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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Civil unrest and the 'Darwin Rebellion'

The effects of World War I, the closure of Vestey's meatworks, the lack of employment opportunities, and the loss of political representation following the Commonwealth's acquisition of the Territory had all helped to foment local unrest, particularly in Darwin. These events coincided with the rise of militant unionism, including the North Australian Workers' Union and its leader Harold Nelson. Their catchcry would quickly become 'no taxation without representation'.

In 1916, Harold Jensen, former Director of Mines, wrote to the Minister complaining about the administration of the Northern Territory, and in particular Gilruth's autocratic manner. The letter contained 43 specific complaints. In response, the Commonwealth established a Royal Commission on 12 July 1916. The Commission's report consisted of a general assessment of Jensen's unsatisfactory behaviour as a witness and refuted all his charges. The Commission found no basis for his complaints and, in turn, the report was never published.

Royal Commission to Inquire Into Certain Charges Against the Administration and Other Officials of the Administration (CA 7534)
National Archives, Canberra
Royal Commission on Northern Territory Administration – charges by Dr Jensen, 1915–20 A3832, RC19, item 2
Royal Commission on Northern Territory Administration, 1916–17 A3832, RC19, item 1
Royal Commission on Northern Territory Administration – honorarium to secretary, 1916–18 A3832, RC19, item 3
Royal Commission to enquire into charges made by Dr Jensen against the local administration in the Northern Territory, 1916 A5522, M517
Image 4: Citizens gathered in protest outside Government House for Darwin's 'Little Rebellion', 17 December 1918.

Image 4: Citizens gathered in protest outside Government House for Darwin's 'Little Rebellion', 17 December 1918.
Courtesy State Library of South Australia, SLSA B22006
Enlarge image - View image gallery

There was concern among Darwin residents at the administration of the Territory, some of which was orchestrated by union leader Nelson. Public meetings were held at which resolutions were passed which in effect requested Gilruth to leave the Territory. These issues coalesced in an incident known as the 'Darwin Rebellion' when, on 17 December 1918, a group of several hundred men marched on Government House and called on Gilruth to resign. He refused to do so and was manhandled by the group. There were subsequent calls for him to leave Darwin, and he finally did leave on 20 February 1919.

Gilruth travelled to Melbourne to brief the Minister, leaving his former secretary, Henry Carey, as Director of the Territory. A letter from Carey to Gilruth in July 1919 that proposed he should help Vestey's sell their meatworks to the Government on terms favourable to the company became public and further inflamed the situation. Calls for Carey and several other officials to leave Darwin were met when the administrators departed on 19 October 1919.

Selected Records Relating to the 'Darwin Rebellion'
National Archives, Canberra
Official secretary to Governor-General report regarding Darwin disturbance, 1919–20 A3, NT1920/139
Darwin disturbance – deportation of officials,1919–20 A3, NT1920/916
Reports regarding Darwin disturbance, 1919–21 A3, NT1919/1031
Darwin disturbance – prosecutions for assault, 1919–22 A3, NT1922/1799

The Government did not renew Gilruth's appointment, and instead appointed a Royal Commission on Northern Territory Administration in November 1919. It was presided over by Norman Ewing, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Tasmania. Ewing was asked to inquire into the departure of Gilruth, and the other officers, and grievances expressed by Nelson and other Darwin residents.

The Commission held hearings in Melbourne, Darwin and Thursday Island, commencing on 14 November 1919. Its report, presented in April 1920, criticised the Commonwealth for failing to pursue consistent policies in the Territory. It noted that under the laws and constitution of South Australia, Northern Territory residents had full rights of citizenship. With administration of the Territory by the Commonwealth these rights had ceased and, while the people of the Northern Territory had no say in their administration, they were called on to obey Commonwealth laws and comply with local Ordinances, in the making of which they had no part. The Territory was being ruled autocratically in that 'Dr Gilruth (the Administrator) had little toleration for any person who disagreed with him, and was temperamentally unsuited for filling the office he occupied'.20

The Commissioner considered that Carey's letter to Gilruth about the meatworks sale 'destroyed any confidence the public might have had in him, and led to the demand by the people of Darwin that he and others should leave the Territory'.21

