Equality for Territorians 


Do Territorians feel like second-class citizens when it comes to federal issues? Sue Bradley, Convenor of the Statehood Steering Committee argued the case for the Territory’s transition to statehood at the recent Charles Darwin Symposium.

Ms Bradley gave symposium delegates a summary of the history leading Territorians to where they are today and questioned their equal standing as Australian citizens in federal issues.

She argued that since 1902 when the South Australian government began discussions with the federal government to hand control of the Northern Territory back to federal government, Territorians have not been treated as equal citizens of Australia.

Even in 1978 when the Territory was granted self government, some of the usual state-like powers, such as ownership of uranium and control over land rights, industrial laws and some national parks were retained by the Commonwealth.

‘It wasn’t until 1984 that Territorians were given the opportunity to exercise their right to vote in a national referendum and even then a Territorians’ vote only counted for half that of a resident of the states,’ Ms Bradley told Symposium delegates.

What continues to annoy many Territorians is that the Commonwealth retains the right to override any Territory laws. This was illustrated dramatically in 1996 when the Territory passed its own law allowing for euthanasia – a law not formed capriciously, but with much soul searching and anguish.

It was a valid law made for the people of the Northern Territory by their democratically elected parliament. Not surprisingly, there was outrage when Kevin Andrews, the Member for Menzies in Victoria, sponsored a private members bill in the Commonwealth Parliament that overturned the Territory law and inserted a provision which prevents the Territory making any law allowing for voluntary euthanasia in the future.

Whether you agreed with that particular Territory law or not, you must ask what this has to do with a member of the Commonwealth Parliament in his capacity representing a seat in Victoria? Canberra had flexed its muscles, making Territorians realise how vulnerable they were in regards to their own legislation.

In 1998 the statehood movement received a serious setback when a Territory referendum on statehood was lost. A post-mortem report found this was because of the way it was presented to the people.

The referendum had been preceded by a short statehood convention where the delegates were appointed under a government process.

Ms Bradley noted, ‘The new draft constitution put forward differed significantly from a draft developed over the previous 10 years by a parliamentary committee, and Territorians had little opportunity to understand the ramifications of the new constitution.’

The referendum was held in conjunction with a federal election and the question of statehood was multi-faceted and not posed in simple terms – all factors known to confuse some voters.

It would be several more years before the statehood debate would begin to re-emerge. In April 2005 the Statehood Steering Committee (SSC) was established by the Northern Territory Parliament to promote the principle of statehood and engage in community consultation on the model that might be suitable.

Since then the SSC has been active in promoting the debate and canvassing the issues that will determine when – or if – the Commonwealth Government will agree to allow the Territory equality with the other states.

Until then Ms Bradley told Symposium delegates there are many issues that need to be debated to achieve a model that meets the needs of all Territorians.

Bradley concluded by noting, ‘Equality is the goal, but being equal doesn’t mean we have to be the same.’

Visit the Symposium website for further information about the event.