Territory governments have faced difficult times before although none have amassed a mind boggling debt, with a cynical lack of transparency, as has the Gunner Government. This will surely lose the Chief Minister his job and probably, his party the election in 2020.
MARSHALL PERRON (ABC photo at right) was the Chief Minister during an earlier period of fiscal difficulties. But his government also had significant runs on the board – which can hardly be said of Mr Gunner.
Mr Perron, about a year ago, gave an address from a personal perspective on 39 years of self government to the Charles Darwin University. The speech invites comparisons with the current fiasco.
“I have some knowledge of the first 23 years,” he said. “I leave what happened later to others.”
The following text is based on what Mr Perron provided us in notes, as well as a graph (at left) which shows that the Northern Territory has about twice the number of public servants (full time equivalent, per head of population) when compared to the rest of the nation. Yes, twice as many.
Mr Perron commented: “This graph of the NT public service shows where the rot started and how fast it grew. I could hardly believe it when I first saw it.”
Mr Perron continued:-
Based on the job they did in the 67 years that Federal governments administered the Territory, anyone who thinks they would have done a better job than locally elected politicians since self government is very much mistaken.
The 1962 NT Legislative Council Remonstrance complained to the Federal Parliament that “The Territory, which comprises one sixth of the area of the Australian mainland, languishes in a state of economic torpor.”
We inherited an apprehensive, skeptical public service, comprising mostly southerners on a two year posting to what was considered a hostile environment. Officially, if you stayed too long, you would go troppo! “When in pain, catch a plane,” was the mantra.
The Stuart Highway was blocked by floods every year. Fresh fruit and veg was a rarity and electricity, water and petrol very expensive.
Land titles (for the lucky few who could wrangle a block out of the bureaucrats) were leasehold with strict covenants, spurned by banks that were used to the security of freehold as in every state.
The Aboriginal Land Rights Act significantly complicated governing the NT. Its implementation was hugely expensive financially and in human resources. It hindered development and investment for years while interpretation disputes churned through the courts. Inalienable freehold title with a mining veto was unique in the world, it probably still is.
Decisions on land allocation and use in every one of our major industries – mining, pastoral, agricultural and tourism – were affected by the Land Rights Act . Economic activity was delayed, scaled back or abandoned altogether due to uncertainty over the future of Crown land.
Federal decisions denied us running Uluru and Kakadu, as well as ownership of uranium and industrial relations powers.
They locked up billions in minerals at Coronation Hill.
SA wanted the mine but not the waste dump so guess what?
Big brother overturned euthanasia, threatened to do the same on mandatory sentencing.
We were simply years ahead of states.
We were, and still are, a narrow volatile economy reliant on Federal fiscal policy to fund infrastructure and defence within the boom / bust of private mining projects that materialize every decade or so.
After cyclone Tracy we had powerhouses and pipelines, casinos, Timor gas, State Square, marinas, Nabalco bauxite, the Yulara resort, Parliament House, port relocation and of course the railway.
These were interspersed with periods of severe downturn in the private and government economy leading to a population and skills exit.
No other Australian state faces volatility to the same extent. Throw in inalienable freehold with a mining veto [for Aboriginal traditional owners], a low tax base, a high percentage on welfare, long distances from markets and you have a few hurdles to contend with.
Despite that, we can be proud of some major achievements: Charles Darwin University which the Feds refused to fund till the ’80s; the Menzies School of Health Research; our relationship with Asia (particularly Indonesia) for a time was the envy of the Commonwealth (we could meet President Suharto when they couldn’t and we appointed the first Asian Relations and Trade Minister); Asian languages in schools; computers in primary schools; the Territory Insurance Office was a success story; a profits based royalty system; Motor Accidents Compensation Scheme; sacred sites protection legislation; recognition of tribal law in sentencing; the world class Yulara Resort; relocation of Darwin Port; Cullen Bay/ Bayview marinas.
Living With Alcohol was heralded as “the most comprehensive ambitious and well funded program in Australia” by the Australian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs. While Aboriginal alcohol issues remain intractable this program is considered to have delivered considerable benefits.
The railway was a major achievement. Few would understand the years of effort by successive governments to finally secure the $700m commitment from three governments toward this $1.3b project.
We secured Inpex over WA; played a role in the East Timor crisis; responded to the Bali bombing.
We can be proud of having produced two highly respected commissioners for the Australian Federal Police.
We appointed Supreme Court judges carefully and responsibly.
We started Cabinet meetings in places outside Darwin to ensure Ministers saw problems first hand and to give citizens access to Ministers they would not have – a practice adopted by other states.
Some ventures didn’t work out, such as the Douglas Daly agriculture project; the Trade Development Zone was an expensive experiment to attract manufacturing; supporting Dalway Pty Ltd [failed as did] the statehood referendum and several aquaculture ventures.
More serious than all of those was and is our inability to more substantially improve the plight of Aboriginals living in remote areas.
Despite vast sums of money and a myriad of well-meaning policies and initiatives over a hundred years, Territory and Federal governments, in my opinion, have not even found the right objective when it comes to remote Aboriginal communities and until we do that, our efforts will continue to flounder as they have so far.
Those who allege we are a “failed state” judge the NT too harshly.
What state has not experienced political scandal, claims of corruption, incompetent Ministers, revolving door leadership and wasted taxpayers’ money?
Issues of poor governance in the Territory will not be fixed by fiddling with the electoral system. Changing the way MPs are voted in will not change their performance.
The issue is the gene pool you have to draw from. Until you can devise a way to attract competent individuals with integrity into politics, problems will remain.
– edited by Erwin Chlanda