Northern Territory – a tale of systemic dysfunctional governance

Like quite a few other despairing commentators, I have on occasions referred to the Northern Territory as a “failed state”, most recently here:

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 …

When I raised the point again very recently in the wake of the CLP’s crushing election defeat by Labor, commenter Marks observed:

I am not sure I buy into this Territory exceptionalism theme. I don’t see, for example, that the NT has worse governance than NSW. Or Queensland in the not so distant past.

In one sense you can’t really argue with that, given Queensland’s political history especially under Sir Joh, and NSW’s two hundred year history of Tammany Hall-style politics. But in recent years both those states seem to have lifted their games in terms of their quality of governance and accountability.  New South Wales, for example, has an active and effective anti-corruption commission, rigorous political donations disclosure and regulation regime, and an Upper House of Parliament.  The Northern Territory has none of those mechanisms.  The NT’s deficiencies in governance are longstanding and systemic, but capable of change for the better.

In my considered view the Commonwealth imposed an inappropriate model of self-government in 1978 (the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act for a polity of the Territory’s size and stage of development, a model that entrenches single member electorates, prohibits the co-opting of ministerial talent from outside the Parliament, lacks inbuilt accountability checks and balances, and largely ignores the key fact that Aboriginal people constitute one-third of the population, own half of the land and have a culture and material needs and aspirations that differ radically from those of the majority non-Aboriginal population.

By contrast, the other two tiny Australian polities, the ACT and Tasmania, do not exhibit the stark racial divide that is the most prominent feature of the Territory’s political culture and have both opted for multi-member electorates with MLAs elected by Hare-Clark proportional representation.  That sort of system not only enhances diversity of political representation and encourages mature deliberation and constructive compromise, it also ensures significant continuity and stability of representation for the major parties (albeit at the price of  seldom achieving the sort of complete single party domination aka elected dictatorship that the NT ALP will now enjoy for the next four years).

According to the NT Electoral Commission’s Two Candidate Preferred statistics, the ALP ended up with about 44.8% of the vote, CLP 30.9%, Independents 15.7% and “Exhausted” (essentially the Greens, 1Territory and unsuccessful Independents) 5.9%. Yet, because of the vagaries of the current system of single member electorates combined with optional preferential voting, we have ended up with the ALP holding 18 of 25 seats, the CLP just 2 seats and the Independents 5 seats.  Clearly the election has not resulted in political representation reflecting anything remotely like the expressed preferences of voters.

Moreover, this sort of drastically lopsided election outcome is quite common in NT political history.  Here are the results of each NT election since 1974 (pre-self-government) when the current voting system was introduced (except for optional preferential voting, which was unwisely enacted by the Giles government earlier this year) :

  • 1974– 19 seats – CLP 17, ALP 0, Independents 2.
  • 1977– 19 seats – CLP 12, ALP 6, Independents 1.
  • 1980– 19 seats – CLP 11, ALP 7, Independents 1.
  • 1983– 25 seats – CLP 19, ALP 6, Independents 0.
  • 1987– 25 seats – CLP 16, ALP 6, NT Nationals 1 (former CLP Chief Minister Ian Tuxworth), Independents 2 (both CLP defectors).
  • 1990– 25 seats – CLP 14, ALP 9, Independents 2.
  • 1994– 25 seats – CLP 17, ALP 7, Independents 1.
  • 1997– 25 seats – CLP 18, ALP 7, Independents 0.
  • 2001– 25 seats – ALP 13, CLP 10, Independents 2.
  • 2005 – 25 seats – ALP 19, CLP 4, Independents 2.
  • 2008– 25 seats – ALP 13, CLP 11, Independents 1.
  • 2012– 25 seats – CLP 16, ALP 8, Independents 1.
  • 2016– 25 seats – ALP 18, CLP 2, Independents 5.

Labor’s two party preferred vote for the decade before it finally won government for the first time in 2001 sat between 42 and 44%, and yet it typically managed to win only 7 of the 25 seats in the Legislative Assembly.  Conversely, in 2005 the CLP was reduced to just 4 out of 25 seats despite still achieving 40.19% 2PP, and in 2016  has been reduced to just 2 out of 25 seats despite a 2PP vote of 41.5% (to the extent that figure remains meaningful).

The key point for present purposes is that NT political history tells us that the current voting system regularly delivers very large disparities between votes cast and seats actually won, and regularly results in an Opposition too weak numerically to provide effective opposition and therefore hold the government to account.

