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We need an inquiry into the whole Northern Territory


Anyone who doubts that the Northern Territory is different should look at the number of police per 100,000 residents. The Territory has 700. The next highest state, South Australia, has 312. The rest of the nation makes do with 267.

The Territory has 10 judicial officers per 100,000 residents. The rest of us have four.

Dylan Voller in a restraining chair in the footage aired on Four Corners.
Dylan Voller in a restraining chair in the footage aired on Four Corners.  Photo: ABC Four Corners

In graph after graph, statistic after statistic, the Territory sticks out. It spends $1150 per head on police and courts, more than twice the $430 the rest of the nation spends. And it doesn’t spend it to the satisfaction of its residents. Territorians are far less satisfied with their police than the rest of us. They are also the most likely to believe they don’t “perform their job professionally” and don’t “treat people fairly and equally”.

And the Territory’s super-expensive rehabilitation system is extraordinarily bad at rehabilitating. Sixty per cent of the prisoners released from the Territory’s jails are back within two years, compared to half in the rest of Australia. The latest Productivity Commission report shows that one-third of the Territorians who’ve completed community service orders are back on new ones within two years, compared to one-fifth in the rest of the nation.

The commission is incredibly careful not to draw conclusions from the data it lays out each January in its report on government services. It needs the cooperation of the states in order to get the otherwise unpublished information.

If it was less guarded, it would probably say the jailers in Territory are particularly unproductive. There’s one for each nine prisoners, compared to one for each 16 elsewhere. Yet for the most part they simply keep their prisoners locked in cells, for an average for 17 hours each day, compared to 10 hours in the rest of the country. And they are far less concerned about improving prisoner’s lives. Only 14 per cent of Territory prisoners attend training courses, compared to 32 per cent in the rest of the nation.

If the jailers live a featherbedded life compared to the largely Indigenous population they are responsible for, it’s symptomatic of the Territory as a whole. It employs 12 per cent of its population as public servants, compared to 7 per cent in other states. And it pays them better, an average of $83,000 compared to $75,000 per annum, according to my calculations. It is able to do it because it gets five times its per capita share of the GST distribution. The next most looked after state, Tasmania, gets only 1.8 times what it puts in.

Tragically, the Territory gets the largesse because the formula awards it extra points for Aboriginal disadvantage. But there’s no requirement under the Grants Commission rules for it to actually spend that money on Indigenous disadvantage, meaning there’s a financial incentive for it not to.

As Australia’s foremost expert on state taxation, Neil Warren, puts it, “the Northern Territory likes to have a disadvantaged population – it has no interest in removing disadvantage”.

The Prime Minister is right to limit his royal commission into the shocking treatment of youth in detention to the Northern Territory. It’ll enable it to zero in on the problem and provide lessons for the rest of Australia.

But his next step should be a proper inquiry into the Grants Commission formula and to the Northern Territory itself.

If it was a state, it’d be a failed state, propped up by creaming off aid intended for its most disadvantaged citizens. It’s nearer to us than the other failed states. We are able to fix it.



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