House debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


Electoral Amendment (Territory Representation) Bill 2020; Second Reading

7:25 pm

Photo of Trevor EvansTrevor Evans (Brisbane, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to introduce the Electoral Amendment (Territory Representation) Bill 2020. This bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to provide greater certainty to the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory regarding their representation in the House of Representatives.

At the 2019 federal election, the Northern Territory elected two members. However, on 3 July 2020, using population statistics supplied by the Australian Statistician, the Electoral Commissioner issued a determination under the Electoral Act regarding the number of members of the House of Representatives for the next federal election. This determination provides that the Northern Territory and Western Australia will each lose a seat in the House of Representatives, and Victoria will gain a seat.

If left to stand, this determination would mean the Northern Territory, with an area of 1.3 million square kilometres and a population of nearly 250,000, would only hold one seat in the House of Representatives.

The government is committed to ensuring fair and equitable parliamentary representation across the country, especially across such a large and diverse part of our nation as the Northern Territory.

The government is proposing these amendments to the Electoral Act to preserve two members to represent the Northern Territory in the House at the next election and to make permanent changes to buttress the basis on which we calculate Territory representation for future elections.

The bill responds to the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, arising from an inquiry into a private senator's bill introduced to the Senate to guarantee two seats for the Northern Territory. I thank the committee for its work.

While the private senator's bill examined by the committee would have achieved an outcome of two seats for the Northern Territory at the next election, it did have some deficiencies and would have increased risk and complexity in the operation of the Electoral Act. The committee also suggested that the private senator's bill could conceivably create issues of potential constitutional risk, by treating the two territories differently—giving a two-seat floor to the Northern Territory while keeping the Australian Capital Territory on the old floor of one seat.

Importantly, the committee also found that the private senator's bill did not include all necessary legislative changes. For example that bill did not amend the numerous places in part IV of the Electoral Act (dealing with boundary drawing for electorates), where the Northern Territory is currently omitted.

Accordingly, the committee recommended that an alternative bill be put forward by the government, with the benefit of official advice, to address these problems and ensure a more robust solution. The committee recommended that:

… if the Parliament does not enact a two seat floor for the Territories, it considers instead either:

    Taking account of the committee's views, the government's bill makes four main changes related to Territory representation:

            Application of a harmonic mean calculation will result in a more significantly more favourable rounding up of the quotas required to secure additional seats in the House of Representatives as compared to the previous margin-of-error adjustment.

            A territory with one House of Representatives seat will only require a quota of 1.3333 to gain a second seat, and a territory with two seats will only require a quota of 2.4 to be allocated a third seat. Based on their past population levels, both territories would comfortably pass those respective thresholds.

            Harmonic mean rounding is recognised by electoral systems experts as the most fair and suitable approach for assigning parliamentary seats between different geographic areas to fix the unduly heavy constituent workload that can arise in the smallest areas. Prominent commentator Antony Green has been the principal exponent for this reform in Australia. Consistent with his recommendations, the bill removes the margin-of-error method as a trade-off for introduction of the more generous solution of harmonic mean rounding.

            These amendments provide a fairer mechanism to allocate seats in the House of Representatives for smaller jurisdictions and makes securing representation for the territories far more achievable on a permanent basis.

            This not only allows the Northern Territory to hold its ground, ensuring strong representation for the remote and disadvantaged communities included in its borders but makes it easier to achieve growth of its parliamentary representation to three seats as it develops.

            The recent NT budget points to specific construction and resource projects that underpin new data on population growth this year and over the forward estimates. They point to the Darwin ship lift, defence works at Larrakeyah, HMAS Coonawarra and Robertson Barracks, and the CDU city campus as part of the City Deals project.

            I welcome the comments of Chief Minister Michael Gunner who said in his budget speech that:

            After recent years of declining population, 2020 is the year it starts to turn around. We are growing again …

            Residential building approvals were up 150 per cent in September – nearly 10 times the national average, and Darwin scored the strongest property price growth of any capital city last month.

            Despite the impact of COVID-19 on operations and global markets, our mining sector continues to perform strongly, with production and exploration at near-record levels.

