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First Peoples

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Working paper

Electoral administration and Aboriginal voting power in the Northern Territory: reality and potential viewed from the 2019 federal election

Preferential voting Australian federal election 2019 Election results Voting patterns Aboriginal people (Australia) First Peoples representation Northern Territory


Due to population proportion, Aboriginal people have the potential to exercise electoral power in Australia’s Northern Territory. Looking back from 2019, this paper explores the contribution of Aboriginal votes to federal elections in the Northern Territory. It argues that Aboriginal votes have made the Territory stronger for Labor, compared to regional areas of Queensland and Western Australia. It also notes low enrolment and turnout figures in House of Representatives divisions with high proportions of Aboriginal population, which suggests potential Aboriginal electoral power that is as-yet unused.

Turnout and enrolment figures are related to developments in electoral administration since 1983, when enrolment was first made compulsory for Aboriginal Australians over 18, as for others. Whether compulsory enrolment and voting has yet been achieved by electoral administration in remote areas is discussed, as too is the limited use in these areas since 2012 of new digital-age provisions for direct enrolment without claim drawing on information from other government sources.

Key Findings:

  • From a larger geographic perspective, one obvious question arising from the 2019 Federal election is: why was the Northern Territory strong for Labor when regional areas of Queensland to the east and Western Australia to the west were so much more problematic? The political economies of these outlying regions based on resource extraction industries appear similar, but there is something different occurring in the Territory, electorally, compared to Queensland and Western Australia.
  • Enrolment is another source of difficulty. All citizens are eligible to vote from age eighteen and in order to vote a citizen must be enrolled. Enrolment has been compulsory for all non-Aboriginal citizens for many years. When first enfranchised in 1962, Aborigines [sic] were not required to enrol, but if enrolled they were required to vote. In 1983, enrolment was made compulsory for them too. 
  • This research suggests that the percentage of Indigenous Australians enrolled in Western Australia and Northern Territory may still be down around two-thirds. 
  • The town Lingiari has many mail exclusion areas in remote Aboriginal communities, so effectively Federal Direct Enrolment and Update (FDEU) is not being used in much of this House of Representatives division. This raises questions about how electoral administration for remote areas may be diverging from the Australian Electoral Comission's (AEC)’s developing digital-age administration in urban and regional areas. What other methods are being used both to encourage and to update enrolment in these remote areas, now that the AEC is becoming a more centralised, digital-age organisation?
Publication Details
Access Rights Type:
CAEPR Working Paper No. 132/2019