The NT is growing - but not in our representation

07 October 2020

THE SENATE - PROOF - STATEMENTS BY SENATORS Northern Territory: Parliamentary Representation SPEECH
Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Senator McCarthy (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:31): I hear it's raining around central Australia at the moment and it's pretty cool around Yulara. Up in the Top End, the wet season is certainly on its way, with a bit of rain and certainly the humidity. People are even catching $10,000 barramundi with the $1 million fish competition that's happening. We're growing in the Northern Territory. We've had around 100,000 people who've crossed our borders since July. Of course, not all of them will stay, but I'd say we're going to have a lot more people staying in the Northern Territory. In August, our retail sector was one of the highest in spending across the country. We are growing in the Northern Territory.

But where we're not growing is in our representation. There is a push to remove a voice in the lower house, reducing the seats of the Northern Territory from two to one. That's not what this parliament should be about. It should be about encouraging, growing and incentivising our remote and regional Australia, especially when we see the budget. The forgotten north doesn't receive nearly enough of what it should if we are to finish the unfinished business of our country in infrastructure, in investment, in growth and in fairness in representation in the Australian parliament.

We saw in the House yesterday that a significant vote took place. An amendment was passed to a government motion—not an opposition motion, a Greens motion or an Independent motion but a government motion—that will, in a nutshell, allow a private member's bill before this place, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Ensuring Fair Representation of the Northern Territory) Bill 2020, to be debated and voted on in the other place if it passes here in the Senate. The government supported that amendment. Yes, the coalition government supported that amendment before the House for the suspension of standing orders to allow this to happen. We have a window in time, here in the Senate, as the only opportunity, from an opposition's perspective, to be able to bring on a suspension of standing orders in that other place. They have opened the door to enable us in here to send a private senator's bill to them. I say to the government: the government supported the suspension of standing orders in the House; the government can support the suspension of standing orders in the Senate.

The Northern Territory is poised to become the comeback capital of Australia. Territorians have worked hard to make sure we have been the safest place to be during this dreadful pandemic. We are on track for economic recovery as we position the Territory for future investment, leading to more jobs and economic growth. That hard work is seeing people flock to the Northern Territory. The NT government's most recent data indicates a trend of around 4,500 people permanently relocating since the border opened. Keep that figure in mind: 4,500 people have permanently relocated since we opened the border. But the Northern Territory is going to lose a seat—has lost a seat, as far as the Australian Electoral Commission is concerned—because we are short of 4,478 residents in the Northern Territory. That decision was made back in March. So we stand to lose our representation at the very time our population is increasing.

We have always argued that the formula on which the Australian Electoral Commission based its decision to cut one of our seats does not reflect the true nature of the Territory's population. The Australian Electoral Commission made a determination on 3 July for the NT to revert to one seat in the House of Representatives. Under their formula, we just miss out on making the quota for two seats. But there is an even stronger kick in the guts here: Territorians don't even have the chance to put their views to the Australian Electoral Commission about the reduction.

Other seats across other states have an opportunity, as part of a redistribution, to put their views. We don't even get that. All we have is a brief inquiry into the private senator's bill by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. What has been clear through that committee's hearings, and in the many times I have stood in the Senate to alert senators to this growing political concern in terms of the voices of the people of the Northern Territory—along with my CLP colleague Senator Sam McMahon; we are absolutely united on this front—is that the parliament must not and cannot reduce and diminish our voices.

Indigenous organisations, land councils, chambers of commerce, trade unions, religious bodies, political parties and concerned private citizens have all said they want the Territory to have a fair go in Canberra. This afternoon, I will table a petition reflecting exactly that—a petition of nearly 4,000 signatures of residents from right across the Northern Territory and, indeed, from right across Australia. And that petition is going to keep running, because this is a battle that the people of the Northern Territory are not going to give up on. We deserve a minimum of two seats in the lower house; naturally we want more than that, but we certainly don't want to lose what we already have. There have been a lot of words said here, and in support outside this chamber, about the need to maintain the representation of our regions of the Northern Territory in this parliament. I urge all senators to 'take the Territory bull by the horns' and fix the question of our representation. Fix it this week, as the motion in the other house has invited us to do.

The motion moved in the other house invites us to have the courage to debate it in here, to support it in here and do the right thing in here for the people of the Northern Territory because we have a window that has now been opened to us. This is a unique situation, a historical moment, and we can do this. How important are the people of the Northern Territory to the Senate? How important are the people of the Northern Territory to the lower house? Well, members showed how important the people of the Northern Territory are by moving this motion, by challenging us in the Senate to have the courage to pursue this inequality in the voices of our First-Nations people, of our cattle stations, of our mining organisations, of our Aboriginal communities, of the ranger programs, of the fishing industry. Make sure their voices are reflected adequately by ensuring that we do maintain the two seats of the Northern Territory in the lower house and, hopefully, one day to come, even more seats and senators.

Read Hansard transcript.