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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23275

Mr GEORGIOU (1:01 PM) —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I present the committee's report entitled Territory representation: report of the inquiry into increasing the minimum representation of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory in the House of Representatives, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

The SPEAKER —I apologise to the Clerk and indicate to the House that the member for Kooyong and the member for Melbourne Ports have agreed that the member for Kooyong may have an extra minute or two. The debate is due to conclude at 1.10 p.m. That time will need to be stretched until a little later.

Mr GEORGIOU —On 9 July 2003, the committee was requested to inquire into and report on increasing the guaranteed minimum representation in the House of Representatives for the ACT and the Northern Territory from one to two seats each. Under the Constitution, the parliament may legislate for representation of the territories in the Commonwealth parliament as it sees fit. For the House of Representatives, the parliament has legislated for the territories to have a minimum of one seat each, with any further entitlement being determined in the same way as the entitlements for the states—that is, based on their share of the national population.

In February this year, the AEC determined that at the next election the Northern Territory's entitlement in the House of Representatives will be reduced from two seats to one because it fell short of the quota by 295 people. This has resulted in calls for the territories to have a guaranteed minimum of two members each.

The formula used to determine entitlements to seats is strictly a matter of arithmetic based on the population of the states and territories. The formula produces electorates of different population sizes across Australia. The Northern Territory has benefited in the current parliament by having two seats with substantially fewer electors than the national average, half the size of ACT seats, and fewer than even the five constitutionally guaranteed Tasmanian seats. In this sense, increasing the Northern Territory's minimum number of seats would entrench this benefit.

Various social and economic arguments were made for increasing the minimum guarantee for the territories. The committee did not regard these as decisive. The committee does not consider that the existing formula for determining the territories' entitlements should be departed from—that is, subject to the guaranteed minimum of one seat, the ACT and Northern Territory should be entitled to representation in the House of Representatives in proportion to their shares of the national population.

However, the committee has unanimously recommended that the Electoral Commissioner's 2003 determination in respect of the Northern Territory be set aside, albeit with two different approaches in making this recommendation. Some committee members believe that the error margin in the population for the Northern Territory creates significant doubt as to the outcome of the 2003 determination. Those committee members consider that the figure at the top of the estimated population range for the Northern Territory should be used as its estimated population figure, rather than the middle figure in that range. This would result in the Territory retaining its second seat. Other committee members believe that it was the intention of the parliament that the population statistics used in the determination should be the latest published statistics at the time of the determination, and for the 2003 determination the published statistics that should have been used were the June 2002 figures. Those figures would have entitled the Northern Territory to two House of Representatives seats. In any event, the committee unanimously recommends that the 2003 determination be set aside to the extent that it applies to the Northern Territory. The AEC has advised that the effect of such a setting aside would be to restore the Northern Territory to two divisions as if the determination had not taken place.

The committee as a whole has concerns about the future potential impact of the error margin in the population estimates for the territories. Where the population shortfall from the number required to retain or gain a seat is within the margin of error in the population estimate, not taking the error margin into account means that the jurisdiction may be denied a seat to which it is entitled or it may receive a seat to which it is not entitled. Accordingly, the committee recommends that the error margin should be taken into account for the ACT and the Northern Territory if the Territory falls short of the quota for a seat in the House of Representatives and the shortfall is within the margin of error acknowledged by the ABS. To facilitate this, the Australian Statistician should advise the Electoral Commissioner of the margin of error.

As to the determination process generally, the committee considers that this should be more transparent and certain. In the interests of transparency, the committee recommends that all of the estimates and calculations used by the AEC in its determination should be published. As well as being publicly available, the committee also considers that the statistics used in the determination should be certain in time. Accordingly it recommends that, at the time the AEC is required to make a determination as to entitlements to seats in the House of Representatives, the AEC should use the latest population statistics that have been published by the ABS in Australian Demographic Statistics. This would remove any scope for the AEC to seek more recent figures than the latest published figures.

Just quickly in view of the time, the committee thanks all those who made submissions and appeared at the public hearings. My thanks go to the deputy chair, Mr Danby, to our fellow committee members and to the committee secretariat. I commend the report to the parliament.