statehood – Michmutters

Nearly 25 years ago, the NT almost became a state. Now many believe it won’t happen in our lifetime

Nearly 25 years ago, the Northern Territory narrowly missed out on its “ultimate constitutional objective” of becoming Australia’s seventh state.

A poster with 'VOTE NO' as the largest words, surrounded by text laying out the referendum question.
A 1998 advert urging people to vote against statehood.(Supplied: Library & Archives NT)

The 1998 statehood referendum was the culmination of years upon years of workshopping and parliamentary reports, and only failed by 4,000 votes.

But ask any Territorian today and they’ll tell you it’s an issue well down their list of priorities.

So how did this happen? And was it ever feasible for a vast landmass so sparsely populated to be able to govern as a state?

With the Territory Rights Bill passing the lower house earlier this month, a former politician bizarrely calling for it to return to South Australia, and concerns about a lack of representation in federal parliament, we answer your questions about whether the Northern Territory could ever become a state, and what it would change if it did.

How did the statehood movement start?

From Federation until 1911, the Northern Territory was part of South Australia.

After that, it became a territory, controlled directly by the federal government.

However, the statehood movement only really got going after the NT was granted self-government on July 1, 1978.

The Northern Territory Parliament's first ministry of the Everingham Government, the first Governmen
After the NT was granted self-government in 1978, statehood was quickly embraced by the Everingham government (above).(NT Archives Service)

By 1986, the territory’s third chief minister Stephen Hatton was describing statehood as the “ultimate constitutional objective”.

“The Territory has long been preparing to take its place as an equal partner in the Australian Federation; the time has now arrived for it to do so,” Mr Hatton told parliament.

Mr Hatton argued that statehood would give the territory “the same degree of self-determination” as everyone else.

What makes a territory different from a state?

Unlike states, federal parliament can override laws in both territories.