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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 648

Senator KILGARIFF(7.30) —I want to take a few moments this evening to set straight a matter that received some Press comment today. I refer to the arrangements in place to allow Aboriginal people to exercise their right to vote in the forthcoming Northern Territory election. Yesterday, in response to a question in another place, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Holding, took the opportunity to attack, I presume, the Electoral Office in the Northern Territory, and have a side kick at the Northern Territory authorities, the Northern Territory Government. He made accusations that it was discriminating against Aborigines by not providing adequate voting facilities to them. He made other claims to the effect that the closure of the electoral rolls soon after the election was announced also discriminated against Aboriginal people.

An examination of the facts shows that the Minister's claims are quite fallacious. Firstly, the Northern Territory is the only place in Australia where mobile polling booths are provided on a large scale to enable people, predominantly Aboriginal people, to exercise their right to vote in person in remote settlements on their traditional homelands. They are not forced to go through the bureaucratic complications of lodging a postal vote, although that option is taken by many non-Aboriginal people living in remote areas. The fact that there are some differences in the times at which mobile polling stations will be available in certain areas can be put down entirely to logistics. Moving the equipment and material about, and staffing the polling booths, is not always easy. It is a massive project. Any differences in polling hours have nothing to do with discrimination. For the Minister to suggest that it was, is quite mischievous and irresponsible and, I believe, an unfair attack on the Electoral Office, which has a massive task at every election.

There has been a concerted effort in the Northern Territory to educate Aboriginal people in all communities as to their rights and obligations in relation to voting. The program has been conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. It has involved field officers, a number of whom are Aboriginal people, who go into the communities and explain the concept of voting, voting systems, valid and invalid votes, spoilt ballot papers, et cetera. They also stress the importance of communities becoming responsible for ensuring that their members are properly enrolled so that they are able to exercise their rights. However, the Commission can do only so much. It can educate people but it cannot physically force them to enrol to vote, although it will of course assist any person seeking to enrol to vote. The point is that any person, Aboriginal or otherwise, who was not on the electoral roll when it closed, is disenfranchised only out of his or her own failure to enrol. There is no discrimination against Aboriginal people. Quite the opposite; there has been positive encouragement of Aboriginal people to become involved and to register to vote.

One has to wonder why the Minister would make these baseless attacks on the Territory Government. I can only suggest that it is a pathetic attempt to stir up resentment in Aboriginal people by telling them that they are being discriminated against. If this is some sort of ploy aimed at hurting the Northern Territory Government's electoral prospects, firstly, it will not work and, secondly, it is not worthy of the Minister. His Government's Aboriginal affairs policies have already caused divisiveness and racial disharmony within the Northern Territory. I find it incredible that the Minister would want to worsen the situation by making the sorts of claims he made yesterday. As I have said, I can only suppose that it is an attempt to score some cheap political points for the Minister's floundering Australian Labor Party colleagues in the Northern Territory. It is a ploy that I believe was also used just prior to the last Northern Territory election. As I have said, in any case it is not worthy of the Minister and I hope that in future he will refrain from such groundless and unfortunate attacks.

Question resolved in the affirmative

Senate adjourned at 7.35 p.m.