            Though the Budget's economic outlook for the Territory is positive, it is also conservative. It does not factor in the planned and potential projects in the pipeline, such as the Barossa gas field project which would boost growth forecasts in 2023-24.

            The government bill avoids taking risks with the constitutionality because our amendments treat territories on the basis of objective principles and methods, rather than setting arbitrary numbers of seats for each specific territory. The worst thing we could do is to enact a solution that would be at risk of being struck down by the courts.

            The methodology in the 2020 government bill is consistent with the constitutional characteristics of a representative democracy because the new methodology is overtly designed to ensure that the average population per electorate in the NT is sufficiently commensurate with the national average population per electorate.

            The new calculations that are required under the government's bill will give certainty that the diverse and widely dispersed population in the Northern Territory is adequately and more fairly represented in future.

            The amendments ensure continued parity in the Electoral Act provisions regarding the seats for the NT and the ACT. This is consistent with the approach to the previous 2004 amendments to protect the NT's position which also treated both territories alike.

            The concern about constitutional risk has been identified by the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters every time they have considered territory representation. The 2004 report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters says:

            The Committee endorses the 1985 report of the JSCER—

            the predecessor committee—

            which noted the potential for abuse of the discretion given to Parliament to make laws governing the representation of the Territories …

            Importantly, as the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended, the bill also better aligns the treatment of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in boundary redistribution provisions. Once a territory has multiple seats, we must ensure that the boundary drawing processes are working efficiently when there are disparate population fluctuations within different geographic parts of that territory. Our bill ensures that the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory are treated the same as the states wherever possible in part IV of the Electoral Act.

            The one exception to symmetry between the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in the government bill relates to the consequential rules about participation of Australian electoral officers in redistribution processes.

            Under this bill, the Northern Territory Australian Electoral Officer will participate in NT redistribution processes, just as their state counterparts would participate when House of Representatives boundaries are redrawn within particular states. However the Australian Electoral Officer for the Australian Capital Territory is only appointed for the duration of an election, so during any redistributions in the ACT another senior officer from the Electoral Commission will participate in the process, as determined by the Electoral Commissioner. That distinctive treatment for the Australian Capital Territory is an existing feature of the act, that is cost effective and not necessary to disturb in this bill.

            I note there has been recent conjecture in parliamentary committee hearings about the future status of the Australian Electoral Officer for the Northern Territory. I take this opportunity to put those concerns to rest.

            This bill recognises that the Australian Electoral Officer in the Northern Territory is always to be a member of the Redistribution Committee for any redistributions in that territory. I also note, for the record, that the process to permanently re-fill the Australian Electoral Officer position for the Northern Territory will begin before the end of 2020.

            Finally, I observe that following passage of major electoral bills in recent times, it has become an established practice to have a post implementation review within a reasonable period after provisions have come into operation. That is a prudent practice. Accordingly this bill includes a requirement that the harmonic mean provisions are reviewed by a parliamentary committee as soon as practicable after the first occasion when the provisions are used for a determination. That would occur during the life of the next parliament.

            In conclusion, it is important that we remain committed to improving electoral legislation in a non-partisan manner which promotes public confidence, within the constraints of our constitutional system and the requirements of representative democracy. Respecting those principles, we have been able to draft a solution that errs towards ensuring the strongest representation for Australia's territories.

            The government intends to seek passage of this bill through parliament before the end of the year to give certainty about territory representation arrangements as soon as possible.

            I commend the bill to the chamber.

            7:37 pm

            Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

            What a delight! It's the best speech I've heard from a government minister for quite some time because it produces an excellent outcome for the people of the Northern Territory, including Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands, which are a part of the Lingiari electorate, as well as people from the ACT. I commend the government and the minister for his outstanding speech. He was able to explain the dark arts of the harmonic mean—well, more or less. I thank him for that.

            I won't speak for long, but I do want to acknowledge my friend the member for Solomon, who, with Senator McCarthy, the CLP's Senator McMahon and myself have been driving a bipartisan campaign around this issue for over 12 months. It's come to a conclusion as a result of the government accepting the merits of the arguments which have been put to them around the stupidity that would have arisen had we gone back to one seat in the Northern Territory. I say that as the only person in this parliament who's been the single member for the Northern Territory. I can tell you that the proposition that we should go back to one representative for the whole of the Northern Territory was just an absurd one. The shadow minister talked about the margins of error. I've been in arguments for some years around the way in which the bureau assesses populations in the Northern Territory, including as far back as 2004, when a bill was passed by the Howard government to secure two seats at that time.

