Northern Territory: Will becoming a State improve their second-tier status in the nation?

At the July COAG meeting in Sydney it was announced that the Northern Territory would push towards becoming a State in 2018. Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles said that the Territory was a “second class citizen” that had a “second-tier status in the nation”.

Currently the Northern Territory does not have its own Constitution. The Government only exists because of federal legislation, the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978. This means that the federal Government has the final say on Territory laws. 

History of the Northern Territory

The land encompassed within the Northern Territory has been the home to Indigenous Australians for more than 40,000 years. The traditional owners of the lands of the North had their own laws and traded with visiting foreigners on the coast.

In 1825 the area that we now know as the Northern Territory was proclaimed as part of the Colony of New South Wales. At this time the inland of Australia still remained a blank space on British maps, while settlers attempted to build colonies on the coast of the Northern Territory. The first three of these settlements failed. The first European explorer to travel through the Northern Territory was Ludwig Leichardt who travelled from the Darling Downs in QLD (also part of the colony of NSW at the time) to Port Essington on the Coburg Peninsula (just above the north eastern corner of Arnhem Land) where he arrived in 1845.

Thirteen years later, one of the great Australian explorers, John McDouall Stuart began exploring the interior of South Australia and the Northern Territory. He finally made the journey to the top of Australia from the bottom in a straight line through the middle of the country on his sixth expedition in 1862. He had travelled a distance of over 2,900 kilometres. He then turned around and walked back.

It was 1863 when the Northern Territory became part of the Colony of South Australia. The SA Colony was keen to develop the North and the fourth attempt to make a settlement succeeded at the port of Darwin in 1869.

As a way of opening up the interior of Australia, Stuart’s maps were used to build the overland telegraph from Port Augusta to Darwin between 1870 and 1872. There had been a race on between the Colonies as to who would get to build the line through their land. This monumental feat completed in just 18 months allowed communication between Australia and the rest of the world. Using the overland telegraph it took seven hours to send a message from Australia to London, rather than the several months it took for letters to arrive on ships. Many of the towns in the Northern Territory began as telegraph repeater stations, including Alice Springs, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Pine Creek.

At federation in 1901, the State of South Australia included the area that we now call the Northern Territory. As one of the more progressive colonies South Australia (including the Northern Territory) had allowed all adults, including women and indigenous people voting rights. As such anyone already on the SA electoral role (including those women and indigenous people) had the right to vote in the first federal election in March 1901.

On 1 January 1911 the Northern Territory was separated from South Australia and handed to the federal government for administration. Section 122 of the Constitution outlines the process of Government for Territories surrendered to the Commonwealth:

The Parliament may make laws for the government of any territory surrendered by any State to and accepted by the Commonwealth, or of any territory placed by the Queen under the authority of and accepted by the Commonwealth, or otherwise acquired by the Commonwealth, and may allow the representation of such territory in either House of the Parliament to the extent and on the terms which it thinks fit. 

The first council of the Northern Territory was made up of six appointed members, administrator Dr J.A Gilruth took up his position in 1912 and a year later the Northern Territory public service was established. It was not until 1922 that the Northern Territory was provided with representation in the Federal Parliament and the first MP had no voting rights in the House.

In 1926 the Federal Government divided the Northern Territory into two separate territories called North Australia and Central Australia, each with their own administration. This was repealed and the administration went back to the previous arrangement by 1931.

After the first bombing of Darwin in 1942, the Northern Territory was placed under military administration, which remained in place until 1946. Hundreds died during this period. Once the military administration ends in 1947 the Northern Territory Legislative Council was established, with seven appointed members and six elected members. The total electoral enrolment at the first election was 4,443.

By 1959 the Federal Member of the Northern Territory was given voting rights in the House on laws relating to the Northern Territory. Nine years later the Member was given equal powers to the other Members.

The final election of the Northern Territory Legislative Council was in 1971 with a total enrolment of 25,338. In 1974 the Commonwealth provided for two Senators to represent the Northern Territory (along with two in the ACT) and established the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. Electoral distribution created 19 electoral districts and when the election was held later that year there were 39,027 people enrolled to vote.

On Christmas day 1974 Cyclone Tracy almost wiped Darwin off the map.  The cyclone and subsequent responses highlighted several problems with the way the regional government was set up. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, in 1975 announced that the Northern Territory would be a State within five years. The following year the Aboriginal Lands Council was set up and the Commonwealth provides the granting of title to particular lands in the Northern Territory to Aboriginal Land Trusts.

