- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in elections
- Introduced in the House on 30 March 2023, the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023, if passed, would amend the ‘Australian Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.’ It is important that avenues are explored to encourage increased electoral participation and lift enfranchisement prior to the proposed referendum, to ensure that all Australians, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, vote in the referendum.
- This chapter provides a high-level overview of the evidence received to date in relation to electoral participation and lifting enfranchisement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Participation and enfranchisement
4.3As noted, these issues are still being considered by the Committee, and at the time of this Interim Report’s consideration, hearings are being planned to further explore themes in evidence received to date.
4.4Significantly, the Committee has considered some of these issues in the context of its February 2023 advisory report on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022. As noted during that inquiry, the changes proposed by the Australian Government in that legislation were to update the framework for the conduct of a referendum specifically relating to the potential establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
4.5Some of the most consistent themes in evidence received so far relate to electoral participation in general, and this section will consider how this relates to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular. Other participation issues, particularly relating to terms of reference f will be canvassed in the final report.
Findings in Referendum (Machinery Provisions) inquiry
4.6The first recommendation of the inquiry held over summer 2022/23 was that the Government:
… strengthen the opportunities for enfranchisement and participation in the referendum, including considering possible amendments to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022, to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to support increased enrolment and participation, particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including in remote communities.
4.7While this recommendation was specific to the completed inquiry, the Committee believes it remains relevant in the context of this broader inquiry into the 2022 election.
4.8The Committee considers that there is still evidence to gather in relation to electoral participation and accessibility of voting, and intends to hold more hearings, including with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, to further explore the issues raised in submissions.
4.9Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have historically been underrepresented in federal electoral participation, both in enrolment and in voter turnout at elections.
4.10The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) estimated that prior to the 2022 Federal Election, around 79.3 per cent of the Indigenous voting-age population was enrolled to vote, significantly lower than the national population enrolment rate of 96.3 per cent. The national Indigenous enrolment rate has continued to grow in a steady positive trend over recent years, outpacing the growth of the overall enrolment rate, and at last estimation is now up to 84.5 per cent as at the end of December 2022.
4.11The rate of enrolment is only part of the picture. Although the AEC does not estimate Indigenous turnout rates, many submitters have noted that turnout of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is likely to be significantly lower than the enrolment rate, particularly where a seat encompasses remote areas. For example, the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari, which accounts for most of the territory and where over 40 per cent of residents are Indigenous, voter turnout at the 2022 Federal Election was just under 67 per cent, compared with nearly 80 per cent in the Darwin-based seat of Solomon and 90 per cent nationally.
4.12However, the accuracy of the AEC’s Indigenous participation statistics has been called into question. Dr Morgan Harrington and Dr Francis Markham from the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research suggested that the methods used by the AEC to estimate the numbers of Indigenous voters may not be accurate because the figure used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics is outdated. They argued that it is possible that Indigenous enrolment rates are not increasing:
Once the information recently released by the ABS from the 2021 Census and post-enumeration survey are taken into account and extrapolated forward to 2022 … the Indigenous enrolment rate in 2022 would be around 72.4%, showing a decline on the AEC’s estimate of 74.7% in 2017, not an increase to 81.7%.
4.13Analysis by Dr Harrington and Dr Markham also suggests that turnout was as low as 50.1 per cent in predominately Indigenous small statistical areas across the country at the 2022 election (that is, at least 80 per cent of the population), representing a 9.3 per cent decline from the turnout rate of 60.3 per cent in the same areas at the 2019 election. They found that ‘low turnout rates are a feature of areas with predominantly Indigenous populations across the remoteness gradient, but that the issue is most acute in the remotest areas’.
4.14The Law Council of Australia suggested that consideration should be given as to whether current initiatives by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to improve its data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be leveraged to improve the data available relating to electoral participation.
Barriers faced during the 2022 election
4.15Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly in remote communities, face higher barriers to enrolment and voting than the general population, such as language and cultural barriers, and difficulty accessing polling places or other voting opportunities.