            I think it's very important to acknowledge what the government has done here: they have provided a basis for ensuring that two seats are retained in the Northern Territory well into the future. Whilst we had an issue around population count at the end of 2019, it is worthwhile noting that, in the current year, we have seen an expansion of the Northern Territory population. Since the middle of the year, 4½ thousand people have relocated to the Northern Territory—principally as a result of COVID, we understand. So it's very important that we acknowledge that this will have a long-term impact upon representation in this parliament for the Northern Territory—including the Indian Ocean territories—as well as the ACT. Sometimes I disagree with Antony Green but on this particular occasion I am happy to say that we support his recommendations, which have been adopted by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and the considerations the committee has had and the recommendations they have made, which I know will be very well received in the Northern Territory.

            It's worth understanding that in the Northern Territory there has been a really big campaign, generated by the member for Solomon and the two Northern Territory senators, around ensuring that we get this representation. The member for New England has just come into the chamber. I want to thank him for his outspoken support for this legislation. His National Party colleagues understand that you need to make sure regional Australia is properly represented in this parliament. By ensuring that we have two seats in the Northern Territory, they have helped to do that. That's partly up to them. I thank the member for New England and his colleagues for their support for this legislation. It has been quite remarkable. We often have division in this parliament, but here there has been cooperation and consensus around something which is very important. I thank again those people who have contributed.

            As the member for Lingiari, I have a particular interest in this because 42 per cent of my voting population are Aboriginal Territorians and, had we gone back to one seat, their vote would have been substantially washed out. They know that they have a significant voice in determining who their representative is. I'm fortunate that, over 12 elections, I have received overwhelming support from those people. It is literally why I am here. I thank them for that, but I want to thank the parliament for ensuring that their voice is not dissipated—because that is what would have happened if we had moved back to one seat. I thank the parliament for this legislation.

            The second reading speech was a fine speech. At the end, it said that we hope this bill passes through the parliament by the end of the year. By the time my friend the member for Solomon speaks, if there are no further speakers, we will have done it. This will be applauded by people across the Northern Territory, from all sectors. It's remarkable the number of people who've pulled us up on the street and said, 'They're not serious about going back to one seat, are they?' Of course, we said, 'I don't think the parliament is, but the process that has been put in place as a result of electoral law meant that it was going to happen.' As a result of these amendments, that has all changed. We have now secured the two seats for the Northern Territory. I thank all of those involved—my friend the member for Solomon, Senator McCarthy and the CLP's Senator McMahon—for working cooperatively together to make sure we get this outcome. Again, thank you to the National Party.

            7:44 pm

            Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

            I intend to make some brief remarks on the Electoral Amendment (Territory Representation) Bill 2020 and certainly don't intend to hijack the ability of this bill to pass at the appointed hour. But as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters I just wanted to make a few brief comments. I'm very glad we have landed at the point where, I'm very confident, we're going to be passing this through the parliament this evening and through the Senate in time for the Christmas break, so we can give certainty to the people of the Northern Territory. I think it would have been patently outrageous to see a situation where lower house representation in the Northern Territory was reduced from two members to one. We've obviously seen it in the determination from the AEC at the state level. It's disappointing to the people of Western Australia that they are losing a seat. I'm sure the people of Victoria are happy that they're gaining a seat. But when you go from 16 to 15, or from 32 to 33, that's very different than going from two members to one member. The calculations that are applied in going from 16 members to 15 members should be quite different when the proposition is potentially going from two members to one member, and I warmly endorse this change to the formula.

