of the Northern Territory,” he said.
He paid tribute to health workers, police and other frontline staff who had helped the NT get through the pandemic with only 33 cases of Covid-19 and no deaths, making it “one of the safest places in the world”.
“2020 – bloody hell,” he said.
“It’s not over yet. But for me, for our team, the most important battle of 2020 is not a contest between political parties.
“It is a bigger fight, a fight that affects all of us, that requires all our effort to keep protecting Territorians through this crisis, the fight to keep our communities safe, to keep our small businesses open, to keep our people in work, the fight to save lives and save jobs.”
Darwin’s Waratah Football Club was a sea of Labor red shirts on Saturday night. Supporters chanted “four more years” after it became clear the party had staved off the Country Liberal party and newcomers, Territory Alliance.
On Saturday night, Labor secured 38.9% of the primary vote to the Country Liberal party’s 31.8%.
Gunner’s team was on track to take at least 12 seats in the 25-seat assembly, despite a 3.3% swing against it. But Labor scrutineers expected the 13th seat to be secured, delivering a majority.
Despite strict rules on social distancing being the norm across the country, Gunner hugged and shook hands with supporters in Darwin.
The Country Liberal party leader, Lia Finocchiaro, stepped up to the podium in a positive mood, having lifted her party’s stocks from well above the two seats it took into the election.
It could pick up as many as nine seats, but appeared on track to clinch seven.
The 35-year-old lawyer said she had started a “new generation” for the CLP. “There are still a lot of votes to count, but if there is one thing I know it is that the CLP is back.”
The Territory Alliance formed by former chief minister Terry Mills was struck a blow, with the party leader on track to lose his seat of Blain ending two decades in politics.
However Mills was not formally conceding on Saturday night and remained positive that the NT needed an alternative to the major parties. Territory Alliance could win at least one seat.
Labor leader Gunner has faced both criticism and praise for his tough stance on Covid-19 border closures. He comfortably retained his inner-Darwin seat.
The 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.
Three months later, the chief minister returned to hospital for better news – the birth of his son Hudson Gunner over the Easter long weekend in April.
A formal declaration of the poll is not scheduled until 7 September, three days after postal votes close.
In a sign of the impact of Covid-19 fears, only about 2%of voters cast their ballots on election day itself.