NT 2 Seats: I am enormously grateful for the bipartisan approach

01 December 2020

Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Ensuring Fair Representation of the Northern Territory) Bill 2020 Report from Committee

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (17:28): This is a significant moment in history for the Northern Territory and indeed for the Australian parliament. Right now, as of 3 July this year, the geographical area of the Northern Territory and its more than 140,000 enrolled voters are just one electoral division. Over 1.3 million square kilometres of the Northern Territory is one single seat at the moment according to the Australian Electoral Commission. That's why this report today in the Senate and the decision of the Senate to protect the two seats in the Northern Territory are absolutely critical. If an election were held tomorrow, all of us in the Northern Territory, including the offshore territories of Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island, would be casting their vote for just one federal representative. It would certainly be back to the future for Territorians.

I'd like to share a little bit of the history of the Northern Territory, and I'm going to do it over a couple of days, as I'm sure my Senate colleague Sam McMahon will also do. The Northern Territory was represented by just one seat between 1922 and 1998. Before this, it was a mixed bag, electorally speaking. From 1863 until 1911, Territorians were basically South Australians. No offence to the South Australian senators, but we do like to be Territorians! We did have the same voting rights as people living in South Australia for representation in both houses of the South Australian parliament. We qualified as South Australian voters in elections for both houses of the Commonwealth parliament after 1901. It's incredibly fitting, I think, that it is actually a South Australian senator who has assisted the Northern Territory senators and members fight to protect the two seats of the Northern Territory. And can I just throw in there that, when we look at the history, it was actually the surrender act of 1907 which saw the Northern Territory transferred from South Australia to the Commonwealth, so it seemed like no-one ever really wanted to have us. There's always been this struggle about representation. And even prior to that, I think there was even mention of making sure the north returned to Britain—they didn't seem to know what to do with us even before the 1900s, so there you go.

In 1911, Territorians lost all political representation for the next 11 years, when we were transferred to the Commonwealth. In 1922, the Northern Territory gained its first representative in the House of Representatives. In two years time, that will be 100 years ago. However, it was for a non-voting seat, so we didn't have voting rights, even though we had one representative. It stayed this way until the single NT member received full voting rights in 1968. This was an interesting time—it was a year after the referendum that recognised our First Nations people in the population. That's when we got the actual voting rights, even though we had a person in the House. It certainly stayed this way until the single NT member received those voting rights, and, in December 2000, the Australian Electoral Commissioner determined that the Northern Territory electorate would be divided into two seats—Solomon, which covers the Darwin area; and Lingiari, which covers the remainder of the Northern Territory—as well as the territories of Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands. A big shout-out to the residents of Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) islands because you fought so strongly in terms of making sure that these two seats stayed in the Northern Territory.

A few years later, in 2003, a determination by the AEC removed this second seat because of further changes in relative population sizes between the states and territories. So you can see that there's been a complete toing and froing—still!—in terms of the status of Territorians and our voices in the Australian parliament. Following the 2003 determination, during the 40th Parliament, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters conducted an inquiry into representation of the territories—similar to this time, with JSCEM doing the same thing. The committee recommended the 2003 determination be set aside by the passage of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Representation in the House of Representatives) Act 2004. It restored the second NT seat, but only for the October 2004 election. The Northern Territory continued to maintain two divisions beyond the 2004 election, and now we come to 2020, when the Electoral Commissioner made a determination that sees the NT revert back again to one seat.

The process of a federal redistribution is complex. It relies on objective information and has the capacity to take into account the opinions of those who are affected by redistribution decisions. Importantly, the process is undertaken independently of the government and the parliament. It is transparent and accountable, and, generally, the outcomes of these redistributions are accepted by the parties and the public. Australia's redistribution process is certainly independent, but this does not necessarily mean it is fair in every case. This determination, while completely correct under the present legislation, certainly isn't fair to the residents of the Northern Territory.

Territorians, though, aren't shy about fighting for what they see as their right to be fairly represented and doing things a little bit differently to the rest of the country. I'll just take you back, again, in a little bit of history. In December 1918, the pressure from issues that arose from a lack of political representation manifested in what became known as the Darwin rebellion, with mass protests, riots and the removal of the then NT Administrator, Mr Gilruth. The federal government of the day took the events of the rebellion very seriously and sent gunboats to monitor the situation and be ready should the protests turn violent. The rebellion itself led to a royal commission and the creation of a seat for the Northern Territory in the federal parliament, albeit a non-voting one.

In 2020, Territorians again banded together to protest against the move to reduce our political representation. This time we did it by working together on all political sides with a petition of thousands of Territorians and Australians. We didn't need the gunboats up there this time to get the Territorians settled down, as we did in 1918. It just shows the passion of the people of the Northern Territory to be heard when they see something that is as unfair as this decision was.

I'm enormously grateful for the bipartisan approach and the people from all walks who've come together for a common cause here. In a very rare move, one that certainly made this possible, all the NT federal representatives from both parties—Senator Sam McMahon and members from the House, Warren Snowdon, the member for Lingiari, and Luke Gosling, the member for Solomon—made submissions to the JSCEM inquiry. I'd like to acknowledge the support of many across all parties, in particular, the National Party, the Independents, the Greens and especially our crossbenchers for standing strong with us on this. While the government hasn't adopted all the recommendations of the JSCEM report, what it has done is guarantee Territorians two representatives in the House for the foreseeable future.

I have always got so much to say about the Northern Territory. I will continue to do this when the bill comes before the Senate here tomorrow. I'd certainly like to commend the report by the committee members of JSCEM, but also acknowledge the work of my colleague Senator Don Farrell in pursuing this so vigorously and so proudly—even if he is a South Australian!—for the people of the Northern Territory. Thank you, Senator Farrell.