Moreover, the last 15 years have also produced extraordinary volatility with many seats (comparatively speaking) changing hands at each election.  For the first 20 years after self-government in 1978 the accepted wisdom among pundits was that the tiny size of NT electorates (until recently well under 5000 voters) meant that political representation was remarkably stable because incumbency was critically important.  MLAs could develop personal relationships with a high proportion of voters in their electorate and therefore were much more difficult to displace than in large states with much larger numbers of voters per electorate.

That truism is clearly no longer true. With the benefit of hindsight we can now see that it never was.  MLAs retained their seats not because they were much more chummy with local voters than “down south” politicians, but predominantly because of a polarised public attitude towards Aboriginal land rights. White voters in Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine mostly voted CLP because the party vehemently opposed all Aboriginal land claims, while Aboriginal voters in remote/bush seats mostly voted ALP because it supported land rights.

However, that stable if inherently racist system changed radically when a sunset clause was inserted into the Land Rights Act, effectively preventing lodgment of any new claims after 5 June 1997. Once the era of big land claims ended, the stark electoral polarisation and the racially-underpinned stability of political representation ended too.   NT electoral volatility dates from that time.  The notion that small electorates were the dominant cause of stable incumbency ignored the fact that the small voter numbers of those electorates were largely counteracted by high population mobility.  Population turnover was (and remains) somewhere around one-third of each electorate during every four year term. An individual MLA might develop a personal relationship with quite a few voters, but a lot of them would have moved away by the date of the next election.

An unintended but partially desirable side-effect of the interplay between Aboriginal land rights and the Territory’s electoral system was that the incumbent CLP government enjoyed great stability of parliamentary representation over the first 20 years of self-government.  It could always count on a stable core of experienced Ministers, and almost equally experienced backbenchers were always available to replace a retiring Minister.

That advantage no longer exists for either major party. By definition Labor had no MLAs with any experience in government when it won for the first time in 2001.  The CLP also had no MLAs with any ministerial experience when it won back government in 2012, although Terry Mills and John Elferink had been backbenchers during the ill-fated Burke government which lost the 2001 election.

Similarly, the new ALP government that has just taken office has only one MLA with any ministerial experience, and indeed only two who have been in Parliament for any more than four years.  New Chief Minister Michael Gunner was a ministerial adviser during both Clare Martin and Paul Henderson’s chief ministerships between 2001 and 2008 and then a government backbencher from 2008 until 2012, while Gerry McCarthy was a Minister in the Henderson government between 2009 and 2012.

Because of this high level of “churn” among MLAs over the last decade or so, both major parties have tended to rely heavily on very experienced ministerial advisers to  underpin a quite inexperienced team of elected politicians.  To what extent that is desirable either in a democratic or practical sense is debatable.  The Martin and Henderson regimes tended to supplement the ranks of  home-grown political advisers with more than a few Labor apparatchiks from “down south”.  However, not only was their lack of local knowledge a handicap but NT Labor increasingly suffered because they were recruiting from a talent pool of advisers that was under some strain because Australia had wall-to-wall state and territory Labor governments through much of the decade after 2000. A job with the NT government wasn’t exactly a plum appointment for an ambitious Labor apparatchik.

The CLP adopted a somewhat different strategy to supplement its elected politicians’ inexperience when it returned to government in 2012. It began enthusiastically appointing local political cronies, not only to ministerial adviser positions but as heads of government departments and agencies, often irrespective of qualifications and without anything resembling due process.  Departmental and agency CEOs in that category have included:

  • Denis Burke (former CLP Chief Minister appointed as Chairperson of the Development Consent Authority in 2014 despite no evident qualifications for the role;
  • Gary Nairn (former CLP President and federal Liberal MHR for Eden-Monaro appointed to head the Planning Commision, which has no town planners among its members, although Nairn is a at least a surveyor);
  • Jodeen Carney (former CLP MLA and for a short time Opposition Leader, appointed as CEO of Children and Families– had been shadow minister for that portfolio for a time in Opposition);
  • Dr Len Notaras (former CLP President, appointed as CEO Department of Health in 2014 – in fairness an appropriate appointment as a doctor and longstanding senior health administrator);
  • Ron Kelly (former Chief of Staff for Chief Minister Adam Giles, appointed as CEO Department of Mines and Energy);
  • Stephen Dunham  (former chief of staff to Health Minister John Elferink and former CLP Health Minister in the Burke government, appointed as Health Complaints Commissioner– arguably a reasonable appointment on merit but appointed with flagrant disregard to due process);
  • Dr Bill Freeland (former Executive Director of Parks and Wildlife under the Burke government, appointed in 2012 to chair the newly constituted Environment Protection Authority – again arguably a reasonable appointment on merit but also appointed with flagrant disregard to due process).

