Debate has erupted over the impact of the government’s controversial voter ID proposal on Aboriginal Australians, with the Coalition accusing Labor of disrespecting Indigenous people.
The opposition has countered by claiming the hot-button push by the government is an attempt to win Labor-held seats in the Northern Territory.
But a government senator from the NT has also raised concerns about how her own party’s push could harm Indigenous people.
Coalition MP Rowan Ramsey told parliament on Wednesday that Labor had shown “condescension and disrespect” to Indigenous Australians by claiming they would be disproportionately harmed if they were forced to show formal identification at polling booths.
Under the Coalition proposal, Australians would have to provide official identification documents before casting a ballot. People unable to immediately provide ID would be able to cast a “declaration vote”, which allows another voter with the appropriate identification to attest to someone else’s identity.
Labor claims the proposal is racist and akin to similar laws in the US, which are blamed for suppressing votes among marginalised or vulnerable communities.
Mr Ramsey, whose South Australian outback electorate of Grey takes in several Aboriginal communities, said Labor was undermining the capability of Indigenous Australians to show identification.
“I’m pretty sick of some of the condescension and the disrespect that is shown to them, like, ‘You poor black fellas couldn’t be expected to work out who you are or prove who you are’,” he told parliament on Wednesday night.
“There is this condescending and just disgusting attack on their capabilities.”
The Coalition claims the laws are necessary to crack down on illegal or multiple voting. The Australian Electoral Commission told a Senate estimates hearing in October that it detected just 2100 instances of multiple voting at the 2019 election – about 0.01 per cent of all ballots cast.
Electoral commissioner Tom Rogers called the number “vanishingly small” in a March hearing.
On Thursday morning, Labor’s shadow special minister of state Don Farrell said the legislation would mean thousands of Australians missed out on voting.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever that to stop the 2000 people who voted twice from voting, you’ll reject tens of thousands of ordinary Australians,” Senator Farrell said.
“It’s a preposterous proposition from Mr Ramsey – I’m surprised he even suggested it.”
Earlier this week, the South Australian senator said scrapping the voter ID proposal would be the “first thing” a new Labor government would do.
It comes after Labor accused the government of deliberately cutting staff from electoral offices in the Northern Territory and preventing Aboriginal Labor voters in the electorate of Lingiari from participating in the next election.
Labor MP Andrew Giles said instead of introducing voter ID laws, the government should investigate how people in remote communities could be easily added to the electoral roll.
“In lieu of reducing the Territory to just one seat, this government is now using the bill to help it win Lingiari by suppressing the votes of First Nations people in the Territory,” the Victorian MP told parliament.
“These laws are blatantly racist and will prevent First Australians living in community areas from voting.”
His comments were echoed by Labor’s candidate for Lingiari, Marion Scrymgour, who described it as a direct assault on the seat.
“It’s a prized seat, and it’s one [the Morrison government] wants,” she said.
However, Special Minister of State Ben Morton rejected the accusation, telling Sky News the legislation was drafted to ensure no one would be turned away from a polling booth. He also flatly rejected suggestions the proposal was about winning any specific seat.
Meanwhile, the government is facing potential dissent from within its own ranks, with Coalition senator Sam McMahon threatening to cross the floor to vote against the legislation.
The Northern Territory senator was one of five Coalition members who this week voted against the government on Pauline Hanson’s push for “anti-discrimination” laws for the unvaccinated.
“I’ve got concerns about how they’re (the voter ID laws) going to impact, particularly Indigenous Territorians,” she told NITV.
Fellow Coalition senators Alex Antic and Gerard Rennick have also threatened to abstain from voting with the government amid concerns about vaccine mandates.
Mr Morton said he was confident that all Coalition members would support the bill, which is likely to come to a vote this fortnight in the final sittings of parliament for the year.
“Requiring voter ID is not unique,” he said.
“It provides confidence to electors who know the process cannot be easily compromised.”