Northern Territory, past, present and future (1981)

Harry Giese

The story is told—and I believe it is not apocryphal—that General Cariappa, Indian High Commissioner in Australia, when he visited the Northern Territory in the early 1950s, spent some time inspecting experimental rice crops in the Adelaide River area just south of Darwin. He was an outspoken, sometimes controversial figure for a diplomat, with an impressive physique. Standing on a hill overlooking the expansive, lush-green river flats, with buffaloes grazing in the distance and with myriads of water birds, he flung his arms wide and declaimed: ‘I can see in the future half a million, one million of my countrymen standing shoulder to shoulder with Australians in developing this magnificent country…’ (and then the punch-line) ‘…as we have stood shoulder to shoulder in defence of democracy with you in two world wars.’
There was, I am told, a somewhat pregnant silence among the onlookers, who included a number of very senior government people.

Cariappa’s statement emphasises the great north Australian dilemma: large areas of arable land, sparsely occupied, and exemplifies in the starkest terms issues of land settlement and development; our proximity to the millions of Southeast Asia; Asian migration to northern Australia; our cultural ties and trade with our northern neighbours; and our continued occupancy and defence in this area. It is significant, in considering Cariappa’s remarks today, that India’s population, without Pakistan and Bangladesh, is increasing each year by the same number as Australia’s present population.

While some of these matters are predominantly of concern for the Federal Government (certainly overseas migration), there are many other issues which a fledgling Northern Territory government must face. These include social and cultural isolation from the rest of Australia; communications; and the 30 per cent of Australia’s tribal Aborigines living within its boundaries, claiming close and significant association with the land which they have traditionally used for thousands of years.
I want to look briefly at some of these matters in their historical context. I believe that those who are now grappling with these issues and guiding the destinies of people in the Northern Territory today must have the twin perspectives of the past and the future if they are to plan wisely in the interests of all Territorians and indeed all Australians.

The country and people

Geographically, we are talking about an area of 1,346,200 square kilometres, representing about one-sixth of this country’s land mass, an area seven times the size of Victoria, ranging over the dry inland areas of central Australia, the extensive Barkly Tableland and Victoria River grass plains with sub-tropical monsoonal influences, and the open savannah forests and plateaux of the tropical coastline areas of the northern region, the Top End.

Manila are closer to Darwin than is Brisbane; Singapore is closer than either Sydney or Melbourne; and the two major centres of the Northern Territory are some 1500 kilometres apart. The tyranny of distance is of real significance to Territorians.

Demographically, we are talking about a population of some 150,000, with people from many different backgrounds: third and even fourth generation Territorians: Chinese; Greeks (Darwin has the largest Greek population of any Australian city outside Melbourne); Italians (the second largest ethnic group after the Chinese to settle here); and some 30,000 Aboriginal people and those of Aboriginal descent.

The bulk of Territorians live in five main towns: Darwin, which carries almost half the population, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Nhulunbuy. The manganese mining project on Groote Eylandt, with the associated township of Alyangula, has about 1500 people, and the recently-established township of Jabiru in the Alligator Rivers uranium province which will provide the residential nucleus for all uranium mining projects in this area, has some 1800 people against a planned future population of around 6000.
Scattered over the Territory, largely living in their own traditional areas, are several hundred communities of tribal Aborigines, ranging from 10 people around Hermannsburg in the southwest to about 1000 at Galiwinku on Elcho Island in the north. There are also small communities associated with some 250 pastoral properties spread over the face of the Territory, with populations ranging from 10 people to several hundreds. Over the five-year Census period to 1981, the Territory’s population increased by 26.8 per cent, the highest growth rate in Australia, about double the national.

Population projections envisage the Territory will grow to about 173,000 by 1990, with Darwin supporting a population of 86,000, Alice Springs 25,000, Katherine 4,700, Nhulunbuy 4,300 and Tennant Creek 3,400. Annual population growth is estimated at around 5 per cent each year.


Constitutionally The Northern Territory government is a creature of the Federal Government, having been created by the passage in the Federal Parliament of the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978. There has been a progressive transfer of state-type powers since then, but there are still some state powers, such as uranium, Aboriginal affairs, industrial relations and national parks, retained by the Federal Parliament, with substantial limitations on the exercise of fully responsible government. For example, the Administrator can still reserve laws passed in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly for the Governor-General’s pleasure, and any Act assented to by the Administrator may be disallowed in whole or in part by the Governor-General, within six months.

