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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 60

Senator CROSSIN (1:50 PM) —I am pleased to have this opportunity this afternoon to begin my contribution to the address-in-reply to the Governor-General's speech following the federal election on 9 October. I begin by saying that I have always felt it very humbling and a privilege and an honour to be elected to the Senate. It is times like this when you reflect and think that it is quite an opportunity to be one of only 76 people out of the nearly 10 million people who voted nationally to be able to represent your constituency in a place like this. So I do want to begin by again thanking the people of the Northern Territory. This is the third federal election I have faced and I want to pay tribute to the people in the Northern Territory, and particularly my constituents on Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

As a result of this election, we have seen a swing to the Labor Party in the Northern Territory in the Senate spot—a swing of 2.15 per cent compared to a swing of only 1.33 per cent to my opponent in the CLP. I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my colleague Warren Snowdon, who managed not only to retain his seat of Lingiari but to retain it with an overwhelming majority by getting more than 50 per cent of the primary vote. I also want to use this opportunity to acknowledge the work of our candidate in the electorate of Solomon, Jim Davidson, for the contribution that he has made to both the party and the people in Solomon and also personally in the time that he spent as a candidate.

The opening of parliament on Tuesday was, I think, another missed opportunity for this government to acknowledge Indigenous Australians. The opening of parliament provided a great opportunity to hold out a hand of reconciliation to Indigenous people and to include them in part of the ceremony. I remember in my contribution to an address-in-reply debate some years ago mentioning when Clare Martin's first Labor government was elected in the Northern Territory. What a fabulous day it was when, for the first time ever, Indigenous people were invited onto the floor of the parliament and opened parliament along with Clare Martin and the Labor Party. They participated in their own spiritual and ritual way and contributed to the opening of the parliament on that day. It is something that people in the Northern Territory have never forgotten. It was a huge symbolic sign of reconciliation, and I think it made the opening something special.

When I think back to Tuesday, I do not particularly remember anything special about that day. There was nothing different from the opening of parliament following the 2001 election or following the 1998 election. It is another missed opportunity by this government to actually acknowledge Indigenous Australians by involving them in the opening of parliament—no didgeridoo, no flag flying, no senior Indigenous leaders here in this gallery to enjoy that moment with us.

But of course in the new Howard ministry the title of `reconciliation' has just vanished, disappeared—amazing, really, when you think that after the 2001 election that was the platform on which this Prime Minister said he would base his following three years work. In fact he went to great lengths to mention his agenda for reconciliation, yet three years later we find that it is off the agenda and not even mentioned in the title of one of the ministers.

I will turn to some of the events of the federal election. In relation to Lingiari, I think the endorsement of both Warren Snowdon and me shows overwhelmingly that Indigenous people have again supported the policies of the Australian Labor Party when it comes to Indigenous affairs. Quite clearly, in the lead-up to the election we know that Indigenous people were telling us they did not like the new agenda of Indigenous affairs under this government. They wanted a nationally elected body. They wanted the mandate, to speak on their behalf, to be given to Indigenous people in this country. They did not endorse an Indigenous advisory council appointed by the minister. They have no problem with senior Indigenous leaders with expertise in their field advising ministers in particular portfolios or even being on a national body—but not solely being the appointees of a national body. Perhaps, as the people in North Queensland said to us during the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs inquiry, they endorse standing side by side with people who are nationally elected but to totally disregard the will and voice of Aboriginal people was not something they could endorse.

There are nearly 25,000 Indigenous people on the roll in the electorate of Lingiari, and it is interesting to note that only about half of those people voted. I think that goes to a number of issues. I think it reflects the fact that this government has abandoned the information and education section of the Australian Electoral Commission, so it makes it a much more difficult task to get Indigenous people on the roll and teach them about the voting system. It also means that although the Australian Electoral Commission does a great job—and I want to say a bit more about that in a moment—it is very difficult for Indigenous people to vote. If they are not actually at their outstation or community on the day the mobile polling system arrives, they can miss out. That is unfortunate, and perhaps we need to be a bit more creative in thinking about the ways we can ensure that Indigenous people get an opportunity to vote, given the nomadic nature of their communities.

That leads me to say that, certainly in the Northern Territory, I thought the Australian Electoral Commission had done a terrific job this time. They started mobile polling two weeks out from the date of the federal election on 9 October. They managed to get to over 200 communities, if my memory serves me right. I travelled with the mobile polling in the week before the election and went to communities of only 28 or 42 people. I do believe that we have one of the best systems in the world whereby we can manage to mobilise the Electoral Commission system and get it onto small aircraft or trucks—or even on boats in the case of the AEC heading out from Borroloola to an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria—to ensure that we try as hard as we possibly can to make sure that each and every Australian has the opportunity to vote. I take this opportunity to pass on my congratulations publicly to the Australian Electoral Commission and to all the officers who worked at the Electoral Commission in the Northern Territory on the work that they have done. I want to also pay tribute to the members of the Labor Party in the Territory. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.