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The Vote: Hiding the Aboriginal vote (Part 1)

Ruby Schwartz travels to remote Australia to find out why some people are more enrolled than others.
Read Transcript

When Australia heads to the polls in a couple of weeks, 1 in 5 Indigenous people who are eligible to vote won’t be enrolled and won’t be able to cast a ballot. 

60 years after First Nations people won the right to vote in Australia, why is access to democracy still a challenge?

Today, producer for 7am Ruby Schwartz travels to remote Australia to find out why some people are more enrolled than others.

 

Guest: Producer for 7am, Ruby Schwartz.

 
Read Transcript

Nick:
Can I ask you something? 


Ruby Schwartz:
Yeah definitely.


Nick:
Did you ever get taught anything about voting in schools? 


Ruby Schwartz:
Yep I did.

 

Nick:
I’ve never been taught in school in the NT. Only thing we learnt about voting was voting for the bloody school captain. That’s about it. 

 

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media and 7am, I’m Ruby Jones and this is The Vote

 

When Australia heads to the polls in a couple of weeks, 1 in 5 Indigenous people who are eligible to vote won’t be enrolled. And so, they won’t be able to cast a ballot. 

 

So, 60 years after First Nations people won the right to vote in Australia, why is access to democracy still a challenge?

 

Today, 7am producer Ruby Schwartz travels to remote Australia to find out why some people are more enrolled than others.

 

It’s Wednesday, May 11.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

Ruby Schwartz:
Funny question… what would I be seeing if it were not 930 at night and dark…


Larissa:
“You would be seeing - this is a little sad - this drive is incredible!” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
A few weeks ago I travelled to Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory.

 

Larissa:
You’ll see it on the way up and that sort of stuff - but how much the landscape and geography changes as you drive along the Stuart Highway… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
I’m on a highway driving from Alice to the town of Tennant Creek with Larissa Baldwin. Larissa is a Wijabul woman in her mid-thirties and the First Nations Campaigns Director for the activist group GetUp. Larissa grew up on country in Lismore in Northern NSW, but you can tell this isn’t her first time driving up the Stuart Highway. 

 

Larissa:
All you’ll see now is like road trains with their big headlights like this one coming towards us right now - and maybe some cattle but we don’t want to see cattle. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
While I panic at every road train that goes past…

 

Ruby Schwartz:
So this is a road train?


Larissa:
No - that was just a car with headlights on…. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
… or I think goes past… Larissa navigates the highway - full of cattle, camels and impossibly long road trains - with ease. 

 

Tennant Creek is 500 km north of Alice, and we’re still four hours away. But Larissa makes the time go fast… 

 

Ruby Schwartz:
I was about to say - I’m hearing a horror story about the Stuart Highway on the Stuart Highway…


Larissa: It’s not Wolf Creek!


Ruby Schwartz:
Oh my god… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
She’s funny. Has endless stories to tell. And is a country music obsessive. 

 

Larissa: 

After the election I’m going to Nashville. I’m going to their music festival… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
So why are we heading to Tennant Creek? Well Larissa - as part of her work with GetUp - is trying to convince Indigenous people to enroll to vote in this upcoming election.

 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“New data shows close to half of all Aboriginal people enrolled to vote in the Northern Territory failed to have their say in the May federal election.”

 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“The AEC estimates that more than 30% …”


Archival Tape -- ABC:
“30% of the Territory’s First Nations people who are eligible to vote are not enrolled.”

 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“Eligible to vote are not enrolled…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Across Australia, about 97% of the eligible population is enrolled to vote. But when you look specifically at First Nations people… that figure drops to below 80 percent. And in the Northern Terriory… it's even lower, less than 70%.

 

And I was there because I wanted to understand how the Indigenous enrolment rate could be so comparatively low, and what that means for the right of First Nations people to have their voice heard.

 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“Labor MP Warren Snowdon has attacked the Government over the low turnout after it made major cuts to the Australian Electoral Commission.”

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
I wanted to understand what might be behind these numbers. So for me - this drive is part of a bigger story. A story about how well Australia’s democracy is working… and who it’s working for.

 

But for now - we’re arriving in Tennant Creek. 

 

Larissa:
Let’s park here… go walk…

 

Ruby Schwartz:
Testing testing… Just in Peko Park which is on the corner… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
It’s a hot day in Tennant Creek - 39 degrees and super dry. I find the heat so intense that I need to move slowly so my recording gear doesn’t end up drenched in sweat.

