The Urgent Need for Northern Territory Reform

Dan Bourchier

ABC Radio Canberra breakfast presenter & ABC 7PM news anchor, and former member of Statehood Steering Comm, a bipartisan advisory group to the NT Legislative Assembly.

The Northern Territory is at the precipice of major change. Territorians have long been subjected to the whim of political parties that – for the most part – do not act in their interests, but seemingly in the interest only of attaining power and then holding on to it. In addition, there have long been calls for greater political autonomy and institutional change to further strengthen public accountability. Now is the time for decisive change so that governance of the Northern Territory can come of age.

On 27 August 2016, NT voters sent a very strong message to the then-reigning Country Liberal Party (CLP), that no longer would they tolerate their leaders acting with callous disregard for the electorate. The punishment was swift. The Government has limped to the election with a barely workable majority, beset by rolling crises of their own making – the party was left with just two seats in the 25-seat assembly.

The CLP took power in 2012 in a landslide – coincidentally, at that election, it was Indigenous voters who slapped down the incumbent Labor Government, and sent a strong message that their vote – in the predominantly bush electorates considered the Labor heartland – was not to be taken for granted. In 2016, it was the CLP heartland of conservative seats in Palmerston, Katherine and Alice Springs which would pull the handbrake on the assumption they would always vote for the CLP. The party lost seats it had held since self-government. Seats that few anticipated were vulnerable. Sex scandals, allegations and findings of corruption, all became commonplace; the integrity of politicians, the police and the public service were called into question under the one-term CLP government, and even some members of the Opposition. The new CLP Opposition leader Gary Higgins – a former Minister and one of only two elected CLP MPs – began his time in the role at the end of 2016 “by offering an unequivocal, unreserved apology to Territorians for much of our performance in government between August 2012 and August 2016.” He went on to condemn the “belligerence”, the “spin”, “defiance” and “division and disunity”. Higgins detailed how any good work done by the government was destroyed by the behaviour of those in the Territory’s highest offices.

There are serious lessons to be learnt here, but there is also a very real need for a comprehensive debate about how the system can be repaired and power for the people can be restored. This question about how the voices of Territorians can be heard can truly drive the way politics and politicians operate. This blog aims to outline a comprehensive reform to governance in the Northern Territory which will strengthen public institutions and help to rebuild trust in a system that has been trashed and seriously damaged. Not all of it may work, but I see this as the start of a conversation at a time when there needs to be hope. The question of statehood is most certainly part of this conversation, but there is a dire need to look much further than simpleminded symbolic reform. Change needs to be all-encompassing and substantive. If not, the cycle of political betrayal may well continue.

The Northern Territory has a population of just under 250,000 and 35% of Territorians are Indigenous – the highest proportion in the nation – and there were around 135,000 people on the electoral roll for the 27 August 2016 election. Not one of the 25 electorates has more than 6,000 enrolled voters, with the smallest having less than 5,000 voters. By comparison, the ACT has 284,000 enrolled voters, 25 elected Territory MPs and no local government, and Tasmania has 375,000 enrolled voters, 25 lower house MPs and 15 upper house MPs. By those numbers, the Northern Territory is already dramatically overrepresented with politicians. The picture becomes even more questionable when local government is added. There are 15 councils/shires, and a total of 147 people were elected to local government at the 2012 elections of the third tier of government. There were an additional 16 councillor positions that went unfilled as a result of not enough interest, in fact, 24 wards ran either without enough candidates for there to be a challenge, or with the same number of candidates as there were positions available. In one ward in the shire of Wagait, a councillor was elected with just seven first preference votes with only 186 formal votes available to elect a council of seven members. There seems little question to me that the Northern Territory is remarkably over governed.

My proposal is multi-pronged:

Firstly, there is no doubt that there is need for another check and balance on the excess of political parties. I propose changing the election model of the assembly from single-member electorates, to a multi-member electorate system similar to the ACT or Tasmania. And there is an argument for shrinking the number of members as well – but this needs more consideration. In any event, that change would shift the way members are elected, and would put greater pressure on them to be personally accountable to that multi-member electorate. The Hare-Clark multi-member electorates of Tasmania are described as one which has high engagement within the five electorates of five members each (Tasmania also has a lower house of 25 seats). Each of Tasmania’s electorates has about 72,000 enrolled voters and, to be elected, an MP needs to receive a quota around 10,000 votes. There is a compelling argument to shrink the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly to 20, making four multi-member electorates of five members each, which would push the population of each electorate to around 34,000 voters, making the quota around 7000 votes.

In addition, I propose establishing an upper house in the Northern Territory. Rather than having an additional group of politicians, a better option would be to make an elected mayor of a council or the president of a shire a member of the upper house as well. Even with the salary increase to cover the additional responsibility, there would still be a cost-saving overall, and this would see greater accountability for those members of the upper house, and by default, would lead to a more representative parliament.

