Many would think veteran South Australian commentator, Professor Dean Jaensch (pictured), is dead on the money about proposals of SA and NT amalgamating. He wrote this in the Adelaide Advertiser on January 17: “Ironically, it is a simple process to amalgamate the Northern Territory into the state of South Australia. The NT is not recognised in the Constitution, hence the requirements under the New States clauses do not apply.
“A stroke of three pens, Federal, State and Territory would fix it. But the hardest task would be to convince Territorians to agree [and] the key question would remain: What would SA get out of it?
“The Commonwealth rivers of money to the NT would cease, as would the luxurious GST. The SA taxpayer would have to pick up the responsibility for keeping the NT afloat.
“So my expectation would be that if we were offered the NT as a gift, SA should respond with an emphatic thanks but no thanks.
Surprising pedigree of proposed new state of Centralia
Comparing and contrasting proposals for the merger of the Northern Territory and South Australia over a quarter century reveals a bizarre history. The recent suggestion by former CLP minister John Elferink – now living in Adelaide – uncannily resonates with the suggestion for a new super state called “Centralia” by SA Labor left-wing politician Terry Roberts in 1993. Both men in their respective jurisdictions were Correctional Services ministers (amongst other roles).
But this is nothing to the extraordinary coincidences of themes and role reversals that constantly apply to the idea of unifying the south and north that adamantly refuses to go away.
Late last year, after the revelation of the extent of the NT’s insolvency, former CLP Attorney-General John Elferink lobbed a grenade by asserting the best option available to resolve this mess is to merge the Territory with South Australia into a proposed new state he suggested be named “Centralia.”
He elaborated on his idea: “How about the new state of Centralia? An amalgam of SA and the NT. A state with resources to rival WA. A dissolution of the south north divide that has been a cultural Mason Dixon line in Australia.
“In the Asian century it is time to put Australia firmly in Asia.
“Of course, SA would have to agree. But I believe they could be coaxed into it with the right deal from the Commonwealth, a Commonwealth that has a vision for the future.”
Elferink (pictured) went on: “All current Territorians would have full state’s rights for the first time since 1911, including 12 senators.
“The Commonwealth parliament would lose two senators. Which would mean the loss of four House of Reps seats across the nation. Who would lament the loss of six federal politicians?” (Northern Territory News, 27/12/2018).
Elferink’s call attracted support from independent MLA Gerry Wood: “Perhaps we should go back to being run by the Commonwealth if this Government cannot manage our finances.
“Maybe we should look at Elferink’s merger proposal. WA is a large state and is comparable in size. I love being a Territorian but if we can’t manage our finances and are going broke, then I think the benefits of a merger are worthy of discussion” (NT News, December 28).
Premier Marshall: Thumbs down
Elferink also won the support of former National Party leader, Tim Fischer, but most commentary predictably reacted against his idea.
A spokesman for the South Australian Liberal Government, under Premier Steve Marshall, declared “the Marshall Government has no plans to merge South Australia with the Northern Territory.”
Likewise, NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner stated he did not “believe that we should be looking to delegate, defer or hand our decisions to anybody else.
“These are things that Territorians have to solve for ourselves. The solutions are here in the Northern Territory.
“I believe in the future of the Territory and I believe in Territorians” (ABC News, January 2).
Similarly, CLP Opposition Leader, Gary Higgins, was also dismissive of the idea: “No, I think people need to put into perspective that the Territory, and future generations of the Territory, should not be punished because of the incompetence of a government we currently have” (ABC News, January 3).
The idea came in for some severe criticism by Councillor Eli Melky; and was also dismissed by Alice Springs Mayor, Damien Ryan: “If you look at South Australia and the Northern Territory, both of them are in financial difficulties at the moment. Why would SA want to take the Territory on, why would the Territory want to take on South Australia?”
Ryan also objected on the grounds of potential lack of representation for the Centre or the NT because of the population imbalance favouring the South: “The Northern Territory would have very little representation in a parliament, so why would we bother?” (Centralian Advocate, January 8).
A comment piece by The Advertiser’s Tim Lloyd was much more enthusiastic, at least as far as his home state is concerned: “But the real potential is for development of a 1.3 million sq km territory ready to respond to rapid changes to the world’s technology and resources. For SA it is a challenge that would transform our society and world view.
“For SA, remote at the bottom of the world, the NT would represent a sea-change.” (Advocate, January 11).
