Is NT a failed state or simply deaf?

The Stuart Highway in the past has been labelled as the road to nowhere but a
The Stuart Highway in the past has been labelled as the road to nowhere but a "failed state”. Erle Levey

Since the crisis at Don Dale and Alice Springs juvenile detention centres came under a national spotlight last month, there has been a great deal of talk around the country that the Northern Territory is a failed state. Are we? And can a Territory election on August 27 do anything to save us?

In the wake of the NT juvenile justice crisis aired on Four Corners on July 25 and discussed last week in Heartbeat, flagship news outlets around the nation have spoken as if with one voice to pronounce the Territory a dead duck.

The Australian newspaper calls us a "lost cause”, while the Sydney Morning Herald - by anyone's reckoning a failed institution in its own right - says we are "propped up by creaming off aid intended for [our] most disadvantaged”.

Long-time Northern Correspondent for the Australian Nicolas Rothwell paints Darwin's seat of Territory governance as a chimera, with all the trimmings of a parliamentary system but no meat.

Meanwhile Alexis Wright brands the whole system the "wrong one for governing Aboriginal people” in the first place.

Already in 2008, the ABC had re-imagined the Stuart Highway as a "road to nowhere”, drawing on the expertise of Desert Knowledge, itself one of Central Australia's more spectacularly failed ventures.

Now on social media, tweeters and posters are calling for self-government in the Territory to be revoked and a return to Commonwealth rule.

Are they right? Well, I must say the statistics are certainly alarming.

Compared with per capita figures for other states we demand more police and jailers and spend more on both for a poorer result.

What's more, 60% of those released from jail are back within two years.

From January's Productivity Commission Report on Government Services, it is clear we have more public servants paid on average more than they might earn in other states.

If we are failing as a state, then we must ask: what are all those public servants doing with their time?

To clear this up, let's begin with a definition.

My dictionary says a failed state is one whose "political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control”.

Such control, suggests popular interactive Wikipedia, has "disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly”.

This last has an eerie familiarity for those living under the broken rule of Adam Giles.

And this despite his much-trumpeted Larapinta roundabout project reaching completion, at a diameter equalled only by the height of Alice Springs' new five-storey courthouse, which now leers darkly over an otherwise heritage-valued CBD.

But does one bad apple mean the whole project of the Northern Territory is doomed?

In recent history, failed states have usually been associated with major crises in the Middle East or Africa, such as famines (Chad, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso), civil wars (Libya, Mali, and Niger), or both (Sudan, Somalia, and DR Congo).

And disadvantage in Aboriginal communities sometimes echoes such examples, in widespread social dysfunction, chronic health issues, poor housing and violence.

The aforementioned Desert Knowledge report nonetheless shines a light on a regional dimension to these problems, rather than being solely an Aboriginal crisis.

That is, that the state of the NT is partly a result of governance breaking down the further you go from the capital cities.

Chaired by former federal minister for Indigenous Affairs Fred Chaney, the group behind the report called for more capacity for local decision making.

Perhaps no one heard that call?

Importantly, history tells us that most states ultimately fail rather than thrive, one historian recently situating failure as the "norm rather than the exception”.

Something we forget in Australia is that while states from the Bronze Age through to the Roman Empire were busy squabbling and failing, Aboriginal culture was humming along and had been for some time.

Indigenous people built an economy based on a complex network of walking routes of trade and exchange stretching across the continent, now commonly called the songlines.

The songlines joined smaller communities or language groups from one end of pre-colonial Australia to the other.

Experts suggest there were between six and seven hundred distinct language groups before Europeans arrived.

I think of it as a network of regional burroughs, often referred to as "country”, with close inter-country ties of trade and exchange in goods, stories and songs.

But much changed with the Europeans, the late Wenten Rubuntja from Alice Springs describing it this way: "When English people found our country, and [found] Aboriginal people, they put their cities and culture all over our country.”

For a while, the network of the songlines disappeared from view.

Despite this, now, when indigenous languages are still being lost at an alarming rate and the aftershocks of dispossession fill our prisons, Aboriginal people haven't given up.

Of the political blanket pulled over the country by colonisation, old Wenten Rubuntja said: "underneath this, all the time, Aboriginal culture and laws stay alive.”

What we whitefellas forget is that governance didn't start with the Europeans.

Aborigines had their own system of laws and politics, with each language group's country equating roughly to catchment boundaries.

From drift country to the south of Alice Springs, for example, a songline stretches 1200km to Port Augusta.

Many once walked this ancient trade route carrying ochre to trade, or the narcotic pitcheri, perhaps gone in search of a wife.

The route joins country of the Centre to others in a broader network.

In contrast, modern Australia is governed under a three-tiered system of federalism.

The trouble with federalism, is that it doesn't work so well here in the middle where resources are spread thin.

Remote catchments like Lake Eyre defy federally imposed boundaries to obey natural laws; the arid inland crossing jurisdictions without qualm.

But what if our governance systems took account of the environment?

What if we seriously examined what Aboriginal systems had to offer? Can we honestly say we're doing it any better?

Tempting though it is, returning the Territory to Commonwealth rule would preclude the significant benefits of local knowledge sadly missing also from the federal intervention in 2007.

What's more, there are many well-intentioned candidates standing for the coming Territory elections.

Will they rule over Australia's failed state? Perhaps. But maybe they might consider this.

If John McDouall Stuart - the first European explorer to reach the Centre - had sought help from Aboriginal people, he might have secured from bush foods the vitamins he so badly needed by the time he reached the Top End in 1862.

Instead, he had to be carried on a stretcher for 900km of the return journey, gripped with pain of scurvy.

Perhaps the Territory is a basket case; or maybe like Stuart, we are simply deaf to those who might help us.

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