Open Roads, Locked Gates: Accountability, corruption and morality in the Northern Territory’s policymaking arena

Obscured by the dramatic spectacle of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (aka the Intervention) in 2007, another significant reform was being implemented in the Northern Territory's (NT's) Indigenous affairs policy arena: In 2008, 53 mainly rural and majority-Indigenous community councils were forcibly amalgamated into eight regional shires. Years later, the new shires remain trenchantly unpopular, and have been criticised for having undermined local governance and control over government service delivery. Yet policymakers have used a mix of administrative expertise and moral righteousness to justify the reform: as a necessary change to curb corruption and instil 'good governance' into the sector. This mode of argumentation allowed for popular opposition to be effectively marginalised, by removing any moral alternative to the new shires.

My insider ethnography focuses here on the Roper Gulf Council region and the operations of the multi-billion dollar McArthur River Mine near Borroloola in order to explore moral-based policy definitions of accountability and corruption, and the messiness of their translations into practice. Why, for example, does government fund costly management structures to strictly monitor council vehicle use, but largely overlooks tax avoidance and environmental pollution by the mining industry? I offer a political and cultural interpretation of how 'accountability' is deployed in policy debates - not as an equitable expression of commensurable rules, but as an unstable reflection of wider social power relations within settler-colonial Australia.

Listen to the seminar recording.


Thomas Michel lived and worked in the Northern Territory for eight years, mainly in the town of Katherine. He worked for the NT Government on the implementation of the 2008 shires amalgamation reform, and subsequently worked in management for the Roper Gulf Regional Council for three years. During this time he commenced a PhD at Charles Darwin University to study the intercultural tensions surrounding the 2008 reform. This project has involved six years of ethnographic fieldwork and hundreds of interviews. His research focus is on the anthropology of bureaucracy, policy's production of 'common sense' knowledge, and the slippages of translating policy into practice. He is currently completing his studies at the University of Sydney, and is seeking comments and feedback on his research before publication later this year.