Ask former top Federal public servant about NT debt mess


Sir – Martin Parkinson (pictured) has just retired after a glittering public service career. Why not take this opportunity to pick his brain to help fix up the Territory’s finances once and for all?
We should all know of Parkinson. No not the chat show king, but rather Dr Martin Parkinson, the recently retired Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and former Treasury Secretary. He has been the nation’s top public servant for two Prime Ministers.
No doubt those most senior in the NT Government would know him, or know of him, but this could be an opportune time to get to know him much better.
I am asking the Chief Minister, the Deputy Chief Minister and Treasurer, the CEO of the Department of the Chief Minister, the Under Treasurer and the Leader of the Opposition to consider having a chat, or formal bipartisan meeting, with Dr Parkinson for the benefit of the Territory.
They should seek his frank assessment of the state of the NT budget and to offer constructive and achievable methods to partner with the Commonwealth to address the growing deficit while maintaining adequate government services.
There is a short window of time to act now, before the usual procession of lucrative private sector board and consulting offers coming knocking at his door. And there will be many.
The state of Territory finances is terrible with no solution in sight, short of drastically cutting essential services and putting more pressure on already stretched government resources.
The Budget handed down in May showed a debt of more than $6bn growing to $8bn by 2022-23 in the forward estimates and a projected deficit for 2019-20 of $1.1bn. Big numbers.
Interest on loans is spiralling out of control. Annual interest repayments on loans in 2019-20 will cost $371m, which equates to $1,479 for every Territorian each year.
This will translate to an interest bill that will soon exceed $1m per day, a figure that is projected to rise. This is not sustainable.
Every government needs budget certainty to plan and deliver adequate services that meet community needs.
Given that about 80% of the NT’s annual budget is funded by the Federal Government through a range of funding, grants and a share of the GST, a total root-and-branch review of the financial relationship with the Commonwealth is needed to find a more sustainable model. There are few people more qualified than Dr Parkinson who could tackle this task.
Continuing to borrow money and shift funds from one budget line to another will only further infuriate voters.
I don’t know Dr Parkinson nor have I ever met him, but his public resume is impressive.
Joining the public service as a cadet at The Treasury almost 40 years ago he progressed to the very top as Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
He has advised two Prime Ministers and according this the department’s official statement on his retirement he has tackled some of the most important and complex issues facing Australia in the areas of economics, national security, Indigenous policy, climate change, education and many others.
Known as a pragmatic economist he was Treasury Secretary until sacked by Tony Abbott despite having gained a PhD from Princeton University, obtained under the tutelage of Ben Bernanke who became chair of the US Federal Reserve under the second Bush and then Obama administrations.
This lifetime in the public service could be of so much value to the Territory.
I know you are thinking – not another government review. I have the same reservations, but this could be one of the reviews that provides positive public policy outcomes for years to come akin to David Gonski and school funding. A line in the sand.
Our best public servants should be sent where the need is greatest and where they can deliver the most public good. Recently freed of public service constraints many will be lining up to benefit from his new independence. Any advice or recommendations he provides will be hard for any government to ignore.
I ask all of you to consider this opportunity with care and give serious thought to bipartisan action.
Mark J Smith (pictured)
[Mark J Smith is the grandson of Father Percy Smith (1903-82) who was the first resident Anglican priest based in Alice Springs from 1933 and with his wife Isabel founded St Francis’ House, a home for Aboriginal children. Mark holds an honours degree in history and politics from the University of Adelaide.]
UPDATE Sept 9, 5pm:
Opposition Leader Gary Higgins provided the following comment: “We’re always happy to hear from people who are experts in their field, however first we’d like to see the Gunner Labor Government take the Langoulant Report seriously, before more people are bought in at a great cost.
“This Government has failed in their response, and has only delivered less than a one per cent cut in most agencies, despite a recommendation of three per cent. Why would a third person make any difference to this arrogant Gunner Labor Government’s operations?
“What they need to do is cut the waste, encourage sustainable private sector investment, and rein in the spending.”


  1. It would be good to get some input from a person like this on the growing debt position of the NT budget. But how much would he cost?

  2. The upper echelon of the NT Public Service might be a good place to start: More senior executives per head of population than any other state or territory, gold plated infrastructure, splurges on “consultants” (usually former NT public servants).
    In my day in the Territory the buzzwords were Statehood (must be looking a bit wobbly now) and The Gateway to Asia (never happened).
    Tourism: wonderful natural assets, Kakadu, etc but sold out for short term construction projects which employed a number of transient workers which inflated accommodation costs, turning droves of tourists away.
    Self indulgence and short term thinking have ensured the NT will be little more than a remote military outpost and a curiosity for most of Australia, much like it has been for most of its history, and a lot of the locals might be happy about that.


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