Despite these curbs on power, the creation of a Northern Territory government is a significant step along the way to statehood. The Chief Minister has recently said that consultants have been appointed to draft a Northern Territory Constitution, which will include a Bill of Rights, the first Australian state constitution to contain such a provision. As a state, the Territory will be seeking Senate representation on the same basis as.

By any standards, at this period in its eventful yet uncertain history, the Territory is a diverse and challenging region, a land full of possibilities but only recently, due to a form of responsible self-government, with the will and the capacity to realise these possibilities.


The earliest attempts to colonise the northern coastline of Australia were made by the British following a treaty with the Dutch in 1784 which opened up trading in the East Indian Archipelago at a time when British commercial interests were seeking new markets for their manufactured goods, particularly cotton, wool and iron. Successive military and convict settlements were established at Fort Dundas in Apsley Strait in 1824-25, at Raffles Bay in 1827-29 and at Fort Essington (Victoria) in 1839-49.

The settlers left behind, as well as the ruins of their fortifications and buildings, buffalo, Banteng cattle from Indonesia, red deer from India, Timor ponies and feral pigs. Pigs and buffaloes have presented major ecological problems, although attempts have been made at various times to domesticate buffaloes and export them to Southeast Asia, New Guinea and even South America; to harvest them for pet meat or human consumption; or to eradicate them—all without success. Little success has also attended the move to cross Banteng cattle with European, tropical or exotic breeds such as Brahmans, to produce a tick- and heat-resistant animal.

The development of the Northern Territory had to await the land explorers, notably Leichhardt, Gregory, McKinley and Stuart, who gradually pushed their way from south, east and west in search of new grazing lands.

In 1862 Queensland had made a successful bid to have a portion of the Territory annexed to its area. Even Victoria was interested in laying claims. New South Wales was loath to relinquish control of the remaining areas. Suggestions were made for a division of the Territory between South Australia and Queensland on a line through the Tropic of Capricorn. Finally in July 1863, the area was annexed to South Australia. Something would now have to be done to open up these vast central and northern areas by South Australia, the only Australian colony to be established without convict roots.

After four depressing years at Escape Cliffs, the first South Australian settlement, it was abandoned. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to select a more suitable area. It was only in 1869 that the site for a lasting northern capital was finally surveyed, by Goyder, at Port Darwin. Four towns were planned: Palmerston, Virginia, Southport and Daly, with Palmerston as the capital.

Like so many other schemes hatched during the Territory’s early settlement history, reality did not match expectations. Apart from Palmerston, now the city of Darwin, none of these towns was developed during the South Australian and the following Commonwealth period of control. Today on the site of the proposed Daly township, a new Palmerston is being built as a satellite city of Darwin, home for the developing Northern Territory University.

Moving into the future

Let me turn to what else is happening today in the Territory about which so little is known in the ‘Deep South’. I believe these developments are exciting and will have a huge bearing on Australia’s future, particularly our relationships with countries in the Southeast Asian and Western Pacific areas. Not least of these concerns are arrangements for the future economic, social and cultural well-being of the 30 per cent of Australia’s tribal Aborigines living within the Territory’s boundaries.
Despite a few brave (and sometimes foolhardy) attempts up until the late 1930s to advance the Territory economically and constitutionally, it required the Second World War, with the savage bombings of Darwin and surrounding areas as far as Katherine, the stationing of thousands of Australian and Allied soldiers in northern Australia; the almost total destruction of Darwin in 1974 by Cyclone Tracy; the discovery of the Arnhem uranium province; the Aboriginal Land Rights movement and the first tentative steps towards self-government in the late 1960s, to bring the Territory to the attention of Australians as a significant part of Australia and a potential state. Senate representation in 1975 and the transfer of some state-type powers to a fully-elected Legislative Assembly and Executive in July 1978 have provided a clear indication that Federal Governments are now prepared to seriously consider statehood as an achievable goal. The timing of further moves is contentious. The crucial issues are financial arrangements reflecting an equal partnership between the Territory and Federal Governments, and the extent of Senate representation from such a state.

Natural resources

The Chief Minister in an address in Darwin to the Australian Institute of International Affairs, was at some pains to put his government’s views on two issues. He said: ‘We must completely dispel any remaining illusions that the Territory is a mendicant because that would presuppose a relationship completely out of tune with our expectations for the future.’ He also said: ‘It is clear that the Commonwealth stands to gain considerably from development projects in the Territory, particularly from those associated with natural resources.’

Political cynics might well ask: ‘On what basis does the Chief Minister rest his case that the Territory is not a mendicant state?’

