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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Dividing the Territory, 1926–31

With his new rural land policy in place, Pearce now went much further. In November 1923 he prepared a submission for Cabinet seeking in-principle support for development to be coordinated by an executive commission charged with the management of that portion of northern Australia above the 20th parallel, including Queensland and Western Australia, not just the Territory. Pearce said:

the present methods of development are inadequate…Examination of the records of the past to try and discover the cause of the failures has convinced me that our actions are fundamentally wrong…I believe the time is ripe to make a complete change in our method.14

He said his proposed commission would be a full-time entity located in Darwin, so that it could administer 'on the spot'. It would develop a series of works and be sanctioned to raise and spend necessary funds. The Commonwealth and the two States would be debited with a proportion of the costs incurred by the commission. While the three Australian governments would have overall control, Pearce made it clear that he looked to the United Kingdom to provide financial support. He argued that it would support his proposal because it needed space for its surplus population, new markets for its goods, and new fields for the production of raw material within the Empire, and 'the Territory … can supply all three requirements'.

Cabinet approved Pearce's recommendation but suggested that the commission be limited to the Territory, with Western Australia and Queensland joining later. Prime Minister Bruce (then in London) supported the proposal but said that in view of proposed accelerated development of the north, independent advice on matters such as docks and river works was needed. He recommended George Buchanan, who had done similar work in South Africa, undertake a study and report back to the Government. Pearce was opposed to Bruce's suggestion, preferring to establish the commission first and have it prepare developmental proposals, but Bruce's view prevailed and Buchanan was asked to conduct the investigation.15

Buchanan submitted his report in July 1925. He concluded that the Territory suffered from the effects of isolation, inefficient administration, lack of communications and labour problems.16 Buchanan criticised the divided administration between Melbourne and Darwin, and the lack of cooperation between government agencies in Darwin. As far as future development was concerned he felt there were two options: the Government should adopt the principle of a Crown colony, whereby the Administrator was supreme head, with a self-contained budget and special development loans raised by the Government, or the Government should develop a board or directorate responsible to the Minister to carry out development programs; in either case, the development of the pastoral industry should be the Administration's first priority. The Government chose the second option.

The North Australia Commission Bill was introduced to Parliament in February 1926. Speaking in support of the legislation, Bruce said that the Commonwealth had not had a continuous policy for the Territory's development even though considerable funds had been spent there. This was partly brought about by frequent changes of Ministers and the lack of a specific Commonwealth department designed to administer and develop a largely uninhabited territory. What was needed, he said, was inside information to enable development to proceed; hence the Commission would be based in the Territory. It would make recommendations but Parliament would still have the opportunity to approve funding.17

The Northern Australia Act took effect on 1 February 1927, creating the North Australia Commission. The Territory was divided into two regions, North and Central, along the 20th parallel (passing just to the north of Tennant Creek). Each region had its own Government Resident with separate administrations in Darwin and Alice Springs respectively. The Commission's primary role was the preparation of development plans with respect to railways, roads, communications, water boring and conservation, ports and harbours.18 The Commission presented an initial report in 1927 that dealt with most of these matters; however, its recommendations were uncosted.19 It stressed the need for additional waters on pastoral properties and recommended that the Commonwealth finance the construction of bores in order to 'arrive at a scheme that would definitely encourage boring for water in these northern areas where it is so essential to real development'.20

Meanwhile the Commonwealth continued the northern railway south from Emungalan to Mataranka in 1928, and on to Birdum in 1929. It was supposed to go another 70 kilometres to Daly Waters, but the Depression put an end to this. The southern railway from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs was also completed in 1929.

In 1929 Bruce's Government was replaced by James Scullin's Labor Government. The onset of the Great Depression, and the lack of funding, spelt the end for the North Australia Commission. Contrary to Pearce's intention, it did not govern 'on the spot', being dependent on the Commonwealth Government for its funding. Baillie argued that the Commission's sole focus on the pastoral industry resulted in a lack of real support from the wider, local community.21 Leaseholders criticised the Commission as an extravagance. The Commission may indeed have been an extravagant entity, costing more than £27,500 per year to function,22 but it had made a number of positive achievements in its short life. It completed a series of extensive surveys of the Territory, recognising that the information gained from those surveys would be of considerable value in fixing the position of roads, bores and other water supplies 'for proper and economical development'.23 It also undertook some road maintenance and improved stock routes by providing additional watering facilities.

Selected Records of the Northern Australia Commission
National Archives, Canberra
Minute of meetings – Northern Territory Land Board, 1927–31 A1, 1938/1181
National Archives, Darwin
Correspondence files, 1927–30 F20
North Australia Commission Interim Report, 'Development of North Australia' Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1926–28) Volume II, pp. 1971–90
North Australia Commission Second Report, 6 December 1927, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1929–31) Volume IV, pp. 305–31
North Australia Commission Third Report, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1929–31) Volume IV, pp. 333–56
North Australia Commission Second Report, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1929–31) Volume IV, pp. 357–86


Chapter notes | All notes

14 NAA: A2718, volume 1, part 1, Bruce–Page Ministry, Cabinet minutes 12 February to 7 December 1923 (Decision: Northern Territory Executive Commission, 20 November 1923).

15 A series of telegrams between Cabinet, Bruce and Pearce record the discussions at that time; NAA: A3934, SC42/25, Executive Commission, 1923.

16 Australia. Report on Northern Territory Development and Administration, 25 July 1925; Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1925), volume II, pp. 2509–33.

17 Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, volume 112, 10 February 1926, pp. 820–826.

18 The Commission superseded the Land Board created in 1924. Its members were John Horsburgh, George Hobler and William Easton.

19 North Australia Commission Interim Report, Development of North Australia, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1926–28), volume II, pp. 1971–1990

20 NAA: F20, 93, Water boring and conservation – water supplies on leases – assistance. The Commission's views on water were outlined in a memo dated 25 August 1927.

21 Jill Baillie, 'Struggling to Achieve the Vision Splendid: The North Australia Commission, 1927–1930', Northern Perspective, volume 13, number 2 (1990), p. 31.

22 NAA: F20, 1, Northern Australia Act, 1926 proclamation of etc.

23 NAA: F20, 62, Railway survey (trial) to Western Australia border – also road traverses.


Chapter 3
George Pearce and Development of the North, 1921–37