OPINION: Is it time to recognise the Northern Territory as a failed state?

The newest Northern Territory Country Liberals cabinet are sworn in at Government House in Darwin, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Source: AAP

Giles' scandal-plagued NT government is likely to lose in a landslide election this Saturday. Is the territory's form of government inherently unworkable?

This Saturday the Northern Territory is going to an election, and it’s set to be a doozy. Four Corners’ revelations of institutionalised child abuse at Don Dale youth detention centre have basically torched the incumbent Country Liberal Party government’s chances of re-election. Polls show Adam Giles’ government is headed for a loss of seismic proportions, likely making it the first government in the territory’s history to last only a single term. 

The Don Dale scandal has hit the NT government especially hard partly because of how they reacted. Giles and his Corrections Minister, John Elferink, largely ignored two reports detailing the abuses inside Don Dale months before they caught the public’s attention, and Giles’ main response to the revelations was to claim the ABC was trying to influence Saturday’s election.

More broadly, though, the backlash has to do with how proudly Giles and Elferink waved their tough-on-crime credentials around while in office. Just three months ago, Elferink oversaw the legalisation of the mechanical restraint chair and ‘spit hood’ seen in use on 14-year-old Dylan Voller in the Four Corners report. In a 2010 speech to Parliament, Giles boasted: “If I was the prisons minister, I would build a big concrete hole and put all the bad criminals in there: ‘Right, you are in the hole, you are not coming out. Start learning about it’.” Incidentally, Giles chose himself to replace Elferink as prisons minister.

That attitude has seen incarceration rates in the Territory (already some of the highest in the world) skyrocket, mainly for low-level offences like loitering and drinking in public. That goes double for Indigenous Territorians; 86% of those behind bars in the NT are Indigenous, as are 97% of those in juvenile detention. 

Even if Don Dale had never triggered a royal commission, the CLP government has been plagued by scandal after scandal almost from the moment it took office in 2012. Elferink, who still serves as Attorney-General, Minister for Justice and Minister for Children and Families, told a female colleague he would like to “give her a slap” last year, leading to nine female Members of the Legislative Assembly to call for his resignation.

Tourism Minister Matt Conlan, meanwhile, called a female former Cabinet minister a “c**t” in a CLP party meeting in 2014. Giles’ former deputy Dave Tollner was forced to apologise in the same year for going on a homophobic rant about a colleague’s son, while in 2013 he was sacked from Cabinet for throwing a bundle of paper at the Chief Minister during a meeting. 

The NT even manages to stand out when it comes to leadership instability, something Australian voters are used to seeing in their state and federal governments. Giles only became Chief Minister in 2013 via a Parliamentary coup against Terry Mills, the man who actually won the election, while he was overseas on government business. Two years later Giles himself was ousted in a late-night coup by his deputy, Willem Westra van Holthe, only to retain the job when he flat-out refused to resign the next day. No less than five of the 16 Liberal MLAs elected in 2012 have since defected to the crossbench.

This is to say nothing of the myriad financial, corruption and governance scandals that have defined the government’s agenda more than their actual agenda. In 2011, Central Land Council director David Ross called for a royal commission into successive NT governments spending federal money earmarked for addressing Aboriginal disadvantage on vote-winning infrastructure projects in wealthy white seats. The Territory has even managed to sink millions of dollars in a sponsorship deal with the Parramatta Eels NRL club, a scandal-plagued wreck itself. 

Last year, a gathering of federal, state and territory leaders agreed to work toward making the NT Australia’s seventh state by July 2018. Given the Territory’s propensity to corruption, instability and just plain bad government, there are serious questions as to whether the NT should be allowed to continue self-governing at all. Last year, former NT MLA Ken Parish wrote that “it’s time to abolish Northern Territory self-government in its present form as a failed experiment”. Darwin-based journalist Nicolas Rothwell argues that “the Darwin regime's political and administrative progress ... resembles nothing so much as a slow motion train crash”, and that what’s needed is not statehood, but an “emergency administration [and] a royal commission into the Darwin regime's financial management”. 

"The Darwin regime's political and administrative progress ... resembles nothing so much as a slow motion train crash”

Indigenous groups in the Territory are similarly wary of any push for the political apparatus in Darwin to be given extra power. Both the Northern and Central Land Councils have described the Territory as “a failed State that is almost totally dependent on the Commonwealth”, and urged the federal government not to grant the NT statehood for fear a fully-fledged state government would undermine the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which gives traditional owners a strong legal basis to claim title. While there’s an argument to be made that the jurisdiction with the highest proportion of Indigenous people in the country should be granted more representation in federal Parliament than the mere two Senators they have now, statehood would likely raise more problems than it would solve. 

Whether the Territory’s mess even begins to be addressed when Giles and co. finally get the boot on Saturday remains to be seen. But the fact that such a dysfunctional, useless, self-absorbed government is emphatically on the way out can only be a good thing.

Adair Jones is a writer from New York now living in Brisbane. She regularly contributes articles and reviews on literary subjects to publications both here and overseas.

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