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Thursday, 30 September 2010
Page: 438

Senator CROSSIN (11:34 AM) —It gives me great pleasure to rise in this chamber and provide my contribution to the Governor-General’s address-in-reply and to be a participant in the opening of the 43rd Parliament in this place in Canberra. There is no doubt it was a most significant event we witnessed on Tuesday, significant for a whole range of reasons. Many people, in their speeches previously, have already commented on the significance of hav-ing not only a female Governor-General opening the 43rd Parliament but also the presence of a female Prime Minister. For many of us, I think, who have stood back and supported women getting into politics and into senior positions in this country, it was quite an inspiring day and should lead to a lot of young women in this country truly taking that as a message of inspiration and opportunity.

The 43rd Parliament is also significant in that we have seen elected to the House of Representatives for the first time an Indigenous person of this country. I want to acknowledge his election to the House of Representatives and congratulate Ken Wyatt on being able to achieve that significant goal. We have also seen the first Muslim elected to the Australian parliament in Mr Ed Husic. I think that truly demonstrates that, due to a democratic election in this country, this parliament is able to have representation that does reflect what is happening out there in the broader community.

I want to also acknowledge that for the second time we have had a Welcome to Country ceremony at the opening of parliament, and this time it has become part of the institution of opening the parliament. The terrific ceremony we witnessed and were participants in in the forecourt on Tuesday acknowledges that as a country we have come some considerable way to recognising the role that the first Australians and Indigenous people play. They were the first inhabitants of this country, and no doubt even of the land we are standing on, and we now have at least the manners and the foresight to recognise that as part of the significant beginning of each and every parliament.

I do note also that, as part of the agree-ment in this parliament, recognition of country will be stated each morning in the House of Representatives. Some of us are asking why that has not been the case in the Senate. Some of us on this side are asking—and, hopefully, the opposition will also take up the call—to have that recognition of country in the Senate each morning as well as in the House of Representatives. Let us hope we can achieve that and that when the new Senate begins on 1 July next year it becomes part and parcel of our everyday life here in the Senate each morning as well.

I do want to turn to my own election. As people would be aware, territorians have the opportunity to be elected to this chamber every three years, not every six years, so senators from the ACT and the Northern Territory go up for election each and every time the House of Representatives goes up. I was re-elected to the Senate and I want to place on the record how honoured I still continue to be to have been chosen by the people of the Northern Territory to represent them in this chamber. It is a humbling experience. It is a daunting experience sometimes when you have such a vast expanse of land to cover. Having 1.3 million square kilometres in the Northern Territory and only one per cent of the population presents some challenges from time to time, but it is certainly a very humbling experience.

It was my fifth federal election and on Tuesday I was sworn in in this parliament for the sixth time. Last night I was calculating with Kate, my 14-year-old, that, after 4,486 days, as of today I am now the longest serving senator from the Territory. That is something I am significantly proud of. I want to take this opportunity to formally thank my family for their support again not only during the election campaign but during the past three years. I also want to thank the members of the party and supporters of the party in the Northern Territory. You do not get to be in a place like this unless you have a huge, competent and energetic team committed to not only the Labor Party but getting you here. You do rely on them enormously during the election campaign. I also want to thank the voters of the Northern Territory, who have shown their confidence in me again.

I want to formally place on the record my congratulations to Senator Nigel Scullion on his re-election. I acknowledge as well that voters in the Northern Territory place confidence in him to represent them. Although we do differ from time to time on many points of view, I think the address-in-reply debate is a time to formally acknowledge his election to the Senate as well.

So, as I said, Tuesday, for me, was still a very significant day. I had the honour of being joined by a very close friend of mine who I have known since primary school, Anne Lindhe. She is here today as well in the gallery. It has been a great week spending time with her and her son, Tristan, here in Canberra. I want to acknowledge as well her friendship over decades. I will not hint at how old that actually makes us. We will not go there at all.