 

Ruby Schwartz:
I’m feeling parched - immediately. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Larissa on the other hand - wearing a t-shirt that says “WE VOTE” all in capital letters - moves quickly and gets straight to work. 

 

Larissa:
Living in Tennant Creek, what kinds of things would you like to see changed? …


Larissa:
Do you think a lot of people in Tennant Creek vote? …


Larissa:
What sort of jobs do people mostly do here? …


Larissa:
What would be a good politician for Lingiari? …


Larissa:
Do you think they get enough funding from the government to build bigger businesses?

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
About 3000 people live in Tennant Creek. And about half of those people identify as Indigenous. And as people from the town stop by, Larissa talks to them casually, easily - about a lot of things… 

 

Linda:
Life goes up and down here. It’s been really really hard here lately…

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
And about the issues they’d like to see addressed in the community.

 

Kade:
The houses - housing crisis in Tennant Creek and around the Barkly - I think that needs to change.

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
And when she talks to passers by about the upcoming federal election - it becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly that not many people in the community know it’s just a few weeks away. 

 

Larissa:
Do you reckon a lot of people know there’s an election coming in a few weeks?

 

Kade:
Looking at the town, I don’t think no one knows. Because there are no billboards or anything saying the federal election is coming - get enrolled to get your vote counted. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Other people Larissa speaks to seem too disillusioned to know or to care… Like Kevin Shannon. 

 

Kevin:
Excuse me, my name’s Kevin Shannon… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
He’s Indigenous man. He’s homeless and camps on the outskirts of Tennant Creek. And when Larissa asks him about the election… 

 

Larissa:
Do you think things would change if more Aboriginal people got elected to parliament?


Kevin:
Nothing change here. Nothing change. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
He says he doesn’t see a point in enrolling to vote. 

 

Kevin:
From my perspective, nothing change. Nothing.

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
But despite that - he stays and talks to Larissa for a while… 

 

Because it’s clear that people like Larissa - and want to hear what she has to say about the election. And one thing she keeps telling people is that this election - it’s a particularly important one for the Northern Territory.

 

Larissa:
What do you think a good politician that’s going to represent Lingiari? Because it’s all up for grabs this election… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
She says it’s all up for grabs. 

 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“The Federal seat of Lingiari is considered to be one of the safest Labor seats in the nation.” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
The Northern Territory doesn’t often receive much attention during federal elections. 

 

But this federal election - all eyes seem to be on the Territory.

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader:
“Scott Morrison has started his two day trip to the Northern Territory here in Alice Springs… “

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
The Prime Minister kicked his unofficial election campaign there. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce made an appearance. And so did the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese - all making funding promises. 

 

Archival Tape -- Newsreader:
“Anthony Albanese will also be in the NT today touching down in Darwin in the hours ahead. He’ll be pledging $11 million to an Aboriginal health service…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
And particular attention is being paid to the seat of Lingiari, which is where Larissa and I have travelled to.

 

Archival Tape -- ABC:
“In the NT, veteran Labor MP Warren Snowdon’s retirement means the electorate of Lingiari is a key seat to watch during the election.” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
That’s because Warren Snowdon, the Labor MP who has held the seat since it was formed in 2001 is retiring. 

 

Archival Tape -- Warren Snowdon:
“I’m a bit of a relic…. So I’ve taken the decision that I won’t be contesting at the next election.”

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
And while historically Lingiari has always gone to Labor in large part due to the Indigenous vote - the Coalition clearly sees this year as an opportunity to win the seat for the very first time.

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“We're investing heavily in ensuring that the Northern Territory has a strong industrial future…”

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Lingiari is geographically huge. It’s bigger than it's bigger than France, Germany and Italy combined. 

 

And more than 40% of the voters in the electorate are Indigenous.

 

So whether Indigenous people are enrolled in this electorate, whether they vote - and who they choose to vote for - it has a big impact.

 

(Car sounds)

 

Ruby Schwartz:
Do you want to describe the landscape a bit?


Larissa:
Umm we are driving to Minyerri in southeast Arnhem Land… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
The next stop on the enrollment drive is Miniyeri - a remote community of about 600 people - a few hundred kilometers southeast of Katherine. 

