The NT must fix itself

Richard Creswick writes: Re. “NT is a failed state, and it’s time to intervene” (Friday).  Your northern correspondent Bob Gosford and the jaundiced Nicolas Rothwell, are both relative newcomers to the Northern Territory so their views have to be seen through a prism of ignorance. If their proposition for intervention includes, as the only real option, some form of federal government takeover, then I would warn them to be careful what they wish for. I think you would be hard pressed to find a pre-self government Territorian — that is, one who was here before 1978 — who would welcome a return to the days when, as they said then, the “dead hand of Canberra rested on the Territory’s neck”.

I came to Darwin in 1972 as a journalist with the ABC for the start of locally produced television news and it was a quaint colonial outpost, ruled by the Northern Territory Administration (NTA), an arm of the then Department of Territories, with the effective local government being the handful of heads of the major Commonwealth departments operating here: Territories,  Housing and Construction, Welfare (Native Affairs), Education, Attorney General’s and Health. The six departmental heads were “appointed members” of the Legislative Council and to assist them in matters of governance, they had eleven elected members, five conservatives from what would become the Country Liberal Party, three Labor and three independents. One of only two living members of that original Legislative Council is Dawn Lawrie, one of the independents and mother of Labor’s present leader, Delia Lawrie. The other is Godfrey “Goff”  Letts, who is still, I believe, running a newspaper in the small Victorian town of Donald.

In practice, the government department heads ran a mostly benevolent oligarchy. They were a law unto themselves and most of them found that suddenly having a television news service with the scrutiny that implied, was not very welcome, and they didn’t like being questioned. On my first day in the job I rang the head of Welfare, the late Harry Giese, to follow up a story. After giving me the information, he identified my status as a newcomer, and asked if I would run my written story past him. This was not something I would normally do but,  given the situation, I agreed. When I read the story back to him, he confirmed it was factually correct but then said I couldn’t publish it “because all press queries have to go through the public relations office”. I spiked the story but for 43 years have berated myself  for not publishing and be damned.

Any question to one of these Mandarins had to be submitted in writing to the public relations office of the NTA, which would result in a written reply, often some days later. When, post Whitlam, the NTA became Department of the Northern Territory (DONT), we at the ABC would submit a weekly list of questions on a Monday, and get answers several days later. These answers were usually designed to give as little information as possible. From such responses as “not yet” or “no”, we resourceful journalists could produce a six or eight line story, or two.

Some of us would argue that rather than conferring too much power, the self-government the Territory enjoys now is too limited. After all, we are still subject to the veto powers the Commonwealth can, and did, exercise with the disgraceful overturning of our hard won euthanasia legislation by the religiously obsessed Kevin Andrews. Periodically the issue of Statehood has been canvassed but at the only referendum, cynically manipulated by the then Chief Minister,  it was voted down.

No, dysfunctional as this current NT government is, in need of replacement as it clearly is, it should not be by the — equally dysfunctional — Abbott  federal government. It should be via a new election. Love ’em or hate ’em, they are our government, not Rothwell’s, not Gosford’s.  not even the southern taxpayers who as Gosford would have it,  so generously fund us, but ours, the people of the Northern Territory. We may be relatively few in numbers, our votes in federal referenda might have lesser value than those of other Australians, but we have some democratic rights, let us exercise them.

On Abbott’s destructive tendencies

Joe Boswell writes: Re. “Poll Bludger: Gillard went down with polls this bad — now it’s Abbott’s turn” (Friday). Tony Abbott became leader of the Australian Liberal Party on December 1 2009. In just over six months his relentless assaults destroyed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was replaced by Julia Gillard. Abbott’s tireless campaign prevented her winning a majority in the next general election, but he neatly avoided becoming prime minister then so he could continue fermenting endless chaos and dysfunction by his raging attacks on her. She finally fell from office in June 2013 and Rudd returned. Abbott did not pause. He wrecked his third prime minister when Rudd lost the September 2013 election. Abbott stormed on, undermining the latest prime minister and whipping up hostility against him across the whole political spectrum. Just 18 months later Abbott is on the verge of collecting his fourth scalp. The number is even higher if we also count the premiers he has brought down through collateral damage. He thus disproves any suggestions that he is politically partisan. He is equally destructive to all prime ministers. He is an unprecedented phenomenon and these achievements deserve formal recognition. His enthusiasm for reviving amusing but obsolete titles suggests he might enjoy being elevated to Lord of Misrule, which goes back to antiquity; or perhaps most apt is the Scottish equivalent, the Abbot of Unreason, vacant since 1555. The holder of the title presides over a Feast of Fools. Plus ca change …

Peter Fray

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