Abolish NT self-government?

The release in federal Parliament yesterday of the report into last year’s Montara oil spill off Australia’s north-west coast is just the latest chapter in a saga of NT government incompetence:

“Industry, government and regulators must be absolutely committed to a culture of high safety standards and environmental protection within a framework of continuous improvement.”

Mr Ferguson also told Parliament the Northern Territory’s Department of Resources failed to adequately regulate operation of the oil well.

“The commissioner found that the Northern Territory Department of Resources was not a sufficiently diligent regulator, adopting a minimalist approach to its regulatory responsibilities,” he said.

“The way in which the regulator conducted its responsibilities gave it little chance of discovering PTTEP poor practices.” …

“At the heart of this matter is the failure of the operator and the failure of the regulator to adhere to this regime.

“Montara was preventable.

“If either, or preferably both PTTEP AA or the Northern Territory designated authority had done their jobs properly and complied with requirements, the Montara blowout would never have happened.”

Mr Ferguson says the Government will move to have a single, national offshore regulator of the industry.

The conclusion eerily echoes that of the Howard government in 2007 after the appalling child abuse revelations of the Little Children Are Sacred report led to the federal Intervention.  As Indigenous academic Marcia Langton more recently observed:

Those who did not see the intervention coming were deluding themselves. It was the inevitable outcome of the many failures of policy and the flawed federal-state division of responsibilities for Aboriginal Australians. It was a product of the failure of Northern Territory governments for a quarter of a century to adequately invest the funds they received to eliminate the disadvantages of their citizens in education, health and basic services. It was made worse by general incompetence in Darwin: the public service, non-government sector (including some Aboriginal organisations) and the dead hand of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) all presided over increasingly horrible conditions in Aboriginal communities.

As a very recent Four Corners program graphically showed, the NT’s administration of child protection has not improved perceptibly since then.

Then there’s provision of power in Darwin, where it was revealed a couple of years ago that  blackouts occurring with third world frequency were a result of decades of neglect of the electricity infrastructure by successive NT governments of both political persuasions:

DAVID COADY: The 2006 report by industry expert Stephen Blanch found there was a “run to fail” mentality at Power & Water. There were inadequate spares and the oldest substations needed to be replaced soon. The government’s response was a one billion dollar infrastructure and maintenance fund – $200,000,000 of it has already been spent. …

DAVID COADY: The Electrical Trades Union and the government say the CLP chronically underfunded utilitieS for decades. While the authorities try to work out just how much it’ll cost to deliver a reliable power supply, the advice to customers down the line is keep a torch and radio handy. Most aren’t impressed.

MEREDITH ELLIOTT – PUB MANAGER: I don’t come from Darwin but I’m learning that it’s very different from the southern states. A major capital city in any part of the world I would think that that is not an option not to have electricity. We’re not in a third world country.

In fairness, things have improved a little since then, but the fact that infrasructure was allowed to decay to that extent is an indictment on governments of both major parties.

Then there’s the federally funded SIHIP program (remote Indigenous housing) administered by the NT government:

The SIHIP program promises to build 750 homes but last year a consultant claimed the program was floundering and would deliver less than half that.

In response, the program was reassessed.

A report by Territory auditor-general has found the original cost estimates for building new houses and refurbishing existing houses were unreliable and the program lacked proper management.

The report says there were delays in developing information systems, an absence of key staff, a weakness in governance and delays in completing key planning documents. …

When the report was recently finalised, a total of seven new houses had been completed under SIHIP.

A further 81 were under construction, while 186 refurbishments or rebuilds had been completed and 111 commenced.

“While the target for new houses is considered to be achievable, that for refurbishments may prove to be challenging,” the report states.

Then we come to education where the picture is just as bleak, mostly but not entirely due to poor results and even poorer school attendance in remote Indigenous communities, although opinions about responsibility and appropriate remedial action differ widely:

In all literacy and numeracy tests only 30 to 35% of Northern Territory students met national minimum standards. When those who did not participate are added, half the students in the Northern Territory failed to meet national minimum standards. In the rest of Australia less than 15% of students failed to meet the minimum standards.

Murdoch journalist Nicolas Rothwell (long-time NT correspondent for The Australian) labelled the Northern Territory a “failed state” this time last year in the wake of a series of political fiascos that reduced the Labor government to unstable minority status.  At the time I thought his hypothesis was extravagant and slightly hyperbolic, if understandable.  But the ongoing incompetence of the NT government makes it impossible to sustain an argument that they deserve still more chances to lift their game.  If Tasmania is the leach on the teat of the Australian economy with just 60% of its total revenue derived from the Commonwealth, what metaphor adequately describes the NT which is reliant on the Commonwealth for 80% of its total funding? Self-government is a failed experiment.

