This is a guest post by Ken Parish** that was originally posted* at Club Troppo  on February 7, 2015.

Political chaos continues in the Northern Territory in the wake of last Monday’s failed leadership coup against incumbent Chief Minister Adam Giles. Today’s Northern Territory News reports that Giles, who earlier in the week demoted the plotters’ number cruncher, Health Minister Robyn Lambley, to the backbench in an early act of vengeance, is now about to do likewise to Alice Springs MLA Matt Conlan.

Giles is also reported to be about to remove former CLP Chief Ministers Terry Mills and Denis Burke from lucrative government sinecures, apparently as punishment for suspected sympathy for the plotters or perhaps just suspected lack of sympathy for Giles. Controversial CLP fundraiser Graeme Lewis is also rumoured to be about to be sacked from government positions including chairman of the Darwin Waterfront Corporation.

I can’t help thinking that the latter looks like a courageous decision in a Sir Humphrey Appleby sense. As long-time chairperson of the CLP slush fund Foundation 51 (currently under investigation by the Electoral Commissioner), Lewis undoubtedly knows where a lot of bodies are buried, in fact he probably buried a lot of them himself. He certainly didn’t look even slightly worried as I had coffee at the table next to him in the Fannie Bay Cool Spot this morning.

This morning’s NT News story also neatly summarises the essence of the appalling conduct by Giles and his supporters which has led us to the current situation of grossly dysfunctional governance, in which the Chief Minister is gleefully wreaking vengeance on a significant number of his party colleagues because they dared to support the majority of government MLAs who have completely lost confidence in Giles’ leadership ability:

Giles retained his leadership despite not holding a vote of the caucus. It was a matter of holding on at all costs, rather than reaching a party room consensus.

Giles ultimately called the plotters’ bluff by threatening to burn the house down.

Westra van Holthe was not able to gain the 13 votes needed to demonstrate the confidence of the Parliament. And if the party didn’t return to Giles, he’d have no choice but to force the rabble to the slaughterhouse of an early election.

Giles has also publicly spread rumours that unnamed senior police officers had been conspiring with a senior CLP politician (apparently Attorney-General and former policeman John Elferink) to launch the leadership coup against Giles, while citing no evidence at all to support this claim. Not surprisingly, the Police Association has expressed outrage while the Acting Police Commissioner has expressed complete confidence in his officers including senior colleagues. I can’t eliminate the possibility that there might have been some shenanigans among contenders for the position vacated by the disgraced former Commissioner John McRoberts, but for Giles to publicise and give public credence to such rumours for his own self-interested purposes is reprehensible in the extreme on just about any view.

We can only hope that a couple of members of the timid majority might regain their courage and decide to bring on an early election themselves by voting with the Opposition to support a no-confidence motion in the Giles government. Lambley and Conlan, for instance, have nothing much to lose as demoted backbenchers likely to be dis-endorsed anyway by the Alice Springs branch of the CLP (which for reasons best known to itself still strongly supports Giles and his cronies).

However, some keen NT political observers and commentators have moved beyond merely wishing for an early election, referring to the Territory as a “failed state” (and presumably therefore seeing Northern Territory self-government as a failed experiment). Veteran Murdoch journalist Nicolas Rothwell has long been in that category, and Darwin lawyer and Crikey blogger Bob Gosford expressed a similar view yesterday.

I have reluctantly come to a similar view. Until now, although holding grave fears about the quality of Northern Territory political governance under both the previous Labor government and the current CLP one, I have taken the optimistic view that things are bound to improve as the Territory grows and matures, and that therefore the self-government experiment is worth preserving. I have also felt that many of the deficiencies about which people complain also exist to a significant extent in other Australian States, it’s just that they are much more exposed and visible here because the population is so small. In a very real sense, the Northern Territory means the tiny city-state of Darwin whose population is around 140,000 people.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day that is also the reason why self-government is an unsustainable failed experiment. Not only are there not enough people to provide a revenue base to support either the full bureaucratic apparatus of a State government or the necessary relatively sophisticated political establishment to make it efficient and accountable, but there aren’t even enough people to provide a sufficient number of talented politicians, apparatchiks or bureaucrats themselves.

