The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Ensuring Fair Representation of the Northern Territory) Bill 2020 is a significant private senator's bill for the people of the Northern Territory. I stand here enormously proud to represent the people of the Northern Territory here in the Senate. I stand just as proudly with my fellow Territorians—Luke Gosling, the member for Solomon, and also Warren Snowdon, the member for Lingiari. I thank very much the CLP senator for the Northern Territory, Sam McMahon, for standing with us in putting this private senator's bill to the Senate for debate today.
The Constitution allows for five members of the House of Representatives for each original state but leaves it to parliament to determine the number of seats in the territories. In some ways, I wish that we didn't have to have this particular bill, but the Australian Electoral Commissioner has declared that the Northern Territory will lose one of its two seats at the next federal election. This news has been met with great despair in the Northern Territory. We have only four voices in a parliament of over 220 parliamentarians. The Northern Territory is growing. The Parliament of Australia says, 'Let's develop the north.' And, when we talk about developing the north and its economy and infrastructure, we must also talk about developing the north in terms of the voices of the people of the north. Removing a voice diminishes all of our voices. I am urging senators to get behind this bill.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 provides for a minimum of one member each for the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. 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 which is 30 per cent First Nations people and which has a population undercounted in the census.
I introduce this bill in the Senate along with my Labor colleague—our shadow special minister of state, Don Farrell. It has been co-sponsored by fellow NT Senator, Dr McMahon, and all the Nationals senators. We understand the importance of fair representation for regional, rural and remote Australians and we understand that the Northern Territory has 72 remote Indigenous communities, 500 homelands and 40 Indigenous languages. In fact, there are more than 40. They're the strong ones. There are actually over a hundred Aboriginal languages in the Territory. The case for the two seats in the Northern Territory is about fairness for remote and regional Australians. It recognises the huge geographical area of the Northern Territory, which is six times the size of Victoria and almost double the size of New South Wales. It recognises that, with two seats, the population in each is still not far below the national average and is significantly more than the five seats in Tasmania. This is by no means intended to disrespect my colleagues in all of the other states, but it's important in terms of justice and fairness in terms of democracy. That's what this bill is about.
This bill has been referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which gave us an opportunity to hear from those Territorians who will be affected by this change. The inquiry is considering more than 50 submissions on the issue and has heard from more than 20 witnesses. The overwhelming majority of these support maintaining our two seats in the Northern Territory. They included submissions and evidence from the Chamber of Commerce Northern Territory; the four land councils of the Northern Territory—Central Land Council, Northern Land Council, Anindilyakwa Land Council and the Tiwi Land Council; Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory; Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation of the Northern Territory; the Chinese Literary Association of Christmas Island; the CPSU; the Multicultural Council of the NT; the Australian Greens; the Leader of the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory, Lia Finocchiaro; and many more. Greg Ireland, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, who gave evidence, said:
… bringing in a floor of two members is what we're seeking. We'd actually love it to be law. But that would at least allow a stronger voice inside parliament to assist with those challenges that we face.
Marion Scrymgour, the CEO of the Northern Land Council, said that returning to a solitary seat would heighten the effective disenfranchisement amongst Aboriginal Territorians. Sarah Cook, from the Isolated Children's Parents' Association, said that a single electorate would 'undoubtedly' limit the representation of remote communities and remote families in federal parliament. Sarah said, 'Lingiari is a massive land mass. There are many, many layers of need and disadvantage. We are already competing for air in those factors. We really think it's unreasonable to further limit us by reducing it to just a single person.' Sarah Cook gave evidence over the phone from her car in Katherine and told the committee she was about to drive home—10 hours sitting on an open highway.
Let's not forget the most important Indian Ocean territories that come under the Northern Territory: Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands. From Christmas Island, Chris Su wrote that, 'Travelling a single Northern Territory division would take more than two weeks and no less than four international airports and two ferries.' He said:
The distance from the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to Alice Springs as the crow flies is 4,113km. Dublin to Cairo is 3,975km. 4000km is one tenth of the circumference of the Earth.
These are the passionate submissions coming from people right across the Northern Territory Lingiari electorate.
Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation—based in Maningrida, Arnhem Land, one of the most remote corners of the current electorate of Lingiari—put in a powerful submission. I'd like to read quite a bit from their submission. They say:
…the suggested redistribution of the NT electoral boundaries illegitimately diminishes Indigenous Territorian's right to representation and ultimately justice. The idea that one MP could be an effective voice for the most disadvantaged Australians in an electorate spanning 1.4 million square kilometres makes a mockery of representation…
The census data is not accurate and underestimates the number of people living in the region
Many local Aboriginal people are not registered to vote. Even when they are, voting rates are low compared to the rest of the country.
This means that our local people are already disadvantaged when it comes to representation.
I also want to share with the Senate the voices of individuals who have spoken to me about this issue and who have signed the Labor petition on this matter.
