What Does Cracker Night Mean to You?

It is time to lift and set a new course informed by where we have been. Sure these are tough times but why can’t we come together around a renewed vision? Together we can engineer a new future with the combined efforts of the talent and tenacity of everyday Territorians who have chosen to all this place home.

A fiery family fun night and a celebration of Territory freedom or a night to be endured that we could do without?

I am not setting out to answer this question but observe the increased polarisation within the community on this issue and intend drawing attention back to the essence of this important day. What is it really all about?

I am well aware that any politician who even dares to suggest banning fireworks risks a Sir William Wallace or Darryl Kerrigan style assault against anyone would dares to threaten Territory ‘freedom’.

It is unfortunate that the public debate has become more about fireworks than anything else.

But what are we celebrating?

I guess few make the link to the long campaign to gain self governance that ended on July 1 1978 as they light the wick on a bumble bee or a screaming demon?

But even a brief read of the history of the decades long fight to wrest control from Canberra that is reason for Territory Day makes one feel proud.

Imagine the moment when Canberra formally transferred the right to Territorians to govern themselves.

On that day a large crowd gathered on the Esplanade to witness the first NT Government ministry being sworn in and celebrate a landmark milestone on the journey to Statehood.

As a new minister described it when asked on the day: ‘people were so happy about self-government and no longer being chained to Canberra. People were sick of it’.

For the record in 1980 when other States and Territories moved to ban their respective ‘cracker nights’ or Guy Fawkes that were traditionally held in November the new NT government chose to retain ‘cracker’ night and move it to July the first to celebrate Self Government Day.

It is time to ignite the spark of a new vision that harkens back to those foundations and sees the NT as the nation’s leader in Northern Development unique in its purpose working as equal partners with Aboriginal traditional owners and building ever closer ties with our northern neighbours.

A vision where at the grassroots the community is entrusted to seek solutions to complex social problems rather than burning millions on Royal Commissions and countless reviews, studies and inquiries.

Surely the time is right to chart a new course that is informed by where we have been but then confidently designs and engineers a new future based on the rich wealth of talent and tenacity we have right here.

We have people with a heart and soul for our unique place in this nation willing and capable of continuing the fight to wrest control from experts and design our own path.

Capturing this vision and working together is the key.

Now that would be something to celebrate!

Where to Now NTN?

‘As in nature politics abhors a vacuum’.
                                        Mark McKinnon

The NT News pre-election editorial described the past three years as the ‘federal coalition being at war with the Territory Labor Government’.   Believing Labor would win they urged Territorians to support Shorten to end the ‘war’.
That was a big mistake.
The election of Labor federally at best could only mask the governance problem at home; not fix it.

They said the ‘war’ was caused by the coalition mainly for political reasons.  But there is a more logical and less cynical explanation.

If Scullion and the Coalition are critical of Territory Labor it is more likely because it is warranted. The lack of scrutiny at home is the cause much more than any attempt to score a political point.

The Territory Government is not being adequately tested and without competition they can never be better.

A ‘friendly’ Labor government in Canberra would only reduce the amount of rigour and scrutiny needed at a time when it is needed most.

Territory Labor is performing very badly.

Truth is they can only blame themselves for that but still insist in attempting to blame the former government or the Federal Government for problems they have primary responsibility to deal with.

Now they have no option but to stand up and govern as they should.

It is noted that the editorial would not spare ongoing scrutiny of Territory Labor, that is good because it is needed as is a mature assessment of Coalition shortcomings.

But at home Territory Labor still gives the distinct impression they have failed to grasp the seriousness of our economic situation and the compounding social decline. Territorians are becoming increasingly worried about our future.

This is not political it is real and very serious.

Yes, the Coalition’s view that Territory Labor are the worse economic managers in the country may be harsh; but it is true.

The problem is the lack of robust scrutiny. Never forget Territory Labor Government’s cynical attempt to reduce scrutiny to almost zero by generously and swiftly resourcing a two-member opposition then offering crumbs to the five independents points to this being more about political self-interest than strengthening democracy.