On a generous assessment of the current crop of Country Liberal MLAs, there are at most 5 capable of being competent Ministers, at least if they weren’t fighting with each other continually. They are Giles himself, (arguably) his crony Dave Tollner, and members of the cowed majority Willem Westra van Holthe, John Elferink and Peter Chandler. The remaining 9 government MLAs (with the possible exception of Speaker Kezia Purich who is wildly eccentric but conceivably quite capable) would not even be junior Ministers or parliamentary secretaries anywhere else in Australia.

The talent pool in the ALP at present is even shallower, although partly because they are still recovering from the decimation of the 2012 election and the wholesale retirements of experienced MLAs that understandably followed. On a similarly generous talent assessment, only Opposition Leader Delia Lawrie, her putative Right faction challenger Michael Gunner and Gerry McCarthy currently have the skills and experience to hold significant Ministerial offices. Natasha Fyles, Nicole Mannison and Ken Vowles have Ministerial potential but need more experience. The first two have only been in Parliament for two years (just under in the case of Mannison who replaced retired Chief Minister Paul Henderson in a by-election in early 2013).

Some people have argued that the Territory’s tiny population (approximately 250,000 people – similar to the population of numerous local government areas in southern states) should not be seen as a disqualifying factor even for full statehood let alone the mere status of a self-governing Commonwealth territory. After all Tasmania had less people when it became one of the founding states in the Federation in 1901. However that ignores not only the dispersed population of the NT, spread over 20% of Australia’s land mass, but also the fact that the demands and expectations placed on state governments in the early 21st century are much greater than in 1901.

Yet another conundrum that has bedevilled the Territory since self-government is that more than one third of the population is Aboriginal, and most of them live in remote communities and are illiterate, unemployed and experience appalling health standards and living conditions. Those facts largely account for the extraordinarily generous federal funding the Territory receives from the Commonwealth. The Territory gets more than four times per capita what larger states receive by way of grants and GST funding, and that is largely to allow the Territory government to tackle and reduce Indigenous disadvantage. Instead it has long been alleged that successive NT governments, both CLP and ALP, have consistently diverted a significant proportion of that generous funding towards pork-barrelling predominantly white electorates in Darwin and Alice Springs. Although previous Territory leaders have always denied this, current Chief Minister Adam Giles admitted that it occurred at least to some extent during internecine CLP feuding last year that eventually led to the defection to the cross-benches of three “bush” Aboriginal MLAs. Exactly how much is diverted from the bush to the cities is inherently contestable, because it depends on what proportion of the cost of running large health care institutions situated in the cities is legitimately classifiable as expenditure on Aboriginal people. Their dreadful health conditions mean that they are the majority users of such health facilities, but it doesn’t make sense to situate those facilities in small remote communities.

CLP governments have been consistently accused of diverting Aboriginal funding and pork-barrelling the towns ever since self-government in 1978, but somewhat inexplicably the Martin and Henderson Labor governments over the last decade largely continued the practice, to the extent that some started referring to them disparagingly as “CLP-lite”. This continuation by Labor of the historical neglect of the bush on the part of Territory governments, along with Aboriginal people (somewhat unfairly) identifying Territory Labor with the Howard government’s Intervention starting in 2007 (because the Henderson government was the principal on-ground deliverer of Intervention programs), gave the CLP the opportunity for the first time in 2012 to capture bush seats from Labor. Until that election, predominantly Aboriginal seats had been seen as natural “welded on” Labor constituencies, because the CLP since self-government had pursued a consistent policy of opposing all Aboriginal land claims in order to appease their own core urban and rural redneck constituencies. The end of the era of big land claims, however, along with Aboriginal disillusionment with Territory Labor’s failure to successfully address disadvantage as it had long promised, combined to provide an electoral opening which the CLP seized with both hands. The party made big promises to Aboriginal people in the bush and swept into government almost entirely through winning previously safe Labor Aboriginal seats in the bush.

