Capricornia. Territoria. Darwinia.
Whatever its name, Australia’s newest state may be destined to unleash even more wackiness upon our political scene.
On Thursday, a meeting of federal and state leaders officially backed the Northern Territory’s bid to attain statehood by mid-2018.
Chief Minister Adam Giles said he was “very pleased” for his homeland to be promoted from “second-tier status” to the nation’s seventh state. His Liberal colleagues in Canberra were more cautious.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quick to discourage political expansion.
“What we certainly don’t want is to see a whole lot more politicians, but if it’s going to help the Territory for it to move status like this, well, let’s work towards it and try to make it happen,” he told reporters.
Treasurer Joe Hockey was straight-up sceptical, saying: “Haven’t we heard all this before?”
(We have indeed. The NT narrowly voted down the proposal 51.9 to 48.1 per cent in 1998.)
Their wariness is easily explained by the federal nightmare the NT’s statehood could trigger.
A northern state could gain up to 10 extra federal senators, up from its current two, potentially ushering in even more “mavericks” into the upper house.
“You’d have a chance of more mavericks, of course, because that’s the nature of the Northern Territory – you get more of them,” The University of Adelaide political expert Dr Jenny Stock said.
“The major parties might, in fact, find it harder to get their normal five [senators in each state].
“I really can’t see what’s in it for the major parties.”
Constitutional law expert Professor John Williams said the possibility of extra senators is the “critical question”, speculating that the NT might be given an extra two, bringing its total to four.
“The Commonwealth can establish how many senators they get, and given that the original states have 12 and the territories currently have two, it’s got to be a number between those two,” The University of Adelaide Dean of Law said.
Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion said gaining more senators was “really not part of the debate”, though he did not rule out the eventuality if it had popular support.
“I don’t think Territorians want anymore politicians,” the NT Senator told Sky News on Thursday. “We simply want the same rights as a state as everyone else.”
University of Queensland political scientist Professor Clive Bean agreed that extra senators could be catastrophic for future governments.
“It would probably make it harder again for major parties who hold the numbers in the House of Representatives to ever attain a majority in the Senate,” Professor Bean told The New Daily.
Denying the North equal representation in the Senate would be “difficult,” he said.
“It’s difficult to see that being a viable thing to do and still say this is another state with full equality,” Professor Bean said.
It is noteworthy that Tasmania, the smallest state, has the full 12 senators, despite being a fraction of the size of New South Wales.
While it is likely the NT will hold another referendum, there is no legal requirement for it to do so. The federal parliament can simply vote to give it statehood.
Aside from possibly more politicians, a northern state would gain legislative independence. Currently, Canberra can override its laws whenever it wishes.
“It leaves the Northern Territory in a vulnerable position as compared to the states and subject to a much greater potential for federal interference,” University of New South Wales constitutional law expert Professor George Williams said.
The big question is not seats but whether the NT leaders will be able to carry the debate successfully, Professor Williams said.
“That does seem a real ask at the moment,” he said.
“This will be a major test to see whether they can hold a debate given they’ve obviously got their own problems there of a different kind.”