Territorians have been fighting for political rights since the Surrender Act of 1908 when South Australia surrendered the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth. It was a move which deprived Territorians of all political representation and voting rights and caused resentment. In 1918 around 1000 demonstrators marched on Government House protesting employment, taxation and political representation in what became known as the Darwin Rebellion. Their demand: “No taxation without representation.”
It was this people’s movement that forced the Commonwealth to act. A Royal Commission was called, the outcome of which was the Northern Territory Representation Act 1922 which provided for a single non-voting Northern Territory member of the House of Representatives. It was not until 1968 that the Member for the Northern Territory acquired full voting rights, some 46 years later.
In 2000, the Division of Northern Territory was divided into two divisions: Solomon, which covers the Darwin and Palmerston area, and Lingiari, which covers the remainder of the Territory.
Now, the Australian Electoral Committee (AEC) has completed its redistribution, as it does after every Federal election, and has declared the NT will lose a seat, halving its representation in the House of Representatives at the stroke of a pen.
This news has been met with great despair in the Northern Territory. With only four voices in a parliament of over 220 parliamentarians—two in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate—the loss of one voice will be felt most acutely in remote regions.
It will make the Territory the most underrepresented Electorate in Australia, and smacks of inequality and unfairness. While the Constitution allows for a minimum of five seats for each original state—and 12 senators, it leaves Parliament to decide the representation for the Territories. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 provides for a minimum of one member each for the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. The ACT now has three.
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. A single seat in the House of Representatives would mean one member of parliament representing more than 250,000 Territorians in an electorate of over 1.4 million square kilometres—an electorate in which 27 per cent are First Nations people.
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.
Labor will always fight for strong federal representation and will be fighting this every step of the way. In June, Labor introduced a Private Senator’s Bill to legislate for a minimum of two seats in the NT. It was co-sponsored by CLP Senator, Dr Sam McMahon, and all the Nationals Senators.
The case for two seats in the Northern Territory is above party politics. It is about fairness for remote and regional Australians; fairness for Territorians who live outside of Darwin and Palmerston, in Alice Springs, Katherine, and Tennant Creek; fairness for Territorians living on cattle stations and pastoral stations; fairness for First Nations Territorians living in remote communities, living on homelands and who speak one of the Territory’s more than 100 Aboriginal languages; and fairness for Australians living on the Indian Ocean Territories – Christmas and Cocos Islands, which also fall under the electorate of Lingiari. In case you need a greater sense of the size of the Northern Territory, it is six times the size of Victoria and almost double the size of New South Wales.
And while the decision by the AEC is based on population statistics, accessibility issues, language barriers and other obstacles result in undercounting of the NT’s population in the census. Only 68.2 per cent of eligible First Nations Territorians are enrolled to vote, compared 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.
The grandchildren of Vincent Lingiari, who gave permission for the electorate of Lingiari to be named in his honour, have written to the Prime Minister pleading with him to support the Bill for two seats. Descendants Debra Smiler, Sonny Smiler, Rosie Smiler, Jocelyn Vincent and Lisa Smiler wrote:
The fight for Land Rights began here on Gurindji country. Our grandfather Vincent Lingiari fought against power and privilege for the betterment of our people, and all Australians.
Right now we ask you to listen to our voice, and help us to protect our voice. Losing a seat will make our voices softer not louder.
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.
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Ensuring Fair Representation of the Northern Territory) Bill 2020 has been referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), which received more than 50 submissions and heard from more than 20 witnesses at a hearing on 21 July, 2020. The overwhelming majority support the Bill.
Josie Douglas, Executive Manager Policy and Governance, Central Land Council, said direct contact between remote Aboriginal Territorians and their Federal member would be rare under the proposed change.
The sole federal member's electoral office could be hundreds of kilometres away from remote residents…It is not difficult to foresee that the belief in the relevance of the electoral system, and interest in engaging with it, would be severely challenged.
A single electorate for the Territory would not recognise the NT's strategic and economic importance to the whole of Australia.
In giving evidence to the JSCEM, Greg Ireland, Chief Executive Officer of the Chamber of Commerce NT noted the NT’s strategic importance in terms of defence, oil and gas.
We certainly believe that we are underrepresented even with two members, just from the point of view that we are such a strategic location with our proximity to Asia and the potential opportunities that brings the entire nation—not only the Northern Territory.
Indeed, 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 and the closest port to South-East Asia.
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 in 2019 and supporting 15,000 jobs across some 2,000 tourism businesses. With international borders unlikely to reopen until 2021 and a return to pre-COVID levels being some years off, supporting and advocating for domestic tourism opportunities will be more important than ever.
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.
In the meantime, slashing our voice in the Federal parliament will do little to lessen Territorians’ resentment of Canberra or restore faith in the political process. The NT must not remain a people under surrender.
Note from the Editorial Board: Since time of writing, the federal government announced that it intends to introduce legislation guaranteeing a minimum of two seats in the lower house for the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. The Australian Fabians congratulate Senator Malarndirri McCarthy for her successful advocacy on this important matter.