However, what the CLP apparently failed to understand was that Aboriginal people actually expected them to keep those promises. When the promised largesse failed to show any sign of appearing, the three bush MLAs resigned from the party (though one has subsequently returned), putting the Giles government for a time on the verge of minority government or an early election (a fate they may now again be facing, although for slightly different reasons). It should have been apparent to both parties after 2012 that they could no longer take Aboriginal people’s votes for granted. Aboriginal people react just as badly to politicians’ lies and broken promises as white people in the towns and cities. Mind you, the fact that neither major NT party appears so far to have internalised this lesson doesn’t of itself provide a sufficient reason to abolish self-government. They are hardly the only groups of politicians in Australia to exhibit slow learner characteristics in this regard.

Perhaps the largest, most consistent and most expensive aspect of dysfunctional governance in the Northern Territory, at least in fiscal terms, is one that also flows from the fact of a small population. Territory governments ever since 1978 have been acutely aware of our small size and tiny revenue base, and have as a result set about a succession of “develop the north” strategies with a great deal of enthusiasm but very little skill and at best dubious success. From the Yulara tourist development, Sheraton hotels, Trade Development Zone, Douglas Daly agricultural scheme, Adelaide-Darwin railway and the current Darwin Waterfront project, these multi-billion-dollar Territory government “visionary” development projects have become a standing joke in the rest of Australia: paradigm examples of wasteful boondoggles. They haven’t all been hopeless failures, but it is unlikely that any one of them would satisfy any meaningful cost-benefit analysis as a sensible project in which to invest taxpayers’ dollars.

Is there any common factor that explains this seemingly never-ending succession of governance debacles? I must say I tend to agree with Nicolas Rothwell as quoted by Bob Gosford:

Rothwell attributes blame for the current crisis not only to historical accidents and blunders in the administration of the NT but also to structural and societal elements–the “virtual absence of a homegrown bourgeois or educated class”; the “virtual absence of civil society: almost everything is controlled and funded by the government” …

Most “Territorians” of whatever class come from somewhere else. Although population stability has increased somewhat over the last 20 years, it remains the case that most people come here at least initially on a two or three year contract. They’re here to make quick money, they’re here for a good time not a long time. They will often loudly and aggressively label themselves as “Territorians”, but they never really come to regard it as home. They have no real emotional investment in creating a sustainable, liveable, stable democratic society, and they’re not especially concerned about the endlessly repeated failures of democratic governance unless those failures impact directly on their ability to make a fast buck and migrate back “down south”.

It’s almost impossible to imagine Adam Giles and his cronies getting away with their arrogantly thuggish self-interested bullying of the last week in any other place in Australia. Their own party wouldn’t tolerate it, nor would the broader population. By contrast, here in the Territory it appears to be the cowed majority MLAs who are likely to be punished by the CLP administrative wing for daring to stand up to Giles and his cronies, while the rest of the population seems to regard the whole fiasco as pathetically bemusing but also quite entertaining. It actually is in a perverse sort of way, but much less so if the Territory is your long-term home where you intend to stay for the rest of your life.

For all these reasons I’ve reluctantly reached the conclusion that it’s time to abolish Northern Territory self-government in its present form as a failed experiment. As I noted earlier, the Territory’s population is no larger than many local government areas “down south”. A local council as dysfunctional as this would have been dismissed long ago and an executive administrator appointed. It’s time the same happened here. The Commonwealth should appoint an Administrator with full executive powers to run the Territory while a new form of self-government with appropriate safeguards, more appropriate to the NT’s current state of development and political culture, is devised by the Commonwealth after consultation with Territorians.

One possible new form of self-government might be a 21st-century form of unitary government, with enlarged local councils (e.g. Darwin, Palmerston and Litchfield combined and the rural “super shires”) having enhanced powers somewhat greater than current local councils but much less than those of the current Territory government. They would be dismissable by the Administrator on the “advice” of the Federal Minister just as they may currently be dismissed by the Territory Minister. “Super councils” would assume responsibility for all roads and public transport (if any) in their area and perhaps some additional functions currently performed by the Territory government.

