House debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Constituency Statements

Electoral Roll: Indigenous Australians

4:01 pm

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

For many years now I have been arguing over the failure of governments to ensure that Aboriginal people in remote communities are able to exercise their democratic rights as Australian citizens and to participate fully in the electoral process. Sadly, we have seen successive governments deliberately discriminate against these Australians by failing to ensure that they are enrolled to vote and can participate as equally as other Australians in that electoral process and in our democracy.

I have long argued for direct enrolment to be used in remote communities. Direct enrolment, used elsewhere across the country, is where persons are added to the electoral roll from data from such places as the ATO, Centrelink and motor vehicle registries in each state or territory. Sadly, the AEC has made a deliberate policy decision not to use direct enrolment where there is no mail delivery. Of course, in many remote places people don't have individual mailboxes. Mail comes in a community bag. They are being discriminated against because of where they live and the fact that the postal system doesn't work properly for them.

Two Aboriginal men, Mr Ross Mandi and Mr Matthew Ryan from communities in Arnhem Land, have lodged a complaint against this policy with the Australian Human Rights Commission, arguing discrimination. It is clearly a policy of discrimination, exclusion and, potentially, voter suppression, which has been described as:

… any legal or extralegal measure or strategy whose purpose or practical effect is to reduce voting, or registering to vote, by members of a targeted racial group, political party, or religious community.

It's arguable here that this is direct voter suppression, and I applaud Mr Ryan and Mr Mandi for taking this courageous action. I note that they've had strong external support in the Northern Territory, including from major unions the MUA and the UWU, and they'll get more widespread support.

The Northern Territory Electoral Commission, in a recent report on its own 2020 Northern Territory election, said that the failure to use direct enrolment creates an imbalance, which places Aboriginal people at a great electoral disadvantage. This is simply a matter of what is right and of treating every Australian as having an equal opportunity to vote and to participate in our electoral processes. By deliberate government action, that is not happening in remote parts of this country. What it means is that they're undermining the rights of these Australian citizens to participate in the voting process and to fully participate in our democracy. This is a shame. The government is aware of it and the Australian Electoral Commission is aware of it, yet they've done nothing about it. It's appalling.

The first sign of this sort of activity happened when John Howard first got elected, when he cut the Aboriginal voter education and enrolment program out of the Australian Electoral Commission. Shame on him and shame on the government for not fixing this problem.