Let me now turn to the federal election. I want to make some comments about the way in which the election is conducted in this country, particularly when you come to an expansive part of the country like the Northern Territory. I want to place on the record the way in which the Australian Electoral Commission go about their business. It is true that this country has the best democratic system and it is true that we have the best electoral commission in the world. When you look at the way in which our elections are conducted, the role of the AEC and the way in which they are eminently competent, we are head and shoulders above anywhere else in the world, I believe, but we will not stay the best in the world if we do not continually revise and reflect on the way in which elections are conducted. It is a bit like an action research project.

I think there are some things we can do to improve the participation of people when it comes to regional and remote Australia. Covering a place like the Northern Territory is not an easy task. Not only are there six regional towns but there are many hundreds of communities with populations of 500, 25 or 3,000. The Electoral Commission undertakes vast work to ensure that in the lead-up to polling day a polling booth goes into each and every community, homeland and place it can imagine where people may live. In fact, two weeks before the polling day 22 mobile polling booths start going around the Territory.

I notice that in the Northern Territory we have a significant number of people who are not on the roll. In fact, I think around 35,000 people in the Territory were not enrolled to vote but could have been, if you look at the ABS statistics. I notice in a briefing paper from the Parliamentary Library that at the time of the 2007 federal election more than 1.1 million people who were eligible did not enrol to vote and then as a result we have had nearly 2.3 million Australians not fully participating in the election despite being entitled to do so. So you have people who are not getting on the roll and those on the roll not getting a chance to vote.

I know the Electoral Commission in the Territory use innovative ways to get people on the roll. They go to sporting events in communities and they go to festivals and have stalls at the Big Day Out and Bass in the Grass. So they are doing the best they can, but I think it is time this nation came up with a more innovative way to get people on the roll. I think we need to link that to a Medicare card, so that if you have a Medicare card in this country or you are a Centrelink recipient you also have to be on the roll. Perhaps we do not issue drivers licences to people unless they are on the electoral roll as well. We have to do something to encourage, or even mandate, people to be on the electoral roll in this country. It is part and parcel of what we need to do to keep our democracy precious and alive.

Then of course we can go to the issue of voter turnout and have a look at the number of people who actually turned out to vote in the Territory. In the electorate of Solomon 90 per cent of people turned out to vote. Solomon takes in Darwin and Palmerston—it is an urban electorate. So a 90 per cent turnout is probably not that good, but at least it is an improvement on Lingiari. Lingiari is the electorate that takes up the rest of the Northern Territory. There we had a voter turnout of only 76 per cent. I think that is appallingly bad. I think the turnout was so low that it is time to rethink the way in which we conduct our mobile polling. I think we have got to the stage where we need to actually start to trial some static mobile booths in some of the largest communities. I mentioned this to the AEC on the day of the declaration of the ballot. I think that in large communities like Yuendumu, Maningrida, possibly Wadeye and even on the Tiwi Islands it is time to trial a static pre-poll booth so that you have a chance to go to that booth and vote on the Wednesday, Thursday or Friday before polling day.

At the moment the system is that we fly into a community and we are there for one day. If you do not happen to be in that community on that day then you do not get a chance to vote. So, logistically, if you are at Milingimbi one day and the polling booth is 500 kilometres west of you and then the next day it goes to Milingimbi but you go to the other community then you have missed out on your chance to vote. I think the low turnout is not because people do not want to vote. I do not think people do not come to the polls as a sign of protest; I think they do not come to the polls to vote because we just do not have them out there for a long enough period of time. It is a submission I will be making to the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters when it is reconvened and it is also a proposal that I will send directly to the AEC and ask them to consider for the next federal election. Hopefully, we will be able to get more Indigenous people not only on the roll but also voting. I think that will mean a better democratic system for us.

I want to turn to some of the issues that we encountered during the election campaign. Of course I want to focus on the Indigenous issues. I think it was very disappointing that we did not see any policy come out from the coalition until a couple of days after people had started voting. Jenny Macklin, our Indigenous affairs minister, made a watershed speech on 17 July and another speech on 9 August at the Garma Festival at Gulkula in north-east Arnhem land. So there were two clear signals, two clear road maps, for Indigenous people to pick up and say, ‘If I am going to vote for the Labor Party then this is what it means.’