In the past, with its economy based almost completely on the cattle industry, subject to all the vagaries of drought, disease, variation in, and lack of markets, the cynics would not be answered. The occasional discovery and mining of gold, copper, iron, wolfram, silver-lead, zinc, mica and tin have from time to time raised hopes that the Territory could become economically viable.

Manufacturing industry, because of power costs and distances from supplies and markets, has not yet contributed strongly to development.

But over the last ten years the scene has rapidly changed. We now know how rich the Territory is in natural resources. Forecasts from the early 1950s about the potential of uranium have proved correct. We have up to 20 per cent of the world’s recoverable reserves of uranium, equivalent in energy terms to the oil reserves of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Jabiluka which, with Nabarlek, Ranger and Koongarra, comprise the Adelaide Rivers uranium province, is the biggest single cache of uranium in the world. Strong representations have been made to the Federal Government that Darwin is the logical centre for Australia’s first uranium enrichment plant. If these representations are successful, they could well lead to the significant processing of minerals in this area.

At Groote Eylandt we have one of the world’s largest high-grade manganese deposits, presently supplying 10 per cent of the world’s market. High-grade bauxite is mined at Gove at a plant which, initially in 1970, cost $310 million to build and which now produces one-sixth of Australia’s total output. The reserves of some 220 million tonnes, with 50 per cent alumina content, have an estimated life of 80 years. Warrego Mine at Tennant Creek, which produces both copper and gold, is among the top gold producers in Australia.

The total value of all mineral production in the Northern Territory in 1980 was $437 million. By the end of the 1980s, it is expected that the total value could be in excess of $1100 million.

As for oil and gas, the Mereenie field is estimated to contain recoverable reserves of 65 million barrels of oil and 23,000 cubic metres of gas. At Palm Valley, one gas field has proven resources of 1.4 million cubic metres. Following satisfactory arrangements with local Aboriginal owners, whose land will be crossed, a pipe-line is now being constructed to bring gas to Alice Springs for power generation and possibly link up with the Eastern states pipe-line and a northern one.

Drilling to the value of some $95 million is now taking place offshore at Bonaparte Gulf and the Cartier and Ashmore Islands, where there are known gas reserves. Further boring is also proceeding in the Amadeus Basin and exploration is continuing in the Simpson Desert.

Deposits of silver, lead and zinc, first discovered at the McArthur River in 1888, are now proven as one of the world’s largest fields, but are still being subjected to metallurgical testing. Development of this field could see the establishment of both a large mining town and a port at the mouth of the river, with associated abattoirs and fish-processing facilities.

There are plans for a $60 million oil pipe-line from the Mereenie field to Alice Springs, where a refinery will be built processing 4-5000 barrels a day and supplying the Territory’s needs as far north as Katherine. A site for the refinery has already been located south of Alice Springs and a start could be made on the pipe-line by 1984.


Tourism, earning some $98 million a year, has almost edged out cattle production, at $94 million, as the Territory’s second most valuable industry. This has occurred despite the building of additional export abattoirs at Tennant Creek and Point Stuart to support those at Darwin and Alice Springs, and the export of live cattle to Southeast Asia. If, however, buffalo production at $6 million is included, total animal production just tops tourism.

Further impetus is being given to tourism by the building of two casinos and the joint government/private enterprise village of Yulara, at Ayers Rock, at a cost exceeding $100 million. The village will provide overnight accommodation at various levels for some 6000 visitors, and is bound to attract more to add to the 370,000 already coming each year to the Territory.

Housing and stability

The Territory has allocated 22 per cent of its total budget of $730.5 million to housing, since it is clear that if it is to progress, it must work towards a more stable population. The Territory offers the most generous home loan scheme in Australia. For the first time in its history, private sub-dividers have entered land development.

Planned investment of some $4000 million from both government and private sources will continue to bring people to the north. Thousands of new jobs are being created. Included in this expenditure are the upgrading of national highways to all-weather standards, with substantial bridges; the sealing of large sections of the remaining 16, 000 kilometres of connector roads; the construction of the railway line from Alice Springs to Darwin; the upgrading of the Darwin wharf and port facilities to enable the most modern vessels to be handled; the building of a new coal-fired power-house for Darwin; and the rebuilding of the Darwin civil airport. Defence expenditure will contribute to the completion of a naval repair base and the upgrading of the Darwin RAAF base facilities.

Part of the Harbour development involves a small ships facility including an 100-metre wharf, and a privately-constructed 400-tonne syncrolift with supporting repair facilities and ship lay-up area. Servicing of the increasing number of fishing vessels using Territory waters, as joint ventures are developed with overseas fishing groups in the 200-nautical mile economic zone, will be more effective, with vessels spared the long haul to either Fremantle or Cairns.