 

After Tennant Creek, I was left with the impression that perhaps one of the main reasons enrollment levels are so low among Indigenous people in the NT is because of a sense of disillusionment. Because of a lack of interest in engaging in a system that never helps them. And I wanted to see if the same would hold true for a place like Miniyerri… 

 

Larissa:
This community desperately needs housing - there’s demountables out here for people who their houses are being fixed up.


Ruby Schwartz:
What’s a demountable?


Larissa: Just like an old school building or something people are living in… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
And as we drive in, a lot of the houses we pass, they’re in pretty bad shape. Overcrowding is clearly a problem. And the first person I meet there - Naomi Wilfred… tells me she lives in a house of 17. 

 

Ruby Schwartz:
How many of you in your house?


Aunty Naomi:
I don’t know about 17 I think?


Ruby Schwartz:
17? 


Aunty Naomi:
Yeah… 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
She points out her home to me - it’s a blue weatherboard. It looks pretty run down. I don’t look inside - but it’s hard to envision how 17 people could sleep in a home that size.

 

Ruby Schwartz:
What’s it like living in a house with so many people?


Aunty Naomi:
Too much noise! Grandchildren running around, I’m yelling shut up! … really bad (laughs)

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Naomi grew up in Miniyeri. She’s an Alawa elder in her mid-60’s. And while she initially laughs telling me about the trials and tribulations of living in a house with so many people. It’s clear it’s a problem that deeply concerns her.

 

Aunty Naomi:
Because it’s all never been renovated. Look at this! If it was a non-Indigenous building - they would do something about it. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
After speaking with Naomi for a while… I start to ask her questions about voting. 

 

Ruby Schwartz:
Thinking about voting in all of this… does it give you I guess hope that you have a say through voting?... 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Thinking back to my conversation with Kevin Shannon, the man from Tennant Creek - I wonder if Naomi will share the same sentiment as him - what’s the point of voting when nothing ever changes? But she doesn’t. 

 

Aunty Naomi:
I’ve voted for a long time.


Ruby Schwartz:
When was the first time you voted?


Aunty Naomi: Probably 2010. 

 

We want to vote because we know when we vote we have our rights.

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
In fact, no sooner do I ask about enrolling to vote, does Naomi jump up and start telling everyone in sight to get more people down here! 

 

(hearing Aunty Naomi…)

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
To get the young people to come and get enrolled. 

 

(walking sounds)

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
When I walk over to Larissa, she’s filling out enrollment forms for people. 

 

Larissa:
Okay we’re going to hand that in for you. And when that election comes around in 6-7 weeks you can vote. Anywhere you are. (fades out)

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
And over the course of the enrollment drive - the more I watch Larissa’s pile of filled out enrollment forms grow - and the more people I talk to…

 

Nick:
Only thing we learnt about voting was voting for the bloody school captain. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
The more I realise that most Indigenous people in the places we visit - they do want to enroll. And they do want to vote. 

 

So why are enrollment rates so low then?

 

Larissa:
It's not that Aboriginal people don't want to vote, it’s that Aboriginal people because of a lot of political decisions and choices feel very disenfranchised. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Rather than enrollment levels being low because of any lack of desire to vote - Larissa attributes it to a deliberate attempt to suppress the Indigenous vote. 

 

Larissa:
I definitely think that it's more sinister and that people are actually doing this because they want to remain in power. And I don't think that the government can see a win for them in a seat like Lingiari if the bush is actually turning out and voting. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
According to Larissa, low levels of enrollment in Indigenous communities is no accident. It is by design. 

 

Larissa:
And actually, what needs to change is, is our electoral laws need an overhaul because right now our electoral laws have made the conditions for this to happen. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:

We’ll be back after this.

 

[Advertisement]

 

Archival Tape -- News reader:
“Recent news of alleged voter suppression in some key races has many wondering if they’re still able to cast their ballots…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:

Voter suppression isn’t a term that you often hear in Australia. Most of the time it comes up in conversations about the political system in the United States.

 

Basically - what it is - is the attempt to keep voter registration and turnout of certain communities low.

 

Archival Tape -- Academic:
“Overwhelming African American, Latino, Asian American, young and poor. When we begin to look at these voter suppression laws - that’s the group that is targeted.” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Through things like forcing voters to show ID before they vote, and limiting options for when and where voters can actually cast their ballot.