Further, local government needs to be dramatically shrunk, and in the smaller councils, just a mayor and deputy should be elected, and in the bigger jurisdictions there could be one person elected for each ward, rather than between three and seven per ward as currently exists. This would shrink the number of electable positions from 163 to somewhere between 50 and 80. The financial savings that would be accrued would likely be significant and would balance out any increase to the pay of mayors/presidents taking on roles in the upper house.

Finally, there needs to be a cross-party select committee established for Indigenous affairs, similar to the Maori Affairs select committee of the New Zealand Parliament. This committee considers “matters relating to Maori affairs including commerce and culture” as well as any matters relating to the Treaty of Waitangi and treaty settlement bills. Matters of Maori Affairs are seen as above partisan politics and this committee is responsible for taking a comprehensive view of such matters. The Northern Territory needs an Indigenous Affairs select committee of MPs from all sides of politics, which looks at all matters through the lens of the potential impact on First Peoples. It would report back to Parliament, and any findings would be tabled and published, putting pressure on the Government of the day to at least consider the matters. Indigenous MPs would be members if they so choose, and any other MPs could be adjunct members of this committee as well to ensure anyone with a specific interest or passion is not isolated from contributing. It would be a powerful additional check and balance on all bills set to become law.

Concurrently with these proposals, the debate about statehood needs to be revisited. When the Northern Territory gained self-government in 1978, the view always was that statehood would be achieved within five years. But it would take 20 years before the matters were seriously considered. And arguably, both serious attempts to address this question were damaged by the politicians who sought to make the change. In the late 1990s, the criticism was that the new constitution, drafted by a democratic constitutional convention, was changed at the 11th hour, and many of the progressive components removed. The matter was narrowly rejected in a Northern Territory plebiscite in 1998, with 51.9% voting against the proposal. Anecdotally, Indigenous Territorians walked away from the process and the reform en masse after being disenfranchised. Polls that followed suggested a majority of Territorians supported Statehood in principle, but not the process that surrounded it.

The next serious move to statehood came in 2005 when the then Chief Minister Clare Martin called for a bipartisan approach, beginning with an apolitical parliamentary advisory committee established to regular Territorians. I was the youngest member appointed to the advisory committee. Over the subsequent five years, the Statehood Steering Committee sat around campfires, in boardrooms, at Country Women’s Association halls, and out on country in every stretch of the Territory, talking to every interest group and reaching out to every part of the community. Voices from across the political and socio-economic divide were sought out, discussions – often fiery – took place, and passionate debates about the future of the Territory were held. The premise was to comprehensively discuss the matters of concern, the possible roads ahead, and ways of getting there. But the committee did much more than that, it created an avenue for constructive debate about who Territorians see themselves as, and who they want to see themselves as. There was also an intensive dispelling of concerns that began as rumours and transformed into folklore such as would firecrackers be banned? Would the Northern Territory get 12 Senators like all states at Federation? Would financial arrangements with the Commonwealth change? What would happen to Land Rights and uranium? Would the Commonwealth be able to overturn Northern Territory legislation?

The process was derailed in the lead-up to the 2012 election, when the CLP in opposition broke from bipartisan support of statehood, and railed against members of the constitutional convention being elected at the same time as local governments. The combining of elections was part of a bid to save an enormous amount of money, while still gaining the same outcomes of democratic free and fair elections. The move destroyed any community or political good will, and left five years of delicate and considered consultations, and debates in tatters. A senior politician at the time responded by dismissing statehood as “not a barbecue stopper”, but in fact the CLP intervention had the impact of moving statehood to the scrap heap. The entire foundation of statehood is to give Territorians the autonomy to govern their own affairs, to have their votes counted equally in referendums, and to draft the first constitution in Australia in more than 100 years.

It should take into account the lessons of the last century and right historic wrongs through an inclusive process of constitutional renewal; a process that puts Indigenous Australians and our stories at the centre of that picture, and rightly at the heart of the document that will guide future governance. There is far more opportunity than challenge in statehood, but like many reforms to governance structures, it requires bravery, courage, and conviction. Sadly, those are qualities not seen for some time in political discourse in the Northern Territory.

These have been tumultuous times in the Northern Territory in recent years, featured by a steady flow of controversies which have undermined trust in our politicians, public institutions and processes. Voters have responded decisively by sending a strong message for change. There needs to be a comprehensive overhaul of all governance structures, and a considered approach to addressing over-representation, while entrenching checks and balances that are – as much as possible – apolitical, and reforms that entrench open government. If not, the great risk is that the cycle of mistrust will continue.


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