I was very saddened and very disappointed to find out that the coalition could not produce their policy until a couple of days after the mobile polls had started. Mobile polling started on 10 August. From memory, the coalition launched their policy on 12 or 13 August. I did have people out in some of those remote static polling booths ask me what was the difference between our policy and the coalition’s policy. I had to say to them, ‘I can’t tell you because I haven’t seen a coalition policy yet.’ So it is unfortunate that the coalition could not quite get its act together to have an Indigenous policy out there prior to when people started to vote. Perhaps it says a bit more about their intent and commitment to where they stand with that policy development work.

In our road maps we clearly laid out for Indigenous people three areas that we want to address. I think these are significant. If you look at the policies that we said we would introduce and if you look at our commitment to closing the gap and putting in place fundamental government structures to improve the lives of Indigenous people then you see that we want to do three things. First of all, we want to address the decades of underinvestment in services, infrastructure and governance. The second key area we want to address is working with the communities to rebuild the positive social and community norms that are so necessary for strong families and healthy communities. Thirdly, we want to strengthen the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. For me, it is a bit like a triangle: we cannot have one without the other two or the whole plan will collapse. So we look at addressing the underinvestment, we look at working with communities to strengthen and build healthy committees and at the same time we look at our relationship with Indigenous people.

Clearly we can look at the result of the vote in the Northern Territory. Warren Snowdon was re-elected. I place on record my congratulations to Warren. He works diligently for his constituents in Lingiari, and that was recognised again. I am really pleased that he has been reappointed to the ministry. But there is no doubt that people turned to another party during the election campaign—though not significantly enough to not get me or Warren re-elected. I might add that they did not vote for the coalition in turning to another party. They did, though, voice some objection to some of the ways in which they believed our policies were impacting on their lives. For us it is a good time to take stock and have a look at the way in which our policies are being communicated to people and the way in which we are interacting with people. If you do not do that after an election and if you do not take stock of where you are going then I think you start to lay out a pretty bad road map for the future. We do have good news stories happening in the Territory and communities that recognise where they are happening. Particularly in north-east Arnhem Land and around Katherine and some of the communities in Central Australia, there was a recognition of the work we have started in the 2½ years we have been in government and there was a recognition that we need to keep going.

I do not agree with Senator Ludlam’s assertion in this place during one of the debates yesterday that we lost all of the mobile polling booths south of Tennant Creek. That is not correct. If Senator Ludlam goes back and checks the record, he will see that that is not a correct statement—not at all, in fact. So there is still confidence in supporting the Labor Party from Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, and we now have a significant challenge in order to live up to that expectation. One of the things I do want to say is that there are two significant areas we have committed to in the coming term which I think are fairly exciting areas. There is a commitment of $20 million to try to break the cycle of substance abuse, to implement a national framework through COAG to deal with alcohol and substance abuse and try to break that cycle in Aboriginal communities. I think that is one area where we can work with Indigenous people, and Indigenous people are seeking some leadership, support and commitment from a federal government to do that.

The other significant area that I enthusiastically look forward to being part of is Indigenous constitutional recognition. There was an announcement during the election campaign that we would pursue bipartisan support for taking the steps needed to progress the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. That is not going to be an easy process. I was here in the Senate with former senator Aden Ridgeway when we attempted previously to try to amend the Constitution to get Indigenous people recognised. Just agreeing on the format of words, on exactly how you would go about doing that, is a challenge in itself, let alone getting to the point where you actually get the Constitution amended. So it is a great idea and it is a terrific, visionary area of reform that we will embark on with Indigenous people, but I also think it is going to have its significant challenges. I look forward to the establishment of the expert panel on Indigenous constitutional recognition and the work that that panel can undertake and come up with. Let us hope that it is consensus driven enough to have some outcomes for Indigenous people.

In closing, I want to say that the coming three years provide an opportunity for us to work very closely with people in rural and regional Australia. I have not had time in this speech to talk about the agreement we have with some of the Independents about reforms in regional Australia. The elevation of Simon Crean into the cabinet as a minister for regional Australia will also have flow-on effects to people in the Northern Territory. I think some of the focus we will now see on people who live in the bush, in remote, rural and regional Australia, is a good thing for this country. I think it is going to benefit not only my constituents in the Northern Territory but also Indigenous Australians. (Time expired)