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Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Uncertain political Territory

LONG-TIME State Scene readers may recall a March 2001 column highlighting research by Dr Bob Catley, then of New Zealand’s Dunedin-based Otago University.

That column considered his far-sighted assessment of the at least 110-year-old idea of Australia/New Zealand unification.

Dr Catley visited Perth last week to deliver a lecture to the Samuel Griffith Society, titled: The Northern Territory – Seventh State or an Internal Colony; the Case against Statehood.

Before he delivered it I briefly discussed with him the Australia/New Zealand merger idea, which he adamantly opposes.

One reason is that NZ’s leftist-oriented Labor Party would merge with the ALP and coax it steadily ever further leftwards.

Another was New Zealand’s strong anti-defence line – the Kiwis have virtually disarmed. And another was the Kiwis’ love affair with welfarism.

Please note, Dr Catley is no right winger.

The hard headed, Welsh-born academic is a former Labor MHR for Adelaide and graduate of London School of Economics and the Australian National University.

Currently a management professor who heads Newcastle University’s School of Business, he briefly taught in Darwin after leaving Dunedin.

So what of the NT?

Australia’s constitution allows entry of new States, meaning New Zealand, Papua/New Guinea and the NT can apply.

“In June 2003, the Northern Territory Labor Government announced it would pursue Statehood for the NT, which is a dependent territory of the Commonwealth Government,” Dr Catley said.

Prime Minister John Howard backed that objective.

Dr Catley gave three reasons why NT Statehood was most undesirable.

p It depends too heavily on Canberra.

p It is has too little independent economic development.

p Its society is too welfare dependent.

The NT, with its 200,000 people, 60,000 of whom are Indigenous, has an economy that’s heavily subsidised by Canberra.

“Until 1975 both PNG, Australia’s largest external colony, and the NT, its largest internal colony, were administered by the Commonwealth Department of Territories,” he said.

In September 1975 PNG gained independence, with no-one suggesting for it Australian Statehood.

“The NT, however, remained a Territory of the Commonwealth, subject to the authority of the Commonwealth Government and Parliament,” Dr Catley said.

This prompted many PNG colonial State apparatus officers to transfer to the NT from PNG.

In the 1980s, defence policy boosted Darwin’s naval stations.

The Katherine RAAF base was expanded and the army’s presence lifted.

Despite these demographic boosts the NT witnessed a slight fall in population, with 99,000 arrivals between 1996 and 2001 and about 104,000 departures.

The NT’s private sector is simply too small.

The Fraser Government’s Native Land Title Act (1976) means Indigenous people now hold 55 per cent of all land and 80 per cent of the coastline.

The NT is over-goverened, having three tiers of governance, two MHRs, two senators and a parliament with tiny outback electorates of about 4,500 voters.

Dr Catley said Darwin had a splendid Parliament House that cost, wait for it, $200 million.

NT’s Indigenous population is expanding, with much of it living in more than 300 outlying communities, which are essentially “outback ghettoes”.

The Indigenous category comprises more than 30 per cent of the NT’s population and is subject to a policy launched during the Whitlam/Fraser era called ‘self determination’, which was largely devised by the late Western Australian leftist ideologue and long-time Canberra bureaucratic power broker, H C Nugget Coombs.

A recent press report said: “Violence in Indigenous communities is endemic and getting worse, with ‘extreme action’ required to stop brutality against women and children.”

Clearly Dr Catley isn’t optimistic.

“The future of the NT is inextricably bound up with the future of the rapidly growing Indigenous population,” he said. This, and the fact that the NT’s economy is now a slow-growth one, means the future is less sanguine.

“Most of central and arid Australia is like a part of the third world,” Dr Catley said.

“Its economic basis is in primary industry – pastoral and mining, with some tourism – and its population is increasingly Indigenous, with third world living standards, life expectancy and social indicators.”

Canberra is financially underpinning an economy in which one of every three workers has a job in the public sector.

“Without this large Commonwealth monetary subsidy all of the NT would be a third world economy with a garrison town at Darwin,” he said.

Dr Catley says an Indigenous-dominated future seems inevitable.

“As social life becomes consequently more difficult, it will become harder to attract non-Indigenous people to the NT,” he said.

“In the longer term this would imply a Port Moresby future for Darwin in which political management shifts away from development, modernisation and growth.

“The central policy objective for the NT should be, therefore, to maximise the rate of absorption of the Indigenous population into the modern sector of the NT economy and society.

“In order to achieve this, more attention will need to be paid to the social, cultural and educational attainments of the Indigenous population.

“This is not occurring as rapidly in the NT as in the major southern cities of Australia, where the outcomes are more promising.”

Yet, despite these enormous challenges, the still white-dominated Darwin power elite is doggedly promoting the idea of Statehood.

“Darwin may either be the next Brisbane or the next Port Moresby,” Dr Catley contends.

“A successful Territory would be better than a failed seventh State.”

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