Alice Springs, SA: The Northern Territory of South Australia?

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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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. My family had a 19th Century Dutch Atlas which from memory had the NT shown as Alexandraland.
    I vaguely remember googling this and finding very little. I’m not sure, but I think Queen Victoria was Princess Alexandrina and that the lake at the mouth of the River Murray was named after her.
    Can any of the historians who used to regularly contribute to the Alice Springs News throw any light on this?
    Thanks

  2. Here’s the content of an email of acknowledgement on 6 June, 2022:
    “Dear Mr Nelson
    Thank you for your email of 22 May 2022 to the Premier of South Australia, the Hon Peter Malinauskas MP, about South Australia and the Northern Territory.
    The Premier appreciates you taking the time to provide him with information about this matter, which has been noted.
    Yours sincerely
    Office of the Premier of South Australia.”
    I sent two emails to SA Premier Peter Malinauskas, on May 22 (shortly after Vickie Chapman’s valedictory speech in the SA Parliament when she called for the re-unification of South Australia and the Northern Territory) and again on May 31, and copied to every member of the SA Parliament, too.
    Since 1996 I realised that the Commonwealth is in breach of two powers of the Australian Constitution with regard to the Agreement of 1907 to transfer control of the NT from South Australia to the Commonwealth.
    Many years later I discovered I wasn’t the first to make this argument.
    For more detailed explanations of my reasoning and experiences since the 1990s, follow my chains of comments in The Conversation (you need to have an account to view readers’ comments): Here and here.

  3. Vickie Chapman was in Parliament for 20 years. Why did it take so long to raise this issue?

  4. Run the Territory from Adelaide. Good idea. Abolish the NT Parliament – save all that waste and nonsense.

  5. @ Alex Nelson: There is an opportunity for the new SA Government and Peter Malinauskas to do more and seize this opportunity on the back of the mandate they secured in March.

  6. @ Robert (9 July 2022): My thoughts exactly. Premier Malinauskas made a fine start to the SA Government’s new term and I hope this standard will be maintained.
    The Acts giving effect to the agreement of 1907 between South Australia and the Commonwealth respectively, ceding control of the NT to the Commonwealth, remain in force. That’s confirmed in a letter I received from then NT Attorney-General Daryl Manzie in 1992.
    For such legislation to be valid, those Acts cannot be inconsistent with the Australian Constitution.
    A significant part of the agreement was the transfer of control of the Central Australia and North Australia railways to the Commonwealth, along with a commitment to complete the south-north transcontinental rail link.
    In 1976, in one of its very first decisions, the incoming Fraser Government announced the closure of the North Australia Railway as a cost-saving measure.
    That was a unilateral decision, taken without consultation or approval of the South Australian government.
    This decision instantly put the Fraser Government in breach of two specific provisions of the powers of the Commonwealth in the Australian Constitution.
    The South Australian government, for whatever reason, chose not to pursue this matter in the courts.
    The problem as I see it is that this inaction on the part of South Australia does not obviate the fact that the Commonwealth is in breach of those provisions of the Constitution, in relation to the Agreement of 1907 which (as noted before) is still in force.
    This might seem abstruse and irrelevant over the passage of time; however, there is no restriction to the provisions of the Australian Constitution – it is not subject to any statute of limitations.
    This fact was demonstrated unequivocally recently when several members of the federal parliament were held to be ineligible for public office as they were in breach of provisions of section 44 of the Constitution, in some cases dating from several decades ago.
    That means the Commonwealth remains in breach of the Australian Constitution since 1976, which to my mind calls into question the legal validity of any Commonwealth Act pertaining to the Northern Territory.
    My reading of the situation is that technically the Northern Territory should revert to the control of South Australia, a point I made in a local court case before Magistrate Melanie Little in November 2006 (NT Electoral Commission v Alexander Joseph Nelson, No. 20616302).

  7. This makes a lot of sense. Plenty of people blinded by self interest will get in the way. We will need strong leadership to make this happen. Weak politicians are free to prove me wrong.

  8. Dr John Saunders refers to the challenges of isolated communities. It would be good to hear more about what he thinks are ways to overcome the tyranny of distance. Perhaps technology can be part of this.

  9. In my humble opinion, South Australia and the Northern Territory re-uniting will benefit the re-united state as well as the majority of residents.

  10. I’ve said this many times before in the “Statehood” debate, and in other contexts.
    We don’t need more, or bigger states.
    We need to get rid of them, and have two tiers of government.
    Federal, and sensible geopolitical regional governments.
    Boundaries that make sense, not lines drawn on maps by a bunch of Poms that had never even seen the country they were dividing up.
    Wouldn’t we be be better off as the Regional Government of Centralia?
    Centralia, as part of SA, would be just as badly off, with Adelaide instead of Darwin.
    They call the area around Orroroo the “Mid North” for crying out loud. Central Australia would be completely off the radar.
    Would you believe the “Pt Augusta Line”?

  11. IMHO it is unlikely the states will eliminate themselves, particularly if such is attempted without their residents voting to agree.
    IMHO most Australians appear to regard the ongoing separation of the states and the Commonwealth as an important protection of their rights as Australians.
    The ACT and NT as territories, not being states, clearly disadvantages residents of territories.

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