This is a conclusion that any thoughtful NT resident would be very hesitant to reach.  After all, neglect and underfunding of remote areas of the Northern Territory long predates self-government, and chatting with old-time Territorians reveals that the former Commonwealth administration before self-government in 1978 was remote and out of touch to say the least.  But there comes a point where terminal failure has to be conceded and fundamental questions honestly addressed.   We should remember that the NT population in total is smaller than quite a few local government areas elsewhere in Australia, so there’s no shame for anyone in accepting that it was simply a mistake to imagine that such a small place could adequately sustain a workable full set of state government-type bureaucracies. I have reluctantly concluded that it’s time for the Commonwealth to:

  1. repeal the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978;
  2. develop Commonwealth operational bureaucracies in areas including health, education, roads, power and water (to operate in other territories including Norfolk, Christmas and Cocos-Keeling Islands as well);
  3. preserve elected municipal and shire councils and devolve local government-type powers (local roads, parks, gardens,  building and planning etc) to them.  Those are the functions which most affect people on a day-to-day basis and the constitutional principle of subsidiarity suggests they are most efficiently and fairly controlled at local level.  State government-type functions, on the other hand, are clearly beyond the capacity of the NT at its current stage of development.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 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 the early 1990s.
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13 years ago

I can’t see much weight in the arguments against.

Jacques Chester
13 years ago


The same people who currently work on these things will still be working on them. They will probably recreate the procedures they know and love. But for shits and giggles the NT will now find it even harder to compete against NSW and Victoria for Commonwealth attention because it has no unitary voice over and above the pitiful representation we enjoy in Parliament — which incidentally your proposal would probably cause to be reduced.

13 years ago

I am not certain why the Feds would be any better at regulation than the present Department of Resources.

If the Feds put the same resources into regulation, the outcomes would be the same. That is, unless you have a specific argument against the competence of the persons inside the DR. If you have such a specific argument, then surely it would be simpler and cheaper to argue for those who you consider incompetent to be replaced, than to have the whole NT taken over by the Feds?

If on the other hand, the Feds were only able to get a better outcome by increasing resources to the DR, then would it not be cheaper just to increase the payment to the NT by that amount, rather than the cost involved in change of jurisdiction?

Jacques Chester
13 years ago


I think you have the right on the numbers in the Commonwealth Parliament and I withdraw that argument; but I still stand by the point that local councils, no matter how empowered, will find it harder to lobby Canberra for attention than the NTG can.

Abolishing self-government would not necessarily resolve the issues. I think that it would merely move the deckchairs around and lead to a period of instability in the meantime.

Jacques Chester
13 years ago

Nicholas Rothwell makes a similar case to yours, Ken, and comes up with a similar diagnosis: rearrange the formal lines of power. Maybe that would be a circuit-breaker that gets the system to work better, but I doubt it. The same people would be present in the same places, squabbling over the same money in the same fashion. They would merely have their paycheque sent out with a different logo.

13 years ago


You have quoted some anecdotal stuff. Go to the Power and Water annual reports where they actually quote SAIF and SAID figures before you assert stuff. You will not find power outages to be that much different to other states. Similarly, when you have the number of lightning strikes that Darwin has, or the lack of redundancy that characterises ANY relatively small system, then you also see some reasons for apparent system failure. However, also, a little more than superficial digging will elicit the fact that most of the power engineers and system maintainers come from ‘down south’ – which is presumably exactly where they would come from if the NT was run by the Feds. The Blanch report quite accurately tslked about a run to fail mentality in Power and Water. What you do not mention is that there is a philosophical argument world wide about whether it is better to run to fail and then maintain, or have a much higher cost preventive system. This is a valid argument, and personally, I am on the side of preventive maintenance. However, that does not mean that there is universal agreement with the Blanch assertions.

I am not sure how putting the NT under the Feds would resolve any of the above. I am not a power engineer, but in other areas when I visit down south, from what I observe, I frankly do not think that there is any reason for a claim that these jurisdictions perform any better. For example, I am familiar with a very large water utility down south where I worked for over twenty years. Power and Water is light years ahead of that particular utility which serves well over ten times the population in the NT.

Philip Merry
Philip Merry
12 years ago

The statehood push is a bit of a worry, to say the least. The NT government is only interested in getting its statehood agenda through without considering the failures of self-government (caused mainly by a small, scattered population and an insufficient economic base?). The fact sheets cover a bizarre range of topics – if this is to set the standard of debate, we’re in trouble.
I wonder if rejoining South Australia would be an option? Obviously there would still be Federal funding issues but from a Territory perspective it would work better than direct Federal control. There would be significant administrative synergies and the South Australian government does have some experience in governing remote areas. Dare I say it – they have a more mature political system.
No doubt people in South Australia would have kittens if this option was put on the table!

12 years ago

Look , I think s122 is the way to go..who the bloody hell had the temerity to build a dual carriageway to freeway standard 40km S of Ine Creek and 40 km N of Katherine ..

If you are in Darwin OK, the recent gerrymandering of seats that puts the majority in the Darwin area at the expense of everywhere else is a sign of a government thats failing dismally …