NT Electoral Commissioner Iain Loganathan said there was no intention to reduce services for remote voters. (ABC: Hamish Harty)
The Northern Territory Electoral Commission says hosting elections in the NT’s remote regions is already a challenge and will be even more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic.
- The NTEC says remote polling will be possible but the NT Election will be “different” this year
- A face-to-face enrolment campaign for remote communities has been postponed
- The NT has poor voter participation and a low Indigenous enrolment rate
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner has insisted the election, set for August 22 by a fixed term, will go ahead and that voting can be safely managed during the public health crisis.
“Running elections in the Territory, particularly in remote areas, is challenging at the best of times,” NT Electoral Commissioner Iain Loganathan said.
“It’s even going to be more challenging with the pandemic and the restrictions in place.”
But Mr Loganathan said he was confident a “good service” could still be provided to voters.
“There’s no intention to reduce the level of service to remote electors,” he said.
The NT had the worst voter participation rate in Australia at the last federal election and low Indigenous enrolment. (ABC News: Tom Maddocks)
Several NT politicians have suggested the election should be postponed, because it could be unfair to remote voters and candidates.
In a letter to Mr Gunner, the leader of new party Territory Alliance, Terry Mills, said the democratic right to cast a vote could be threatened – particularly in remote areas – because of physical distancing and travel restrictions.
Mr Mills said the restrictions would limit the NTEC’s ability to conduct its usual voter enrolment drives and mobile polling in remote Indigenous communities, where voter engagement was already low.
“They’re the ones that most need to be engaged, it’s going to be very difficult for the electoral commission to get increased numbers on the roll,” Mr Mills said.
Local council elections went ahead in Queensland last month but Tasmania’s upper house election has been postponed. (ABC News: Brendan Mounter)
Mr Mills said electoral laws should be changed to put off the NT election until at least October.
He also asked Mr Gunner how pre-polling for vulnerable people, in hospitals and aged care homes where visitor restrictions exist, would take place.
Mr Gunner said there was four months to plan for the election and pushing ahead with the August date was in-line with democratic principles.
“We don’t live in a dictatorship, this is democracy, Territorians decide who the government of the Northern Territory is,” he said.
“I’m not going to give myself as Chief Minister an extra day than what Territorians gave to me.”
Inaccessibility during the Top End wet season from November to April is one reason elections are held in August. (News Video)
Your questions on coronavirus answered:
Remote polling can take place
Local government elections were recently held in Queensland but Tasmania has postponed its upper house election indefinitely to avoid breaching the state’s new health directions on gatherings.
@AntonyGreenABC Tweet: The impact of Covid-19 on the #BrisbaneVotes election can be seen in the table of votes by type below. Polling day votes slumped from 66.0% to 26.5%, pre-polls and postals doubled, telephone votes up from 151 to 8,428. Pre-polls counted as Absents also leapt.
Mr Loganathan said the upcoming NT election would be “very different” from previous NT elections.
He said electoral staff would be deemed essential workers for travel into biosecurity zones.
Strict hygiene and cleaning protocols would also be in place at polling booths, Mr Loganathan said.
“At the local government elections in Queensland, there was no door-knocking, there was no handing out of how-to-vote cards, there were no scrutineers in polling places,” he said.
“We’re going to see more Territorians early voting, we’re going to see more Territorians applying for postal votes and we’re not going to see sausage sizzles on Saturday.”
But the NTEC has already had to postpone its face-to-face enrolment drive, which was due to roll out this month.
Education campaigns in 1979 encouraged Aboriginal people to vote and stand as election candidates. (Supplied: AIATSIS)
More than 25,000 of the NT’s Indigenous people are not currently enrolled to vote, according to Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) data.
“It is disappointing, we know that there is under-enrolment in remote areas,” NT Electoral Commissioner Iain Loganathan said.
“History has taught us that face-to-face service delivery in remote communities is the best way of getting the message about enrolment and voting to remote Aboriginal Territorians.”
Vulnerable residents the priority, remote candidates say
Central Land Council chief executive Joe Martin-Jard said more effort was needed to get remote voters signed up for the election.
“It is not good enough to use the challenges communities in lockdown are facing to further disenfranchise remote Aboriginal voters,” Mr Martin-Jard said.
Mr Loganathan said the rest of the NTEC’s enrolment campaign was still going ahead, including work with Aboriginal media organisations on social media content and radio advertisements.
A spokesman for the NTEC also said a team was working on a COVID-19 plan to gain access to remote communities for election officials, including for face-to-face enrolment promotion before the August election if possible.
Independent Yolngu politician Yingiya Mark Guyula, who will be running in the seat of Mulka, said he supported an August election only if it was safe for elders and vulnerable remote community members.
“We don’t want to see visitors moving around communities who have not self-isolated and we don’t want community members to move through polling booths if it’s a risk to their health,” Mr Guyula said.
Mr Guyula said any change to the voting system, such as increased postal or online voting, would cause “great confusion” and limit the ability of many to cast their vote.
Delaying the NT election until October would require changes to NT legislation.
How do I get tested in the NT?
- If you can’t contact or get to your GP, but you have the symptoms, you should call 1800 008 002
- This is a dedicated NT-wide coronavirus (COVID-19) number for people who need to arrange testing only
- If you live in Darwin and need to arrange testing, call the Public Health Unit on 8922 8044
- Patients who are tested should remain isolated at home until they receive their test results
- For general advice, Territorians can call 1800 020 080