 

Archival Tape -- News reader:
“On election nights we often focus on who’s voting. But Alabama’s strict voter ID rules could shape tonight’s race based on who didn’t vote. Republicans added these photo ID rules in 2011…”  

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Of course, voting systems in the United States and Australia are different. Namely - we have compulsory voting - they don’t. And that provides our vote with a certain level of protection - and is a big reason why our enrolment rates are generally so high.

 

But no system is perfect. And a prime example of that - is the fact that voting is compulsory but still less than 70%  of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory are on the roll.

 

And I wanted dig into what Larissa said about voter suppression. I wanted to understand if there are similar measures in place in Australia to restrict the Indigenous vote.

 

And when you look at the history…  similarities start to appear when you look back to the Howard years. In fact to John Howard’s very first year in power.

 

Norm Kelly:
I miss the politics of it all… having been so involved in it… 


Ruby Schwartz:
Yeah.

 

That’s Norm Kelly. He’s an academic and former Australian politician. He’s based in New Zealand now, but over the years, he has written extensively about John Howard’s reforms to the Australian electoral system.

 

Norm Kelly:
… and author of The Directions in Australian Electoral Reform Book, ah yeah. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
And in Norm’s book, he writes that when John Howard was first elected in 1996, one of the very first things he did as Prime Minister was abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Election Education and Information Service (or ATSIEEIS). 

 

ATSIEEIS was an arm of the Australian Electoral Commission - and one its main aims was to increase Indigenous enrollment. 

 

Norm Kelly:
And they were quite successful in being able to increase. Voter enrolment and increased voting in elections. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Not only did Howard’s decision to abolish ATIEEIS see Indigenous enrollment rates decrease - it was also the first time the Australian Electoral Commission - an independent authority - had ever been instructed by government on how to direct its budget. It was a big deal. 

 

Norm Kelly:
So it was seen as government interference and you could say political interference because of the implication that removing that service would have. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
But for the next nine years, the Howard government didn’t really make many significant changes to the electoral system. 

 

That was until 2004…

 

When the Howard government won the Senate and House of Representatives in a landslide victory… 

 

Archival Tape -- John Howard documentary:
“The size of the victory would give John Howard enormous authority within his own party…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Not long after that… the Howard government introduced the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill. The Bill removed the right of prisoners to vote. It made it easier to conceal political donations, and the government’s justification for introducing the bill was to stop supposed voter fraud. 

 

Archival Tape -- Eric Abetz:
“Now I was absolutely astounded to hear and read in some of the speeches by opposition senators the suggestion that electoral fraud does not exist in this country…”

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
At the time the bill was making its way through the Senate, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz said voter fraud was a big issue.    

 

According to Abetz, even a pet cat was involved in the scheme to rort our electoral system… 

 

Archival Tape -- Eric Abetz:
“And we have the case of ‘Curacao Fischer Cat’, thank you Senator Ferris… who was enrolled in the seat of Macquarie. Was able to get onto the electoral roll through fraud and misrepresentation.”

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
The Bill would eliminate voter fraud by introducing two new requirements. 

 

The first change meant that potential voters would have less time to enrol once the election was called. According to the government, that was to stop people changing what seat they lived in to try and sway the outcome election. 

 

The other measure was to introduce new proof of identity requirements, which would prevent people from doing things like enrolling twice, or supposedly enrolling their cats… 

 

Archival Tape -- Senator Abetz:
“If you can get a cat onto the electoral roll - chances are you can get anyone on the electoral roll - and you can then rort the system.” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
The Bill passed in 2006.

 

The thing is though - at the time this bill was introduced and passed - voter fraud in Australia was virtually nonexistent. You can hear Labor Senator Kim Carr interjecting during Eric Abetz’s speech in parliament to make this point… 

 

Archival Tape -- Senator Carr:
“Seventy-one cases; one in a million.”

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Senator Carr is saying there have only been 71 cases of voter fraud since 1990 (this is in 2006 by the way - so in 16 years). He’s saying the chance of it happening - one in a million. 

 

Archival Tape -- Senator Carr:
“Because they find one in a million - one in a million opportunities - where people have done the wrong thing with the electoral laws - 432,000 Australians should be disenfranchised…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Rather than stopping voter fraud, there were concerns these new requirements would instead stop a lot of people from voting. 

 

Archival Tape -- Senator Carr:
“And of course - the government knows that of the 432,000 people disenfranchised - most of them vote Labor!” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Particular concern was raised about how this would impact Indigenous people - who are far less likely to have proof of identification than the rest of the population. And who are more likely to live remotely - which makes meeting strict enrollment deadlines really challenging. 

