Issue 16
Monday, 25 September 2017
Charles Darwin University
Professorial Research Fellow Rolf Gerritsen
Professorial Research Fellow Rolf Gerritsen

Overhaul needed to fix NT’s urban bias

By Patrick Nelson

A Charles Darwin University academic will propose that Darwin should be partitioned off from the rest of the Northern Territory as part of a solution to achieve better fiscal equity in the NT.

Professorial Research Fellow Rolf Gerritsen, an Alice Springs based regional economist with CDU’s Northern Institute, will tell delegates at the NTCOSS Conference in Darwin tomorrow [26 Sep] that the Territory’s political and institutional structures need to be overhauled in order to remedy the urban bias, which he says has characterised fiscal policy in the NT since self-government.

“If we are serious about a fairer and more inclusive Northern Territory then it is time that our governance structures are reformed to allow for a better distribution of the budget to remote and regional communities,” Professor Gerritsen said.

“I’m challenging us to imagine a replacement for the current 25-seat Darwin-centric unicameral government and to dispense with Cabinet and two-party adversarial politics.

“For example, we could establish Darwin as a city-territory in a fashion similar to Canberra and the ACT. Governance for the rest of the Territory might take a form similar to the local-government model, but be designed to reward Aboriginal participation in the political system.  

“Delegates acting on authority of the population would still gather in an assembly where various party political views could be represented, but within a model designed to guarantee equitable access and outcomes for non-urban areas of the Territory.”

Professor Gerritsen said the incidence of urban bias in the NT suggested that it was now an inherent bias that beneficiaries no longer realised they had.

“I’ll illustrate my point with two examples of extreme urban bias in fiscal outlay – one relating to housing and the other to the over-funding of urban schools – but it hardly matters where one looks to find examples of underspending in the bush.”

Professor Gerritsen said that while none of these examples was horrendous in isolation, accumulatively they showed that the money the NT receives from Canberra essentially subsidised the growth of Darwin. 

“We can trace this back to decisions pre-dating self-government, which were premised on the assumption that the NT would become a State,” he said.

“With greater access to politicians and ministers, people in Darwin are much more readily able to influence decisions than the people in a place like Yuendumu, for example, who rarely see a politician.

“Unless we challenge the institutional basis of the Northern Territory and replace it with a system that provides people in the bush with better access to politicians, we’ll see urban bias get worse as Darwin grows, and the potential for the rest of the Territory to influence politics will be reduced.

“It may sound like a radical remedy, but I propose that the solution is to sunder the Territory.” 

Professor Gerritsen is scheduled to co-present “Setting the Scene – The Nation and the NT” at the Darwin Convention Centre on Tuesday 26 September at 11am.