Labor will always fight for strong federal representation for Territorians

12 June 2020

Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Ensuring Fair Representation of the Northern Territory) Bill 2020 ---Second Reading SPEECH Thursday, 11 June 2020

I am proud to be introducing this Bill today which is co-sponsored by my colleague, the Shadow Special Minister of State, Senator Don Farrell.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide for a minimum of two seats for the Northern Territory in the House of Representatives.

This Bill is necessary, because, based on Parliamentary Library projections, the Northern Territory's representation in the House is set to halve after an electoral boundary redistribution process which is due to start next month. This is because the Territory's population, although nearly 250,000, is below the entitlement quota for two seats.

The Constitution allows for a minimum of five seats for each original statebut leaves Parliament to decide the representation for the Territories.

There is very much a historical aspect to where we find ourselves. At Federation in 1901 the Northern Territory was a single electorate together with South Australia.

It was a short lived arrangement. In 1907 South Australia passed the Northern Territory Surrender Act that started a process to move the Northern Territory back to Commonwealth control.

On 1 January 1911, we became a Federal Territory under the control of the Commonwealth under theNorthern Territory Acceptance Act 1910.

And still, despite self-government, the Northern Territory is ultimately subject to the legislative control of the Commonwealth. It's a situation that has caused and continues to cause some resentment. Territorians are prickly about Canberra control.

This sentiment gave rise to the Darwin Rebellion in 1918, when around 1000 demonstrators marched on Government House protesting employment, taxation and political representation.

The rebellion led to a Royal Commission, the outcome of which was theNorthern Territory Representation Act 1922which provided for one Northern Territory member of the House of Representativesbut with no voting rights.

Significantly, it was a people's movement that forced the Commonwealth to act.

There have been further legislative changes at the federal level over many years impacting on NT representation.

TheCommonwealth Electoral Act 1918provides for a minimum of one member each for the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. Based on population, the ACT currently has three members of the House of Representatives and the Northern Territory has two.

The Northern Territory first gained a second seat at the 2001 election, dividing the electorate of the Northern Territory into the seats of Solomon (the urban area of Darwin and Palmerston) and Lingiari (the rest of the Northern Territory west to the border of Western Australia, south to South Australia, and east to Queensland).

Prior to that my colleague in the other place, the Member for Lingiari, the Honourable Warren Snowdon, was the member for the electorate of the Northern Territory for 12 years. In 2001 when the electorate was divided, Warren became the member for Lingiari and he was joined by CLP member David Tollner in the newly formed seat of Solomon which is now held by Luke Gosling.

In 2003, the Australian Electoral Commission made a redistribution determination that would have again reduced the NT to one seat. In response to that, David Tollner introduced a private member's bill to guarantee the Territory two seats and the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquired into whether the Act should be amended to guarantee both the ACT and the NT two seats in the House of Representatives.

While the majority of submissions to the inquiry were in support of the proposal, the Committee found that the representational entitlement method was the best method of determining the Territories' entitlement. Although the Committee recommended overturning the Commissioner's 2003 redistribution determination, it stopped short of guaranteeing the Territories two seats into the future.

In 2004 the Act was amended to overturn the Electoral Commissioner's determination and retain both electoral divisions. This was largely because the shortfall for the second quota was only 295 electors and well within an acceptable margin of error. The Act was also amended at that time to introduce a margin of error calculation for future redistribution determinations.

The amendment to the Act in 2004 only applied to the 2003 redistribution. No redistribution since then has resulted in a reduction in members in the NT, so the need for further amendments to the Act has not arisenuntil now.

On the Parliamentary Library's reckoning the estimated population figures will see the NT fall short of a second quota by approximately 4,700 electors including the margin of error.

Without legislative intervention, the Territory will lose a seat in the upcoming redistribution, halving its representation in the House of Representatives at the stroke of a pen.

The Territory's size, the remoteness of many of its communities and its unique demography all contribute to its need for more than one lower house seat.

Losing a seat would mean a single MP serving an electorate of over 1.4 million square kilometres, including the remote Indian Ocean Territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands. The Territory is enormousit is six times the size of Victoria and almost double the size of New South Wales.

Losing a seat would mean a single MP representing a population of nearly 250,000 Territorians.

This would make the NT electorate by far Australia's largest by population, with approximately 30,000 more people and spread over an area more than 35,000 times larger than the electorate of Melbourne.

The two seats in the Northern Territory have a population not too far below the national average and yet more than each of the five seats in Tasmania.

