Following the Northern Territory election a couple of months ago, commentators have pointed to the influence of Aboriginal people in rural and remote communities as Territory voters dispensed with Labor and brought the Country Liberal Party to power. While some attribute the outcome to the strength of reaction to policies, increased democratic participation of Indigenous people is also a vital factor in the voting results.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Indigenous Australians' right to vote in federal elections, as well as the centenary of compulsory enrolment. Accordingly, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has proclaimed 2012 as the year of enrolment to commemorate these events. Under-enrolment is a broad community issue, but it has been a particular issue in remote Indigenous communities.
Contrary to popular belief, Indigenous Australians were able to vote in Commonwealth elections from 1962 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended. Admittedly, enrolment was not compulsory. The more famous 1967 referendum afforded legal recognition to Indigenous people as citizens under Commonwealth laws. Yet even after these developments, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continued to be marginalised in democratic processes.
Only few years ago, Indigenous people had very little influence in elections. Many eligible Indigenous community members did not enrol to vote. Of those who did, a significant portion did not go to the polls, and informal ballots were overrepresented in Indigenous polling booths. As a result, substantial numbers of Indigenous electors did not contribute to election outcomes and were effectively disenfranchised.
In recent years, the AEC sought to address this inequality. As part of the 'Closing the Gap' initiative, the AEC conducted a comprehensive program to improve electoral enrolment and increase the Indigenous vote, especially in remote communities. The Indigenous Electoral Participation Program was designed to improve Indigenous people's electoral participation to align with the rest of the community. The program was highly effective in increasing enrolment and turnout for the 2010 election, and the program continues to boost Indigenous enrolment and participation.
The Northern Territory federal electorates of Lingiari and Solomon, which encompass many of remote Indigenous communities in Australia, are on a consistent trend of increasing voter enrolments since 2004. Between 31 July 2004 and 31 July 2012, almost 7000 and over 6000 extra electors were enrolled to vote in Lingiari and Solomon respectively. This represents an increase of around twelve per cent for each electorate in less than a decade – significantly more than the population growth rate in the Territory over the same period.
Although the AEC statistics do not provide detail of enrolment or voting in particular booths in the Northern Territory, its Annual Reports provide accounts of the AEC's efforts to address this area of Indigenous disadvantage in remote communities. Its 2009, 2010 and 2011 publications each detail the strategies employed.
The AEC used culturally informed methods to encourage voter enrolment, increase elector turnout and reduce informal voting rates. These included art showcased in a poster series, and AEC staff attendance at cultural and sports events. General advertising and promotional material was adapted for Indigenous audiences and media, including radio advertisements translated into seven Indigenous languages. This was supported by active personal engagement strategies including one-to-one education, training social and other community workers, and collaborating with non-government organisations. Field staff in the Indigenous Electoral Participation Program, three quarters of whom are Indigenous, travelled to Indigenous communities to interact with communities and build relationships with Indigenous stakeholder groups and organisations. An inter-agency trial with Centrelink in which call centre operators proactively offered electoral enrolment assistance to remote communities also proved successful. These programs were supported by similar outreach programs run by the Northern Territory Electoral Commission.
The Indigenous Electoral Participation Program also proved fruitful in increasing Indigenous knowledge of democracy and elections, as well as formal voting. Such was its success, it was nominated for outstanding achievement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education in the 2012 Deadly Awards for Indigenous contributions to community and Australian society. Although it did not win, its nomination is testament to the way in which the AEC conducted its work, and the goodwill with which the program and AEC staff were received.
In the past, seats with high numbers of Indigenous communities are typically Labor seats. But as the Northern Territory election demonstrated, the so-called 'Indigenous vote' is not predictable. Former Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway, an Indigenous man, noted that 'Indigenous people can have a voice and can have a say in determining outcomes for all Australians.' While this was certainly the case for Australians in the Northern Territory, this would not have been possible without increased Indigenous electoral enrolment and democratic participation.