To cynically and deliberately attempt to inoculate themselves from harsh criticism is a foolish and naïve tactic to secure victory at next year’s election.

This has never been about resourcing but governance.

They have openly attempted to sacrifice democracy to political expediency. What is compromised to keep makes an electoral loss next year much more likely because people expect more from government.   A change of government is almost certain If a robust alternative articulating the concerns of the ‘quiet Territorians’ is formed.

Because of the lack of a strong opposition at home is a better explanation for why Scullion and the Coalition came in to fill this vacuum.

So where to now NT News?

After Saturday’s election ‘miracle’ it is ‘quiet Territorians’ who will be seeking new leadership and the media have a particular and important role in contributing to that leadership.

Are We Able to do Politics Differently in the Territory?

Over a year ago I wrote this piece for the Northern Territory News. Today I have revisited the article in light of recent discussion of the formation of a new party for the Northern Territory and Northern Australia.

The 2016 election result presented the Northern Territory with an opportunity to ask bigger questions than ‘what resources the Independent members should get or what offices the Opposition should have?’

Framing the question around resources implies that the two party system is the Westminster model, and that any departure from this tradition is at best a novelty and perhaps even dangerous. Well that’s what the political parties want us to think.

As an Independent with nearly two decades’ experience in the cut and thrust of the party system I am not here to promote an anti-party agenda but to encourage a discussion about quality governance so we can assess whether our system is fit for purpose.

Surely after nearly 40 years of Northern Territory Self-Government it is important to ask: What is right and wrong with our parliamentary system? An honest question enables us to answer by strengthening what works and changing what doesn’t.

It is important to be reminded that the Westminster system did not start out as an adversarial contest between two rival parties; Government and Opposition. That came later.

To ensure fulsome scrutiny of the Cabinet the entire Parliament were the testers and challengers of ministers; that was the original approach.

Today that ‘scrutiny’ or ‘test of government’ takes the form of a contest between two political groups where party loyalty can too easily override loyalty to the Parliament.

We could do better but I am not suggesting everything stop while we have a major overhaul but out of respect for Territorians who want better from our Parliament we really need to have this discussion.

It may be a smart response [for Government] to say it is entirely up to the Independents to come up with the ideas. We will try to do that, but here is an opportunity for the whole Parliament and interested community members to begin an important conversation. The time is ripe for this.

The Westminster system has been adapted to suit the needs of different communities; it is not a one size fits all model. Similar smaller jurisdictions around the world also grapple with similar problems.

Of course we have some unique challenges: a small population, a large land mass, stark social and cultural issues and a small talent pool to draw upon to form an Executive. Surely it would be unwise to continue in the same manner and expect different results.

The NT Parliament commences each sitting day by stating our purpose: to advance the true welfare of all Territorians.

This is best achieved through good governance and that won’t happen by accident but by asking good questions and working to find good answers.

I know I am not alone in my interest in this topic, surely a topic whose time has come.

Terry Mills 2016

Dull, Disengaged and Dangerous — Northern Views by Terry Mills

You would have to be dull to believe that offering inducements to entice other Australians to move to the Territory is a good idea. Not only is it poor social and economic policy it is just dumb politics because it offends the people who already live here; our fellow Territorians.

via Dull, Disengaged and Dangerous — Northern Views by Terry Mills

Dull, Disengaged and Dangerous

You would have to be dull to believe that offering inducements to entice other Australians to move to the Territory is a good idea. Not only is it poor social and economic policy it is just dumb politics because it offends the people who already live here; our fellow Territorians.

Terry PortraitYou would have to be dull to believe that offering inducements to entice other Australians to move to the Territory is a good idea. Not only is it poor social and economic policy it is just dumb politics because it offends the people who already live here; our fellow Territorians.

