Three weeks ago a community meeting was held in the unprepossessing Northern Territory township of Elliot.
This settlement — much driven-through but rarely visited — is located on the Stuart Highway in the geographic heart of the Territory. It’s a symbolic location to host the first of the 39 workshops which will collectively constitute the "NT toward State 7 Information Roadshow".
Throughout 2010, the caravan will wind its way across the length and breadth of the territory, presenting workshops in locations as remote as Mutitjulu, nestled in the shadows of Uluru, and Yirrkala, a Yolngu settlement not far from the mining town of Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land.
It is unclear whether the mob at Maningrida and the good people of Galiwinku are desperately seeking further information about the advantages of the Northern Territory becoming Australia’s seventh state but they are going to hear about it anyway. The Territory Labor Government has made an art form of government-by-glossy-brochure and the statehood campaign will be no exception. A ritzy new website heralds the beginning of another publicity campaign to tempt Territorians towards statehood.
However, the beleaguered Henderson Government must first weather the charge that this is a "bread and circuses" extravaganza intended to distract voters from more immediate concerns.
Here in the Territory, the ALP clings unconvincingly to power with the support of maverick independent Gerry Wood, who has signed an agreement with Chief Minister Paul Henderson to pass budget bills and support the Government in no-confidence motions. This unprecedented arrangement has been a key factor in the current political paralysis in the Territory: the business of government has all but ground to a halt.
An inquiry currently investigating the parlous state of the child protection system in the NT is likely to produce a document asking serious questions about the Government’s stewardship of this critical portfolio.
The NT bureaucracy’s administration of the $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), part of the federal government’s Northern Territory Intervention, has also left much to be desired. The SIHIP is something of a laughing stock — more than $45 million has been spent to build two houses in two years.
Major government undertakings such as the Territory 2030 Strategic Plan and the Integrated Regional Transport Strategy routinely run months behind schedule. Rarely is the electorate offered a convincing explanation for these delays. More typically, projects are simply nudged towards the backburner in the apparent hope that nobody will notice.
Is it any wonder then, that the NT Government wants to talk about statehood?
In 1978 the Federal Government passed the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act, transferring many functions traditionally performed by state administrations to the NT government and giving ministers executive control over the associated finances. Subsequently there have been sporadic calls for full statehood, often couched in the language of freeing Territorians from the oppressive yoke of a distant and uncaring federal government.
It’s likely, however, that many Australians will want to argue that 220,000 Northern Territorians do not a state make. Just 1 per cent of the nation’s population live in the NT and we are allocated two Senate seats and two members of the House of Representatives: in other words, the Territory is over-represented in Canberra.
It seems unlikely that the populous jurisdictions of NSW and Victoria would welcome the arrival of a mini-state of 220,000 inhabitants — particularly if it is agitating for more senators. It seems even less likely that the smaller states would welcome the diminution of their status which would accompany the creation of a seventh state.
Under s121 of the Constitution, a new state can be created by an act of the federal parliament. At the time of Federation all states were entitled to an equal number of senators, and to a minimum of five House of Representative seats. These guarantees don’t apply to new states and the NT would need to do some fast talking to boost its representation.
True, a minimalist model could see the NT become a state without an increase in its representation in the federal parliament. But with all the original states occupying 12 Senate seats, an "NT state" with only two senators would surely constitute a real insult being added to perceived injury.
Curiously, the NT has already had a taste of statehood, since up until the early part of last century the Territory was part of South Australia. The crow-eaters identified the region as an economic liability, and hived it off to the federal government in return for a sack of sovereigns. Making a virtue of necessity, Statehood Steering Committee Chair — and Speaker of the House — Jane Aagaard has noted that "next year is the 100th year since the NT was last part of a state" and further observed that "committee members believe it is time to be a state of our own".
In 1988 a plebiscite of Territorians rejected the idea of statehood by the narrow margin of 51.3 per cent against. Folklore has it that an important reason for the defeat of the proposition was the widespread belief that the advent of statehood might threaten the sanctity of cracker night. The exploding of fireworks on Territory Day is one of the most sacred tenets of whitefella culture in the NT and is simply not negotiable.
Representations of Indigenous Territorians are prominent in the sometimes crude propaganda sponsored by the Government in an attempt to garner support for statehood but it’s difficult to make the case that Aboriginal people in the Territory have anything much to gain from such a reform. Still, Central Land Council Deputy Chair and member of the Statehood Steering Committee, Maurie Ryan Japarta has taken an active role in promoting the change, telling the National Indigenous Times that "It’s about time. We want to govern ourselves and be equal to other Australians."
Previously, one of the impediments to statehood was the belief that the Country Liberal Party (CLP), with its notoriously unsophisticated policies, could not be trusted to govern in the best interests of Indigenous Territorians.
The CLP enjoyed a mortal lock on power in the NT before the Martin Labor government seized control in 2001. But times have changed. The days of Aboriginal people in the NT automatically voting for Labor are over. Increasing numbers of Indigenous Territorians are highly critical of Territory Labor’s indifferent performance in the field of Aboriginal affairs and are ready to throw in their lot with the CLP.
So it’s unlikely that Aboriginal people in the NT will stymie the push for statehood but politicians in the six existing states, along with many of their constituents, will need a great deal of convincing that the Territory should be so elevated.
The NT Government has pressing matters to attend to in the critical portfolios of child protection, housing, health, transport and education, to name just a few. So when it comes to the less immediate consideration of furthering our status within the Commonwealth of Australia, it may be that this is not the time to work ourselves into a state.
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