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Attachment to the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory 2019

Report by Benjamin Awkal, Tynwald Parliamentary Intern 2018-19

The Northern Territory (NT) is an Australian territory covering over 520,902 square miles of land with a young, transient population of almost 229,000. The population is largely concentrated in the City of Darwin (148,564), its satellite city Palmerston (33,695), and the remote town of Alice Springs (23,726). Notably, the Territory has the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of any Australian state or territory, at approximately 58,246 (25% of population).  

In 1978 the NT was granted limited self-government and has powers delegated by the Commonwealth of Australia by statute, rather than by constitutional right. Presently, the Legislative Assembly has legislative competence in the same areas as the Australian States, except for Aboriginal land rights, industrial relations, national parks, uranium mining and euthanasia, which are reserved to the Commonwealth. In 1998 the question of whether the NT should become a State of the Commonwealth was put to a referendum and 51.9% of the electorate voted against the proposal.

The Assembly

The Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory is a unicameral legislature established in 1974 to replace a partially elected Legislative Council in preparation for self-government. It comprises 25 Members elected from single-seat constituencies for four-year terms. At present, there are 15 (Labor) Government Members, seven independents, two (Country Liberal Party) Opposition Members and (uniquely) one Labor non-caucus Member. The status of the two Liberal Members as the Opposition has been a matter of contention for a number of independent Members who advance that they may, in fact, be better placed to form a coalition opposition (and possibly benefit from the resources gifted to the Official Opposition by the NT Government). 

Coming from a non-partisan legislature, it was particularly interesting to observe the tensions created by the party divide and the effect this had on debate. 

The Department of the Legislative Assembly

The Assembly is supported by Department of the Legislative Assembly’s (DLA) 40 FTE staff. During my attachment to the Office of the Clerk, I worked as a Clerk’s Associate and was afforded exposure to the committee system, sittings of the Assembly, Hansard and the Independent Research Service. I also met with the Government’s Chief Parliamentary Counsel.

The Clerk’s Associate

The Clerk’s Associate is a one-year, salaried posting. The role is, primarily, to provide high-level administrative support to the Deputy Clerk. Its functions include the preparation and proofreading of high-level communications and documents, secretariat support, electronic document management, recording minutes of the Deputy Clerk’s meetings, chamber duties and responding to parliamentary enquiries.

During the first two weeks of my attachment to the Assembly, I provided cover for the Clerk’s Associate whilst she was on annual leave and continued to perform functions associated with the role during the latter half of the placement. Key tasks I assisted in included the preparation of selection panel reports and the preparation of the Speaker’s script for the detailed consideration of a Bill. 

Committee experience

The Assembly has eight Committees: Public Accounts; Social Policy Scrutiny; Economic Policy Scrutiny; Standing Orders; Estimates; House; Privileges; and Member’s Interests.

Following a 2017 report into the functioning of the Assembly, to enhance the degree of legislative scrutiny within the unicameral system, all bills (except for appropriation bills and those deemed to be urgent) are referred to either the Social Policy Scrutiny Committee or Economic Policy Scrutiny Committee for consideration, following first reading.

In my second week at the Assembly, I had the opportunity to attend a day-long public oral evidence hearing of the Social Policy Scrutiny Committee examining an environmental bill and a private deliberative meeting of the Economic Policy Scrutiny Committee discussing an alcohol licensing bill. Later in the attachment I provided secretariat support to, and attended a meeting of, the House Committee.

Chamber experience

The Assembly sits for around 37 days a year, generally in three-day blocks. Sittings begin at 10 am and usually conclude between 8 pm and 9 pm. There was a block of sittings in each of the last two weeks of my attachment.  

At the first sitting day, I had the opportunity to observe Question Time from the Table and to keep time on questions and responses – which involved the satisfying act of ringing a bell when Members approached or overstepped the prescribed time limits.

The Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 requires that the Assembly cause minutes of its proceedings to be kept, pursuant to which the Serjeant-At-Arms sits in the Chamber and minutes proceedings. As that role is presently vacant, the Serjeant-At-Arms’s desk is being covered by DLA Officers on a rotational basis and I spent the afternoons of the sitting weeks rostered to the desk.

Additionally, I completed several shifts in the Sub-Table Office (a small office located behind a glass screen in the Chamber) assisting in the processing of documents tabled by Members during sittings.

The Independent Research Service

At the beginning of my time at the Assembly, I met with the two full-time researchers funded by the Department of the Chief Minister to support the Assembly’s relative high number of independent Members during the current Assembly. This provided a useful insight into the matters contemplated by the Assembly and those which are of particular interest to its Members.

The Service produces approximately 100 papers per 12-month period, these include short or substantial research reports; literature reviews; jurisdictional comparisons; reviews and summaries of all bills introduced; statistical and data access, analysis and interpretation; same and next day rapid responses; and meeting and briefing notes. These papers have examined parliamentary process, social issues, economic issues, electorate issues, and topics self-initiated by the Service.

The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel

Because of my interest in legislation and legislative drafting, it was arranged for me to meet with the Chief Parliamentary Counsel to discuss the profession. I found this to be particularly useful and interesting.