Lloyd’s article also referred to a previous call for the merger of SA and the NT made in 2015, in reaction to then CM Adam Giles attempt “to revive the NT’s push for statehood after a failed referendum in 1998.
“But some questioned whether the NT should be bestowed with the advantages of statehood when its population is a fraction of the size of other states. And that’s when the idea of merge with South Australia arose.”
This idea was promoted by Ian Smith, formerly a member of the NT Government’s economic development advisory panel and a board member of the Committee for Adelaide.
In a long article published in The Australian (27/7/15), he postulated that the inexorable demise of South Australia’s economy could be reversed by merging the NT with SA.
In a vision markedly similar to Elferink’s reasoning, Smith wrote: “One opportunity could be staring SA in the face: merging with the Northern Territory to create a coast-to-coast jurisdiction of diversity, opportunity and complementary strengths.”
Further: “New technologies and global demands are unlocking billions of dollars in resource and agriculture projects to meet the demands to the north [Asia].
“The Darwin port is being privatised and other global investors are looking across the Territory … as the Commonwealth promotes its Northern Australia plan.”
A merger, not a takeover
Both Smith and Elferink were at pains to emphasise their respective concepts as mergers of SA and the NT, not a takeover.
Smith cautioned: “The combination of the south and north must be a true merger and not a takeover, and would therefore deliver a new name.
“Central Australia sounds like a good place to start, but many more monikers would be worthy of equal consideration.”
PHOTO: How fair dinkum South Australia is about collaborating with the NT is illustrated by the disgraceful standard of its rest areas along the Stuart Highway, a lot of rhetoric notwithstanding.
In a second letter, Elferink echoed: “This is why I have argued not for reunification but rather the development of a new body politic altogether, for lack of better words: Centralia” (NT News, January 2).
Aside for the marked similarities between Smith’s 2015 article and Elferink’s letters late in 2018, there is also an interesting contrast between the two episodes.
Smith observed over three years ago: “And two comparatively young leaders, Jay Weatherill [SA Labor Premier] and Adam Giles [NT CLP Chief Minister], have both shown a willingness to embrace necessary reform – often at the cost of personal popularity – and could well be the people to see this through.” Fateful words, indeed.
As the Giles Government descended into scandal and notoriety, the NT’s national embarrassment itself became a justification for calls of a merger with South Australia.
On July 27, 2016 – exactly a year after Ian Smith’s article – Professor John Williams, a specialist in Australian constitutional law and federalism at the University of Adelaide, was interviewed on ABC Alice Springs following his public appeal to the Federal Government to restore South Australian control over the NT.
Reference of Giles’ abortive attempt in 2015 to renew the Territory’s statehood campaign leads us to the ill-fated referendum of October 3, 1998.
Soon after the referendum’s loss, a letter from retired NT political reporter Frank Alcorta sorrowfully reflected: “History does not often give a generation the opportunity to make a difference.
“This time it did. Territorians were asked to complete the great task of Australian federation begun in 1901 by creating Australia’s 7th State.
“At this stage, sadly, it appears that the opportunity has been wasted.
“I am informed that while the vast majority of Territorians would have agreed to the simple proposition of Statehood, they did not like the proposed constitution. They tossed the baby out with the bath water.”
He concluded: “It is a sad day for Australia and, particularly, for the Northern Territory” (NT News, 6/10/98).
I took umbrage at his letter: “Mr Alcorta’s version of history is wrong.”
Observing that the Australian Constitution defined all the former colonies as states included “South Australia, including the Northern Territory of South Australia” and that “original States shall mean such States as are parts of the Commonwealth at its establishment,” I pointed out that the NT “in 1901 was defined as being a part of the ‘original State’ of South Australia, and as such all people living in the Northern Territory shared the same rights as all other Australians.”
I continued: “In all the debate surrounding the current push for Statehood for the Northern Territory, little attention has been paid to the possibility of re-constituting the former jurisdiction of SA over this region.
“It is an interesting exercise to combine a range of statistics for SA and the NT, such as for population, geographical size, climate and resources.
“It is remarkably similar to Western Australia, whom nobody would argue is an unviable economic entity in its own right.
“In contrast, the economy of SA struggles to keep pace with most other states while the Northern Territory remains dependent upon the Commonwealth for about 80% of its funding to maintain the lifestyles of a tiny population with a phenomenally high rate of turnover.
“Perhaps the recombination of SA and the NT into a larger and more viable State deserves consideration.