The Commonwealth, however, would resume direct control of all functions where more centralised control/co-ordination is essential, including health; education; policing; administration of justice and courts; child protection; lands, planning and building (albeit with super council involvement on the relevant consent authorities – as they have now under the current Territory government); and power, water, port, roads and railways. There would be a fully elected Legislative Council which would make Ordinances (laws) disallowable by the Administrator. There would also be a locally elected Executive Council advising the Administrator on the performance of his executive functions and powers. In health and education the Commonwealth should adopt an updated version of the objective needs-based funding system for hospitals and schools developed by the previous Federal Labor government, and with day-to-day management and control devolved to local elected boards. If a system like this is developed in a sensible manner, Territorians should actually end up with a significantly greater democratic say in the way the place is run than we have at present, but without the waste, incompetence and corruption that characterise the present “winner takes all” system.

A slightly less drastic alternative would involve legislating to make the Legislative Assembly (with its current full range of powers) elected by proportional representation, with 3 MLAs (instead of just one) for each of the 25 electorates. That would ensure diversity of representation and reduce the “winner take all” mentality that is largely responsible for the thuggish and utterly unprincipled behaviour we have witnessed over the last couple of weeks. Politicians would be forced to be more collaborative and consultative, and diverse coalitions would become the norm. The minority Henderson/Wood Labor/Independent regime that ruled prior to the 2012 election was (paradoxically?) one of the most stable and productive governments the Territory has seen. My own view is that the same was true of the minority Gillard Labor government federally.

Another innovation under this model would permit (maybe even require) up to 40% of Ministers to be drawn from outside the Legislative Assembly, although still accountable to it. This would reduce the talent deficit that currently makes it almost impossible to form a competent Ministry. Genuine experts in particular policy areas could be co-opted into the Ministry without having to endure the demeaning and time-wasting circus of local electoral politics. Of course this is a partial adaptation of the US system, but it would be especially valuable for the Territory with its manifest lack of elected political talent.

Whatever system of elected representation that ends up being adopted, it will be essential to ensure that the areas of activity most susceptible to political graft and corruption are protected by stringent safeguards. If the Territory was subjected to an ICAC-style enquiry of the sort currently being conducted in New South Wales, as it certainly should be, I suspect we would find that the level of corruption revealed would make NSW look like a Sunday School picnic. The way to reduce that sort of behaviour “going forward” is for the Commonwealth to legislate for an impartial and transparent system for approval of all large public infrastructure projects and all private land rezoning, subdivision and development applications. Those are the principal areas (and not only in the Territory) where corrupt relationships arise between politicians and business/developers, and why political contests become so vicious and unprincipled. They are fighting for control of the honey pot. In the Territory there is a tradition of appointing a close political crony to head the Development Consent Authority, and the Minister has an almost “open slather” override power in any event. This could easily be fixed by abolishing Ministerial override and making the Chairperson of the DCA a parliamentary rather than Ministerial appointment (like the Ombudsman). As for large public infrastructure projects, the Commonwealth should legislate to require that all capital works projects over a specified value (say one hundred million dollars) must be submitted to Infrastructure Australia for “value for money” assessment and only permitted where they satisfy a designated threshold cost/benefit ratio.

An outcome like this might seem extremely unlikely to most people. But I’m not so sure. The Territory has very few friends “down south”, where we have come to be seen as over-indulged redneck mendicant whingers, sucking endlessly on the public nipple of taxpayer generosity. Suspending NT self-government would be a popular decision in most parts of Australia. Whichever party made the decision would be sending a powerful signal that it is serious about fiscal responsibility and public accountability.

And in electoral terms only a single federal seat would be at risk for the party in question (either Solomon or Lingiari). If I was Malcolm or Julie it would be one of my first acts as Prime Minister.


* First published as “Abolish NT self-government”. Last section now significantly rewritten.

** About Ken Parish: Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.