Unseating an incumbent: not easy but not impossible



In 1992 former Assistant Commissioner of the NT Police Andy McNeill was one of two challengers  against incumbent Mayor of Alice Springs, Leslie Oldfield (the other was Alderman Harvey Millard). This was a formidable task as Oldfield had won a by-election for mayor in April 1983 and easily retained the office in the council elections of 1984 and ’88. She was the town’s first female mayor and by 1992 was by far the longest serving in that role (a record she still holds).
However, Oldfield’s popularity as mayor had not translated into support for her when she ran as an independent candidate in the NT election campaign of October 1990, when she had stood against her former boss Roger Vale, the CLP’s immensely popular Member for Braitling. Vale trounced Oldfield but clearly did not forgive her for that sleight, one more in a list of grievances the CLP had against Oldfield, long a thorn in the side of the NT Government.
Andy McNeill always stressed he was politically independent in his tilt for mayor; nevertheless the full weight of the then mighty local CLP party machine (of which I was then a member), supporters and affiliates was brought to bear to assist in his campaign to oust Oldfield. I know this because Mr McNeill had asked me to join his campaign committee and I’d accepted.
By 1992 the CLP was on the rebound after several years of instability and infighting. The party had staved off defeat in the NT elections of 1990, and the race for mayor in Alice Springs provided the next opportunity to consolidate its strength in its old bastion of power.
The campaign went like clockwork. On Saturday, May 30, 1992, Andy McNeill won an absolute majority of 52 per cent of votes cast; and Leslie Oldfield suffered the ignominy of becoming the town’s first incumbent mayor to be defeated at the polls.
In the 41 year history of the Alice Springs Town Council, the 1992 election campaign is the only occasion an incumbent mayor has been defeated. It therefore deserves some analysis as to why this has remained a unique event.
It is a truism of politics that oppositions don’t win elections, rather governments lose them. This holds true for the mayoral race in 1992. Leslie Oldfield had prevaricated for a time on whether to run for mayor again, before finally deciding to do so.


This uncertainty was followed by a crucial error of judgment, in which Oldfield’s campaign focused almost exclusively on her impressive track record in local government (she had been an alderman before becoming mayor) but offered no new policies.
This was a major tactical blunder at a time of national economic recession (which hit the Alice hard), a slump in tourism, endless controversy over rampant alcohol abuse, litter and vandalism, crime and anti-social activities (including youth crime); and extensive debate about the town’s future direction of growth and town planning, building height limits, revitalization of the town’s CBD, especially Todd Mall, and including the Todd River. (Incidentally, who remembers that in late 1992 the Town Council formally decided to re-open the north end of Todd Mall from the Parsons Street intersection to two-way traffic?)
Alice Springs was as much a focus of national media attention for all the wrong reasons in the early 1990s as it is today.
McNeill’s principal campaign slogan “Time for Change”, combined with “Let’s make council work”, clearly resonated with an increasingly exasperated voting public. He emphasized his qualities as “A Family Man” (Oldfield was divorced), “A Skilled Administrator; A People’s Man” and promised to be “A Full Time Mayor Dedicated to Action” with an “Open Door Policy” and would “Work for the Alice – not talk”.
Tourism, bike paths, litter control, pet by-laws and improved financial management were all key planks of McNeill’s election policy platform.


The clear difference of the two major campaigns was that McNeill focused on the future while Oldfield relied on her past. Whether McNeill succeeded in implementing his vision is at best a moot point; however, he was untroubled in the subsequent council election campaign of 1996, where he increased his absolute majority against three challengers; and he retired from office at the elections of 2000 still clearly popular with many people.
McNeill was succeeded by Alderman Fran Kilgariff, who also was the mayor of Alice Springs for two full terms when she retired in 2008.
So what of the present? While most issues that the Town Council is grappling with today are virtually no different from those of at least three decades ago (for example, the current CBD revitalization is at least the fourth such scheme in this time), the current mayor Damien Ryan has only served one term and therefore still has time on his side.
I detect no major groundswell of opinion against him and (like McNeill but unlike either Oldfield or Kilgariff) he has no ambition to enter Territory politics – this counts in his favour.
Ryan clearly prefers consensus over conflict, and to some this is seen as being too weak to adequately represent the interests of Alice Springs; however, he is usually approachable and responsive.
By contrast, Steve Brown is a much more controversial public figure. Forthright and pugnacious, no one is in any doubt where they stand in relation to his views on many issues, consequently he polarizes the public. It remains to be seen whether he can generate sufficient support to upset Ryan in the mayoral contest but the portents of history strongly suggest this is highly unlikely.
However, it has been a common strategy employed by many candidates over the years to run simultaneously for mayor and alderman (this time it will be councilor); and this is a good means of gaining a higher public profile in the election campaign. By this method it is most likely Steve Brown will win a place as a councilor on the Alice Springs Town Council.
Pictured: Incumbent Mayor Damien Ryan. Photo from our archive.


