On the 1st January 2014, following a review of Local Government, the Northern Territory Government announced that amongst other changes the name “Shire Council” would be changed to “Regional Council” in the eight large Northern Territory Shires.
Roper Gulf Shire Council at its December meeting agreed to introduce this change on the 1st January 2014. This marked the start of a new era for the Roper Gulf Regional Council.
The Northern Territory Government also flagged increasing the responsibility of Local Authorities, formerly known as Local Boards, in representing local communities and Towns. The name change and the change in Local Authorities reflected a growing sophistication and acknowledgment of the developing regional responsibility of the Roper Gulf Regional Council.
Prior to 2008 there had been only rudimentary Local Government in the Northern Territory. In 1978 at the time of self-government there were only four local governments in the Northern Territory being Darwin, Katherine, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. Darwin was only incorporated in 1957.
The Local Government areas are generally known as "Councils" and prior to 1st July 2008 included Municipalities (the five major towns), Community Government Councils, Incorporated Associations (under NT Associations Act), ORIC Corporations (incorporated under Australian Government Legislation) and Special Purpose Towns. Those “Councils” that were established under the Associations Act had reduced Compliance and reporting responsibilities compared to those incorporated pursuant to the Local Government Act and those subsequently created pursuant to Local Government Act 2008.
Many of these previous local Governments were only incorporated in the late 1970s and others as late as the 1990s. The amendments of the 1st July 2008 saw Local Government being reduced to two types of Local Government in the NT, Municipalities and Shires including the Roper Gulf Shire. Prior to the 2008 amendments 97% of the total land mass of the Northern Territory was unincorporated and the Community Councils were little more than enclaves within the unincorporated areas. After the reforms of 2008 the unincorporated areas of the Northern Territory reduced to around 1.4% of total land mass.
By 2000, there were 68 recognised Local Government bodies in the Northern Territory with a mean population of 844 persons. The formation of the Nyrirranggulung Mardrulk Ngadberre Regional Council in 2003, later to become the Nyrirranggulung Ward of Roper Gulf Shire was one of the first amalgamations that were to model the move towards larger Shires in 2008.
The Government recognised the need for larger Local Government bodies and in 2006 argued that, “…any Shire of less than 5000 people would struggle to be sustainable” and started a program to reduce the number of Community Government Councils leading to the 2008 Local Government reforms and the formation of so called “Super Shires” and Roper Gulf Shire Council.
Roper Gulf Shire Council commenced operations on the 1st July 2008 following the passing by Northern Territory Government of Local Government Act 2008 earlier in that year. The 2008 Act directed the formation of eight new Shires in the NT to amalgamate and incorporate previously existing Community Councils, Incorporated Associations and Special Purpose Towns and unincorporated lands.
The new Roper Gulf Shire incorporated the Mataranka, Yugul Mangi, Numbulwar Numburindi, Borroloola, Nyirranggulung and Jilkminggan “Councils” and a large amount of unincorporated land in the Gulf, Roper Valley, Stuart Plateau and Southern Arnhem Land. The first Council was formed in October 2008 following an Election of twelve Councillors.
The Local Government Act 2008 also allowed for the appointment of Shire Chief Executive Officers and new Headquarters in major population centres. Roper Gulf‘s headquarters were established in Crawford Street in Katherine which had previously been owned by the Nyirranggulung Community Council. The new Act also provided for a centralised business management system and group training facilities.
2008 also saw the introduction of 99 year leases and the NT Emergency Response (the so called “intervention”) both of which added substantially to the task of forming a brand new Local Government in a very diverse region and with a land mass more than twice that of Tasmania. The granting of indigenous title over large areas of the Northern Territory has also impacted on the development of Local Government in recent years. In 2006 45% of the NT land was held under aboriginal title. There was also some deeply entrenched opposition to the new Shires from small groups of people who felt they had been disenfranchised by the new incorporations in 2008. The formation of these new Shires also appeared rushed and poorly coordinated in some remote areas.
The clear imperative of economies of scale and better governance however was quickly proved as new more efficient and accountable Governance and staffing structures were put in place. A lot of effort was put into communications and communities were better consulted and engaged. Roper Gulf in particular established a strong Local Board system and strong management, governance and financial structures.
The resistance to the new Shires by a small but vocal group was taken up by the CLP opposition who, on winning government in 2012, largely on the back of a handful of rural electorates, declared an intention to turn back and devolve the so-called “Super Shires”.
A wide ranging review and community consultation was undertaken by the Northern Territory Government in 2013. This showed strong community support in the Roper Gulf Region for the existing Shire structure. The changes to the Local Government Act passed through Parliament in late 2013 reflected this. There were no changes to boundaries in the Roper Gulf Region.
The first Mayor of Roper Gulf Shire Council was South West Gulf Ward Councillor Tony Jack, who was re-elected at the 2012 NT Local Government election. The Council’s first Deputy Mayor was Never Never Ward Councillor Clair O’Brien, who was replaced by fellow Never Never Ward Councillor Judy MacFarlane in 2012. Cr MacFarlane was elevated to the position of Mayor following the NT Council election in August 2017, with Nyirranggulung Ward Councillor Helen Lee selected as her deputy.
Roper Gulf Regional Council now employs 282 staff, more than three times the original staff establishment in 2008.
The Region continues to grow.
i Sander.W, 2006, Local Government and Indigenous interests in Australia’s Northern Territory. Discussion Paper No 285/2006 Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research P3.
ii Sander. W 2006 Op Cit P3
iii Mc Adam. E, 2006, Minister Mc Adam’s speech to LGANT Conference, Alice Springs 11 October 2006