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Labor claims victory in Northern Territory election in the first political test of the pandemic

Labor is on track to retain majority government in the Northern Territory, having taken a modest hit at Saturday’s election.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s team is expected to be at least 13-strong in the 25-member assembly, in the first major political test of the coronavirus pandemic.

Labor held 16 seats heading into the poll.

Despite strict rules on social distancing being the norm across the country, Mr Gunner hugged and shook hands with supporters in Darwin ahead of his victory speech.

He told supporters there was a ‘long way to go in some tight seats’ and a few recounts would be needed.

‘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.

His government would create jobs, build renewable energy and provide better housing and infrastructure, he added.

Country Liberal Party leader Lia Finocchiaro stepped up to the podium at 10.40pm AEST 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 late on Saturday appeared on track to hold 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 Mr 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 and possibly two seats.

Labor leader Mr Gunner has faced both criticism and praise for his tough stance on COVID-19 border closures, but says he has done it in the name of saving the territory’s economy and protecting Territorians’ health.

He comfortably retained his inner-Darwin seat.

On the campaign trail Mr Gunner ruled out his party’s involvement in a minority government.

A formal declaration of the poll is not scheduled until September 7, three days after postal votes close.

In a sign of the impact of COVID-19 fears, only about 20 per cent of voters cast their ballots on election day itself.

Labor campaigned on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw the NT suffer just 33 cases, telling voters it’s the party to see them through the crisis.

Despite its success protecting Territorians from the virus, the Gunner government has been criticised for its handling of the economy – rated as the nation’s worst performer by CommSec for the June quarter.

Ms Finocchiaro, who has been hailed as a champion by her federal colleagues, has repeatedly pointed to the NT’s skyrocketing debt during the campaign, saying 11,000 jobs had been lost on Labor’s watch.

‘We know that Territorians have voted for jobs, safety and opportunity,’ she told supporters.

Nationals federal president Larry Anthony said the take-out from the NT election is governments across the country can’t hide behind the handling of the pandemic.

‘People are looking beyond that and they want to see the future … which is economic growth and getting jobs,’ Mr Anthony said.

‘They are not just prepared to tick and flick governments because they’ve handled COVID well.’

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