By ERWIN CHLANDA
Low enrolment and voter turnout by Aboriginal people raise questions about the “Voice to Parliament” referendum now opposed by the Nationals and the CLP Senator for the NT, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.
Why should there be a new Voice, at taxpayers’ expense, it may well be asked, when the existing ones are not being used?
Only 74.1% of the 53,563 voting-age Indigenous people in the NT are enrolled, the second-lowest figure behind WA (70.5%), according to the Australian Electoral Commission.
The national figure for Aborigines is 81.7%.
A total of 17,228,900 Australian people were enrolled to vote this year which meant that 96.8% of all eligible Australians were enrolled.
In the huge NT seat of Lingiari, all of the Territory except Darwin, the voter turnout was a mere 66.8%, according to the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Research at the Australian National University: “This was the lowest of any electorate in the nation, and significantly down from the rate of 72.85% reported for Lingiari in the 2019 federal election.”
That means around half of the voting-age people in that seat, entitled and obliged to vote, didn’t.
Says the ANU centre: “Lingiari has the highest proportion of Indigenous people of any electorate in the country, many of whom live in remote communities.”
The NT’s current “voice” to the national Parliament are four Federal politicians three of whom are Aboriginal.
In a small population such as ours they are easily accessible – go to the Sunday Market and have a yarn.
In addition we have dozens of elected members in the two other levels of government, local councils and Territory, all of which are connected to the Australian government in some way.
There is just one roll: The Northern Territory Electoral Commission (NTEC) uses a joint roll with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). The roll is maintained by the AEC. You only need to complete one form to enrol yourself for all levels of government in the Northern Territory, says the NTEC on its website.
Senator Price (pictured with former PM Malcolm Turnbull) says in a media release: “The Voice will not advance the primary aim of Closing the Gap and dealing with the real issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“The Voice will add another layer of bureaucratic red tape. Crucial questions remain unanswered.
“It will not economically empower Indigenous people. We believe this will be a voice for Redfern, not for Indigenous communities in regional, rural and remote Australia, in places like Cunnamulla, Alice Springs and Carnarvon.”
Activists for the Voice are conflating two issues in a bid to promote their cause but managing little more than making the referendum less likely to be passed.
One is that Aboriginal people are the first inhabitants of Australia – a no-brainer – and that this should be reflected in the Constitution. There appears to be little opposition to that.
The second is the controversial Voice demanded in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
That raises questions: Whose voice would the Parliament hear? And how can it be representative for the dozens of Aboriginal nations throughout the country? Will a new Voice make any difference? And is it necessary?
Theresa Roe, of the NT Aboriginal Peak Organisation, told a hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters last week: “We are concerned about having the lowest voter turnout in the electorate of Lingiari.
“There is no NTEC or AEC office in Central Australia in the seat of Lingiari, which is a big footprint, and we think this is a real concern.
“So I think the AEC and the NTEC need to have some presence down there, not only for the elections but also in the lead-up to the [Voice] referendum.
“It’s really important for that area to have some presence on the ground.”
West Arnhem Regional Council Mayor Matthew Ryan told the committee: “I believe the interpreter service was defunded. There’s confusion about how to vote for whom.
“There’s a lack of education, lack of communication and lack of transparency. People are confused.”
The NTEC is making some efforts to facilitate voting in the bush.
Its commissioner, Ian Loganathan, told the commission that since the 2016 election and in the 2020 election, special arrangements have been made: “That provision allows people who are not on the roll, but who are entitled to be on the roll, to complete a declaration vote.
“That vote, obviously, is placed in the declaration envelope and that envelope is checked. If that is a valid enrolment, then that vote is admitted to the count.
“If you look at the last Territory election, 1700 votes were admitted to the count, and over 1000 of those came from remote communities, so I think it certainly makes sense to give people every opportunity to have their vote count.
“We’ve been talking to the AEC in relation to the upcoming Voice referendum,” says Mr Loganathan.
“That would be a very helpful mechanism to ensure that remote Aboriginal people have an opportunity to have a say in a referendum that directly relates to them.”
Apart from the ballot box much can be achieved by lobbying. The tourism industry does it. The Chamber of Commerce does. Their members pay for it.
Aboriginal people have a string of organisations, often vocal, usually Federally funded. And there are the land councils whose job it is to represent their constituents.
In August the News conducted a survey in the Mall. We spoke with 29 Aboriginal people, several of them artists, displaying their work for sale.
Only three had heard about the Uluru Statement and the issues that flowed from it.
FILE IMAGES: Alison Anderson (top) campaigning in 2012 and Senate hopeful Warren H. Williams (above, right) in 2013, with voters.