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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

End of the South Australian era

Despite a number of government initiatives, by the beginning of the 20th century most measures to develop the Territory had had little effect. Industries were losing money or failing completely, and there was a lack of new settlers. By 1901 the population stood at 3,894, comprising 3,493 men and 401 women. This comprised Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Malays and others, but not Aboriginal people.15

With the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1901, South Australia lost control of customs and immigration in the Territory, and the State was incurring further financial losses. The high costs associated with the Territory's administration and little financial return led South Australia to negotiate the surrender of the Territory to the Commonwealth. One of the reasons advanced in favour of a transfer to the Commonwealth was the contention that whichever administration had control over the Territory should have full legislative and financial responsibility for it.

As early as the 1880s, the continued failure of Territory enterprises had led to suggestions that it be returned to Britain. This was argued by witnesses who appeared before the Royal Commission in 1895, although only one suggested federal responsibility as the solution. By the time the Commonwealth came into existence in 1901, however, it was clear that Australian nationalist sentiment was strong enough to ensure that no part of the continent would be returned to Britain. If South Australia was to rid itself of the Territory, the Commonwealth was the only likely taker.

South Australian Premier Frederick Holder first proposed a Commonwealth takeover in April 1901, but negotiations for the surrender extended over a number of years, partly caused by frequent changes to the Commonwealth Government. In December 1907, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin and South Australian Premier Tom Price executed a formal agreement for the Northern Territory's transfer. The South Australian Parliament then passed the Northern Territory Surrender Act 1908.

Reciprocal Commonwealth legislation was slow in coming. Deakin and his advisors disagreed with some provisions of the South Australian Act. No sooner was that resolved than the Deakin Government fell to the Labor Opposition under Andrew Fisher. The Fisher Ministry, preoccupied with Labor's social aims, put aside the question of the Territory's transfer.

In May 1909 Deakin, at the head of the newly created Fusion Party, returned to power. Five months later, the Fusion ministry introduced the Northern Territory Acceptance Bill into the House of Representatives. Most Members conceded that, for reasons of defence and development, the Commonwealth should acquire the Territory, but beneath the debate lay a deep sense of uneasiness born of the South Australian experience. Deakin alone expressed a bright pan-Australian vision. The Bill was delayed by the Senate and lapsed at the end of the Parliamentary session.

When Andrew Fisher's Labor Ministry was returned to power, it reintroduced the Northern Territory Acceptance Bill in 1910. Deakin threw the whole force of his influence behind it. The legislation provided for the transfer of the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth as the third Commonwealth territory (after Papua and the Federal Capital Territory).

From 1 January 1911 the Northern Territory became the responsibility of the Commonwealth. All relevant South Australian laws remained in force, subject to any later changes by the Commonwealth. In acquiring the Territory the Commonwealth assumed not only ownership of all its assets but also its obligations and financial liabilities. The Commonwealth also agreed to complete the railway line between Darwin and Adelaide, which at the time was in two sections: north from Darwin to Pine Creek, and south from Adelaide to Oodnadatta.

The Northern Territory (Administration) Act 1910, passed by the Commonwealth Parliament, included provision for the appointment of an Administrator of the Northern Territory, and the power of the Governor-General to make Ordinances for the Territory. This Act became the basic instrument of governance for the Territory.

There was, however, one crucial difference between South Australia's administration of the Territory and the future Commonwealth administration. Under South Australia, Northern Territory's white settlers, both men and women, had political representation. This right was lost with the transfer to the Commonwealth. It would not be until 1922 that the Territory had a representative in the House of Representatives. The loss of representation quickly led to dissatisfaction among local residents.

Selected Records Relating to the Northern Territory Acceptance Act
National Archives, Canberra
Northern Territory Acceptance Act, 1907–10 A2863, 1910/20
An Act to provide for the acceptance of the Northern Territory, 1910 A1559, 1910/20
Northern Territory Acceptance Act, 1910–11 A406, E1911/5839

Pastoral permits 1902–11

While negotiations between the Commonwealth and South Australia for the transfer of the Territory were under way, pastoral leases were no longer issued. In their place pastoral permits were granted. The South Australian Government gave an assurance that when the policy of granting leases was resumed, permit holders would have first right to long-term leases. Some 319 pastoral permits were granted in this period and formed the basis of an interim tenure until they lapsed or were incorporated into future Commonwealth pastoral lease grants.

Whereas leases were usually for 21 or 42 years, permits were for a 12-month period only and were renewed annually at a rent of 1 shilling per square mile. The first permit was awarded in August 1902. Persons wishing to renew their permits had to return the original permit and pay an application fee of £10. Permits could be renewed through the administration in Adelaide or Darwin. They were in parchment form, usually with a diagram of the property attached.

The issuing of permits was discontinued from December 191116 and by January 1914 only 108 permits were still in force, comprising an area of 25,798 square miles. They were gradually phased out afterwards.

Selected Records Relating to Pastoral Permits
National Archives, Darwin
Register of pastoral permits, 1867–1910 E1619
Registers of pastoral permits, 1872–1915 E1588
Register of pastoral permits and grazing licences, 1902–17 E1589
Northern Territory pastoral permits, 1902–17 E1651
Northern Territory Archives Service
Copies of pastoral permits, 1902–22 NTRS3626

Fletcher argued that the permit system hindered development of the Territory's pastoral industry. The system empowered the Minister to terminate arrangements at any time with just three months notice, and without payment of compensation. The lack of tenure in turn led to limited capital improvements on properties. The permit system did, however, give pastoralists of limited means the opportunity of a start in the industry.17


Chapter notes | All notes

15 Northern Territory Report of the Administrator for the Year 1912, p. 65; Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1913), volume III, pp. 227–385

16 NAA: A3, NT1914/3401, Pastoral permits Northern Territory.

17 Valerie Fletcher, 'Good Years and Bad Governments: The Northern Territory Pastoral Industry, 1901–1910', Journal of Northern Territory History, issue 8 (1997), pp. 13–26.


Chapter 1
The Northern Territory of South Australia, 1863-1911