It might have been widely assumed that statehood for the Northern Territory was not a matter of great national priority. Intriguingly, however, the Council of Australian Governments unanimously backed the initiative on Thursday, suggesting our political leaders at least know not to sweat the small stuff. The prospect of statehood for the north is one that would undoubtedly please the Commonwealth, which would be relieved of some (but not all) of its present financial and statutory obligations to the territory. Darwin's bureaucrats, politicians and wannabe MLAs would be beside themselves with joy, for the prestige, power, and perquisites of elected office in a state far exceed those on offer in a self-governing territory. Residents outside of the capital would be eager for statehood as well, but a good many would regard the prospect with horror. Territory politics, always idiosyncratic, now verge on the dysfunctional, and the preoccupations of the Legislative Assembly seem to rarely extend beyond Darwin city limits.
The good news for devotees of NT statehood is that the transition could be relatively straightforward. Under the federal constitution, the federal government may set the terms of entry to full statehood, and provided Territorians signalled their support via referendum, supporting legislation would be a formality. Possibly the only stumbling block would be securing agreement on how many senators the new state would have, since to be given the 12 the other states currently enjoy would seriously skew the Senate's voting system in favour of NT voters and require more House of Representatives seats. In a statehood referendum held in the Territory in October 1998 (when 51.9 per cent of the electorate voted in the negative, and 48.1 per cent in the affirmative), the model proposed would have seen the NT offered three senators. Territory leaders might well demand four on their next application for statehood given the decent interval since then.
For the ACT, which has only two senators with a population a third larger than the NT, statehood is not a realistic prospect, welcome though it might seem. The Australian constitution states that the seat of government "shall be within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth … and shall contain an area of not less than one hundred square miles". According to the ACT Solicitor-General, that last requirement would preclude any subdivision to separate the seat of government from the rest of the territory.
Constitutional restraints aside, the ACT is arguably more deserving of statehood than the NT. It may lack the trappings of statehood such as a sizeable rural and industries base, and a grand parliament building, but its gross state product is significantly larger and its political discourse more mature. Governance standards are also superior to those in the NT.
The symbolic importance of COAG leaders reaching consensus on attainable goals is self-evident. It's odd, however, that statehood for the Northern Territory should have been one of them. For all its manifest attractions, statehood, particularly one that preserves and protects the interests of Indigenous peoples remote from Darwin, will be no easy achievement.