A lot has changed in South Australia during the past century.
A LITTLE-KNOWN, but significant, opportunity was missed earlier this year.
January 1 2011 was the centenary of South Australia handing over its arid central and tropical northern segments – Centralia and the Top End respectively – to the newly formed federal government.
That, simply put, is the origin of the Northern Territory.
What should have been planned for was the reintegration of the NT into SA on January 1 2011. It would have confirmed SA, after 100 years, was vibrant, expansive, and back in business; unlike 1911, when it was foundering.
Although unfortunate this reintegration didn’t occur, it’s not too late.
SA’s population now stands at 1.68 million, well below Western Australia’s 2.3 million. If one adds the NT’s 230,000, however, a reformed SA would have nearly 1.9 million people.
Although still nearly 500,000 below WA, it’s nearing the 2 million mark that WA reached in 2005.
There was a time – long ago – when WA demographically trailed SA.
Thanks to the drive since the 1960s, development of the Pilbara (iron ore and natural gas, especially), eastern Goldfields (boosted gold output and nickel), plus south-of-Perth’s bauxite sector, we’ve surged ahead.
While WA was doing this over the past 50 years, SA Labor got itself into an ideological and factional tangle over uranium mining.
That led to delays and stalling in the development of its world-class Roxby Downs (now called Olympic Dam) uranium, copper and gold deposit, by Western Mining Corporation.
Eventually, and thankfully for SA, that crass stupidity was sorted out and the state started moving again.
But it remains significantly – meaning by more than 600,000 people – behind WA.
In broad terms that’s the difference between having someone at the helm with the views and predispositions of realists like Sir Charles Court and Lang Hancock, as opposed to the fanciful Don Dunstan and his trendy disciples.
But back to the 2011 lost opportunity.
Early this month, State Scene attended a Constitution Centre lecture by University of NSW law academic and ALP member, George Williams, who canvassed three questions, including the coming moves to transform the NT into a state, something I indicated from the floor I opposed.
My main reason for balking at his apparent enthusiasm for such a step stems primarily from a 2004 Perth Samuel Griffiths Society lecture I’d attended, delivered by former SA Labor MP, Bob Catley.
He’d held the seat of Adelaide (1990-93) after lecturing at the University of Adelaide and was subsequently professor of governance and head of business at Charles Darwin University, formerly NT University; he now teaches at the University of Newcastle.
In his lecture (‘The Northern Territory: Seventh State or Internal Colony?’) Professor Catley eruditely and convincingly argued against NT statehood because:
• it’s too heavily dependent on the Commonwealth;
• it has too little independent economic development; and
• its society is too welfare dependent.
Most may have forgotten that, in 1998, the Country-Liberal Party government led by Shane Stone only narrowly failed, at referendum, in transforming the NT into a state.
So statehood could quite easily, with Canberra’s concurrence, eventuate in 2013 or soon after.
But Professor Catley’s objections still largely stand.
“The NT also has several unique characteristics which mark it apart from the other jurisdictions of Australia: a static population; the highest proportion of indigenous people; the least developed private economy; and the largest state sector,” he said.
“It is like an internal colony.
“The NT is the least developed, most statist, and most heavily subsided jurisdiction in the Commonwealth.
“It is also the most culturally distinct.”
Professor Catley pointed out that in many ways it would move to resemble colonial Papua New Guinea.
Even if statehood were granted, it would inevitably continue to require heavy subsidisation by southern taxpayers.
“It would also quickly develop a political structure dominated by Indigenous interests,” Professor Catley continued.
And he viewed this characteristic as an inhibiting factor in the need to place the NT on a path to self-sustained economic growth.
He could not see statehood improving matters in this regard.
Professor Catley added that a 1999 government survey of departing NT residents provided insights into how people perceived the territory from within.
Those surveyed highlighted considerations such as social or lifestyle issues, namely, levels of crime, personal safety, and breaking and entering as the reason for their departure.
Their prominence shouldn’t be minimised.
In addition, many who’d left the NT, which by then had had self-government for 20 or so years, were subjected to over-regulation and far too much legislation.
Instituting statehood is unlikely to reverse such characteristics and proclivities.
However, reincorporating Centralia and the Top End into the southern half of the former SA could offer a better chance for the emergence of a markedly diversified and more heterogeneous state.
In the late 1970s, I briefly worked in Darwin and certainly found it to be very different from what I’d experienced in WA and my five years in Melbourne.
During that stay, I encountered a range of suggestions that one was most unlikely to hear below the Tropic of Capricorn.
However, one that still remains clear in my mind was talk by both Labor and Country-Liberal Party backers of something more than a state the size of the NT.
Some of those I have in mind who were already speaking of statehood then were suggesting that when it eventuated it should incorporate WA’s Kimberley regions – due to proximity – and a large slice of northern Queensland.
One, I recall, said it could be named, Capricornia.
At the time I simply shrugged this off as fanciful speculation.
But Professor Catley’s Perth lecture reminded me of that suggestion and the similarities of the Kimberley and segments of northern Queensland that were most certainly shared with the NT.
Australia today is delineated in a vertical, that is, in a north-south manner.
WA vertically embraces an entire third of the continent.
SA was the same until 1911, when it embraced a sizeable central north-south segment of the continent.
And Queensland is somewhat similar, except that it occupies only about half the continent’s eastern segment, with NSW and Victoria being the other or lower half.
Would possible future moves to create a northern state stretching laterally from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean be desirable?
There’s much that southern activists have persistently done to thwart and hinder the NT and its people.
The latest Canberra knee-jerk total ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia, inspired by a southern TV crew, and current moves to ban this trade are examples of southern ‘imperialism’.
But would agitation for a huge state above the Tropic of Capricorn be any more desirable for its citizenry?
I doubted so in 1979, and again in 2004, and do so now.
If Territorians continue being nudged towards statehood, let’s hope the option of reintegrating into SA isn’t deliberately overlooked.
Australia’s 1901 make-up isn’t something to be hurriedly rejected.
SA regaining its 1911 loss would assist such consolidation.