            I would have had trouble supporting legislation that put a floor in place. I've got nothing against the good people of the Northern Territory, but I do believe in the principle of one vote, one value. I think it is very important in the people's house, the House of Representatives, that we have some connection to the concept that we are the democratically constituted house in our bicameral system that is based on the principle of one vote, one value. And frankly, as a member on the conservative side of this parliament, I will say that there have been times in my home state of South Australia and in the state of Queensland—and I'm sure members opposite would have felt particularly disenfranchised—when we didn't have that fundamental principle in place. This formula is a great formula, because of course it accounts for the fact that when you could potentially be losing 50 per cent of your representation in this chamber there is a different test to when you might be moving from a number in the mid-30s, up one or down one. In the case of my home state of South Australia, disappointingly, we went from 11 seats to 10 seats at the determination for the 2019 election.

            I think this is a really excellent outcome. I was very appreciative of the process the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters had. The submissions we received from various groups in the Northern Territory were unanimously in support of the outcome we've achieved. They made very eloquent arguments that I think we already instinctively understood—that it was important to come up with a way to make sure that the outcome that had so closely been triggered by that population calculation didn't eventuate. I am very happy that we've constructed a mechanism that means we are still ensuring that the broad principle of one vote, one value is in place. My hope is that the Northern Territory is in the opposite situation and that you go from two seats to three seats as soon as possible. We'd love to see that kind of growth in representation from the Northern Territory in this chamber. I'm thankful for the good spirit and constructiveness from all members of this House, and senators, who I think have brokered an excellent outcome not only for the people of the Northern Territory but also for the fundamental principle of our democracy and the way in which we construct the membership of this House. I commend the bill to the chamber.

            7:48 pm

            Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

            We've talked about numbers a lot during the debate surrounding fair representation for the NT. The Northern Territory has a quarter of a million people and several islands. It is 1.4 million square kilometres in size, or one-sixth of the continent—an area 35,000 times bigger than the electorate of Melbourne. To have just one representative in this chamber, representing all those people over all that land, would, as one of the previous speakers said, be patently absurd. The NT government estimates that there are about 24,000 unenrolled voters, almost all of whom live in our remote Aboriginal communities. All those Territorians deserve a fair and representative voice in their federal parliament. The minister commented about fixing a situation where we haven't got the Australian Electoral Commission staff that we need in order to get people educated and enrolled. I welcome his comments in that regard.

            For those listening at home, on the road or in your workplace, there are not many of us Territorians in this building. There are only two of us out of 151 in this chamber and two of us out of 76 in the Senate, the upper house. I want to mention Tasmania quickly, because we've picked on them a bit in the battle this year and we don't begrudge them their representation at all—we love Tasmanians. Tasmania's a state and we love small states, in particular, but they are guaranteed a minimum of five lower house MPs to our two, and 12 senators to our two. That's 17 federal representatives to our four. But they're only about twice our size in representation. So I'd say to the previous speaker, the honourable member: when you talk about one vote, one value, let's get a bit real about what's happening in Australia, in terms of the need for a bigger conversation in our country about fair representation.

            If we're serious about giving all Australians an equal voice, and I seriously hope we are, then as a nation we should consider what it means for our two territories and their growing populations to be so minimally represented, particularly in the Senate. Maybe that's a conversation we can start to have next year. As the member for Lingiari said, let's just crack on. There's so much more I want to say about the Northern Territory and the wonderful people of the Northern Territory—a lot more I want to say—but in the interests of time and in the interests of getting this bill passed I will move to the thank yous.

            Suffice to say, there's a really bright future ahead for the Northern Territory. Our population will continue to grow, so proper federal representation—that we will soon have—is just the start. As I said, there are so many people to thank, people who saw the unfairness of this representation or the redistribution and fought for fair representation.

            Firstly, to my friend the shadow special minister for state and senator for SA, Don Farrell: thanks very much, because it was you with our NT colleague Senator Malarndirri McCarthy who put up a co-sponsored bill six months ago that kicked this process to where we are today. Thank you to my friend the member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon. What a legend. He's been a tireless representative for the NT for decades. He represented all of that land and all of that water by himself. Maybe someone else could have done it, but it would have been pretty bloody difficult. I congratulate him on his continuing service to the people of the Northern Territory. I want to thank NT CLP Senator Sam McMahon with her Nationals colleagues, in particular, Barnaby Joyce, the member for New England, and Senator Matt Canavan. They lit a fire under their Nationals colleagues, and I want to thank those other colleagues. The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, got behind the push. I want to thank the Greens. I want to thank the crossbench. I want to acknowledge the NT government and their substantial support, and the NT CLP opposition. It was a bipartisan effort. Thanks to you all. Thanks to those opposite for realising that this would be a colossal mistake, that it would be unfair, and for acting to fix it.