“I can even suggest a name, ‘Santasia’ being an acronym of South Australia – Northern Territory of Australasia.
“This idea holds the alluring prospect of eliminating an entire parliament (namely that of the NT). This is no bad thing considering the Northern Territory is the most over-governed region of the most over-governed country in the world” (NT News, 12/10/98).
To put my letter in perspective, John Elferink was a still new Member for MacDonnell in the Centre (first elected on August 30, 1997).
To my knowledge, my letter evoked no public response; however, remarkably there was a lengthy article published in The Australian written by Asa Wahlquist in 1999 (reprinted in the NT News in March 2000) headlined “Time for SA to take control of Territory”.
Failed statehood referendum triggered CLP demise.
The failure of the NT Statehood referendum was the trigger for the demise of the long-ruling CLP. In early February 1999, Shane Stone resigned as Chief Minister before being dumped by his colleagues and was replaced by Denis Burke, and thereafter things went steadily from bad to worse under his rule.
Wahlquist was scathing: “Self-government for the Northern Territory is a 22-year experiment that has failed. The evidence is manifold, from the quality of its political leadership to its citizens last year rejecting Statehood.
“The solution is simple: return the Territory to South Australia. Former Territory residents of this splendid new State, called say Capricornia or Centralia, would immediately have better human rights.
“They would also acquire the rights of a State voter rather than those of limited self-government” (NT News, 2/3/99).
Wahlquist was unmerciful, detailing the scale of over-government in the NT compared to other states: “The Territory has the population of a large eastern State municipality.
“If you applied the same representation to NSW voters, they would have 33 territory governments, 66 senators and $3.6 billion worth of parliament houses.”
She also highlighted the extent of subsidisation of the NT by the Commonwealth: “In 1998, it was estimated that each Northern Territory resident attracted a subsidy of $5200 from the rest of Australia’s taxpayers. Up to 75% of the Territory Government’s revenue comes from the nation’s taxpayers” (this was pre-GST but remains a very familiar theme).
Yet this episode near the turn of the century was not the earliest call for merging SA and the NT.
In early July 1993 it was reported: “A South Australian politician believes the Northern Territory and South Australia should merge to become a super state named Centralia.
“Left-wing South Australian MP Terry Roberts will put the proposal to this weekend’s state ALP convention in Adelaide.
“Mr Roberts said the merger made perfect economic sense and would eliminate duplication of administration.
“The plan would reduce the number of politicians and some MPs would need to sacrifice their careers for the good of the new, larger state.
“A north-south rail link would be a centerpiece of Centralia and Alice Springs could be used as a centre of administration, he said.”
In what is a remarkably consistent theme, Roberts drew a comparison with the west: “Western Australia had been able to target the Asian market, and the new state would be able to go one better, taking advantage of geographical factors and strong transport links” (Centralian Advocate, 6/7/93).
A mere fantasy: Perron
The NT Government was unimpressed: “But a spokesman for Chief Minister, Marshall Perron (pictured), described the proposed merger as nothing but a fantasy [and] said South Australia and the Territory would never merge.
“The Northern Territory would not welcome the burden of South Australia’s financial troubles,” pointing out “the SA Government was in deep trouble and due to go to the polls.”
NT Labor Opposition Leader, Brian Ede, was scathing of his erstwhile party colleagues in SA: “This is the biggest load of drivel ever to come out of South Australia. It makes no economic or social sense to even consider such an idea.”
Mayor Andy McNeill was equally uncomplimentary: “I don’t want to see Alice Springs as a big administrative centre in a large state. I’m quite happy with Alice Springs the way it is. I don’t think the idea has any credence at all. It is purely political.”
McNeill (pictured on a mayoral election poster) added: “We don’t want their problems. I think this is a political ploy by the South Australian ALP to divert attention away from their economic problems.
“The SA branch of the ALP did not even consult with their NT counterparts before making the decision. That is probably an indication of how they would treat us if we did merge” (Advocate, 13/7/93).
McNeill’s reference to “the decision” reflects the acceptance of Terry Roberts’ proposal by the South Australian ALP state conference to include the merger of the NT and SA in the official party platform.
It would be interesting to know if this decision is still on that party’s books!
So what to make of John Elferink’s latest iteration of a long line of calls for the merger of the NT and SA? In my opinion it is a reasonable proposition and deserves to be carefully considered rather than to be contemptuously dismissed by self-interested partisan identities.
It may well be an idea whose time has come.
Photo of Professor Jaensch: Radio FIVEaa.