In Far North QLD, Election Booth Shortages Are The Tip Of The Iceberg For Indigenous Voters

"No matter which party is in power, our Indigenous people don't know who to vote for or who to trust."

Leichhardt Indigenous Election

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In the seat of Leichhardt, located in far north Queensland, Indigenous voters are facing understaffed polling stations that could hinder their ability to participate in the Federal Election.

The Australian Electoral Commission announced on Wednesday that it was one of eight localities experiencing difficulties recruiting staff to man the booths, and may not have all venues active come Saturday. But this curveball might have a significant impact on a seat with a high Indigenous population proportion.

The bellwether electorate, helmed by Liberal MP Warren Entsch for over 20 years, has experienced a housing crisis, job losses in the tourism industry from border closures, and health issues, as well as climate change concerns, according to the ABC.

However, due to the sparse layout and spread of the electorate, constituents in remote communities find themselves with minimal support service access, and say it is difficult to vouch collectively on the issues that affect them most — especially when over 16 percent of the population in Leichhardt are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Voting Barriers

To add insult to injury, First Nations communities already face several roadblocks when it comes to casting their vote. The Morrison Government’s proposed mandatory ID laws were scrapped in December, but threatened to disenfranchise Indigenous voters across the country without access to official documentation papers.

While considered a small victory, campaign group GetUp say Indigenous voters in Leichhardt have historically received limited information access on important dates to enrol and vote, and that in 2019, some voters were booted off the electoral roll for cultural name changes, address issues, and limited technology access.

“There are barriers that prevent remote First Nations communities from having their say in elections. This ranges from little effort to get people properly enrolled, to a lack of notices ensuring people know where and when mobile polling will be in the area,” Wakka Wakka and South Sea Islander man Jordan Wimbis explains to Junkee.

In February, a paper by the Australian National University on Indigenous electoral power ahead of this election, found that in several electorates including Leichhardt, non-participating voters who were affected by turnout and enrolment issues “would have been sufficient to change the election outcome in 2019”.

“In Leichhardt, the First Nations vote is extremely powerful. The First Nations population here is higher than the margin the seat sits on, and the Coalition has ignored these communities for too long. They don’t feel heard and they’ve had enough,” said Wimbis.

The GetUp Leichhardt campaigner said he has been trying to make sure people have the information they need to make an informed vote on the issues that matter to the communities there the most.

Boosting Democratic Participation

“We want to express our voices as First Nation’s people. Voting allows us the opportunity to voice our hope, needs and desires. When we cast our votes, we cast our hopes,” Leichhardt resident and Gudamalulayg man Haryne Uta Keane tells Junkee.

“When successive parties ignore our outcry for help, they take away the hope leaving us further disenfranchised and turned away from voting,” he adds. “The further they silence us the further they push us into hopelessness in a country whose national principle is built on egalitarianism.”

“We need not to silence Indigenous voices. The very foundations of a democracy give people a voice for change…”

Keane said housing is a big concern for him, from overcrowded residences to lacking options across regional areas to Cairns and Townsville. His great grandparents — both in their late 90s — live in a house in near collapse with a rotting verandah and wobbling rails.

At the outcome of this election, he would also like to see more measures to preserve cultural heritage sites, as well as better climate change action, particularly around the Torres Strait.

“Our people are increasingly disengaged from any political process. This is because we have been failed time and time again,” said Keane. “No matter which party is in power, our Indigenous people don’t know who to vote for or who to trust — resulting in wild swings to parties over the years.”

“We need not to silence Indigenous voices. The very foundations of a democracy give people a voice for change.”