Of course, political cronyism is hardly unheard of in other states, but its sheer extent and audacity in the Northern Territory over the last four years is deeply troubling. The higher levels of the public sector have been utterly politicised and any semblance of a professional public service able to advise government without fear or favour no longer exists.  This is a much larger problem in the Territory than in larger jurisdictions, given the lack of other democratic checks and balances and the inexperienced “shoot from the hip” propensities of some politicians, most notably Chief Minister Adam Giles and his best political mate Treasurer and Lands and Planning Minister Dave Tollner.

Hopefully the new Labor government will be able and willing to restore at least some integrity to the Territory’s public sector, although I won’t be holding my breath. All these considerations are among the factors that led me to label the Northern Territory a “failed state”, badly in need of radical reform of its electoral and governance systems . Just what those reforms might involve is a topic I intend exploring in a later post.

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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7 years ago


While I agree with amost all of your points, and won’t get into nit pickery (sic), my argument against Territory exceptionalism is not so much that NT governance is not that bad, rather that governance elsewhere is just as bad, if not worse.

For examples of dodgy appointments: Sophie Mirabella to the ASC. $80Bn in subs vs the whole NT economy. How do you weight that? The Chair of the FIRB has just taken a plum job with a big private equity firm. How’s that for conflict of interest? How is this appointment allowed to continue?

Infrastructure: Large projects, East West tunnel in Melbourne, trams in Sydney and Canberra, way way over the costs elsewhere in the world. These, and other projects only able to be bid on by a small number of large companies with international reach. Those companies able to minimise tax as we see via Panama papers, and public revelations over BHP. The point of this is that the introduction of anti corruption watch dogs has merely morphed the problem into something else. That is: legally charge a high price, minimise tax paid, legal wind fall.

How about the secrecy over the TPP and other “free trade” (George Orwell eat your heart out) deals? Or the Minister responsible then leaving Parliament to “consult” on these?

So, yes, you are pretty much on the money about how bad the NT is. However, compared to the other states and Federally, it’s chicken feed.

The reason this is a problem is because it puts people in the mindset to focus on the NT as being the dependent problem child. It is that, but it is nowhere near the top of the list of governance problems in Australia.

7 years ago

A further thought that occurred to me reading Mr Gruen’s piece on the issue of gay marriage.

The Federal Parliament is apparently unable to decide this matter. This is despite having decided it previously under John Howard, having ceased business in the Senate for want of business, and playing with procedural motions in the House of Representatives. We have to have a plebiscite for the sum of $160 million or so, which will not be binding on existing MPs, let alone MPs of future parliaments.

Next, the NT managed to address the matter of euthanasia and pass laws on that. No other Australian jurisdiction has managed to approach that. Yet, it is something that has consistently come up in opinion polls as having wide public support.

I suggest that if parliaments and governments cannot efficiently address issues of this sort, where there is general public agreement, then dysfunctional is a fair description. It’s core business which they are incapable of addressing. At least the NT managed to address and legislate euthanasia, when no other jurisdiction was able.

The crony files
The crony files
7 years ago

You forgot in your crony list another Elferink pick for his new Domestic Violence Unit. The director was Jo Sangster, CLP candidate in 2012 in the electorate of Johnston.
Also Steve Gelding director of NT worksafe. He was a former health advisor to the 2001 CLP government and was pressed back into the post by Terry Mills in 2012. when Mills got knifed he was moved to media relations and the then to NT worksafe. No interviews. No merit. Pure unadulterated cronyism.
Notaras might be a charmer but he was useless as CEO. his ‘tell Len’ bullying policy was a standing joke. Not a single manager in that organisation was disciplined as a result of massive numbers of bullying complaints. They recently paid out a $700K settlement for psychological harm because ‘tell Len’ abjectly failed. He was a blatant political pick – pushing Christine Dennis, an excellent manager out.
There are others and Giles will get a media chance because of them.

Peter Sandery
Peter Sandery
7 years ago

I have just completed a paper entitled “A Federalism for the Future – The Three State Approach” – which goes right to the heart of most of the issues raised here. I would be happy to forward it to any reader of this site who asks – my contact is
And just in case anyone was asking, I have had an ongoing, although somewhat desultory connection to Darwin and the Northern Territory since the 1950’s – my father is buried at the Thorak cemetery and we recently, three years ago, scattered my mother’s ashes off East Point.


[…] advice to the Minister are long gone. In the Territory that loss of power has been even greater. Partisan hacks are appointed to head departments at a significantly higher rate than in larger states, and quite a few of them […]

6 years ago

[…] advice to the Minister are long gone. In the Territory that loss of power has been even greater. Partisan hacks are appointed to head departments at a significantly higher rate than in larger states, and quite a few of them […]