Ewing felt that the burden of responsibility for the extraordinary conditions in the Northern Territory must be divided between the failure of the Commonwealth to realise the position and grant to the people of the Territory citizen rights, the failure of Ministers to form a proper appreciation of what was due to the Territory, and the failure of Gilruth and those closely associated with him 'to exercise their great powers with firmness, common sense, discretion, and justice'.22

Only minor recommendations in administration were made by the Commissioner, as he maintained that 'whatever local control may be given to the Commonwealth Territories in the future, should provide for a similar government of them all, making provision only for special local conditions'.23

Gilruth never returned to the Northern Territory. He advanced his career with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Royal Commission on Northern Territory Administration (CA 2268)
National Archives, Canberra
Northern Territory Royal Commission on charges against administration, 1919–20 A432, 1929/4150 part 1
Charges against administration Royal Commission – departure of officials from Darwin on charges against administration, 1919–20 A432, 1929/4150 part 2
Minute book of Royal Commission on Northern Territory, 1919–20 CP210/1, volume 1
Royal Commission Northern Territory – main file, 1919–20 A460, A5/3
Royal Commission on Northern Territory – miscellaneous accounts, 1919–23 A460, B5/3
Exhibits of Northern Territory Royal Commission, 1920 A460, F5/3
Northern Territory – Royal Commission, 1920 A11804, 1920/296
Reports on Northern Territory – Justice Ewing's report, 1920 CP859/6, E
Royal Commission on Northern Territory – Vestey Brothers expenses, 1920–22 A460 C5/3
Royal Commission on Northern Territory – reports and evidence, 1920–33 A460, E5/3
Royal Commission report Royal Commission into Northern Territory Administration, 'Report', Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1920–21) volume III, pp. 1653–1669
Royal Commission into Northern Territory Administration, Minutes of Evidence (Melbourne, 1920)

There was to be further hostility between the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory. In 1920 the Territory's then Minister, Alexander Poynton, told Parliament that the Territory was a wonderful asset. It could be developed, not by closer settlement, but by stocking with cattle and sheep. Railways and extensive water supplies were required. Poynton observed that if the Commonwealth was to make anything from the Northern Territory it had to be prepared to spend money on it.24

In May 1921 Poynton visited the Territory. Despite his earlier statement about the need for large amounts of expenditure, he now embarked on a cost-cutting exercise. He suggested the abolition of all government-funded activities regarded as commercial enterprises, with private industry undertaking them instead. He wrote that staffing in the Lands Office was excessive and inefficient, and he recommended the amalgamation of the Lands and Mines Director's positions. Poynton estimated that his proposed cuts and amalgamations would save the Commonwealth £20,000 per year.25

Horace Trower, who had been appointed Director of Lands in 1917, found his position abolished with effect from August 1921. He later lost a High Court action alleging wrongful dismissal with costs of £541 awarded against him. He was virtually destitute, and the Commonwealth did not pursue the claim.26

Poynton's desire for cost-cutting may actually have been in response to the Royal Commission on Public Expenditure. The Commission was appointed in 1918 and completed its work in November 1920. In the first of several reports it noted that the Commonwealth's expenditure in 1918–19 included over £100 million on war expenses, and £30 million on non-war expenses, and it recommended extreme cost-cutting. As far as the Northern Territory was concerned, it stated that 'the large expenditure taking place yearly in the Northern Territory should not be continued pending the settlement by Parliament of a definite policy in regard to this Territory'.27


Chapter notes | All notes

20 Report on Northern Territory Administration, pp. 5, 12, 16; Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1920–21), volume III, pp. 1653–69.

21 ibid.

22 ibid.

23 ibid.

24 Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, volume XCIV, 5 November 1920, pp. 6279–81.

25 NAA: A3, NT1922/3709, Reorganisation of Northern Territory administration. Poynton's report was prepared in June 1921.

26 NAA: A3, NT1922/2695, H M Trower – termination of appointment.

27 Australia. Economies Royal Commission, First Progress Report, recommendation 45, p. 90; CommonwealthParliamentary Papers (1917–19), volume V, pp. 1525–615.


Chapter 2
Early Commonwealth Years, 1863–1911