OPINION PIECE – THE VOICE OF NORTHERN TERRITORY VOTERS RISKS BEING SILENCED EVEN FURTHER – MONDAY, 7 SEPTEMBER 2020

The principle “one person, one vote” is at the core of our democracy.

So why are Aboriginal Territorians, already among the most underrepresented on electoral rolls, having their voices further silenced?

Sustained government cuts are to blame for disenfranchising remote Aboriginal voters in the Northern Territory. This is at a time when one of the territory’s two seats in the lower house could be knocked off, making it even more under-represented.

The result of the recent Northern Territory election highlights how the cuts the Coalition government made in the 2017 federal budget to the Indigenous Electoral Participation Program are silencing our First Nations voices.

Don’t take it from me. Take it from the facts.

The recent Northern Territory election saw remote voting numbers at record lows. The large community of Maningrida provides one example, with 1,529 people on the roll but just 24% turning out to vote. In other remote seats such as Gwoja, less than 50% of the 5,313 electors cast a vote. It would be easy to blame Covid, but senior NT electoral officers have rejected this explanation.

The NT electoral commissioner, Iain Loganathan, believes the problem is systemic. He has publicly said that “the gradual and eventual shutdown of remote enrolment programs” has only “served to disenfranchise remote voters” and that Indigenous turnout across the territory is only half what it should be.

In the territory, a staggering 40% of the population live in remote and very remote areas. Meanwhile, the number of staff in the Northern Territory Australian Electoral Commission has gone from 15 down to just three.

This is how we got to an Aboriginal enrolment rate in the NT of around 68.2%, compared with a national enrolment rate of 96.3%. That is, 16,000 Aboriginal Territorians do not have any say over governments and policies that profoundly affect them. To put this figure into context, there are only just over 100,000 voters who cast formal ballots in the recent territory election.

Further, with pre-polling, Darwin or Alice Springs residents had close to two whole weeks to go to a booth at their convenience and vote. Remote Territorians may have a few hours on a specific day when the remote polling team visit, if they visit at all. Some missed out completely because they had to travel away from their community for funeral ceremonies.

And to compound this issue, the NT will soon be reduced to one lower house seat in federal parliament.

When a decline in the territory’s population was recorded, the Australian Electoral Commission made a determination that the NT’s lower house seats be halved, to just one MP. There are reasons to think that three seats would be a fairer outcome; one would be a travesty.

When looking at a population comparison with Tasmania, it’s plainly unfair. Tasmania, simply by virtue of being a state, has 17 representatives in federal parliament, including five guaranteed seats in the lower house. A single seat for the Northern Territory would make it the largest electorate by population in Australia, almost 250,000. And Aboriginal Australians would get short shrift once again. That’s simply unconscionable.

No other electorate would have the diversity or size of this single NT seat. A single seat would encompass a capital city, regional towns, remote Indigenous communities, pastoral and cattle stations and our Indian Ocean territories of Christmas Island and Cocos Islands.

What this means in practice is that it would be near impossible for a single lower house member to give the focus that issues such as Indigenous health and remote housing require. At a time where we should be heeding the call of First Nations people to have a stronger and more influential voice in our democratic process, we’d only be further silencing their voices.

Labor has introduced a private member’s bill in the Senate that seeks to legislate a minimum of two lower house seats. It enjoys broad and deep bipartisan support in the Northern Territory from Labor and the Country Liberal party. It has the support of crossbench senators Jacqui Lambie, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff and all five Nationals senators, as well as Barnaby Joyce and the deputy prime minister.

We almost have an absolute majority for a common sense and bipartisan solution. Now we just need one voice, Scott Morrison’s, to speak up on the side of the common good and on the side of disenfranchised Aboriginal Australians and all Territorians.

Luke Gosling is the federal Labor member for Solomon in the Northern Territory.

This piece was first published in The Guardian on Monday 7 September 2020.