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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23277

Mr DANBY (1:07 PM) —In supporting the member for Kooyong and the proposition of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to set aside the AEC recommendation that the Territory be reduced to one electorate, it is worth recording the history of this issue. The Northern Territory gained its second House of Representatives seat for the first time at the last federal election. The honourable members for Lingiari and for Solomon hold the two Northern Territory seats. The Australian Electoral Commissioner determined in February of this year that the Northern Territory would lose one of these seats—the division of Solomon—and revert to a single electorate. The population of the Northern Territory was deemed to be 295 short of the population needed to retain the second seat. This is not unlike the previous case with the ACT in the 1997 determination where the ACT lost a seat—which was held by the ALP—because its population was deemed to be 658 short of the population needed to retain that seat.

The committee was asked to inquire about increasing the minimum number of House of Representatives seats from one to two. Most of the submissions received by the committee focused on the case of the Northern Territory. A range of issues were raised which were basically irrelevant and not valid for consideration in terms of increasing the representation of the territories. The law prescribes that population, not social or economic factors, determine that increase or decrease of representation.

Through the inquiry the committee became aware of a number of issues relating to the determination of entitlements to House of Representatives seats and population estimates that we use to make this determination. One of these was that the phrase used by the member for Kooyong, `the latest statistics of the Commonwealth'—which are used to determine entitlements—is not defined by the Constitution or the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The Australian Statistician and the Australian Electoral Commissioner appear to have a degree of unintended discretion as to which quarterly population figures will be `the latest statistics of the Commonwealth'. Apart from not publishing all of the population figures used by the Electoral Commission to make this determination, the population estimates of the territories are less reliable than population estimates for the states.

The committee unanimously agreed to three recommendations. They include, first, that the Statistician publish all of the population estimates used by the Electoral Commissioner to make the determination and the Electoral Commissioner is to use only these published figures, and he is also to publish the results of his determination including the calculations; second, that the margin of error surrounding the territories' population estimates should be incorporated in the determination of seats when a territory falls short of a quota and, if a territory is short of a quota, the Electoral Commissioner is to use the population estimate at the top of the margin of error; and, third, that the 2003 determination be set aside.

These recommendations seek to remove the discretion of the Statistician and the Australian Electoral Commissioner in deciding which quarterly statistics will be the latest statistics of the Commonwealth. They also seek to ensure that the latest statistics of the Commonwealth are the latest published statistics at the time. For the 2003 determination, the Australian Electoral Commissioner requested a special version of the September 2002 figures even though at that time the preceding quarter's population figures—June 2002—had yet to be released.

A number of people expressed reservations about the outcome of the 2003 determination for the Northern Territory specifically because of the release of a special version of the September figures. It was felt that the 2003 determination should have been based on the June 2002 figures which were published at the time of the determination, not on a special version of the September 2002 figures. If the June 2002 population figures were used, the Northern Territory would have retained its second seat.

Some of my committee colleagues share this view. We believe that it was the intention of parliament that the `latest statistics of the Commonwealth' be the latest published statistics at the time of the determination, and for the 2003 determination these were the June 2002 quarterly figures. I believe that this determination of the committee will mean that we approach the statistical basis for the AEC considering redistribution in a consistent manner into the future. For this reason, the major recommendation of the committee, agreed from various points of view, is that we set aside the 2003 determination as it applies to the Northern Territory.