            Finally, and most importantly, I want to thank the thousands and thousands of Territorians who joined the campaign to protect their own fair representation. This is a great Christmas present for all Territorians. Thanks to everyone. Now let's get it done—and let's boot 2020 out the door—and legislate for fair representation for the NT. I thank the House.

            7:54 pm

            Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

            I might start from where the obvious point is. As a person who's been in this building for 15 years, we're lucky in how a democracy works. A democracy works, but sometimes the numbers are tight, and the numbers are tight in both houses. You don't want to exercise that issue of leverage every day, because it makes things chaotic. But there comes a time when you should, and this is one of those times when you have to stand up and be noted and—not big-noted, but be noted—do the right thing. I'm sick of regional areas just losing and losing and losing again.

            Our forefathers—and they were blokes—worked this out when they created the Federation. Tasmania got five seats. If you just go to one person, one vote, that can make life an absolute misery for those in the corner—for those in the corner of the Northern Territory; for those in the corner in the missions outside Alice Springs; for those in the corner around Katherine; and for those in the corner around Tennant Creek. I don't live there, but they're Australians. As Australians, they have a right to be heard in this chamber and not be diminished by the fact that, by some peculiarity of colonisation, they don't have the vote that other people have. That would be a complete indictment of what our views are as Australians.

            We believe in a fair go for people. The argument that was put before me at times was: 'Oh, but they don't vote for us. It's not our seat.' How absurd is that! What an absurdity if you start grabbing that argument. I don't come to this chamber just to represent people who believe in what I believe. God knows: most people in this chamber don't believe what I believe. You come to this chamber to represent people and make sure they are heard; that the most genuine representation is given to them; and that they can turn on the telly at two o'clock and see the member for Lingiari or the member Solomon, or the senators for the Northern Territory. That is why we are Australians. That is why we are in this parliament. We will not be beholden to some effervescent puritanical view. We must look to a deeper purpose as to why we're here.

            I want to congratulate people who are not of my political ilk: the member for Solomon, the member for Lingiari and Malarndirri McCarthy. When I was a kid, she was Barbara—I've known Malarndirri McCarthy for a long, long while.

            We're here to represent people, even if they're not on our footy side. We're here to stand up for them as well and make sure they're heard. This is a great thing for our parliament. It shows the parliament in a bipartisan way. With logic and forethought, we can work a way to bring fairness and decency. This is important.

            I want to also acknowledge the support of others who quietly sat back and are not in this chamber tonight but made sure their voices were heard and that they stood up. This is a great night not just for the good people of the Northern Territory but for our nation. It says that our nation is not a puritanical nation. It does not live by some divine creed. It has the capacity to sit down and rationally, honestly and fairly figure out the issues that are before it, come out with a fair outcome, and put aside parochialism and animosities to make sure that the Australian people who watch this chamber, as the benefactor of the freedoms and liberties they have, see that it is a representation of them.

            7:59 pm

            Photo of Trevor EvansTrevor Evans (Brisbane, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management) Share this | | Hansard source


            like to thank honourable members who've contributed to the debate on the Electoral Amendment (Territory Representation) Bill 2020. I'd also like to take this opportunity to recognise and thank the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their continued consideration of matters relating to electoral laws and practices.

            The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 is one of the oldest pieces of legislation in Australia and requires continuous review to harmonise electoral law and administration within an evolving environment. This bill introduces a harmonic mean calculation for allocating seats to the territories that will result in a significantly more favourable rounding-up of the quotas required to secure additional seats in the House of Representatives as compared to the previous margin of error adjustment. The bill removes the margin of error provisions and better aligns the redistribution provisions for those territories to modernise and simplify the administration of the Electoral Act. In conclusion, it's important that we remain committed to improving electoral legislation in a non-partisan manner which promotes public confidence and ensures strong representation for Australia's territories. Once again, I thank my colleagues for their contribution. I commend the bill to the House.

            Question agreed to.

            Bill read a second time.