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Wednesday, 2 December 2020
Page: 6517


Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaMinister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (09:49): I table the explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

I am pleased to introduce the Electoral Amendment (Territory Representation) Bill 2020. This bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to provide greater certainty to the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory regarding their representation in the House of Representatives.

At the 2019 federal election, the Northern Territory elected two members. However, on 3 July 2020, using population statistics supplied by the Australian Statistician, the Electoral Commissioner issued a determination under the Electoral Act regarding the number of members of the House of Representatives for the next federal election. This determination provides that the Northern Territory and Western Australia will each lose a seat in the House of Representatives, and Victoria will gain a seat.

If left to stand, this determination would mean the Northern Territory, with an area of 1.3 million square kilometres and a population of nearly 250,000, would only hold one seat in the House of Representatives.

The Government is committed to ensuring fair and equitable parliamentary representation across the country, especially across such a large and diverse part of our nation as the Northern Territory.

The Government is proposing these amendments to the Electoral Act to preserve two members to represent the Northern Territory in the House at the next election and to make permanent changes to buttress the basis on which we calculate Territory representation for future elections.

The bill responds to the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, arising from an inquiry into a private senator's bill introduced to the Senate to guarantee two seats for the Northern Territory. I thank the Committee for its work.

While the private senator's bill examined by the Committee would have achieved an outcome of two seats for the Northern Territory at the next election, it did have some deficiencies and would have increased risk and complexity in the operation of the Electoral Act. The Committee also suggested that the private senator's bill could conceivably create issues of potential constitutional risk, by treating the two Territories differently - giving a two seat floor to the Northern Territory while keeping the Australian Capital Territory on the old floor of one seat.

Importantly, the Committee also found that the private senator's bill did not include all necessary legislative changes. For example that bill did not amend the numerous places in Part IV of the Electoral Act (dealing with boundary drawing for electorates), where the Northern Territory is currently omitted.

Accordingly, the Committee recommended that an alternative bill be put forward by the Government, with the benefit of official advice, to address these problems and ensure a more robust solution. The Committee recommended that "if Parliament does not enact a two seat floor for the Territories it considers […] enacting a harmonic mean for allocating seats between States and Territories".

Taking account of the Committee's views, the Government's Bill makes four main changes related to Territory representation:

It amends the Electoral Act to set aside part of the Electoral Commissioner's determination of 3 July 2020 which would have reduced the NT's representation in the House of Representatives for the next election from two seats to one seat, and restores the Northern Territory to a two seat entitlement for the next general election;

The Bill adopts a new harmonic mean method for determining the allocation of House of Representative seats to the territories. Based on current population statistics, this would result in the NT continuing to be eligible for two seats when the next determination occurs ahead of the 2025 election and the ACT likewise retaining its current allocation of three seats;

The Bill ensures that this harmonic mean method for allocating seats to Territories will lower the rounding mark to get from one to two seats, and from two to three seats. Where a Territory with a fast growing population is approaching four or more seats, it will revert to the same rounding rule as the States from that point;

Finally the Bill repeals the margin of error provisions for population calculations for the NT and the ACT, and also better aligns the redistribution provisions for the NT and the ACT to modernise and simplify the administration of the Electoral Act.

Application of a harmonic mean calculation will result in a more significantly more favourable rounding up of the quotas required to secure additional seats in the House of Representatives, as compared to the previous margin of error adjustment.

A territory with one House of Representative seat will only require a quota of 1.3333 to gain a second seat, and a territory with two seats will only require a quota of 2.4000 to be allocated a third seat. Based on their past population levels, both territories would comfortably pass those respective thresholds.

Harmonic mean rounding is recognised by electoral systems experts as the most fair and suitable approach for assigning parliamentary seats between different geographic areas, to fix the unduly heavy constituent workload that can arise in the smallest areas. Prominent commentator Antony Green has been the principal exponent for this reform in Australia. Consistent with his recommendations, the Bill removes the margin of error method as a trade-off for introduction of the more generous solution of harmonic mean rounding.

These amendments provide a fairer mechanism to allocate seats in the House of Representatives for smaller jurisdictions, and makes securing representation for the territories far more achievable on a permanent basis.

This not only allows the Northern Territory to hold its ground, ensuring strong representation for the remote and disadvantaged communities included in its borders, but makes it easier to achieve growth of its Parliamentary representation to three seats as it develops economically.

