By JOHN P McD SMITH
What benefits could Alice Springs, notoriously south of the Berrimah Line, expect from a merger between South Australia and the Northern Territory?
If one should examine the back of an old postcard (above) produced by Sands & McDougall stationers of Adelaide there is a narrow strip across the top which is attractively scrolled.
In the centre of the scroll there is a small map of Australia in which South Australia is shown as extending from the southern coast of Australia right through to the northern coast between the appropriate meridians of longitude.
After the northern part, known then as, “The Northern Territory of South Australia” was ceded to the Commonwealth in 1911 this map was no longer used by Sands & McDougall.
From 1863 to 1911 The Northern Territory was administered by South Australia. During this period residents of the Northern Territory had full voting rights in South Australian state elections bearing in mind that it was only white people who could vote.
Until 1894 it was only white adult males who could vote. After 1911 voters in the Northern Territory suddenly had no voting rights. There was much agitating to give people in the NT the right to vote.
In 1922 the Commonwealth Government created the federal seat of The Northern Territory. However, there were only 3572 registered voters for the whole of the NT, which was vastly less than the required quota for a federal seat.
As a result, the Member for The Northern Territory had no voting rights in the House of Representatives. Full voting rights for the Member were not granted until 1968.
To try and give more consideration to the Northern Territory the Commonwealth Government separated the Territory into two administrative districts, which only lasted from 1926 to 1931. There was The Administrator in Darwin and a Deputy Administrator in Alice Springs. This did not work out to be very successful.
The Territory now has its own government but with limited jurisdiction. In 1997 the federal government overruled the NT’s assisted dying laws. It has two seats in the House of Representatives and two Senators.
There are moves afoot to give consideration to making The Northern Territory once more part of South Australia. If such a proposal should occur then the NT would gain full statehood status in the Commonwealth. As part of South Australia not only would the NT once more have full voting rights in SA State elections, but also it would have twelve senators in Canberra.
The Commonwealth Government’s policies regarding Indigenous people in the Northern Territory raises some glaring questions.
The policy of forcibly taking Aboriginal children from their families without consent and placing them in institutions like The Bungalow, Alice Springs and Kahlin Compound in Darwin during the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s has caused much trauma and discontent.
The opening of the Channel Island Leper colony in 1931 by the Government has left many questions regarding isolation, treatment, living conditions and mental health issues that to say the least are alarming.
The treatment of Aboriginal stockmen and their families on the cattle stations is also alarming. Initially they weren’t paid award rates, little was provided in the way of adequate accommodation on the stations, virtually no education was provided for Aboriginal children and there was little in the way of medical treatment.
It wasn’t until the famous Wave Hill Walk Off in 1966 which was a protest by Aboriginal people in the region against the poor pay and working conditions at Wave Hill station that such issues were addressed by government in the Northern Territory.
Former NT Minister, John Elferink pointed out very recently: “The federal government launching an intervention into the Northern Territory in 2007 on the pretext of protecting Indigenous children from child abuse …. was botched with all the vision of a myopic guide dog.”
If there had been a properly representative government in place rather than the Federal government ruling via edicts then perhaps the above-mentioned issues might have been better handled.
Central Australia with its regional centre being Alice Springs has always had strong ties with South Australia. Food supplies came from the south with that being further facilitated with the extending of the railway to Alice Springs in 1929.
Many people from Central Australia went to Adelaide for specialised medical treatment. Many station people have always sent their children to boarding schools in Adelaide.
Business to do with running cattle stations in Central Australia has often been conducted with relevant businesses in Adelaide. People from The Centre would go to Adelaide for holidays especially during the hot summer months.
The burgeoning tourist industry that gained momentum in the 1950s brought thousands of visitors to Central Australia further strengthening ties with South Australia and beyond. Being part of South Australia would not be a foreign concept to the people of Central Australia.
The former Deputy Premier and Attorney General in the recently defeated South Australian government, Vickie Chapman, said in her final speech to the SA Parliament that South Australia and the Northern Territory should reunite: “The Northern Territory has resources and is strategically placed to the north of Australia, with security infrastructure … South Australia can provide opportunities for statehood, employment, higher education and a commercial base that would assist Territorians … Australia also has four iconic tourism attractions – colloquially called the Bridge, the Rock, the Reef and the Island. We have two of them in our regions – Uluru and Kangaroo Island.”