I've spent the past month travelling across vast areas of the Northern Territory. I have been speaking to people from Yirrkala and Baniyala in north-east Arnhem Land and to people from Timber Creek and Yarralin, towards the West Australian border. I have been speaking to people in Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek. In particular, I have been speaking to people in Kalkarindji, the home of the Gurindji, the site of the 1966 Wave Hill walk-off, which at the weekend marked its 54th anniversary.
Some of you may have seen an article in The Australian newspaper last week, a plea from the grandchildren of Vincent Lingiari to the Prime Minister. In a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison the grandchildren of Vincent Lingiari, Debra Vincent, Sonny Smiler, Rosie Smiler, Jocelyn Victor and Lisa Smiler, called on the Prime Minister to support this bill in the Senate, and in particular when it reaches the House of Representatives, which we seriously hope that it does. They wrote:
In 2000, we gave permission for the Australian Electoral Commission to use our grandfather's name for the electorate of Lingiari. We were proud to see the achievements of Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people recognised in this way. Losing a seat will make our voices softer not louder.
They said: 'Right now we ask you to listen to our voice and help us to protect our voice. The voice of remote NT will be diminished without strong representation.'
It's really important for the Senate to recognise the significance of that letter, in particular the Prime Minister, and the importance, from a cultural perspective, of First Nations people giving permission for a name like Vincent Lingiari to be used in the parliament for a seat in the House of Representatives. The families had no idea what this decision meant in terms of the Australian Electoral Commission. No-one had spoken to them. No-one had explained as to why the name of Vincent Lingiari may not be going forward.
In my travels I do explain to Territorians what we're fighting for—for fair representation in the Northern Territory, for a voice for remote and regional Territorians, for democracy—and they are absolutely quick to get behind me. I say to the people of the Northern Territory: Let's stay strong on this. We deserve to grow in every aspect of that word—grow in the economy, grow in our infrastructure, grow in our population and, most importantly, grow in our democratic rights here in the Australian parliament.
Labor has garnered over 3,000 signatures from across the Territory and from across Australia on its petition, and we are not stopping there. We will continue with that petition. I will table that petition to the Senate later in the year. Petitioners include Erin Lucas from Lajamanu: 'One representative to service the whole of the Northern Territory is unreasonable, unrealistic and, put simply, unfair.' This is what John Boffa from East Side, Alice Springs, and our Chief Medical Officer Public Health at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress says: 'The population counts are not accurate, and marginalised people need to know their politicians if they are going to be motivated to vote. We must retain two seats.' This is what Raquel Nicholls-Skene in Brinkin says on the petition: 'The Northern Territory has the most disadvantaged people in Australia and being further stripped of representation will only contribute further to their disadvantage. As a territory not a state we already currently miss full participation in our governance—that is, not even a full vote in a referendum.'
Johana Iren from Umbakumba on Groote Eylandt said: 'The NT is already underrepresented with two seats. It's crucial to the Northern Territory to retain these two seats.' Gregory Thomson from Stuart Park in Darwin said simply, 'One seat is an insult to democracy.' Beverley Genat from Pine Creek said, 'While population density is normally the primary consideration, geographical distance must also been given just and fair consideration.' Werner Appel from Tennant Creek said, 'It's a disgrace.' Ann Grattige in Darwin said, 'It's not all about population size. The complexity of the issues needs to play a part in decision-making.' I would absolutely love to go on, and perhaps I will one day. From interstate we've had Beth Cummings from Millbrook, Western Australia, who said: 'We all need to stick together to do what's best for the Northern Territory.' Barbara Greensmith from Port Pirie in South Australia said: 'NT definitely needs two seats. It's such a huge area and it's totally unacceptable to believe that one person could possibly cover the whole area.'
There are so many. Go on my Facebook page and you will see all the comments. These people—these everyday Territorians and everyday Australians—get it. They understand what federal representation is meant to do and they can't believe the Northern Territory could possibly be represented by one person. They get that a single electorate for the Territory would not give adequate recognition to the differing communities in the NT. They get that a single electorate for the Northern Territory would not recognise the strategic and economic importance of the Northern Territory to Australia as a whole.
Labor gets it. The Nationals get it. I thank Senator Sam McMahon, Senator Bridget McKenzie, Senator Matt Canavan, Senator Perin Davey, Senator Susan McDonald for co-sponsoring this bill. The Greens get it. Independents Senator Lambie, Senator Patrick and Senator Griff get it. Even the leader of the Northern Territory CLP gets it. So does the Northern Territory Labor Party. With all of these senators supporting the bill, we're hopeful it can pass the Senate. Now I call on the Prime Minister to do the same. The only thing we need now, Prime Minister, is for you to get it, for you to support the voices of the people of the Northern Territory, for you to assist in this legislation to enable the Northern Territory to have two seats, at a minimum, in the Lower House. Yamalu.