The Gunner Labor government came to office last August promising to restore the trust of Territorians in government, after it had been shattered by four years of chaos, division and dubious or worse ethical behaviour by various members of the Giles CLP regime. Enacting and boosting safeguards ensuring accountability and transparency were to be at the forefront of the new Government’s program.
After 9 months in office, how are they going? In my assessment the record is none too impressive.
MLAs’ financial interests
A modest but worthwhile initiative to publish MLAs’ registrable interests (financial and property) online has been implemented. However it appears that it will only be published online annually, whereas the Legislative Assembly (Disclosure of Interests) Act requires any alteration of interests to be notified to the Clerk within 28 days. Accordingly the online register is of extremely limited value as a transparency/accountability measure. There is no obvious reason why the online Register should not be updated in real time so we are in a position to know whether a MLA has a conflict of interest in performing his or her duties to Territorians.
Nevertheless, despite its huge cost (more than $50 million) there is a powerful argument that the Royal Commission is needed if nothing else to put a strong enough public spotlight on youth justice to ensure that the politicians can’t simply sweep it all under the carpet and keep ignoring it. The twin dangers of fiscal pressures (especially in the light of recent revelations about major loss of federal GST funding) and pandering to populist sentiment (which is very easy to whip up in favour of punitive “tough on crime” “law and order” approaches) mean that little is likely to change in a long term sense in the absence of strong countervailing pressure to adopt more rational, effective, evidence-based policies in future.
Following the success of the NT Governance Summit in February the CDU School of Law has decided to join together with the Darwin Press Club to present a series of much shorter evening events every month or two. The series is to be entitled “Railing about Politics” because events will be held at the Railway Club in Parap.
Event – Clare Martin & Daryl Manzie : in conversation – Two political lives well lived, the Great Territory Lifestyle and the future Where? – Railway Club, 17 Somerville Gardens, Parap When? – 7pm Tuesday 11 April Cost? – Admission $5
In an era when so much of day-to-day “retail” politics both locally and federally seems to consist mostly of pointless squabbling between warring political tribes, our objective with “Railing about Politics” is to nurture a much more constructive and non-confrontational debate about governance and longer term political issues that will contribute to making the Northern Territory a better place.
This was a favourite song of mine back in my yoof. I used to sing it frequently, mostly to irritate friends who thought I should take things much more seriously. I think we should all start singing it again now, but for a different reason. The future really is bright for the Northern Territory, despite hyperbolic doomsaying in the mainstream media in the wake of announcements about anticipated cuts in federal GST funding.
According to respected independent economist Saul Eslake, it is likely that the Territory’s GST funding will be cut by around $1.2 billion over the next three years or so. That will mean a cut of a little over 6% in the Territory’s overall budget of $6.5 billion per year. That is certainly significant but entirely manageable. Moreover, new Chief Minister Michael Gunner IS managing it, quite skilfully as far as I can tell. His decision to promote former Under-Treasurer Jody Ryan to the position of CEO of the Department of Chief Minister seems to be paying off.
Last week’s gloomy announcement about GST funding cuts is mostly just a PR exercise in managing public expectations, although it might have been a little more prudent to avoid fuelling up the Northern Territory News to portray the situation as if the sky was falling and it was all PM Turnbull and Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison’s fault. The sky isn’t falling and the funding cuts aren’t their fault. Even after the cuts the Territory’s share of GST funding will be vastly higher than that of any other state or territory, some 4.7 times more than our per capita share of GST. Moreover, that is still more than the long-term average Territory share of GST funding. When you strip away the BS, what is happening at the moment is that the Territory’s GST share is moving back towards the (still very generous) long-term funding average after a few years of short-term stimulus driven by the huge Inpex project.
As I have previously argued here, quite a bit of the Northern Territory News’ coverage of federal cuts to the Territory’s share of GST funding is tabloid silliness, creating fake cartoon villains out of politicians like Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison and local Senator Nigel Scullion.