A Constitutional referendum held in 1977 granted Northern Territory electors (and those in other territories) the right to be counted in the overall number in future referendums.

In 1978 the Commonwealth gave self-government to the Northern Territory (there must have been a spate of it, this was the same year that self-government was provided to Norfolk Island). Some of the limitations of this included the provision for a disallowance of Territory laws by the Governor-General, and the acquisition of Territory lands by the Commonwealth without compensation.

10 years after Malcolm Fraser made his statehood announcement a committee was set up by the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly to report and make recommendations on Constitutional development, along with a Statehood Executive Group.

The Northern Territory Parliament House was opened in 1994.

The following year the Commonwealth used its power that in effect revoked the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995. This was done by adding a Section (50A) to the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 to exclude the Legislative Assembly the power to make laws allowing euthanasia.

A Constitutional Convention was held in 1998 and a draft Constitution for Statehood was adopted by the Legislative Assembly. The Referendums Act 1998 (NT) follows, which only allows for a referendum for or in relation to a matter concerning the transfer of functions to the Executive.

A non-binding referendum was held on 3 October 1998, which narrowly failed. Many of the more populous areas in the Northern Territory gained a very small Yes majority, while the farther flung areas gained a very large No vote, causing the overall result of 51.3% No. Why? The results were widely interpreted as a personal rebuke to the Chief Minister at the time, Shane Stone. The sticking points were: Aboriginal land rights, ownership and control of uranium mining, the management of Kakadu and Uluru national parks and the number of senators the state of the Northern Territory would have in the Federal Parliament.

In 2007 the Federal Government passed the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (the intervention), something that is unlikely to have occurred if the Northern Territory was a state.

What is the process for becoming a State?

While the first step might be to gain a consensus among the people of the Northern Territory, the process to becoming a State involves more than the people and the Parliament of the Northern Territory wanting to become a State. Section 121 of the Constitution allows for the admission of new states:

The Parliament may admit to the Commonwealth or establish new States, and may upon such admission or establishment make or impose such terms and conditions, including the extent of representation in either House of the Parliament, as it thinks fit. 

The Parliament must accept the new State and can impose terms and conditions on that State before admission.

Would becoming a State give the Northern Territory equal status to the other States?

In short, no. Any new State admitted to the Commonwealth is not guaranteed equal status. The new state must negotiate terms and conditions with the Commonwealth. These might include:

  • Keeping any legislation that has been imposed on the Territory
  • Federal approval of the new State Constitution
  • Being granted a smaller number of Senators than the original States

The six original states of the federation have an equal number of Senators (currently 12) the difference in population for each state does not change this. Equal representation of the States was seen as essential by some during the drafting of the Constitution, but a compromise was required to pass this at the Constitutional Convention in Sydney. As such the Original States were given equal representation in Section 7 of the Constitution:

Until the Parliament otherwise provides there shall be six senators for each Original State. The Parliament may make laws increasing or diminishing the number of senators for each State, but so that equal representation of the several Original States shall be maintained and that no Original State shall have less than six senators. 

Australia has never admitted a new state, however, new states are given representation that is to be decided by Parliament in Section 121. During the last push for Statehood in 1998 the Northern Territory was offered three Senate seats by the Federal Government in negotiations.

In negotiation for the 2018 push for Statehood the Parliament will decide the extent of representation in either House of Parliament. It would be very unlikely that the new State would be given the same number of Senators as the original States. And so it would seem that if you’re not an Original State there is a chance that you’ll always be a “second class citizen” when it comes to representation, terms and conditions. Unless, of course, the Government and Parliament espouse a great deal of goodwill and grant equality on admission of the new State, or the Constitution is changed through a referendum to give new States equality with Original States.

Is this fair?

Fairness is pretty important to most Australians. We will have to watch whether this extends to Senate representation in a future state of the Northern Territory.

Statehood advantages

  • The new state would be sovereign. Laws such as those overturned in 1998 by the federal government would be safe from interference.
  • It is likely that by becoming a state the NT would set up a new parliament with two houses. The current Legislative Assembly is unicameral.
  • The new state would be more democratically governed as the Commonwealth would not be able to override decisions of a democratically elected state Government.
  • The citizens of the new state would get the double vote in referendums that citizens of other states have had since 1901.

Statehood disadvantages

  • It has been said that funding from the federal government may dry up (although, much funding for the states does come from the federal government).
  • The new state is unlikely to have representation equal to other states.
  • There may be terms and conditions placed upon the new State by the Federal Government

Photo Attributed to Michael Coghlan

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