‘Man does not live by bread alone’

Territory lifestyles now involve some of those social, educational and cultural pursuits which earlier were only available to those living in the ‘Deep South’. We don’t have an opera house, but there will soon be a Performing Arts Centre in Darwin in which the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra can perform, and the Araluen Cultural Centre in Alice Springs will provide many of the same facilities. A Museum and Art Gallery complex has just been completed in Darwin on a commanding waterside site overlooking the Arafura Sea, to house some outstanding and unique collections including Aboriginal material from both northern and central Australia collected over many years. The Aboriginal Cultural Foundation, established in 1968, as well as contributing to the Territory’s cultural understanding of Aboriginal people, has taken performances of Aboriginal dance, as well as art, to most of the major centres in Australia and to a number of overseas countries including Japan, the United States and Nigeria.

Educating for the future

The Darwin Community College, a multi-level, multi-purpose tertiary institution unique in Australia opened in 1973. It offers degree courses in the arts, education and business, and graduate diplomas in areas such as education, as well as a wide range of diplomas and associate diplomas in other disciplines. In 1981, 85 award courses were offered to more than 7000 students. The Alice Springs Community College is now a separate TAFE college under the auspices of the Northern Territory Department of Education.

A University Planning Authority, with a Planning Vice-Chancellor, was created in June 1980 by Territory legislation. A detailed, but unsuccessful proposal for the establishment of a university was submitted to the Tertiary Education Commission. The Planning Authority is now considering the establishment of research schools, the first of which would be in the field of health.

The Territory has come a long way from 1965, when the first full matriculation class was formed at Darwin High School. Modern high schools are now provided in all the major centres.

An Aboriginal teacher-training program is offered at Batchelor College, set up as an annex of Kormilda College in the mid-1960s. Kormilda is Darwin’s residential Aboriginal college and Yirara College in Alice Springs provides post-primary and some secondary education for Aboriginal children for whom no facilities exist in their own communities.
Training in pursuits associated with the agricultural and pastoral industries is being developed at the Katherine Rural Education Centre.

Aboriginal advancement

It is generally accepted that Aborigines came to Australia in successive waves between 20-40,000 years ago across a land bridge to the north. In colour, language and ceremony, they showed considerable variation between tribal groups. For example, in the Territory there are, among the 100 or so tribal groups, black-skinned and dark-haired people in the northern areas and brown-skinned, fair-haired people in central Australia. The anthropologist Strehlow observed that ‘they speak mutually incomprehensible languages and differ considerably in customs and beliefs.’

Various estimates have been made of the numbers of Aborigines in Australia at the time of first European settlement. Anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown suggested around 300,000. He offers a Territory figure of 35,000.

Early attempts were made in each of the Australian colonies to undertake a Census of their populations, but no real attempt was made to include Aborigines in Commonwealth Census figures until 1967. This comment from 1881 Queensland Census records notes some of the reasons: ‘Perhaps but little practical benefit would result from ascertaining in any year the number of these unfortunates, who seem destined to die out before settlement; though, if only as a means of delaying for a little time the extinction of the race, or as a question of mere humanity, it seems desirable to know in what proportion they are melting away before the onward march of civilization.’

How our views have changed! Such beliefs about the future of Aboriginal people, as expressed in that statement, were held well into the 1930s, as exemplified by journalist Daisy Bates’ observation about ‘smoothing the pillow of a dying race’ in her 1938 book, The Passing of the Aborigines.

To assist people it is necessary to know who they are and where they are. The first attempt in any Australian state or territory to undertake a comprehensive Census, enumeration by name of Aborigines, was made as part of the new post-war programs for Aborigines, commencing in 1955. The Territory legislation of the day, the Wards Welfare Ordinance 1953, was part of the Commonwealth Government’s policy for the preservation and advancement of Aboriginal people, and included provisions for everyone, irrespective of racial origin, to be declared wards, if they fulfilled certain criteria in regard to their way of life and standard of living.

This legislation had a stormy passage through the Northern Territory Legislative Council. It was amended to provide that only Aborigines, or those of Aboriginal descent living after the manner of Aboriginal people, could be declared wards. It’s no wonder that these provisions and the philosophy behind them have provided a fertile field for academics to work over.

The Census project, the task of listing by name every Aborigine in the Northern Territory who was considered to need special assistance, was a massive one. Some 17,000 Aborigines were finally recorded by name, age, family relationships, location and tribal group.
From that time, also here in the Territory, the first real attempts were made to record the births and deaths of all Aborigines. Then it was possible to make some assessment of infant mortality, and to provide the basis for the payment of child endowment and aged and invalid pensions. Demographic trends were being examined among Aboriginal people to enable future planning for education and health services to be effectively undertaken.