The recent NT Budget points to specific construction and resource projects that underpin new data on population growth this year and over the forward estimates. They point to the Darwin ship lift, defence works at Larrakeyah, HMAS Coonawarra and Robertson Barracks, and the CDU city campus as part of the City Deals project.

I welcome the comments of Chief Minister Michael Gunner who said in his Budget speech that:

" After recent years of declining population, 2020 is the year it starts to turn around. We are growing again. … Residential building approvals were up 150 per cent in September - nearly 10 times the national average, and Darwin scored the strongest property price growth of any capital city last month. Despite the impact of COVID-19 on operations and global markets, our mining sector continues to perform strongly, with production and exploration at near-record levels. Though the Budget ' s economic outlook for the Territory is positive, it is also conservative. It does not factor in the planned and potential projects in the pipeline, such as the Barossa gas field project which would boost growth forecasts in 2023-24. "

The Government Bill avoids taking risks with the constitutionality, because our amendments treat territories on the basis of objective principles and methods, rather than setting arbitrary numbers of seats for each specific territory. The worst thing we could do is to enact a solution, that would be at risk of being struck down in the courts.

The methodology in the 2020 Government Bill is consistent with the constitutional characteristics of a representative democracy because, the new methodology is overtly designed to ensure that the average population per electorate in the NT is sufficiently commensurate with the national average population per electorate.

The new calculations that are required under the Government's bill will give certainty that the diverse and widely dispersed population in the Northern Territory is adequately and more fairly represented in future.

The amendments ensure continued parity in the Electoral Act provisions regarding the seats for the NT and the ACT. This is consistent with the approach to the previous 2004 amendments, to protect the Northern Territory's position, which also treated both territories alike.

The concern about constitutional risk has been identified by the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters every time they have considered Territory representation. The 2004 report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters says:

" The Committee endorses the 1985 report of the JSCER [the predecessor committee] which noted the potential for abuse of the discretion given to Parliament to make laws governing the representation of the Territories. "

Importantly, as the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended, the Bill also better aligns the treatment of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in boundary redistribution provisions. Once a territory has multiple seats, we must ensure that the boundary drawing processes are working efficiently when there are disparate population fluctuations within different geographic parts of that territory. Our bill ensures that the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory are treated the same as the States wherever possible in Part IV of the Electoral Act.

The one exception to symmetry between the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in the Government Bill relates to the consequential rules about participation of Australian Electoral Officers in redistribution processes.

Under this bill, the Northern Territory Australian Electoral Officer will participate in NT redistribution processes, just as their State counterparts would participate when House of Representatives boundaries are redrawn within particular States. However the Australian Electoral Officer for the Australian Capital Territory is only appointed for the duration of an election, so during any redistributions in the ACT another senior officer from the Electoral Commission will participate in the process, as determined by the Electoral Commissioner. That distinctive treatment for the Australian Capital Territory is an existing feature of the Act, that is cost effective and not necessary to disturb in this Bill.

I note there has been recent conjecture in Parliamentary Committee hearings about the future status of the Australian Electoral Officer for the Northern Territory. I take this opportunity to put those concerns to rest.

This Bill recognises that the Australian Electoral Officer in the Northern Territory is always to be a member of the Redistribution Committee for any redistributions in that territory. I also note, for the record, that the process to permanently re-fill the Australian Electoral Officer position for the Northern Territory will begin before the end of 2020.

Finally, I observe that following passage of major electoral Bills in recent times, it has become an established practice to have a Post Implementation Review within a reasonable period after provisions have come into operation. That is a prudent practice. Accordingly this Bill includes a requirement that the harmonic mean provisions are reviewed by a parliamentary committee as soon as practicable after the first occasion when the provisions are used for a determination. That would occur during the life of the next Parliament.

In conclusion, it is important that we remain committed to improving electoral legislation in a non-partisan manner which promotes public confidence, within the constraints of our constitutional system and the requirements of representative democracy. Respecting those principles, we have been able to draft a solution that errs towards ensuring the strongest representation for Australia's territories.

The Government intends to seek passage of this Bill through Parliament before the end of the year to give certainty about territory representation arrangements as soon as possible.

I commend the Bill to the Chamber.

Debate adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for a later hour.