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Rich fellow my country

Date

David Humphries

A picture to behold ... lying under azure skies and bathed in warm 30-degree temperatures, Darwin serves an ideal antidote to the rip and rush of southern life.

A picture to behold ... lying under azure skies and bathed in warm 30-degree temperatures, Darwin serves an ideal antidote to the rip and rush of southern life.

Even in this dry season, with its generous parks and open space browned off by months without rain, Darwin is a picture to behold. Looking out over the Arafura Sea, towards an Asia that increasingly is its natural economic fit and bathed in unfailing 30-degree temperatures and azure skies, Australia's most northern capital projects a calm nonchalance, a sort of manana without the sense of urgency, an ideal antidote to the rip and rush of southern life.

It's a picture that belies reality, however. The Northern Territory, and particularly its capital, is being asked to make its most dramatic shift since cyclone Tracy flattened Darwin on Christmas Eve, 1974.

The lifestyle for which so many Darwinites chose to eschew points south and to take up residence remote from family, friends and past is under challenge by resource-mania, a headlong rush to grab some of the spoils lavished for decades on the neighbours to the west and the east - Western Australia and Queensland.

Firebrand … Paul Henderson.

Firebrand … Paul Henderson. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

A $34 billion investment is in progress to pump gas condensate 885 kilometres from the Browse Basin off the Kimberley coast to Darwin, where it can be converted to liquefied natural gas (LNG) for shipping to Japan.

The Ichthys project, by its Japanese owner Inpex, comes on top of the existing ConocoPhillips onshore processing of gas from the Timor Sea, and is the heftiest addition to a grand plan to make Darwin a rival to the North West Shelf as a gas hub.

For all of Darwin's false starts, for all the hype over three decades, that Darwin was about to score a future beyond the roles of northern administrator and defence bulwark (it's biggest employers), Darwin's time in the economic glow of what Australia does best may eventually have arrived.

Bland ... CLP leader Terry Mills. <i>Photo: Twitter</i>

Bland ... CLP leader Terry Mills. Photo: Twitter

Now, that's not disconcerting to most Territorians. Jobs that earn income rather than spend revenue have always been short. Individuals reckon they can prosper, although just how many of the 20,000 jobs being talked up by the government will be occupied by Territorians or by fly-in, fly-out workers is unclear.

Collectively, too, there's dignity and pride in paying your way rather than having to wear the condescension of southern paymasters who prop up the Territory with annual GST payments equivalent of $12,200 per Territorian (compared with $2200 nationally) and 25 per cent of federal specific purpose payments for education, health and so on even though the Territory has just 1 per cent of Australia's population. Sixty 60 per cent of Darwin workers are on the public payroll.

The tone of acceptance, even enthusiasm, for the new Darwin, however, is not universal. Philip Nitschke, for instance, is in a quandary over whether to stay at Humpty Doo, a settlement outside Darwin. "There's been massive change to accommodate the gas and military influx," says the medical practitioner and euthanasia advocate.

"A lot of people come here to find a place that was quiet, tropical and idyllic. That's less so every day, leaving people apprehensive because Darwin is just becoming another sprawling urban development, with infrastructure and planning never catching up. It's very much one of several capital cities now."

Nitschke, who arrived 39 years ago, is contemplating a shift to Adelaide River, 100 kilometres to Darwin's south, although he says "I don't know what I'm going to do".

Perhaps the monsoonal wet season, and its oppressive precursor - what Territorians call the Build Up - will deliver a inverted relief. "The caravan convoys (which clog Darwin camping facilities in the dry) will return south, and you'll be able to get a car park again in Cavenagh and Mitchell streets (in the city). But you can't go about your business walking around in stubbies and thongs any more."

That's the thing with the Top End: it is back to front. The rain buckets down while the rest of the country watches cricket; when the heat most calls you to the beach, the nasties keep you out of the water.

The contradictions, from a southern perspective, flow through politics, too, and will be put to the test next Saturday at the polls.

Labor's bedrock vote since self-government in 1978 has been the third of Territorians who are Aboriginal or Islander. The natural ally of business has been the Country Liberal Party, which held the reins for the first 23 years and has been out of the saddle since.

Both these assumptions have been turned on their heads. For the first time, four prominent indigenous candidates are standing for the CLP. Labor copped a thumping from indigenous voters at the 2010 federal election and is still on the nose with some who support the Howard Government's 2007 Intervention and some opponents of this firmer management of Aboriginal communities who blame the ALP for extending it. Labor paternalism has come to equate with patronisation and the encouragement of indolence and dependency.

