Cyclone Tracy

After Tracy


Oral History

Front Page


Response to Cyclone Tracy

Darwin post Cyclone Tracy

Darwin - Not the Same Since the Cyclone

A comparison of the 1974 and 1980 electoral rolls revealed that 60% of those who were enrolled to vote in 1974 were no longer in Darwin in 1980. (Milliken).

Subjective personal observation leads the writer to believe that the 40% of voters who were in Darwin in both 1974 and 1980 contained a high percentage of people who were already long term residents in 1974; and that the 60% who left comprised a high percentage of people who were less committed (cyclone or not) to remain in Darwin.

If this observation is well founded, then it can be said that there was in 1980 a significant "core" group of "old timers" who were committed to the place. Those people, and their families, are still strongly represented in Darwin in 1998, and their contribution to the "Darwin ethos" is a powerful one.

Again subjectively, the writer has observed that Darwin residents who lived in the city before Tracy, or who had strong and long term family connections with the place, are in now regarded as being "true Darwinites", while those who arrived later remain "transients" whose commitment to the place is untested. Tracy was in this sense a social watershed.

Before Tracy Darwin was a town dominated by public servants who were responsible to masters in Canberra. Few of them stayed in the place longer than the two or three years needed to get onto a fast track in the Commonwealth bureaucracy, and even in the private sector Darwin was regarded as a place for short term postings. For the majority, life in Darwin had a two year horizon.

To the old timers, these people were "long soxers" - people who weren't staying, and weren't responsive to Darwin's special qualities. They were blamed for everything that was wrong with Darwin, and for all the failures of the Northern Territory to achieve its mythological destiny of development of its supposedly boundless resources. Tiger Brennan, sometime miner, full time character, and Darwin's Mayor when Tracy struck, called them "those blinking bods from Canberra."

There was a form of local government, a Legislative Council with no real power and thus an excellent forum for verbal extravaganzas. Nothing was more extravagant and colourful than the bombast of Tiger Brennan and other Councillors who won popular adulation through the virulence of their attacks on Canberra and their clamour for local control of the Territory.

Brennan and his colleagues never thought that they would ever have to administer the self government, much less the statehood, which they argued was the right of all Territorians. Thus they were astonished in late 1975 when a tired and emotional Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser arrived to campaign for the Territory's one Federal seat - thought likely to be vital in the contest following the Whitlam dismissal.

Fraser thought that a promise of statehood in five years would be a certain vote winner in the Territory, and the promise was publicly made without local consultation. Fraser won, and there was more local surprise, and not a little dismay, when his government announced a timetable for self government as a transitional measure toward full statehood.

The election promise of eventual statehood might easily have been ignored, and few Territorians would have reminded Fraser of it, such was the lack of enthusiasm for local control once it became a real prospect rather than a mere debating ploy. However, this was the era of Fraser's "razor gang", and an at least superficial determination to cut direct Commonwealth expenditure.

One of the largest single line items in Commonwealth budgets had been the huge expenditure in the Northern Territory - a large figure at the best of times, but now swollen by enormous commitments to Darwin's reconstruction post Tracy. Fraser reasoned that the Commonwealth's accounts would appear far less profligate if this expenditure on the Territory could be shown as though it were in the nature of a grant to the States.

Hence the seemingly strange situation, as the self government timetable advanced, of a Commonwealth keen, even anxious, that the Territory should have self government, and an embryonic Territory government cautious, even reluctant, to accept the transition. It was a situation which the first Territory Chief Minister Paul Everingham and his advisers were able to skilfully exploit to win an extraordinarily generous financial agreement from Canberra to underwrite fiscal nirvana in the Territory for the first five years after self government.

Darwin had changed rapidly in the first three years after Tracy, but after self government in 1978 change was consolidated and accelerated. No longer was it possible to put the blame on Canberra for everything that went wrong (although attempts are still fashionable).

Tracy was thus the catalyst for "normalisation" of Darwin, and the Territory.


Back to Top