Australia Indigenous voters lodge discrimination complaint against Australian Electoral Commission
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The lower enrolment rates of Indigenous voters in Northern Territory remote communities amounts to discrimination by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), according to a complaint filed by two Indigenous men in the Human Rights Commission.
The complaint – lodged this week — was made by Matthew Ryan, the Mayor of the West Arnhem Regional Council, and Ross Mandi, Chairman of the Yalu Aboriginal Corporation in Galiwin'ku on Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land.
They claim that the AEC applied an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in a way that led to Aboriginal people in remote communities being "suppressed or inhibited" in both Federal and NT elections.
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"All forms of discrimination must stop. The AEC needs to take rapid action to enrol the third of Indigenous people in the NT who are not able to vote," Mr Ryan said in a statement.
"I've worked on elections for years. There's always people turning up who are not able to vote. If the AEC did its job properly, this could stop right now," Mr Mandi said.
No post box, no vote
In 2012, an amendment — the Federal Direct Enrolment Update — was applied to the Commonwealth Electoral Act as part of a bid to tackle low voter numbers.
It allowed the Australian Electoral Commission to directly enrol eligible voters who were not on the electoral role using data from Centrelink records and driver licences.
It also allowed the AEC to update the details of enrolled voters, for example the change of a postal address.
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According to the AEC, enrolments rose sharply from around 91 per cent of eligible voters in 2009 to 97 per cent for the 2019 Federal election in most urban jurisdictions.
But in Indigenous communities, where the policy was not applied, enrolment numbers levelled as low as 74 per cent at the 2016 NT election.
In a 2020 Joint Standing Committee, the AEC's Assistant Commissioner Gina Dario claimed that without a "reliable postal address" the AEC could not automatically enrol new voters – posing a significant challenge for remote communities where street signs and letterboxes are rare.
According to the NT Electoral Commission, which is not the subject of the complaint, remote and regional areas of the NT, where the majority of Indigenous Territorians live, are excluded from the Federal Direct Enrolment Update.
The complaint is supported by several unions including the Maritime Union of Australia.
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"I've witnessed how some Aboriginal people are turned away at the polls because they haven't been enrolled," said the MUA's National Indigenous officer Thomas Mayor, who is also a prominent NT Labor party member.
"The policy is to not use the powers the Electorate Commission has to directly enrol people in Aboriginal communities … because people do not have a post box.
"The complaint is about indirect discrimination and I think the Australian Electorate Commission needs to answer the question: is this a racially driven policy?"
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The complaint to the Human Rights Commission, lodged on behalf of the complainants by Bowden and McCormack law firm, alleges the AEC's policy is a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act and also raises concerns that Indigenous communities have access to ballot boxes only for a short period of time.
A spokesman for the Australian Electoral Commission Evan Ekin-Smyth said electoral participation is of "vital importance" and that the issue of Indigenous under-enrolment is not new, "but rather an enduring challenge".
He said continued investment has resulted in year-on-year Indigenous enrolment growth of 67.5 per cent in 2018 to 68.7 per cent in 2020.
Earlier this month, the NT Electoral Commission reported the Federal Direct Enrolment amendment "particularly disadvantages Aboriginal electors in the Northern Territory", and should be reviewed.
The report pointed to alarming AEC figures that of the estimated 52,847 eligible Indigenous voters in the Territory, 16,527 were not enrolled to vote.
"The under-representation of enrolment of remote Aboriginal Territorians not only impacts election results, it also affects electoral boundaries," the report states.
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