This idea is evidence of a growing disengagement from economic reality. The factors contributing to population decline are manifold. Belief that a government subsidy can solve that problem is dangerously misguided.

It is my firm belief that the best path to population growth is less government intervention and a greater enabling of private enterprise.

If small business is really the engine room of the economy then that engine room needs to be understood and central to any population growth initiative.

When the private sector wants to employ more people the growth will be organic, authentic and sustainable because supply always follows demand.

The Chief Minister astonishingly reverses this principle by aiming first to build population [supply] with a government subsidy then hope the jobs will materialise [demand] once the people get here!

Bill Clinton was right when he said; ‘It is the economy stupid!’

The $1.5 million spent to promote a new image of the NT may change some people’s perceptions of the Northern Territory but at the end of the day people will move to the NT for an actual job not a feeling or a subsidy.

Improving law and order would be the best incentive that could be offered right now.

On the national level this plan risks further damaging our reputation within the commonwealth because it is the other States and Territories that contribute to the national GST pool from which the NT draws almost 70% of its total revenue.

The NT takes way more from that national pool then we put in. That is because that payment comes with the expectation that a reasonable level of service would be delivered to Australians already living in the Territory.

To use that revenue to induce people here from other States with their GST contributions looks like a rort.

Requests for the NT to be respected by the Commonwealth or even considered as contenders for full Statehood are eroded when we fail to act with the maturity befitting a State. Spending without caution, casually increasing debt to dangerous levels and then acting like tricky, ungrateful, mendicants is not a good look.

So what could be done instead?

Get back to basics. Upon election the NT Government correctly set before itself the goal of rebuilding trust in government but that is done by governing well not by social engineering.

If cash payments to entice people north is the answer it makes one wonder what was the question government asked?

Calls to me from local business people show they were not asked for the solution.

One thing is becoming very clear. This is a government that trusts government more and people less. I will believe otherwise when problem drinkers or young lawbreakers become the real focus of policy instead of the broader population.

Labor always defaults to broad based, expensive and unfruitful societal measures to deal with social problems. Now we see the same with the population strategy.

If you ask business to help identify the measures to enable greater flexibility, capacity and desire to grow they will point to a number of issues with stamp duties and payroll tax high on the list. Crime and anti-social behaviour will always feature on the list and that is something government must deal with.

The other real work of government is to work constructively with the Commonwealth Government to solve the problem of population decline.

Perhaps with a persuasive argument and sound economic and social policy the Federal Government that could be moved to provide real taxation incentives to attract investment in the North. This must always include a practical and sensible engagement of Traditional Owners.

Perhaps the development of the north could be boosted by using the largely unused Northern Development Fund to provide meaningful rewards [like a Payroll Tax offset] for private sector investment in manufacturing in the north.

Government needs to listen and act on the concerns of northern agriculture and other people starved industries to grow by taking a new approach to targeted work visas specific to the needs of the north.

The intake of suitably qualified migrants seeking a new life in Australia should be directed to and required to stay in the north.

In the meantime the Northern Territory Government should focus on its core business; quality schools, improved health outcomes and reduced crime and anti-social behaviour.

Government paying people with our money to come here and then expecting locals to employ them when they get here as business daily battles property crime increases is not the path to rebuilding trust in government.

Truth: Irrelevant. Responsibility: Not My Concern.

Terry Portrait‘The only values that the current judicial process teaches our children are; truth is irrelevant, and responsibility is someone else’s concern.’

Lawlessness is far more than the breaking of certain laws. Lawlessness describes a situation when people wilfully and deliberately act in defiance of all law and the authority that the law represents.  Increasingly we have young people who fit that description.

This attitude is virulent and corrodes the strength of a community; if unaddressed it spreads.  I visit homes that have been violated and listen to ordinary people who are becoming extraordinarily troubled about where this is headed.

One thing is certain; we cannot keep doing the same thing and vainly hope for different results.  A recent 53% increase in break-ins in Palmerston indicate the current approach is not working.