  1. Thanks for this insightful and timely article, Alex. It would be great if you had time to give us some analysis of some of the more recent Alice Springs contests as well. So many voters are new to town at any election, so it would probably be of interest to many readers to hear more from you about the dynamics of local politics over the last couple of decades, especially in light of the recurring themes of litter, anti-social behaviour, violence and their impacts on daily life and tourism.

  2. Alex – I have often enjoyed reading your articles on the way history has often repeated itself in Alice Springs. You bring a distinct perspective from a wealth of historical data.
    As you are perhaps aware, I have recently been calling for a legislated at-least-one-day-a-week closure of our bottle shops, mainly just to give the town and all of us a regular time-out from the noise and mayhem that take-away alcohol seems to bring us.
    At the same time I find some sympathy for Steve Brown’s comments on the seemingly arbitrary and possibly racist tangle of our current restrictions.
    I hope I am not out of order asking this, but if you have the time, could you please write up a short history of alcohol restrictions here in Alice?

  3. You are right with your assessment of Steve. I would rather a Mayor I knew was not afraid to push the boundaries to make Alice a safe and welcoming town to all people. A Mayor who unlike Fran and Damien is prepared to speak up for the people. We all talk about the Mayor in SA who took a strong leadership to clean up her town. She was a hero to a town that was in similar state to Alice and she is awarded praise for those tough choices.
    If anyone thinks Damien has what it takes to stand up for our town then all they need to do is read the article you have written, Alex, to know that Damien is not that person. A vote for Steve as Mayor is a vote for leadership and a real future for Alice. One he will fight for. One that will give the kids growing up here a desire to stay and grow their children. To allow Hal and others peace on the streets. The CBD a place people can go without fear. It might sound like a pipe dream to those who never want to have a go and believe anything is possible. You just have to believe we can achieve with Steve as Mayor.
    If Damien is re-elected we are all doomed to continue life in Alice Springs as it is now on the slide into total mayhem. Faith in believing we can fight for our rights on March 24 will show the town whether we have a future or a bad case of decay. Let the games begin.

  4. My thanks to everyone who has been kind enough to comment on my article. In reply to Bob Durnan, the key phrase to all those matters of concern he lists is “recurring themes”. I could certainly write a piece about the “dynamics of local politics” of more recent times but in large part I’ll be repeating myself! But there is some food for thought about the nature and workings of local government, not least the disillusionment of some worthy individuals on council over the years who withdrew from involvement because of the futility of it all.
    In response to Hal Duell, I could write up a history of alcohol restrictions in the Alice (and elsewhere in the region) but I warn it won’t be short! Of all the themes I collect material on, alcohol abuse and its evil siblings of crime, youth crime and anti-social mayhem are the most difficult to deal with because of the sheer volume. But in the end the real issue boils down to who actually benefits from the continuation of this misery (yes, there are some).
    In response to Janet Brown, I’m pleased that she finds favour in my assessment of her husband Steve; and naturally she will support his campaign. It’s a matter of one’s own opinion if Steve Brown will be the salvation of this town’s future, we will see if the majority of voters agree with her on election day.
    Kind regards to all, Alex.

  5. Janet, you and Steve are heavy on unsubstantiated statements and short on answers. To honestly answer reasonable questions would mean that you and Steve would have to think about your rights-based agenda and its law and order solution.
    Foetal Spectrum Alcohol Disorder (FSAD) in now recognised in remote health as an indicator that children continue to be the most vulnerable to liberal licensing laws. Have you thought about the rights of those children currently disadvantaged by the river of grog or those yet to be born? What plans do you have for their safety while you arrest and penalise their alcoholic parents whom you seem to think have a right to drink whenever they like?
    Responsible citizens discriminate for the public good. You and Steve dismiss all alcohol restrictions based on scientific advice, including that by surgeons at our local hospital, as “idiotic” and discriminatory.
    If you and Steve get elected, it will be because 11% of the voters agree with your selective claims, but my estimation of the economic and human cost of your vision is based on having widely read scientific, and some anecdotal evidence.
    The crisis of public alcoholism needs further restriction by reducing the supply – ‘turning the tap down’ – not returning it to full-bore.

