Calls for NT election postponement met with staunch opposition

Northern Territory Indigenous communities are calling for an election delay due to COVID-19 lockdowns that could prevent community members from fully participating in the democratic process.

Currently, the Northern Territory is set to go to the polling booths on August 22, just three months away.

A spokesperson for the Barkly electorate said continuing with the August election date would mean decreased participation from Aboriginal Territorians.

“If the Chief Minister tries to force an election on August 22 it means Aboriginal people will not be able to campaign for a candidate or assist our communities to enrol to vote across the region or potentially get to the polls to have our voices heard,” said Barkly electorate spokesperson and Garrwa Yanyuwa man, Gadrian Hoosan.

Namatjira electorate spokesperson, Que Kenny, echoed Hoosan’s sentiments, saying there will be a “massive negative impact on voter participation in remote communities” should the election go ahead in late August.

“It will be an unfair advantage to sitting members of parliament, and impacts our ability to participate fully as either candidates or informed voters,” said the Western Arranta woman.

“The Gunner Government says they care about the health of Indigenous people, so that should reflect in a postponement of the election until we can fully participate alongside other Territorians in decisions that affect our future.”

Uluru Statement from the Heart advocate and National Indigenous Officer of the Maritime Union of Australia, Thomas Mayor, is backing community members’ concerns.

“People’s health, considering the vulnerabilities in Indigenous communities, must take priority, but not at the cost of their ability to participate in democracy,” Mayor said.

“There must be a well-resourced and thorough campaign to enrol Aboriginal people in communities to vote.

“Without additional measures to ensure Aboriginal people can reach a ballot box, our democracy is diminished.

“It is already flawed and skewed against Indigenous peoples.”

With one in three Aboriginal adults not enrolled to vote, the Territory has the lowest rate of Indigenous voter participation in the country.

To address the thousands not on the electoral roll, the Northern Territory Electoral Commission (NTEC) had plans to undertake a remote enrolment drive.

Part of this initiative has since been cancelled due to COVID-19 remote travel bans across the Territory.

NTEC Commissioner Iain Loganathan told NIT only the face-to-face component of the Commission’s remote enrolment drive has been postponed, not cancelled, at this stage.

“The current restrictions to remote travel under the Biosecurity Act expire on 18 June and if they are not extended, the face-to-face component of the remote enrolment campaign will re-commence immediately,” he said.

“Part of the remote enrolment campaign also includes an extensive media and social media driven … campaign, using in-language radio, social media and TV advertising [and] education.”

Loganathan said this messaging will roll out mid-May and that the NTEC has engaged Aboriginal media organisations to develop the campaign’s messages.

With regards to changing the election date, the Commissioner said this would “require a change to the legislation”—even during a global pandemic—as Territory election dates are determined by the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 and the Electoral Act 2004 (NT).

Should the election proceed as planned, Loganathan said the NTEC would deliver a remote election campaign similar to the remote enrolment drive—using in-language radio, social media and TV advertising.

“Videos in language informing electors how to cast a formal vote will [also] be displayed on tablets at voting centres as well as social media,” he said.

“The NTEC will be disseminating information on voting times to community organisations such as schools, health centres, resource centres and shops as a way of informing voters.”

Questions put to Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s office were fiercely defended, with a spokesperson blaming the Australian Electoral Commission for barriers to enrolment in the Territory.

“Territorians get to decide their government and nobody else. We are a democracy,” said a spokesperson for the Chief Minister.

“The [NTEC] has months to prepare for an election so it can be done safely. There is a taskforce, including health experts, working right now to conduct the election in the safest way possible.”

The spokesperson said remote residents actually have more voting options than urban residents, including postal votes, early pre-poll votes, mobile poll votes, declaration votes or on the day votes.

“The main barrier to enrolment in the NT has always been the Australian Electoral Commission’s flawed enrolment program which discriminates against remote communities. It can be easily fixed, and it has nothing to do with Coronavirus.”

The spokesperson did not elaborate on how the enrolment program could be easily fixed.

The Chief Minister’s office reiterated that current biosecurity measures are due to expire on June 18 and that the Territory Government will listen to communities’ and land councils’ concerns during that time.

Chief Minister Gunner’s spokesperson did not answer questions about any disadvantages to postponing the election.

By Hannah Cross

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