4.16Evidence received to date has raised a broad range of limitations and difficulties faced by Indigenous people at the 2022 Federal Election. Some notable examples include:
- A severe shortage of language interpreters, especially in the seat of Lingiari; and a lack of materials, such as iPads with explanatory videos, being available in language on polling day to assist voters.
- People being unable to vote due to:
- being unable to travel to voting booths available on election day;
- limited time for voting under the Remote Area Mobile Polling program, as little as one hour in some locations;
- scheduled mobile polling times not being adequately communicated to community members beforehand;
- scheduled mobile polling times being changed or booths missed altogether due to last-minute logistical problems, including helicopter problems.
- Unenrolled adults being turned away from polling places, particularly newly eligible 18-year-olds who did not understand the process for enrolment ahead of election day.
- There is a view among submitters that many of these issues stemmed directly from a lack of adequate funding and resourcing to the AEC to deliver appropriate electoral services to Indigenous and remote communities, in particular cuts to the AEC Darwin office’s staffing and underfunding of the Indigenous Electoral Participation Program.
- Submitters have also noted the particular importance of addressing barriers to enrolment and participation ahead of the referendum on a First Nations Voice to Parliament, due in the later half of 2023. The Northern Land Council (NLC) submitted that:
With the Prime Minister committing to hold a referendum on the Voice to Parliament within the current term of government, the need to address Aboriginal disadvantage in electoral participation – in terms of both enrolment and voting – has taken on a new urgency. It is imperative that all eligible Aboriginal people have the opportunity to have their say.
Current initiatives for enrolment and participation
4.19A range of programs and initiatives are currently underway to improve Indigenous enrolment and participation in federal elections.
4.20A key initiative the AEC uses to support Indigenous electoral participation is through the provision of Remote Area Mobile Polling (RAMP). Under this program AEC staff visit remote communities in the two weeks before election day to conduct polling. During the 2022 election period, 38 remote polling teams visited 348 remote locations to deliver polling services.
4.21In evidence to the Committee, the Aboriginal Peak Organisation of the Northern Territory (APO NT) noted that the AEC did not reach all remote locations it had planned to:
… in East Arnhem, the polling centres didn't turn up to some communities, even though the communities were advised that the polling centre was coming for certain hours of the day, an hour or two. There were quite a few homelands where they didn't turn up. People are very busy out there and they have their own business to sort out. A lot of our people do want to vote; they wait around for the teams and they didn't turn up. Apparently one of the helicopters ran out of fuel, so they couldn't turn up. There was no contact with the communities. No-one from the AEC or the team contacted the communities to say they couldn't turn up. Then they were looking at rescheduling. This is a big problem about how the AEC engages with these communities to make sure these polls are set up, that people know what is going on.
4.22The AEC has indicated it understands these concerns and plans to improve in future elections, highlighting the complexity and resources needed in delivering RAMP:
At the last election, one of our teams had a serious road accident and was therefore delayed. One team got stuck in a remote airfield because of fog and issues with the aircraft. That starts to complicate the schedule. I would point out that we do a large amount of work with Indigenous communities before we arrive in those communities. We advertise the service delivery. We have a team of people who work with those communities beforehand to make sure that they're aware of the requirements and the opportunities for them to vote. … Our aim is to try to provide as much opportunity for people to vote as is possible, given that this is a difficult logistical area for us. We are trying to expand on what we are already doing. We are well aware of the challenges that these remote communities face.
4.23The Indigenous Electoral Participation Program (IEPP) represents a broader approach to participation and enrolment. In the IEPP, the AEC partners with local communities, Indigenous-led organisations and other local service providers to support electoral participation. During the 2022 election period, the AEC managed partnerships with 82 groups across the country delivering ‘localised, culturally appropriate engagement’ including: voter education workshops; in-language materials education materials; community events focused on enrolment, formality, and temporary election workforce employment opportunities; digital engagement; and targeted youth engagement activities.
4.24Local bodies in the Northern Territory, including the NLC and Central Land Council (CLC) highlighted the need for partnerships, with the CLC noting:
It is important that all efforts to increase the electoral participation of Aboriginal people in remote communities are sustained, designed with communities, informed by local expertise and enhanced by the trust engendered through local staff and relationships. We note that there is substantial opportunity to create both short and long-term job opportunities for local people to support ongoing electoral participation efforts and staffing during election periods.