  6. Wrong, wrong, wrong, Russell. [You are] confessing to race based ideologies. And yes, we do strongly support equality under law. And policy. And yes we do support inclusion, not exclusion, and by your statement you support segregation and control of those that you feel are weaker or less important than yourself. We will fight for equality and we are not afraid to speak out for it. [Ensuring] an ‘us and them’ destructive movement ensures dependance on the welfare system, offering no hope and no future.

  7. As a resident from 1976 until 1994 I can observe that although much seems to have changed, it still basically stays the same. What probably has changed is the CLP stranglehold on all and everything. That in my view was to the detriment of Central Australia up until the late 90s when the majority wised up. Everingham and his successors, whether in office or on the sidelines, all had their noses in the trough. But there you go, we / they have mostly moved on, retired, mostly back to SA (and other places) or karked it.
    Nobody learns from history. We just keep on blundering along, making the same stuff-ups.
    Good luck to the next generation!

  8. I am in total agreement Don. But in the NT, regardless of who is in government, there has been a mayor in all town councils not prepared to rock the boat. Alice and Tennant have gone backwards. And who has control of town planning? The NT Government. And where is our town plan? Nothing. I have been asking for one for the last eight years and what is the answer? We don’t have the funding for it. Real simple solution. Take on town planning along with the funding allocated to it. Or is the latest mayor too scared to ask just like the last mayor? Both mayors have not even asked. That is real leadership for Alice. Unless the latest elected council voted for town planning which I know the have not. Why are they continuing to make increases in rate charges rather than increase the rate base? Again fear to ask the NT Government for anything to assist in the growth and prosperity of Alice? I was at a meeting where I raised the question of why council cannot fight for town planning and our latest mayor had the old answer. We do not have the funding and before another question he excused himself. It seems that it is easier to accept the dregs rather than demand equality. I am not asking for equal of Darwin I am asking for our share.
    I raised my kids with a strong motive to ask for what you want or need. Yes or no are the options. You don’t ask you don’t get. A real leader would have at least asked. Appears no leaders in this or other past elected members for council. Time for change, time for show ponies with their egos to be put last. The vote for mayor can be for a man who has always stood up for Alice. Asking for problems and issues to be addressed by government or a mayor that enjoys the perks and photo shoots and gained nothing for our town except higher rates, outrageous fees to dump and massive amounts of wasted rate payer funds.

  9. Alex, your memory is obviously different from mine as Andy definitely had no ties with the CLP when running for Mayor. He was offered assistance from the CLP (photocopying etc) but declined and ALL expenses for both campaigns came out of our own pocket. And if I remember correctly, he didn’t specifically pick you because you were a CLP [person], you just happened to be useful. Of course the members of his campaign committee were CLP, most of our friends were and that is why they were asked to help because they were friends and NOT BECAUSE THEY WERE CLP MEMBERS. So please, Alex, get your facts straight before putting them to print.

  10. In response to Marlene McNeill, I wrote in my original draft of this article that Andy McNeill approached me on the advice he received from then Member for Braitling, Roger Vale. Andy did so on the occasion of Clean Up Australia day in 1992, for which he was one of the principal organisers that year, the main focus of the event being on Anzac Hill. I went along to help out on Anzac Hill. Somebody had pointed me out to Andy who then came and introduced himself to me and asked if I would be interested in helping in his campaign to become mayor. It was Andy who informed me at that time that Roger Vale had told him to approach me.
    I stated in my article that Andy always insisted he was independent of party influence; however, along with many other people, I was a member of the CLP in Alice Springs, and his campaign was viewed as an opportunity to end Leslie Oldfield’s career as Mayor of Alice Springs. She had “crossed the Rubicon” in 1990, running as an independent candidate in the NT elections of 1990 against Roger Vale, at a time when the CLP was seriously facing the prospect of losing office for the first time. The CLP increased its majority to 14 seats in the Legislative Assembly but that was still a narrow majority. Between 1990 and the next elections of 1994, the CLP was assiduous in its dealings with Central Australia during this time (including a far more consultative approach to the revitalization of the town’s CBD than is occurring now). After 1994, however, the CLP won 17 seats – a comfortable majority – and there was an immediate drop-off in attention focussed on Central Australia as a result.
    Andy McNeill’s election campaign for mayor in 1992 may well have been run independently from direct political party control but it very much slotted in with the overall strategic approach the CLP adopted during that period.


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