Senior police in our small city of Palmerston refer to a core group of about 30 hardened young repeat offenders in the city. This core group influences a broader group of over 100 that is growing rapidly. This dynamic is the same in other centres.

If measures to effectively address those at the core are not found, then this problem will get out of hand and that doesn’t just mean more crime but something far worse.  That is when law-abiding citizens lose hope in government and faith in the systems funded to protect our community.  This gives rise to a new level of lawlessness; vigilantism.

Building trust in government is not helped when a dominant Labor Government skilfully avoids strong scrutiny by funding an opposition of two to perform that task and then focuses way too much attention to the previous government instead of dealing with the growing crisis unfolding before us.

For now, we are fortunate that the angry chatter of keyboard warriors venting vigilantism is largely contained to cyber space but those on the ground say it is becoming harder to hold the line.

The number who choose to turn up to community gatherings and offer support for a proactive and positive response to crime at the neighbourhood level is encouraging but they like our hard-working police officers need a new strategy, they need hope.

Most families in our community are hard-working, respect the law and make noble efforts to raise their kids to do the same.  They need support.  What does could that new strategy look like?

What follows is informed by personal experience as a parent, school principal and local member, conversations with police officers, families close to the young offenders and deeply concerned members of our community.

When it dealing with young offenders what is the problem with the judicial system and what can be done to fix it?

A young offender has little respect for authority. If a young person has zero respect for their parents, it is foolish to think they will have respect for any other adult.

The judicial system too easily exempts the offender from accepting personal responsibility.   When it was first reported that certain young offenders who damaged several cars in the local carpark were known to the police and the ringleader had been brought to their attention about 150 times many thought this an exaggeration but shockingly it isn’t.

A senior officer working explained how this works.

At the first level of interactions with police a young person is submitted to multiple warnings over 12 to 18 months.  If the offending behaviours continue then the young person enters the Youth Diversion process; a further system of warnings and cautionary programmes.  This can extend for a further 12 to 18 months.

So, it is possible that after three years of creating grief and at great cost to everyone the worse the ‘offender’ comes to expect are repeated warnings.

If offending continues then the young person may finally face court where for the first time they are held to account.

But that is not the end of this disturbing story; enter the defence lawyer.

Our legal system requires a defence advocate.  The nature of defence is to strongly advise the offender to NOT to speak to police.  This can easily be interpreted as ‘Don’t tell the truth and don’t admit responsibility.

A respected senior police officer summed this up by saying:

‘The only values that the current judicial process teaches our children are; that truth is irrelevant, and responsibility is someone else’s concern.’

This is the system that is hardening young offenders and is corroding the core strength of our community. A new strategy is needed.

So, what could that look like?

We need to establish a Youth Court which is a single entity and based in the community.

Juveniles who have committed offences, regardless of severity need to come before a youth court at the first instance of offending.  Any diversionary or cautionary process needs to be decided by that one institution and be supported by the community

The community context of law administration for young offenders is important as it provides a greater chance to show that the truth is relevant, and responsibility is something and the offender, with help, must bear.

That help is sourced from within a community not the judicial system.

A Community based youth court is step one and future articles will describe what flows from that.

Beyond Wildman River

Youth Rehabilitation through a Tough-Love Approach

 My desire is that this short discussion paper will stimulate informed debate that will result in effective policy implementation to help build a stronger and more cohesive community and our strengthen hope that we can leave a more positive legacy for our children.

Elements of the programmes described in this framework already exist in the Territory but lack sufficient support, recognition or coordination.

In light of heightened community concern over youth crime and compounding social dysfunction, we have no option but to develop better tools to contend with an urgent and monumental challenge.

This is a fight requiring courage and resolve, a fight we must win for the sake of today’s youth and tomorrow’s society.  We are obligated to work to leave a better legacy for our children.

Alternative programmes of a similar nature have operated before. Nearly two decades ago the Territory’s Wildman River Programme earned respect in many quarters for an innovative approach to juvenile rehabilitation. It has since closed.