Presumably it’s because that sort of nonsense boosts newspaper sales. I can’t really blame them all that much. It’s a tough world out there for mainstream newspapers, competing for eyeballs and advertisers in the age of Google, Facebook and advertising revenue based on “page impressions”. Clickbait and extreme silliness seem to be an effective way of surviving in the Brave New Media World, so it’s pointless fulminating against tactics they’re forced to adopt for their own survival. I’m not overly fussed by having to wade through croc and UFO stories and bulls**t characterisations of politicians as “bastards”, “robbers” or “Nigel No-Friends”. More experienced MPs and their advisers accept it as one of the unavoidable facts of political life. You don’t survive long in politics if you can’t learn to cope with suffering an almost complete loss of personal privacy and being treated unfairly by the media.
However, one of the more positive aspects of the NT News’ populist coverage of the GST cuts issue has been a call for Territorians to come forward with ideas for helping the politicians cope with the situation and keep the Territory growing and prospering despite our GST misfortune. I have lots of ideas of that sort, some of them possibly impractical dreams, but some maybe not. Here’s the first of my dreams and schemes (there will be more).
The NT News’ front page on Saturday is a vintage piece of Murdoch tabloid journalism – aggressively funny but without any meaningful regard for fact or fairness. Of course portraying any politicians as “bastards” is bound to meet with general public approval, especially when Messrs Turnbull, Morrison and Scullion are identified as the culprits who just unfairly robbed the Territory of $2 billion over the next four years. Moreover, the journos who write this stuff might even believe it; after all quite a few usually thoughtful local pundits have made similar noises.
The truth is that the national system for distributing GST revenue between the states and territories IS badly broken, but the decisions aren’t in a practical sense made by the federal government politicians so they aren’t “bastards” at least for that reason. More importantly, the system will be devilishly difficult to fix. However, explaining that in a way people can understand or be bothered reading is a tall order, because the system is also mind-blowingly complex. But I’ll have a go at it anyway.
Poor old Jeff Collins. The neophyte Labor MLA for the inner Darwin seat of Fong Lim has just discovered that you never get between a tabloid newspaper and a circulation-boosting law and order scare story. Mr Collins had the temerity to suggest in the Legislative Assembly the other day that tabloid stories about an out-of-control crime wave in Darwin might be just a trifle simplistic and exaggerated. Outrageous! the News thundered: “Perhaps he should look at the latest shocking statistics – Darwin commercial break-ins up 90%; Darwin house break-ins up 20%.” (They are referring to the latest NT PFES crime statistics summaries for the year to end January 2017).
A letter published in today’s Northern Territory News by David Mitchell of Nhulunbuy encapsulates several of the common misconceptions that many Territorians have about the possibility of a treaty or treaties between the Northern Territory Government and Aboriginal clans. Several commenters to a recent article at The Summit Facebook page had similar uncertainties, but Mr Mitchell’s letter is the most convenient to quote:
An article by Amos Aikman in The Weekend Australian is especially noteworthy from a Territory governance perspective:
A policy designed to reward indigenous business owners with easier access to government contracts is instead exposing taxpayers to fraud and corruption, including serious misconduct by public officials, whistleblowers warn.
It was surprising (at least to me) that there wasn’t more discussion at the NT Governance Summit surrounding the question of a possible treaty between Aboriginal Territorians and the Northern Territory Government. It seemed as if most of the current and former politicians and politically engaged Territorians in attendance regarded the subject as one from cloud cuckoo land, not a fit topic for serious political debate by mature adults.
It’s certainly true that until the last year or so the question of a treaty was one mostly discussed by lefties and dreamers. Prime Minister Bob Hawke raised it as a serious question in 1990 but dropped it like a hot potato when a couple of influential State Premiers objected strongly. Not long after the High Court’s Mabo decision was handed down and treaty talk just dropped off the public radar. The issue hasn’t surfaced again seriously until very recently.