The Statehood Push - Top Down in the Top End

16 November 2011 | 00:00 - By Bill Code

Video journalist Bill Code spoke to Indigenous Territorians about the push to become Australia's seventh state.

In making a film on plans to bring statehood to the Northern Territory, one thing stuck out as I travelled across its vast plains, visiting different communities.

As much as both major parties want the Northern Territory to become Australia's seventh state, many Territorians are not clear on what the differences would be.

When I spoke to Minister for Statehood, Malarndirri McCarthy, also the minister for Indigenous affairs, she was clear that there was work being done on getting the message across.

There has certainly been a decent PR push - work has been going on behind the scenes - and via statehood 'roadshows' - almost as soon as the last vote on the issue narrowly went in favour of the 'no' camp in 1998.

That time around, many Territorians saw the vote as a vote for 'Stonehood', as one cutting analysis put it, after then First Minister Shane Stone was seen as putting his own vision forward.

The government says it has learnt its lessons, and is holding a fully elected so-called 'people's' congress to draft the constitution early next year. A referendum - a chance to again vote yes, or no, is set to follow.

Amongst many Indigenous Territorians and the Land Councils, there's a strong concern that a vote for statehood may mean a loss of control over land rights. The 1976 Land Rights Act is commonwealth legislation, and there's talk that it would not be protected by Darwin.

In 1998, the Land Councils are widely believed to have helped swing the vote by recommending a 'no' vote on the part of Indigenous people.

Leaders such as the Central land Council's David Ross are still far more concerned with taking steps to improve the lot of Indigenous people now, under a Territory, and not in some distant future. Ross says steps can be taken to improve the promotion of Indigenous language and law under the Territory framework, state or no state.

The counter argument given by Indigenous supporters of statehood this time around is often that were the Territory to be a state, perceived injustices such as the intervention would be able to be voted against by a more powerful state; the federal government can currently override Darwin’s decisions.

Other issues such as the alleged federal government steamrolling on issues such as the Muckaty nuclear waste dump on indigenous land could also be more readily dealt with by Darwin.

After all, a good third of the Territory's people are Indigenous, and hope remains among some activists, such as the First Nations' Japarta Ryan, that Indigenous people will be well represented in the parliament of a new state.

The elites in Darwin certainly have their work cut out before convincing a still sceptic Territory - and sceptical Indigenous leaders - to vote in favour of becoming Australia's seventh state.

I spent an afternoon asking the people of Katherine which way they would vote in the coming referendum. Roughly, a third wanted a state, a third didn't, and a third did not know at all what the difference would be.

More dialogue will surely need to come.

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