4.25Partnerships with the Northern Territory Electoral Commission (NTEC) for territory and local government elections were suggested as a starting point for work at a federal level, with the Central Desert Regional Council stating:
In the 2021 Northern Territory (NT) Government local Government election held in August, local government entered into an agreement with the NT Electoral Commission. This agreement include regional council’s acting on behalf of the returning officer as the polling agent with our service delivery centres operating as voting centres. For our central desert region, this meant we had 9 voting centres with over 20 polling officers covering the 282,093km2. Our polling officers also travelled to surrounding outstations and homelands to enable a wider reach for the majority of our residents registered on the roll. This initiative resulted in an increase in resident participation across the NT in the 2021 local government elections.
4.26As mentioned earlier, the lack of interpreters at polling booths was also of concern. Mr Matthew Ryan, appearing in a private capacity before the Committee said that he ended up stepping in to help explain the voting process to local residents at one booth in his community.
4.27This concern was shared by Minister the Hon. Selena Uibo, representing the Northern Territory Government, who compared the deployment of interpreters in the last territory election with the situation in the 2022 federal election:
I often saw—and the NTEC did this really well in previous elections—people who were employed previously, or who worked in and around the region, knew family names and groups. It was: 'Oh, yes. Your name's Nundhirribala'—bang, off they went, typing it in. There was that smooth process of people getting their names ticked off when they were voting, whereas the AEC were basically looking around on the day [in 2022] trying to find community members in some of the polling places that I was at and signing people up on the spot.
Federal Direct Enrolment and Update
4.28Electoral enrolment confers entitlement to vote. The enrolment processes for federal elections is set out in section 155 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act) which:
… provides for the close of rolls for a federal election seven days after the issue of the writ. The close of rolls period has traditionally allowed the AEC to complete last-minute enrolment processing and the printing of the certified list of electors.
4.29The Parliamentary Library, in its Research Paper Election day enrolment: a quick guide, elaborated on the impetus behind closing the electoral roll:
The requirement for a close of rolls period largely comes from a time when most enrolment processing was paper-based. The AEC regularly faced a pre-election torrent of enrolment forms being submitted by people who had turned 18 or moved and had neglected to update their enrolment until an election was announced.
4.30Advancements in technology and processes using online enrolment and Federal Direct Enrolment and Update (FDEU) have streamlined this process and the electoral roll is continuously updated. The Parliamentary Library noted:
The FDEU program continually and proactively updates electors’ details with an existing enrolment and enrols new electors using trusted data from other government agencies, such as drivers licence data and Centrelink data. Electors are notified of the action and only need to respond if something is wrong. As a result, the electoral roll is continuously updated, reducing the need for large-scale last-minute changes.
4.31Previously, the FDEU program required a street address, which effectively excluded many Indigenous communities relying on a mailbag or PO Box for residents.
4.32In September 2022, the AEC announced a pilot program to expand the FDEU to remote parts of the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, notifying people about direct enrolment via email and community mailboxes where no street address is available, in an effort to increase Indigenous enrolment rates. With promising success from these initiatives to date, in April the AEC announced that it would be expanded:
The use of community mailbags and email as methods of notification for people without mail delivery to their residence has proven to be effective in many cases with appropriate rules and processes built into when it can be applied.
These processes are now part of the AEC’s ongoing direct enrolment program for the next application to be processed soon across the country and will assist in further raising enrolment in remote communities.
4.33At the tabling of this report, the Electoral Act contains specific provisions that enable a voter to place a provisional (declaration) vote in circumstances where they attend a polling place and their name is not on the certified list for the division (section 235 of the Electoral Act):
If a voter attends a polling place and their name is not on the certified list of electors, the voter may cast a provisional vote. The elector’s ballot is placed in an envelope with a signed declaration of eligibility, and certain other details used to establish the elector’s identity.
