News State NT News Aboriginal voter turnout at record lows, and getting worse

Aboriginal voter turnout at record lows, and getting worse

AEC volunteer information officers Esau and Jerry Martin prepare to help locals with the voting process at Bulman community in central Arnhem Land in 2016. Photo: AAP
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

Aboriginal people vote in far lower numbers than other Australians, the problem is at record low levels and getting worse, a hearing was told.

The last federal, territory and local elections within the past two years had involved an overall drop in voter numbers in the Northern Territory and in remote areas.

The problem was serious enough to be regarded as “undermining democracy” in the Northern Territory, NT electoral commissioner Iain Loganathan said at a parliament estimates committee hearing into public spending.

In the NT’s Arafura electorate, for instance, just 49.2 per cent of registered voters actually voted at the 2016 election.

In the Northern Territory there are about 26,000 people eligible to be on the electoral roll who are not, making voter turnout far lower than the official figures.

“If we are getting to a situation of not having half the people voting, it starts to undermine democracy,” Mr Loganathan said.

Voter turnout in the NT in 2016 was 74 per cent − compared to 91 per cent nationally − for the federal election but that figure goes down to about 60 per cent if you include those not enrolled.

It was about the same for the Territory election also held in 2016 and in last year’s local government election it fell from 70 to a record low 63 per cent among registered voters and from 49 to 31 per cent − or three out of 10 people − in regional areas.

A volunteer puts up candidates’ posters at Warruwi, on South Goulburn Island in 2013. A remote mobile polling team travelled to the town so its 220 enrolled voters can cast their votes. Photo: AAP

While the NT’s size and demography created issues, more relevant was the fact that Aboriginal people felt disengaged from the process and the Australian and Northern Territory Electoral Commissions were split on how to tackle the problem.

“The view of the Northern Territory Electoral Commission is the gap is getting greater,” Mr Loganathan said.

A University of Tasmania/Larrakia Nation study had found that many Aboriginal people felt that voting was “a waste of time because nothing changes”, disengagement was growing and there was a lack of education and understanding.

“There is no magic bullet to solve this. I do think the way to do it is have a face-to-face interaction with Aboriginal electors and explain to them in terms of what core democratic principles are and what their role is so that they can be informed in voting,” Mr Loganathan said.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner criticised the Australian Electoral Commission at the Estimates hearing over the fact that it had moved most of its staff to Brisbane so that its NT operations were essentially being operated from there.

Mr Loganathan said a proposal he put to the AEC to joint fund a program to maintain the electoral roll in remote areas to lift the number of Aboriginal people voting had been rejected in favour of concentrated programs only at federal election times.