Redistribution begins for Northern Territory Federal Boundaries

Today marks seven years since the Northern Territory’s current federal electoral boundaries were first gazetted. Under the ‘seven-year rule’ in Section 59 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, a redistribution of the NT’s federal boundaries must commence within 30 days.

The NT’s redistribution will differ from those currently underway in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. The other state redistributions have been triggered by a change in seat entitlements under Section 24 of the Constitution. New South Wales and Victoria will both lose a seat, Western Australia gain a seat. The seat numbers will be unchanged at two for the NT redistribution.

Seven-year rule redistributions can be deferred if they commence within twelve months of the expiry date for the House of Representatives. The deferral deadline in 2024 is May, meaning seven-year rule redistributions due for Tasmania in November and Queensland in March 2025 will be deferred until after the next election.

But the Northern Territory redistribution will go ahead. With only two seats involved, the process of drawing boundaries will be easily completed before the next election is due. Unlike with change of seat number redistributions, there are no complications if an early election is called because the existing NT divisions would remain in place.

While unlikely to have major political implications, it is worth looking at the NT redistribution to examine how the NT briefly lost its second seat in 2020, and also to observe how the Australian Electoral Commission’s Indigenous enrolment drive before the 2023 referendum has increased remote enrolment.

Enrolment Trends

The Northern Territory has two House of Representatives seats, the urban seat of Solomon based on Darwin and Palmerston, and the vast Lingiari electorate covering 99.9% of the Northern Territory as well as the Christmas and Cocos/Keeling Islands external territories.

Enrolment statistics at the end of December listed Lingiari with 81,288 electors, 5.8% over the NT quota, and Solomon on 72,327, 5.8% under.

On current enrolments there is no need for boundary changes as both seats lie within the 10% permitted variation from quota. But the second quota, based on projected enrolments for late 2028 and permitting only 3.5% variation, will require a boundary adjustment between the two seats.

Enrolment trends over the past seven years are shown in the graphs below, first the total enrolment for both divisions, then the divergence for both from the territory average. The gaps in both graphs represent the abolition of the NT’s second seat in July 2020 and its re-instatement in February 2021.

I wrote several posts in 2020 on the Northern Territory's seat entitlement. I wrote on the 2020 determination of seats that reduced the NT to a single seat, and a long post on the legal basis for allocating representation by state and territory. I also wrote a post setting out alternative methods for allocating seats to territories. This included an explanation of the harmonic mean or Dean method eventually adopted to restore the NT's second seat.

The Impact of the AEC's Indigenous Enrolment Campaign

Comparing enrolment statistics to age and citizenship statistics from the Census, the Northern Territory has always recorded a lower rate of enrolment than any other jurisdiction. At the 2022 Federal election, the NT enrolment rate was 85.6% versus 96.8% nationally. This was in large part driven by low enrolment rates amongst Indigenous voters. AEC estimates were that the rate of Indigenous enrolment at the 2016 election was 75% and 82% in 2019.

Remote areas of the The Northern Territory had not been included in automatic roll updating and the AEC blamed funding issues for the lack of a specific Indigenous enrolment program. With an expectation of The Voice referendum being held in 2023, the AEC was given funding for an Indigenous enrolment campaign in the Northern Territory. The success of the campaign is shown by the steep enrolment climb in the above graphs for Lingiari in 2023.

The AEC's estimates for the 2023 Voice Referendum was that the Northern Territory still had the nation's lowest enrolment rate, but it had closed the gap to 91.7% against 97.7% for the nation. The Indigenous enrolment rate was also estimated to have jumped to 94%.

Based on data from the NT Electoral Commission, between April and September 2023, enrolment grew by 3,337 in NT electorates within Lingiari, but by only 950 in areas covered by Solomon.

While there has been understandable cheering about the higher enrolment rate, the NT still has by far the lowest turnout rate, 71.46% versus 89.95% nationally at the Voice referendum. At 79.2% in Solomon and 64.4% in Lingiari, the NT's two electorates recorded the lowest turnout. Population mobility and the tyranny of distance still work against getting votes from remote Australians.