Another sore point is the Territory government's abolition of Aboriginal community councils and their replacement by so-called super shires, which lack skills and funding and, in the eyes of angry Aborigines, deny them self-determination.

If the CLP can secure the "bush" seats contested by its new black alliance, Labor - already a minority government with 12 of the 25 assembly seats - would seem doomed. After all, the Labor contagion seems to have reached the Territory. The Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, has done as much as he can to quarantine his government, rebranding Labor as "the Henderson team" and keeping Julia Gillard out of the picture.

The problem in forecasting election results is that the Territory genuinely is quirky, Labor has established itself as a business ally - it lured Inpex and is building an impressive marine supply base in Darwin - and the bush seats aren't polled even though each of the 25 electorates has only 5000 enrolled.

Small numbers give incumbency a potent advantage. "If you're a sitting MP and don't know most of your voters, you are doing something very wrong," says former CLP leader and now a political consultant Jodeen Carney, who spent 10 years as an MP. "This is going to be a very close election, except in Alice Springs (a CLP stronghold). The question is whether the opposition is credible and whether the government has done enough."

By most accounts, the CLP leader, Terry Mills, is a good bloke but an ineffective politician. Most people know his job is in the sights of Dave Tollner, a bluster merchant who represented the Darwin-based seat of Solomon in federal Parliament but now is nipping at the heels of Mills from within.

And has the government done enough? Henderson, a onetime marine fitter, has an abrasive manner and a propensity for projecting the government as a manifestation of himself. When he proposed a public-funded music event to be called Hendo's Big Bash, Territorians thought he'd gone far enough.

Henderson dumped his predecessor Clare Martin - who delivered Labor from the wilderness with a surprise victory in 2001 - and then called a snap election at which it lost six seats. A year later, Labor lost its one-seat majority when Alison Anderson quit and joined the CLP as its first indigenous MP.

Gerry Wood, a conservative-leaning independent, was left the kingmaker. He told the Herald this week he threw Labor the lifeline because three years ago, "Inpex was on the way and sources told me the Japanese didn't like unstable government." Labor had been elected with a one-seat majority and the surest way of securing stability, Wood said, was for him to back the government on the proviso Henderson's leadership not be challenged. "This made them all pull their socks up and they have."

That, though, depends on whose opinion you seek.

Darwin incomes have a healthy premium above the national average but housing affordability is every bit the nightmare of Sydney and other costs of living reflect its isolation and lack of competition.

Henderson concedes the government has been tardy in its planning and land releases. But he knows, too, that to flood the market with cheaper housing - if that was achievable - would push down the value of existing homes. And that can mean political death.

Darwin has always been costly but development brings its own pressures, applying the dual speeds of disparate economic opportunity. "There's an old cliche that you can't stop progress," says Jack Ah Kit, 10 years a Labor MP and 20 years involved in Aboriginal politics. He's seen Darwin grow from 3500 in the 1950s of his childhood to 127,000.

"I love the new Darwin," he says. "You can pine for the sleepy town … but inevitably we had to grow. For the last 20 years, I've watched people come to the Territory to get an experience, and it grows on them, because they come back."

Chris Delaney shifted from Melbourne for two years to practise law and for his wife, Lynette, to teach. That was 22 years ago. A Vietnam veteran who serves in Norforce, a mostly Aboriginal reservist outfit, he argues appalling indigenous living conditions will remain while education in remote communities sticks with priorities not sensitive to cultural need. But his experience is positive. "My wife describes it as a Victorian country town with palm trees. It's got a vibrant social life, emphasising the outdoors, and it's a great place to raise kids,'' he says.

"A dining experience here used to be a lump of steak, but international cuisine influences are now everywhere." Darwin has 56 nationalities. It's where the first boat people arrived and where many asylum seekers are incarcerated, and it was the destination for many fleeing East Timorese.

Perhaps Barack Obama's visit to Darwin last November, when he saluted the arrival of the first of 2500 US marines, aroused a sense of Darwin's national significance.

Or perhaps it was the summit last month with the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who joked Darwin was a fitting venue given that most Indonesians' impression of Australia was formed watching Crocodile Dundee.

But individual appearances don't make a city, any more than catastrophes can snuff it out. In 1942, at least 243 people were killed in Japanese air raids on Darwin and Tracy, 32 years later, blew down 70 per cent of Darwin's buildings and killed 71 people.

Change is not always for the best, but it brings promise and opportunity, and sometimes relief. "You don't suddenly reach a nirvana," says Clare Martin, now living a quieter life on the staff of Charles Darwin University. "It's a work in progress. People talk nostalgically of times without air conditioning and electric fans, or without traffic jams, but I doubt they'd go back to it."

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