Katie Woolf says Michael Gunner was once the man Territorians wanted to blame for everything — the economy, crime and, if they could, even the weather.
It’s her job to know what voters are thinking. As a commercial morning-radio host in Darwin, Ms Woolf is a sounding board for their unfiltered opinions.
Since Mr Gunner came to power in 2016, Ms Woolf says she has, through an often-daily barrage of disgruntled callers, witnessed a “palpable” anger over his performance.
Despite leading the Labor party to a thumping victory at the 2016 election in which it won 18 out of Northern Territory’s 25 seats, Ms Woolf says Mr Gunner’s popularity was soon weighed down by the Territory’s tanking economy and a perception his Government was ‘soft on crime’.
Summing up Mr Gunner’s struggle to connect with Territorians in his first three years as Chief Minister, Ms Woolf says: “If [my listeners] could’ve blamed him for the weather, they would’ve blamed him for the weather”.
But Ms Woolf says that since coronavirus has taken over the daily news cycle and consumed almost all political debate, her listeners have been warming to the Chief Minister.
“He seemed to come across a lot more confidently in the way in which he was presenting his message to Territorians. And as a result, a lot of people became more positive towards him.”
‘Here he is’: Gunner appears absent no longer
It was less than three months ago Mr Gunner’s electoral fortunes seemed on a knife edge.
After a huge swing away from the party at the Johnston by-election in March, the Northern Territory’s only daily newspaper, the NT News, editorialised that Mr Gunner had “no choice but to step down as Labor leader”.
Political opponents, who also called for his sacking, claimed the result showed Mr Gunner was on borrowed time.
One of those opponents, Territory Alliance leader Terry Mills, says the problem for Mr Gunner was not just the flatlining economy and public concern over law and order.
He says the Chief Minister also seemed unwilling to front the media when there was bad news to announce, leaving his Deputy Nicole Manison and Attorney-General Natasha Fyles to regularly front the electorate in his place.
In December 2018, Mr Gunner was forced to return from a holiday after criticism his leave coincided with the release of a damning report on the NT budget.
“Prior to [coronavirus] we rarely saw the Chief Minister because there was only bad news … we always wondered where he was in those times,” Mills says.
“Now, here he is.”
During the coronavirus crisis, however, Mr Gunner — who declined an interview request — has fronted press conferences almost daily.
“What is remarkable is we are seeing the Chief Minister out front leading because there is a straightforward clear message to deliver and people are concerned,” Mr Mills says.
There have also been good results to trumpet. So far, the NT has had the lowest rate of positive COVID-19 tests in the country and according to Michael Gunner is “the safest place in the nation”.
A shifting style with a ‘Territory’ touch
As Mr Gunner has shifted into the role of the Northern Territory’s protector-in-chief during the coronavirus crisis, Ms Woolf says the Chief Minister has also developed a more personalised and colloquial style of leadership.
It’s a change of tack Ms Woolf says is working with voters.
When announcing business shutdowns, Mr Gunner took on personal responsibility for the pain to come.
“I know jobs will be lost; I feel sick about that. I have agonised over these decisions,” he said.
And when they reopened, Mr Gunner told Territorians there was a “keg convoy rolling up the Stuart Highway” with “175,000 litres of the good stuff” to fill the pubs.
In his more “blokey” tone, Mr Gunner said he understood if Territorians were “pissed off” about the cancellation of Territory Day (which he said he didn’t want to “half-arse”), and claimed the behaviour of Territorians outshone “dickheads at Bondi”.
On people spitting at emergency services workers, Mr Gunner called them “grubs” and “un-Territorian”.
Since coronavirus breached Northern Territory borders, Alice Springs-based political observer Professor Rolf Gerritsen says the Chief Minister’s new image has been of “the sort of bloke you would have a beer with in the pub”.
Last month, Mr Gunner told voters that June 5 — the date pubs can resume normal operations in the Northern Territory — was the day for a “Sunday sesh”.
Three months after calling for his sacking, the NT News’s position had also changed.
“During the past few weeks, we have seen Mr Gunner take the bull by the horns and do his job as he should have always been doing,” the News Corp paper wrote in an editorial earlier this month
Maxine Hawker, an Alice Springs woman who shared her views with the ABC on Mr Gunner’s recent performance, put it like this: “I wasn’t particularly fond of him, but I think he’s handled this well”.
Michael Gunner’s ‘real test’ is ahead
While the coronavirus crisis has triggered upheaval in economies, health systems, and the lives of Australians, during the pandemic there has been one near constant in states and territories across the nation: our leaders are gaining in popularity.
Back in March, in the immediate aftermath of the Johnston by-election, ABC election analyst Antony Green tweeted that Labor’s prospects looked grim and suggested that the Territory was headed for a “wild” election on August 22.
Now, as adversarial politics takes a backseat in a global health emergency, Mr Green says that key election issues which had plagued the Chief Minister have, for now, been “blown out of the water”.
While there is no published polling in the Northern Territory, Mr Mills believes Mr Gunner’s popularity has increased through the coronavirus pandemic.
“When people have a high level of fear they will look to their leaders for direction,” he says.
“The question is, is he up to it, or is he just going to disappear again when it becomes difficult?”
Mr Mills — a man who covets Michael Gunner’s job — has been calling for the August NT election to be postponed until after voters get to see the NT budget in October.
But Mr Gerritsen says any goodwill afforded to Mr Gunner during the coronavirus pandemic could dissipate even by August as issues like the economy, crime and fracking resurface.
“As soon as the brakes come off, then all the issues that were bubbling before this happened will resume and [Mr Gunner] will then be in a worse position to deal with them because of the deteriorating fiscal position,” he says.
Back on the airwaves, Katie Woolf says she is already starting to perceive a shift in what callers want to talk about: the economy and the justice system.
“[Mr Gunner’s problems aren’t] going away because of the coronavirus crisis,” Ms Woolf says.
“In fact, in a couple of months’ time I feel as though [they] could be magnified.