When Clare Martin took her team to victory in the NT elections a year ago, it shook many perceptions of life and politics, Territory-style. As the Chief Minister tells John Arbouw, the Territory is now a new frontier not the last frontier.
Politics like almost every aspect of Territory life has its own rules and dynamics. It was thought that political demarcation lines were drawn in concrete, with the Country-Liberal Party would remaining in power forever. But under the tropical sun of the Territory nothing lasts forever. When Clare Martin and her Labour team swept into power almost a year ago, local politics underwent a seachange sending a message that the aspirations of the Territory had changed. It is this dynamic that Chief Minister is using to build what she and her team call a better Territory. Not surprisingly, inclusiveness and consultation have become buzz words because as she says "we live in a community, not just an economy". For the moment, however, it is the economy that is at the top of her mind. The Territory had to wait almost 30 years for the rail link from Adelaide to complete its journey to Darwin and the last thing Territorians want is another drawn out process in building a pipeline to bring substantial gas supplies from the Timor Sea to Darwin.
One reason the rail link took so long to build was that the Federal Government wasn't prepared to fully fund it – and South Australia and the Territory lacked the necessary financial resources. The economics of the rail link also looked shaky to a number of private consortia that expressed interest over the years. The final result is that the three governments have kicked in equal amounts of money to the private consortium building and running the $1.3 billion rail link. The gas pipeline from the Timor Sea faces a similar dilemma. On one side are the operators Shell, Woodside and Phillips who know that a floating LNG plant is a viable option and that it can export directly to US and Asian markets. On the other side is Martin and her Team NT trying to convince the operators to use Darwin and convince industrial customers beyond the Territory borders that it is in their interest to sign up for NT gas. The Federal Government is sitting on its hands in the matter. It is why Martin has regular contact with her Labor colleagues in the Southern and Eastern States drumming up gas customers. "The $6 billion Bayu-Undan project is just awaiting treaty ratification and in terms of the Territory this is a significant project," she says. "There is a tight time frame and people both in Canberra and in East Timor are focused in producing an outcome.
"The Sunrise project is also under a tight schedule and the operators are certainly reviewing their domestic gas option. We are busy now trying to help Shell and Woodside identify gas customers around the country. "The gas pipeline industry believes that the economics are there to build a pipeline from Darwin to connect into the national grid. Peter Beattie is very keen to get Timor gas into Queensland and Mike Rann in South Australia would like to see gas supplies go into Moomba." Unfortunately, in the great State incentive hand-out game to encourage industries or companies to locate in particular areas, the Territory has limited cards that it can play. "Our capacity to facilitate this is restricted to supply of infrastructure," Martin says. "The Federal Government through Invest Australia encourages companies to locate here and we are working closely with them." The issue for Martin and her colleagues to is to look for ways to diversify and grow the economy. At the moment, 82 percent of NT revenue comes from Canberra – a restraining factor.
"The ability to decide its own fate is not the only problem for the Territory," says Martin. "Population or lack of it is also an issue. We are constrained by the high cost of power to attract new industries." This month Martin celebrates her first year in the job. When she took over, the budget was in deficit and creative accounting had hidden many problems. Her Government is now moving to accrual accounting. But it isn't only a steady hand on the economic tiller. There is also politics. "One of the things that I have noticed over the past year is that there has been a re-assessment of the Territory that I find curious in many ways," she says. "There was a perception that the Territory was a man's last frontier. But as people come here and see a woman in a suit in charge, they wonder how on earth this happened in man's own territory. "I mean people still come to Darwin and are amazed we live in houses and that we have restaurants and that you can get good coffee. Crocodile Dundee was all very well but it is an outdated image.
"Certainly in the past year myself and my ministers have had an amazing learning curve and we couldn't have done without the tremendous support from the public sector. We have also had good support from business despite the tough times. "We are also getting some genuine co-operation from the indigenous community on where we want to go and how to achieve this by setting up processes that produce outcomes." But a new-look Territory also harbours an old dream. Canberra by its very location is inevitably a public service town but it is also has a thriving business community. Darwin is desperate to throw off the tag as a tropical playground for public servants and stand on its own as a state. Every chief minister has nurtured that dream but it took the ham-fisted mismanagement of Shane Stone's CLP government to cruel these ambitions when the Territory voted against statehood because of suspicion of the politicians promoting the cause. The realisation of the state of the Northern Territory is also an ambition of Clare Martin and her colleagues. "However. I don't thing people are quite ready yet," she says. They haven't forgiven the last government's attempt to push statehood through and they certainly haven't forgiven politicians.
"It would be appalling to have another vote and lose. One of the key failures of the process last time was the alienation of the indigenous community. We are hoping some of the work we are doing now will build up greater levels of trust." A year is a long time in politics. Even her political opponents admit that the Martin Government has performed very well despite the inevitable learning curve. But hard work and consensus politics can do only so much. All governments need a touch of luck. The railway is a certainty. The diversification of its economy is already occurring in terms of using its tropical location to develop niche businesses. The climate surrounding native title claims has become easier and exploration and resource development will benefit. The missing link is a pipeline from the Timor gas fields. This will forever change the Territory from the last frontier to an economically viable state of Australia.
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