The Boundary between Solomon and Lingiari

At the 2016 redistribution, enrolment projections required Lingiari to gain voters from Solomon. Population growth since on the edge of Darwin and Palmerston, along with more accurate Indigenous enrolment data, means that some of the areas transferred to Lingiari in 2017 will now be moved back into Solomon.

The map below shows the electoral boundaries for Solomon since 2017. You can also select the box to show the Solomon boundaries in use from 2001 to 2016. The polling place results shown are for Solomon at the 2022 election, along with Johnston (CLP 53.2%) just outside the boundaries of Solomon, and Lingiari's Palmerston Pre-Poll centre (CLP 58.9%) taking votes for Lingiari at a centre inside the boundary of Solomon. The CLP result for Solomon at Palmerston Pre-poll was significantly lower at 48.7%.

The numbers to be transferred are unlikely to be large enough to significantly alter the political complexion of either seat. But the two Lingiari polling places included on the map highlight that CLP support is higher in the areas of Lingiari abutting Solomon. A transfer of voters from Lingiari to Solomon is likely to nudge the Labor margin in Solomon down slightly, with an equivalent bump up for the Labor margin in Lingiari. Those comments are based on the results of the last election, not based on how politics has played out in either seat since 2022.

(Click on polling place for results)

The area transferred from Solomon to Lingiari in 2015 was in two parts. North of the Stuart Highway it took in Knuckey Lagoon and Holtze from Litchfield Shire as the divisional boundary moved west to align with Darwin City Council. There were 944 electors in the area in 2017, a projected 959 for 2020, and 986 according to September enrolments published by the NT Electoral Commission.

South of the Stuart Highway, five suburbs from Palmerston City Council were transferred into Lingiari, Yarrawonga (laregly industrial), Farrar, Johnston, Zuccoli and Mitchell (largely vacant land). The suburbs can be seen in the map below. (Map Source: NT Electoral Commission)

In 2015 the enrolment in this area was 1,736, it was projected to be 1,931 in 2020 and as of last September it had more than doubled to 4,653. Johnston and Zuccoli are the current growth areas of Palmerston with 1,562 and 2,173 voters each, another 1,042 in Farrer.

Transferring these Palmerston suburbs would bring current enrolments for the two seats back to a rough equality. It would also re-unite Palmerston City Council in Solomon and reinforce the seat's status as an entirely urban district.

What ends up happening will depend on the projected enrolment numbers to be produced for the redistribution. Given the incorrect first release projected enrolment data for Victoria and Western Australia, there will be more attention to the assumptions made in the NT.

Usually projected enrolments are based on projected population growth, usually derived from planned land releases and property developments. As the increased enrolment numbers from 2023 show, another source can be greater effort to enrol Indigenous electors.

The enrolment projections, and the assumptions behind them, will determine how much surgery is required on the Lingiari-Solomon border, and whether Palmerston City Council can be united within Solomon.

2 thoughts on “Redistribution begins for Northern Territory Federal Boundaries”

  1. If the election is called during the course of this redistribution (an unlikely proposition I know) then is a new redistribution automatically called early in the next term?

    COMMENT: Yes, the NT the redistribution would be paused and begin again after the election. For the other three states the redistribution would be paused, but there would also be a mini-redistribution of boundaries to change the number of members to be elected.

    1. the mini redistribution would replace the redistribution currently underway it would not be paused in nsw vic or wa. for wa the two highest connected overquota seats would be divided in to three seats and in vic and nsw the two most under quota connected seats would be merged. so in vic Aston and Chisholm would be merged and Wentworth and Warringah in NSW for WA Hasluck and Cowan if im not mistaken

      COMMENT: Your comment is not relevant to the NT redistribution. As to the merged seats in other states, based on the December 2023 enrolments, Chisholm and Higgins would be merged in Victoria while Hasluck and Durack would be merged in WA and split three-ways.

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