Tasmania, as an original state in the Constitution, is guaranteed five seats regardless of its size. Five members in the House of Representatives with a population of about 535,000 we are simply asking for two elected members for the Territory's 250,000 residents.

Without legislating for a guaranteed two seats, representation in the Territory will always be at the mercy of ABS statistics. We don't know the true population because many people have not been counted in the Census. There is a historical issue with undercounting remote community populations, with issues around accessibility, language barriers and other barriers.

On top of that, populations fluctuate. The Northern Territory Department of Treasury and Finance's projected population statistics predict the Territory's population will reach 251,727 by 2021, taking it over the threshold of eligibility for two seats. If these projections are correct and a redistribution this year results in the loss of a seat, the redistribution would see an outcome which is not reflective of the population at the time of the next election.

A single electorate for the Territory would not recognise the different characteristics and communities of interest from Darwin and Palmerston to the remote regions, nor the NT's strategic and economic importance to the whole of Australia.

The port of Darwin is integral to our nation's defence, biosecurity and border security. It is the gateway for trade with the rest of the world, being the closest port to South-East Asia.

But the Territory is more than just Darwin. Without legislation, a single MP would need to divide their time between Darwin and communities like the Cocos Islands, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Christmas Island, Katherine and Arnhem Land. These are places of enormous historical, cultural and environmental significance to Australia and they need special attention.

The Territory is simply too big for one person and our citizens deserve more. The saying is 'Bigger than Texas'. We really should be saying 'Bigger than the Territory' to get a true sense of our vast region.

As the Territory works to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, there could not be a worse time for it to lose a voice in the Federal Parliament.

The challenges presented by the coronavirus have put a number of critical industries at risk.

Tourism is vital to the Territory, generating over $2 billion in expenditure last year and supporting 15,000 jobs across some 2,000 tourism businesses.

With international borders unlikely to be reopened until next year and a return to pre-COVID levels being some years off, supporting and advocating for domestic tourism opportunities will be more important than ever.

This advocacy will be particularly important in the Territory where the tyranny of distance will require a different approach to what is successful on the east coast.

For the 2,000-odd enterprises, the majority of which are sole traders or small businesses, our advocacy will be critical to their survival and the long term success of the tourism industry in the NT.

Legislating for two seats in the Northern Territory will ensure that all Territorians, including the 27 per cent of the NT's population who are Indigenous, will continue to have the representation in Canberra that they deserve.

Although First Nations peoples make up over a quarter of our population, only 68.2 per cent of eligible Indigenous Territorians are enrolled to vote. This compares to an overall enrolment rate in the NT of 84.4 per cent and a national enrolment rate of 96.3 per cent. Although the enrolment rate has been steadily improving, this is quite clearly an unacceptable gap. We need to maximise the opportunity for Indigenous Australians to be represented and to fully participate in our democracy.

At a time when we should be heeding the call for First Nations people to have a stronger, louder, more influential voice in our democratic processes, reducing the NT's representation in the House will only set us back further.

I called in my first speech in this place coming up to four years ago for a serious vision for the north that would encompass the Northern Territory's development as a state.

In my previous role in the NT Assembly as Minister for Statehood I always championed statehood for the NT, for us to have equal representation in the Australian Parliament.

Territorians don't have a fair partnership in the Australian Federation. If we were a state our representation would be guaranteed. It is time to move towards allowing the people of the Territory to fully make our own decisions, determine our own future so we can engage in a fair partnership.

A first step towards this is by legislating for two seats in the NT, to pave the way for a future where the Territory can look forward to one day being an equal state here in the Australian Parliament.

I want to acknowledge and thank my Territory colleagues for working tirelessly for our constituency and for making the case for two seats in the NT. The Member for Lingiari, the Honourable Warren Snowdon, the Member for Solomon, Luke Gosling, and the Territory's Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, are all fierce advocates for the Territory and we need them all now more than ever.

I want to make special mention of my Territory colleague in this place, Country Liberal Party Senator Sam McMahon. Senator McMahon understands the need for effective representation in the NT and I thank her for her public statements on this issue. I would also like to thank National Party Senators McKenzie, Canavan, Davey and McDonald for joining Senator McMahon in co-sponsoring the motion to introduce this Bill. I know also that there are other Senators from the crossbench who are supportive and I hope that the support from all of those Senators will help sway their colleagues.

Labor will always fight for strong federal representation for Territorians and we call on the Morrison Government to back our plan to guarantee two Northern Territory seats in legislation.