Northern Australia refresh: to make progress, we need to fix governance structures

We were on the right track in 2015 to make the most of northern Australia. A white paper in that year laid out a development vision for 2035 and called for changes in governance arrangements to capitalise on the region’s vast potential.

But three major governance changes that accompanied the white paper have been weakened or reversed. What’s left lacks the mandate and the teeth to drive significant change.

The current government wants to reinvigorate the effort to develop northern Australia, but it isn’t likely to make much progress unless it fixes governance structures. Indeed, we need to go further than the policies of 2015 did: we should look at strengthening the Northern Territory’s political representation.

In connection with the 2015 white paper, the Office of Northern Australia (ONA) was relocated to the north, reporting directly to the deputy prime minister, to coordinate the implementation of the white paper. The aim was to facilitate business, reduce regulatory burdens and leverage private investment to improve governance.

The Northern Australia Strategic Partnership (NASP) was established on 1 June 2015 as an inter-jurisdictional body. The body comprised the prime minister, the premiers of Queensland and Western Australia and the chief minister of the Northern Territory. NASP was responsible for providing high-level leadership on the development of northern Australia, ensuring accountability and commitment to that vision.

And a Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia was established in September 2016 to inquire into and report on matters relating to the development of the north referred to it by either house of the parliament or a minister.

Unfortunately, current arrangements differ significantly from that original concept.

The ONA now sits within the monolithic Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts, reporting to a minister for northern Australia.

NASP was replaced in 2022, with the re-establishment of other mechanisms, including the Northern Australia Indigenous Reference Group and the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum (NAMF). The NAMF comprises jurisdictional ministers with overlapping portfolios rather than the originally intended first ministers.

The joint standing committee was dissolved by the then government on 11 April 2022, replaced by a Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia. That committee’s focus on specific, often time-bound issues further diminishes the power of the governance arrangements.

The watering down of the governance arrangements has occurred at the same time as northern Australia’s importance on the global stage has continued to increase. Geopolitically, the region is a front line in the Indo-Pacific—a theatre of growing strategic competition. The stability and development of northern Australia are crucial for national security and for maintaining influence in this contested region, both for Australia and for our partners.

Further, the fragility of global supply chains, exacerbated by recent geopolitical tensions and the Covid-19 pandemic, underscores the need for a resilient and self-sufficient northern Australia. The region’s rich resources, from rare-earth minerals essential for modern technologies to vast agricultural potential, are vital both for domestic supply and for export markets. Effective governance can harness those resources, driving economic growth and enhancing Australia’s strategic autonomy and sovereign capability.

The Albanese government reaffirmed its commitment to the northern Australia agenda, allocating $1.7 million in 2023–24 to update the 2015 white paper to identify opportunities to address new and emerging geographic and economic challenges in the region. The refresh promises to enhance economic development, support Indigenous-led initiatives and address environmental sustainability.

Unless the refresh addresses the fundamental challenges in the governance structures, implements the policy mandate and uses the levers needed to effect real change, the refresh will deliver more of the same. Currently, the most influential people with their hands on the levers are not in northern Australia.

Northern Australia’s representation in the federal parliament is disproportionately low compared with its landmass and economic importance. With only eight members in the House of Representatives and limited Senate representation, the region lacks the political clout to drive substantial policy changes. In contrast, Tasmania, with a much smaller landmass, has five House of Representatives members and 12 senators.

That imbalance limits the region’s ability to advocate effectively for its needs and priorities at the national level. To address these challenges, a more robust governance structure is needed.

Consideration should be given to reinstating the NASP or a similar model with the involvement of the prime minister, deputy prime minister and first ministers of northern jurisdictions to ensure high-level commitment and accountability. That level of accountability would reflect the strategic importance of the region from the perspective of our international partners and support the achievement of the aspirations of government, business, industry and the local communities by ensuring that decisions are in the hands of those with the powers to enact them.

If Australia aims to genuinely deliver on the northern Australia agenda, it is crucial to ensure leadership at the highest level. For the northern Australia agenda, consideration should be given to re-establishing a joint standing committee with a broader and long-term mandate. As part of the governance structure, this would help to ensure sustained focus and continuous oversight on the development and strategic priorities of northern Australia.

If we’re serious about effecting change in northern Australia, we need to explore mechanisms for increasing the political representation of the region to better reflect its significance and ensure that its voice is heard in national decision-making. One mechanism worth considering is the elevation of the Northern Territory to statehood.

Statehood would grant the Northern Territory equal representation in the Senate with 12 senators and secure a minimum of five House of Representatives seats. Increased representation would strengthen the territory’s (and by virtue of this, northern Australia’s) hand in national policy decisions. Through increased legislative power and autonomy, it also has the potential to enhance economic stability in the long term.

A less powerful option would be to implement the recommendation of the inquiry into the 2022 federal election by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which recommended that the representation of the territories in the Senate be increased from two to four senators each.

A noteworthy side benefit of increased federal representation would be more equitable and inclusive governance thanks to acknowledging the unique demographic, cultural and land interests of the region. This could pave the way for greater First Nations representation, ensuring their voices are authentically represented in the federal parliament. Strong First Nations political leaders across northern Australia highlight the transformative potential of such changes, providing opportunities for better integration and more inclusive governance.

Northern Australia stands at a crossroads, with the potential to significantly contribute to Australia’s economic prosperity and the broader strategic security of the region. However, realising that potential requires a governance model that is visionary, inclusive and equipped with the necessary authority to drive change.

By implementing stronger governance arrangements and elevating the region’s political representation, Australia can ensure that the north fulfils its promise as a vital and dynamic part of the nation’s future. It’s time to move beyond aspirational statements and take concrete steps to enact the leadership and governance needed to transform the vision into reality.