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There are two current constitutional issues in the air that I’ve not yet mentioned. The first is statehood for the Northern Territory.The second is the challenge to the school chaplaincy program.

There is now a Statehood Steering Committee undertaking consultations in preparation for a referendum on Statehood in the future. This includes the preparation of a new State Constitution for the NT (as well as deciding whether to change its then defunct name). George Williams is assisting the NT Parliament with the constitutional convention and has written on the issue.

The constitutional requirements are quite clearly stated in Chapter VI of the Constitution. There is no legal requirement for a full Australian referendum, the power to admit new States is vested exclusively in the Commonwealth Parliament in s 121:

The Parliament may admit to the Commonwealth or establish new States, and may upon such admission or establishment make or impose such terms and conditions, including the extent of representation in either House of Parliament, as it thinks fit.

Some, however, might argue the Australian people have a (political) expectation of a referendum (or, rather, a plebiscite) on the issue. It is true that the Australian people won’t be directly affected. The State of the NT shall not be given extra Senators, unless the Cth Parliament confers them. Only the original States are guaranteed an equal number of senators (s 7). Nonetheless, making the NT a separate State does deprive other Australians of their constitutional powers, namely to interfere in NT affairs in a way not possible for a full State. I don’t see why, if that power is exercised through the Parliament, why the people cannot relinquish that power through Parliament as well. But as I said, that’s a political question rather than a constitutional one.

Ultimately, it will be hard to justify reasons for depriving Northern Territorians the same rights as other Australians. Practically speaking, however, there are some reasons – surrounding Commonwealth power over indigenous title issues, uranium mining etc etc. These, however, might be resolved by imposing terms and conditions when the NT becomes a State. s 121 does not permit the imposition of terms after it becomes a State. Of course, a condition could be that the Cth can amend the NT Constitution even after it becomes a State. That becomes an awkward constitutional question if the NT constitution (as preserved under s 106 of the Cth Constitution) allows them to amend their constitution by a referendum, but that referendum Bill conflicts with the term or condition imposed under s 121 of the Cth Constitution.

Another issue I’d raise is whether the democratic infrastructure exists to support a fully independent State in the NT. It’s State Parliament has only one House and only 25 members. You barely have enough MPs to form a State Cabinet, for crying out loud! NSW Cabinet has 22 Ministers; we have almost as many Ministers as the NT currently has MPs! And there is no upper House to keep the lower House in check; are there even enough Shadow Ministers to keep the Ministers accountable?

Their electors are spread over 1.3 square kilometres, but they have a lower population than the ACT or any State. Is there a territory-wide media that can properly disseminate territory political discussion in a sufficiently meaningful way to ensure the NT is properly governed?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But, if the NT people think they are able to self-govern, I for one say that we should let them even without an Australia-wide referendum. Equally, however, I think they should not be given a full complement of senators or MHRs disproportionate to their size. The Senate has never truly acted as a States’ House, so justifications based upon equality for States don’t quite make sense since those Senators don’t defend State interests, but follow the party line.

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