It is time to draw upon past experience and add current Australian and international best practise to establish improved programmes to strengthen our youth.

This outline describes a framework upon which programmes can be developed to meet varying levels of need; from leadership training for mainstream youth, to early intervention for youth at risk and rehabilitative programmes for offenders.

This type of programme is most effective for 12 to 18 years, the ages when change is most likely embraced and embedded.

What does the Programme Look like?

 The programme uses a combination of personal challenges, adventure experiences and community involvement to enable significant and sustainable change.

The key elements are:

  • Removal from a dysfunctional/familiar environment;
  • Challenging of established beliefs and behavioural patterns;
  • Rebuilding through exposure to different environmental demands; and the
  • Provision of a supportive group setting and models of appropriate behaviour.

The programme should be physically and emotionally challenging and completion seen as a significant achievement; a rite of passage.

The duration of the programme should be from four weeks to three months depending upon the client group; leadership development, youth at risk or juvenile offenders.

The core programme should be delivered in an outback location, remote from familiar surrounds.

Once again depending upon the client group, the time spent remote may range from partial withdrawal (return to school for sections of the programme) to full withdrawal (live-in for the duration).

In order to establish a stronger foundation upon which to build it is important that successful completion of the programme is celebrated publicly at a graduation ceremony.

The programme must provide sufficient structure and discipline to allow the educational, psychological and emotional needs of participants to be addressed. This function of the programme is beyond a traditional ‘boot camp’ definition as it seeks to not only break down the old but focuses on rebuilding. The underlying issues are deeply ingrained and often generational.

The programme team must be suitably qualified and trained.  The crew must not only include those with skills to conduct outdoors activities but also those with clinical/ counselling experience.  Training could be sourced from practitioners within the Territory and interstate.

An essential component of this programme is the involvement of indigenous leaders with cultural authority.

A thorough screening and assessment of the staff and participant’s physical and emotional status is required for effective placement.

Through a combination of outdoor living, exercise and healthy food, the programme is designed to facilitate detoxification from harmful substances, promote physical fitness and build a healthier mental outlook.

Central to the programme is the bush survival component.  The bush is a great teacher and offers its own natural therapy.

Exercise and healthy living have a positive impact on mental health.

A strongly held view is that outdoors survival activities promote independence, self reliance and trust in others. Something the urban environment doesn’t readily provide.

A typical programme will consist of two or three hikes, from a few days to a few weeks.

By careful preparation and execution of each phase of the survival component participants will be taught powerful lessons about themselves and about life, such as:

Effort and reward – push on to the river and you will be rewarded by a great camping place.

 Decision and consequence –  If youdon’t carry the pack youwill have nolunch.

 Personal Challenges

Participants should be provided with suitable and appropriate personal challenges in order to broaden their skills base and strengthen self confidence.

This is a sample list of challenge activities:

  • Intensive English and Maths tuition
  • Journal keeping
  • First Aid qualifications
  • Maps and compass reading
  • Horsemanship
  • Swimming and water safety
  • Abseiling
  • Fire lighting and survival skills
  • Traditional indigenous skills
  • Cooking
  • And many more


 Community Engagement

There are two aspects of this area of the programme:

1. Involvement in work of value to the community they are a part of.

 This could be environmental or heritage work, assistance at Riding for the Disabled or the seniors village or helping at a community event.

  1. Meeting people who work in the community and hearing their story.

 This achieves a twofold aim; to learn about career options and to meet successful people who were once teenagers.  Their story may provide the inspiration needed to make better life choices.   

Parental Outreach

An important component in providing sustained change is to engage the family and focus efforts particularly when the teenager is on the programme.

Parents, significant relatives and care providers are an important part of this programme.  Coordination of services must occur before during and after the youth’s involvement on the programme.

Through this contact additional family support should be facilitated where needed.

By strengthening the family any changes arising from completion of the programme will have a better chance of being sustained.