It was during this post-war period that the trend forecast by those who thought like Daisy Bates was reversed. There was a steady increase in the numbers of full-blood Aborigines in the Territory. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the Aboriginal population increased at a rate of 18 per 1000, against the non-Aboriginal population natural increase of 10.3 per 1000. In the latter part of this time, the Aboriginal birth-rate was 44 per 1000, against the non-Aboriginal rate of 19 per 1000. If infant mortality rates fluctuated wildly, and were much higher among Aboriginal babies than others, by the early 1970s the trend was reducing.

Living as full citizens

There was gradual easing of restrictions on Aboriginal people in their rights to full Australian citizenship. In August 1959 they became entitled to receive the same social security benefits as other Australians. At the same time special provision was made for their education, health and housing.

In 1962, all Aboriginal people were able to enrol to vote in Territory and Federal Elections. In 1964, restrictions on access to liquor were lifted. From December 1968, award wages were introduced for Aborigines working in the pastoral industry.

The rise of the activists

These positive but unspectacular moves were overshadowed by the accelerating campaign for Aboriginal land rights. They exploded out of negotiations for the mining of bauxite on the Gove Peninsula, part of the Arnhem Land reserve.

It’s worth briefly outlining the history of Aboriginal reserves. The first missions to Aboriginal people were established by Lutherans at Hermannsburg in 1877, then at Rapid Creek and the Daly River by Jesuits in 1882. The first government Aboriginal reserves were not established until 1892.

Over the years to 1972, one-fifth of the Northern Territory was set aside for reserves for the use and benefit of Aboriginal people. In the early 1950s, Paul Hasluck, the first Minister for Territories in the Menzies Government, recognised that Aborigines should be given special payments covering mining and other development of resources on reserves. As a result, half the royalties from mining on reserves were to be paid into a trust fund solely for the use and benefit of Aboriginal people.

In the mid-1960s, various Aboriginal rights organisations, some church and political groups and numerous academics began to campaign for Aboriginal land rights. These moves culminated in the introduction by the Whitlam Government and passing by the Fraser Government of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

This declared all Aboriginal reserves to be Aboriginal land under inalienable freehold title vested in Aboriginal trusts. All Crown land not set aside for a public purpose, for which Aborigines could justify a claim on traditional grounds, could also become Aboriginal land.

This means that 25.3 per cent of the Territory is now Aboriginal land, with a further 18.35 under claim. More than two-thirds of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, some 20,000 live on land to which they hold inalienable title or is under claim.
No mining can take place on Aboriginal land without the consent of the owners. Permits are required for all other people to enter Aboriginal land.

Further claims

Representations have been made in recent months by various Aboriginal groups and some academics that a treaty should be signed to officially recognise Aborigines’ rights in Australia. It has been suggested by the National Aboriginal Conference, made up of elected representatives from communities throughout Australia, that treaty provisions should include, in part, payment of 5 per cent of Australia’s GNP for 195 years; operation of tax-free businesses for the same period; hunting and fishing rights on all Commonwealth lands and waterways; transfer of all vacant Crown land to Aboriginal communities; Aboriginal control of air space to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere; and acquisition by Aborigines of mineral rights on all Aboriginal land.

The outcome of such representations would have considerable bearing on the future of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Different issues

Other issues are also receiving a good deal of public attention. Full recognition of tribal marriages and the application of customary law in Aboriginal communities are exercising the minds of groups such as the Law Reform Commission.

Into the multicultural future

Also under wide discussion is the Federal Government’s migration policy and program in the context of Australia’s multiculturalism. Of particular relevance to the Territory are bilingual education programs in Aboriginal schools; the teaching of ethnic languages in all schools; and the use of languages other than English in commerce and industry, on television and radio programs, and in wider communications.

These are all important issues as Australia moves into the 21st century and people of many origins look to find their place in the mainstream of a rapidly-changing Australian society.

In the Territory, the possibilities forecast by early Territorians are no longer dreams. They are reality.
An outstanding pioneer woman, the Territory’s only woman newspaper editor, as well as a poet and writer, should have the last word. Fifty years ago, Jessie Litchfield observed that those tested by the Territory who keep faith may see a vision of what could be: ‘In the future, we shall see the Northern Territory as the glory of the Commonwealth, the gateway of the north, the great front door of Australia.’

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Harry Giese