The impossible dream of competent NT government

Here for my sins is the text of another letter I have just submitted to the local Northern Territory News:

Dear Editor

The statement in your editorial of 2 December 2015 that “neither of the major political parties is in a position we would consider as ready to govern beyond 2016” is certainly correct, although the 2016 limitation is unnecessary.

In a tiny place like the Territory, a single party in an effectively two party “winner take all” system will almost never have enough talented MLAs to form a competent Ministry.  Hopefully we will manage to elect a handful of additional talented individuals at the 2016 election, but still neither party will have enough to form a competent Ministry solely from their own parliamentary ranks.

Moreover the vicious adversarial culture of NT politics deters many talented individuals from even standing for election or pre-selection.

Our political situation will not improve until its systemic shortcomings are addressed.  The other 2 tiny polities in Australia (Tasmania and the ACT) both have multi-member electorates where MLAs are elected by proportional representation on the Hare-Clark system.  It provides greater depth and diversity of representation and encourages formation of coalition governments where a greater range of views are heard and co-operation and compromise are necessary.

Even in our current Legislative Assembly, Independents like Gerry Wood and Kezia Purick have greater abilities and experience than most of the major party MLAs on either side, and would make excellent Ministers in a coalition government.

This sort of system could be introduced right now by ordinary NT legislation.  Another possibility for achieving a competent Ministry would be to allow a limited number of suitable experts from outside Parliament to be co-opted for specialist portfolios (e.g. Treasurer, Attorney-General). That would require Commonwealth co-operation by amending the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act but it is also well worth considering.

I am hoping that a formal statehood process will provide an opportunity to consider these and many other possible reforms, but there is no reason to delay until then.  The need for competent government has never been more urgent.


Ken Parish
Senior Lecturer in Law

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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Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
8 years ago

Quite right, Ken. It’s just got to be done.

I never thought of the size of the polity as an important factor but it might be. Whatever is persuasive is good. The crucial factor is the number of parliamentary chambers. If you have single-member (“majoritarian”) electorates, there needs to be an upper house. But the better system is to have a single house with proportional representation.

As far as I know, no unicameral majoritarian system has worked in any country. At least the subnational polities like Queensland and the NT can be pulled into line when they go off the rails but at the national level, like PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomons, it is a perpetual disaster. The respective messes in New Zealand and Northern Ireland were sorted out by converting to PR (around 1993).

If the past is a guide be prepared for a fight lasting years and years. The NT became self-governing in 1975 just before proportional representation began to take off in Anglo polities. The new parliaments of Wales and Scotland are PR as is greater London. The ACT switched by referendum in 1988 and the Australian upper houses are now all PR (except Tas where it is not needed): Senate 1949, NSW 1978, SA 1963, WA 1987, Vic 2003. That span of time hints at the difficulty in upsetting entrenched interests but maybe the many current PR models will make it easier in the NT.

Douglas Hynd
Douglas Hynd
8 years ago

Proportional representation might sort out the issue of indigenous representation – the ACT model means that within each electorate members of a specific party are competing with each other as well as against the other parties – major parties have an incentive to ensure a diverse range of candidates to maximise the party vote while individual members compete with each other. You can vote against incompetent members of your own party while still voting for your own party.

8 years ago

The capability of politicians in the Territory has been a problem since self government.

I’m not sure your suggested ‘fix’ will work when the problems in the Territory are more fundamental (inefficient public services, constant need for very high assistance levels, no incentive for the Territory Government to spend untied Commonwealth Grants addressing issues that justified the funding in the first place, high cost of doing business, limited competitive advantage etc). To be blunt, the only area where the Territory government excels is rent seeking.

If we were back in 1977 debating the independence question with our current hindsight, would the preferred governance model be the same? I doubt it.

Isn’t it time to recognise that, for the large part, self government in the Territory has been an expensive failure. I struggle to think of any meaningful indicator of progress (health, education, social, economic, infrastructure) that couldn’t have been improved more, and at a lower cost, under the pre-1978 arrangements.

8 years ago

Isn’t the NT governed directly from Beijing these days?