 

By the time Howard left office in 2007, there were 1.2 million Australians left off  the roll.

 

And last year, the Morrison government tried to make voting even harder.

 

Archival Tape – Speaker:
“The Prime Minister has the call..”


Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Thank you Mr Speaker. I’ll ask the Special Minister of State to address the bill that has been put forward…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
When the Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to introduce the voter ID bill to parliament.

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“People who go to vote - should be able to say who they are and prove who they are…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
A bill that would go even further than the Howard laws did on identification - requiring people to present an ID at the polling booths in order to vote. And the rationale for it…

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“With a democratic process that has integrity…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
Electoral integrity and… reducing the risk of voter fraud. 

 

And yet - the risk of voter fraud is still - in the words of the Australian Electoral Commission - vanishingly small. 

 

Instead, once again, the people most likely suffer as a result of the legislation? the Indigenous, the young, the poor… 

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:
“Isn’t the only reason the PM is doing this is to deny many Australians a vote? Particularly those in remote communities…” 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
While the Bill didn’t pass - I should also note… that in 2017, Scott Morrison, as treasurer made cuts to the Northern Territory Electoral Commission - a decision that would almost certainly impact Indigenous enrollment. 

 

A clear pattern is emerging. 

 

And whether or not the intention of the legislation and cuts is to limit the Indigenous vote - I can’t know. But the outcome is clear.

 

And while the Australian Electoral Commission says that it continues to make significant efforts to engage Indigenous communities, and that the Indigenous enrollment rate has seen year on year growth for the past five years…

 

The cuts the Coalition has made - and the legislation they have passed - and tried to pass - doesn’t make the efforts to increase Indigenous enrolment any easier.

 

(car sounds fade in)

 

Larissa:
It does change the demographics of electorates and the boundaries of electorates. And it has a massive flow on impact in the space of what not even five years from those cuts.  And so that disenfranchisement, like in people's lifetimes, is almost immediate, you know. You know - this demographic of the community to hold the government accountable or be represented is significantly diminished, be diminished. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
When I ask Larissa about this in the car on the way back to Darwin… on the final stretch of the drive. And she doesn’t mince her words. 

 

Ruby Schwartz:
Do you see it as a form of voter suppression?


Larissa:
I absolutely see it as voter suppression and I think we should be more forward in calling it that. And I think we just have to call it for what it is. It's racism and it's voter suppression. 

 

RUBY SCHWARTZ:
So if voter suppression is happening in Australia - what can be done?

 

Well - through reporting this story, I learnt about one Indigenous man who is taking this fight on. 

 

And so of course, when I arrive in Darwin - the next thing I do - is jump on a plane to visit him. 

 

Ruby Schwartz (audio note on plane):

I’ve just boarded the flight to Maningrida, which is in West Arnhem Land. I’m going to visit Matthew Ryan there - who’s the Mayor of the West Arnhem regional council. And I’m going to go speak to him about voter suppression in remote Indigenous communities because of the complaint he’s lodged to the Australian Human Rights Commission about this very issue. So yeah I’m very excited to meet him and hear what he has to say… 

 

RUBY:
In tomorrow's episode, Ruby travels to the north coast of Arnhem Land to speak to Maningrida’s Mayor, to find out: what made him take on the policies at the heart of our enrollment process.

 

That’s tomorrow on The Vote.

 

Ruby Schwartz:
Anyway, we’re just refuelling now, so shouldn’t be long till we go… 

 

This reporting was made possible through the Melbourne Press Club and the Michael Gordon Fellowship. 

 

In a statement, the Australian Electoral Commission said its efforts have led to the Indigenous enrollment rate increasing every year for the last five years. 

 

The Commission specifically pointed to partnerships it has made with over 70 Indigenous organizations, 21 educational videos produced in Indigenous languages and other enrollment initiatives.

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

The Northern Territory’s chief minister, Michael Gunner has announced his shock resignation, saying, “my head and my heart are no longer in the job.” 

 

Gunner, who led Labor to victory in 2016, cited the birth of his second child just over a week ago, as the reason for wanting to spend more time at home.

 

And 

 

Notably absent MP, Alan Tudge has been found by a Sky News Reporter on the campaign trail in his electorate. 

 

The Education Minister said he doesn’t know why the department of finance had decided to pay $500,000 of compensation to his former staffer Rachelle Miller. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

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