Northern Territory

Article excerpt

July to December 1998

Two electoral contests dominated the period under review: the referendum on whether the Northern Territory ought to be a state and the fight for the Northern Territory's seats in the Commonwealth parliament. The results of both surprised some observers. Also important were Aboriginal issues, an election for the leadership of the Territory's Labor Opposition, controversial changes to the Northern Territory Public Service, allegations that Territory government research funds had been misused and a ministerial reshuffle.

The Statehood Referendum

In Canberra on 11 August the Prime Minister, John Howard, with the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Shane Stone, in attendance, announced that the Commonwealth supported statehood for the Northern Territory and that 1 January 2001 was the target date. At the same time in Darwin the Commonwealth Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government, Alex Somlyay, told the Territory's Legislative Assembly that the Territory would become a state under Section 21 of the Commonwealth Constitution. The "terms and conditions of Statehood", he continued, would be the subject of consultation and negotiation and he singled out contentious issues such as Aboriginal land fights, uranium mining and management of Commonwealth national parks. He also announced that the referendum would be held in conjunction with the forthcoming federal election, which led to the Labor Opposition arguing that the Country Liberal Party (CLP) was attempting to gain partisan advantage from the statehood issue.

On 18 August Chief Minister Stone revealed, in disregard of the Statehood Convention's preference for three separate questions, that there would be just one question: "Now that a Constitution for a State of the Northern Territory has been recommended by the Statehood Convention and endorsed by the Northern Territory Parliament: w Do you agree that we should become a State?" In words that he would later regret, Stone said that Territorians who wanted statehood but did not support the draft Constitution should vote "no". In Legislative Assembly debates on 19 and 20 August, the Opposition unsuccessfully attempted to have the Statehood Convention's three questions submitted to the vote. Once the Assembly made its decision here, Labor members approved the final question, which meant that the Chief Electoral Officer was only required to distribute an official "Yes" case to the voters.

It soon became clear that there was widespread opposition in the wider Territory community to the referendum question. Territorians for a Democratic Statehood, the Territory Greens and the Northern Land Council all, for rather different reasons, urged a "no" vote. On 24 August Peter McNab of Territorians for a Democratic Statehood said the group had decided "reluctantly" to campaign for a "no" vote to highlight concerns with the statehood process. On the same day liana Eldridge of the Greens said there was "no seriously good position" for statehood and Norman Fry of the Northern Land Council claimed that Aboriginal people were "wary about the whole push for statehood in its present form". Other organisations that came out against statehood included all of the smaller political parties, the Northern Territory Trades and Labor Council and the Central Land Council.

Obviously worried about the referendum outcome, on 8 September Chief Minister Stone made a major shift in his position. He urged people tom between supporting statehood and the draft constitution to vote "yes" in the referendum. Warren Snowdon, Labor's candidate for the House of Representatives, commented that, "It took a backlash from the public and his own party to make Mr Stone see sense". Stone, on the other hand, denied there was dissent in the CLP and added that public opposition was not shown in opinion polls. On 26 September the Lord Mayor of Darwin and the Mayors of Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek jointly urged Territorians to vote for statehood in a full-page Northern Territory News advertisement. …