4.34Subsequent to the polling day, the AEC undertakes a number of checks to identify the elector before they allow the provisional vote to be used as a claim for enrolment:
After the polling, the details on the envelope are checked against the roll and if the elector is identified, the ballot paper is admitted to the count. If the elector is not found to be correctly enrolled their vote cannot be counted. However, the Electoral Act allows for the provisional vote envelope to be used as a claim for enrolment (essentially, the Electoral Commissioner declares the provisional vote envelope as an approved form for a claim for enrolment). While the elector would not be able to have their vote counted at that election, their provisional vote envelope will allow the AEC to enrol them for the next election.
On the day enrolment
4.35In submissions to both this inquiry and the inquiry into the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022, several witnesses and submitters referenced an on-the-day enrolment initiative in the Northern Territory and recommended that a similar program be considered at a federal level, particularly in the lead up to the referendum.
4.36Currently, the NTEC allows provisional voting for unenrolled voters in territory elections, where unenrolled voters who attend a mobile polling service cast a declaration vote and have their enrolment assessed and processed as part of the scrutiny process.
4.37The NTEC noted that ‘this will be particularly beneficial at remote locations where mobile voting is to occur, with the more challenging conditions for NTEC staff to conduct enrolment and education programs.’
4.38The Parliamentary Library posited that amending the Electoral Act to allow for on-the-day enrolment could potentially expedite the enrolment process:
The provisional vote envelope would still be used as a claim for enrolment. The AEC could then undertake the usual enrolment checks and if the voter is entitled to be enrolled, they will then be added to the roll and their vote included in the count for that election.
4.39They added that this method was not without its challenges as not all electors could meet the criteria and have their vote counted, particularly if they were located in remote areas or were Indigenous voters:
The main complication is that the elector must be able to provide sufficient details to process a claim for enrolment on their provisional vote envelope. In general, this means that the elector would be required to provide a driver’s license, passport number, Medicare number or citizenship certificate number, or have a person who is already on the roll confirm the elector’s identity. Conceivably, some proportion of electors whose vote would be otherwise allowed under this system would not be able to fulfil these criteria, including those who are already underrepresented on the roll (such as remote and Indigenous voters).
4.40The NSW and Victorian Electoral Commissions both support election day enrolment for state elections. The NSW Electoral Commission provides information on its website about this:
… and notes that to enrol on election day voters will need to bring a drivers license and in some cases a passport. The Victorian Electoral Commission, in contrast, does not advertise election day enrolment on its website. However, section 108 of the Electoral Act 2002 (Vic.), established election day enrolment as part of the provisional voting requirements.
4.41The Committee has received a range of evidence about ways that participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be improved through additional funding to the AEC, increased culturally appropriate and accessible communication, civics education programs, partnership with Indigenous representative bodies and community members, and enrolment initiatives. The Committee looks forward to hearing more on these topics during its visit to the Northern Territory in June.
4.42Additionally, the Committee is continuing to receive updates from the AEC on progress in these areas in advance of the upcoming referendum, and in setting the framework for further improvement ahead of the next Federal Election.
4.43It is important to inquire into Indigenous participation generally, but especially considering the referendum to be held this year. The Committee believes that the Australian Electoral Commission should be appropriately resourced to ensure that Indigenous people are not being disenfranchised. The Committee looks forward into considering this significant issue further and will make further comments in its final report.
4.44Consistent with the recommendation made in this Committee’s Advisory report on the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Bill 2022, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government strengthen the opportunities for electoral enfranchisement and participation to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to support increased enrolment and participation, particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including in remote communities.
4.45For both this year’s referendum, and for future elections and referendums, the Committee believes there is important work to do to maximise electoral enfranchisement and participation. The Government should support the AEC to continue to strive for higher rates of enrolment, particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, whose levels of enrolment continue to lag behind that of the general population. The Committee in particular wishes to highlight initiatives for ‘on the day’ enrolment, and trialling further use of Secure Telephone Voting.
4.46The Committee recommends the Government resource the Australian Electoral Commission to work directly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations to increase Indigenous enrolment and participation, particularly in remote communities.
Ms Kate ThwaitesMP