The Story of Self Governance
Self-Government - Why it Matters
On 1 July 1978, around 6000 Territorians gathered at Darwin’s Cenotaph to be part of something special.
Self-Government was finally here, a new era, bringing with it a sense of relief and excitement that the Northern Territory could now stand on its own two feet, no longer dictated to by the Commonwealth Government.
The day began with the swearing in of the inaugural NT Government ministry, before public celebrations kicked off with a guard of honour and the first official flag-raising.
Flight Sergeant Gordon Mcloughlin had the prestigious job of flying the new flag before the massive crowd.
“It was a fairly proud moment but a little nerve-wracking,” says Mr Mcloughlin, “But the most nerve-wracking part of the whole thing was when the crowd of children charged towards us in excitement, running to see the gun salute from the HMAS Derwent.”
The Royal Australian Navy ship was anchored offshore to pay tribute to the flag-raising ceremony, while RAAF aircraft, a stunt flyer and parachutists provided aerial entertainment.
Inspiring words marked the celebrations, including a message from the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser:
Today’s historic occasion symbolises the strength and the spirit of men and women of the Territory, a spirit that has endured suffering, withstood hardships and overcome many times of adversity
The NT News reported that the first Chief Minister Paul Everingham “…brought the most enthusiastic response from the crowd with an occasionally fiery and inspiring speech”: ‘How far would we have got with Self-Government if we had heeded the voices of caution and fear?’ he asked.”
Today, Mr Everingham reflects on the day with a sense of achievement. “We were all very chuffed, we were elated that we finally had got there and although the challenges were very big, at the time, we thought we were up to meeting them.”
The Territory’s aspirations for Self-Government stemmed back to the very early days.
At the time of Federation in 1901 the NT was part of South Australia before it was surrendered to the Commonwealth.
In 1947, some progress was made when the Territory was allowed to make its own legislature.
But it wasn’t until 1974 that real change was in the air, with Gough Whitlam telling Australians that the Northern Territory would soon be granted Self-Government and a Legislative Assembly was formed with 19 members.
“Even though Self-Government was announced in 1974, it took another four years to prise the federal public servants’ hands off the steering wheel,” says Mr Everingham.
When Self-Government became a reality in 1978, the Northern Territory became responsible for most state-like functions.
The only exceptions related to Aboriginal land, uranium mining, national parks and some industrial relations matters.
One of the first Government Ministers, Roger Steele, recalls visiting some elated public servants at the time.
“I went into the offices to shake the hands of public servants with Paul Everingham, and one of them said to me he was so delighted he didn’t want to wash his hands,” says Roger. “I think people were so happy about Self-Government and no longer being chained to Canberra. People were sick of it.”
Mr Steele says Self-Government captured the imagination of Territorians: “There was a euphoric sort of environment at the time.”
Significantly, Territorians could purchase their own freehold land for the first time
Long-term Territorian and businessman Gary Coleman says this was one of the most significant advantages of the NT having its own government.
“I think that had an immediate impact on people’s perception of longevity in Darwin,” says Mr Coleman. “Before Self-Government, you could never really say the land was yours as government could acquire it with the strike of a pen.”
And with freehold land came the opportunity to build institutions and facilities the rest of Australia had long enjoyed, such as a university, casinos and accommodation.
Mr Coleman says Chief Minister Everingham’s deal with the Sheraton group to manage five star hotels in Yulara, Alice Springs and Darwin made the NT an attractive place to visit and do business.
“It significantly opened up tourism in Central Australia, and to get the five star hotel in Darwin just sealed the deal.”
It was now full steam ahead for the Territory, no longer waiting on approvals from Canberra.
“Once we got Self-Government we could try and encourage people to stay in the NT and to have facilities for normal living,” adds former Chief Minister Paul Everingham.
Long-term Territorian and women’s advocate Wendy James says Self-Government was a positive step in the ultimate quest for statehood.
“Self-Government was an automatic move, but I don’t think any one of us believed it could ever happen,” says Mrs James.
“There was a great sigh of relief in the community that we actually had the privilege of running our own government.”