These comments have brought the discussion about the future of the Northern Territory and South Australia to the fore again.
There are a number of areas under which the gaining of full statehood for the Northern Territory as part of South Australia need to be considered. The principal areas perhaps are economic, political, regional, social, ethnic, educational and strategic.
However, of all the considerations relating to the Northern Territory gaining full statehood as part of South Australia may be economic factors that take first place. Throughout history trade and other economic circumstances have driven countries to force closer relations with each other. In the 15th century the need for spices drove European countries to find a way to the far east via the Cape of Good Hope.
The Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch were the major countries involved. By the seventeenth century the Dutch guilder was the strongest currency in the world created mainly by the Dutch drive for trade. Commodore Perry led an expedition to Japan from the United States in 1853 with the principal reason being to establish trade relations.
So economic considerations need to be more closely examined.
In an exclusive statement to me, Professor Tim Harcourt has offered a number of considerations: “On the face of it, there seemingly would be great benefits for SA, particularly in terms of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) wealth.
“It would also open up a seamless trade corridor to Asia through the Top End. However, it would also burden SA with a lot of NT transport costs due to vast distances and a small population, and a large tab in terms of human services.
“It also could be said that a bit of competition between the states and territories in Asia for export and investment opportunities may be more effective than pooling resources.
“It would give SA a bigger budget in terms of export revenue from LNG, but also saddle it with higher costs in human services. It could reduce government administration but that could mean unemployment for SA and NT public servants in regions that rely on public sector employment.
“And what’s in it for the NT? They are moving from self-government to statehood, so this would be a retrograde step, creating distance between Adelaide and its Top End constituents. And would leave the NT Parliament idle. In a world when we are moving to more decentralised style of governments, this seems a step in the reverse direction.”
Without appearing to state the obvious Professor Harcourt’s comments outline the complexities of the economic factors involved in a SA/NT reunification. There are many factors that would need close examination. There would have to be a will to resolve these issues.
However, could there be anything better than having an idle government that could be dispensed with? Many times, has it been stated that because of the great distances in Australia it is over governed.
Former Deputy Managing Director of the Australian Trade Commission (AusTrade), Dr John Saunders, has said that one of the drawbacks to a successful amalgamation is that the working population in the north is too small. Somehow that would need to be resolved. Dr Saunders has said: “Even Alice Springs is isolated” in terms of skills restrictions and the availability of long terms skilled employees.
He went on to say that attractive long term secondment arrangements would need to be put in place to keep key staff, especially in the remote regional areas of the NT. Dr Saunders further said that being “a region of small populations” could hinder viable economic development in the NT as part of SA. It would be a drain on the SA budget.
In terms of tertiary education, the Charles Darwin University could do well to amalgamate with say, for example, the Flinders University of South Australia. This could well make CDU a more attractive place of study to Asian students in the context of the current proposed merger the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia being pushed by the Malinauskas and Albanese Governments.
What impact would statehood have on the Aboriginal people of the NT? Many of them live in the very isolated regions of the NT. For them there would have to be an absolute guarantee that human services such as health, education and regional economic development were in place. It is likely that the Federal government would have to guarantee special budgetary assistance on an annual basis to the South Australian budget.
It wasn’t the South Australian government that passed the 1911 ordinance authorising the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families. It wasn’t the South Australian government that authorised the 2007 intervention.
Both of these quite disastrous policies were initiated by the Federal government. So, for the NT to become part of South Australia again might augur for more progressive policies for Aboriginal people.
Perhaps the final comment in this article can come from Tim Harcourt.
“There’s also the idea for a NT Australian Rules team in the SANFL, as prelude to joining Tasmania in the AFL as the 19th and 20th teams respectively!”
John P McD Smith is Chair of the St Francis’ House Project.
Tim Harcourt is Industry Professor and Chief Economist, Institute for Public Policy and Governance, University of Technology, Sydney.
Dr John Saunders is a former Deputy Managing Director AusTrade and is chairman and board member, The Linden Group Pty Ltd. Among other roles he is also Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Science, University of Sydney.