Explainer: Representation in the Northern Territory

The Northern Territory would be guaranteed a minimum of 2 seats in the House of Representatives if a bill introduced into the Senate becomes law.

Jun 11, 2020

Doesn’t the Northern Territory already have 2 seats in the House of Representatives?

It does but according to predictions by the Parliamentary Library a planned redistribution—reorganisation—of electorates in the Northern Territory (NT) may result in the number of seats for the Territory being reduced to 1. The number of seats allocated to each state and territory depends on the population and the population of the NT isn’t growing like some other areas of Australia.

But Tasmania has a small population and they have 5 electorates.

Section 24 of the Australian Constitution guarantees each state will always have a minimum of 5 seats in the House of Representatives. This means states with smaller populations, like Tasmania, will always have at least 5 seats.

So why doesn’t the Northern Territory have 5 seats?

The NT is not a state. The rules for territories are different. According to the quotas calculated by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the Northern Territory may only be entitled to 1 seat at the next federal election.

Can Parliament overrule the AEC and guarantee 2 seats?

It can. Section 27 of the Constitution says Parliament can make laws to change the number of members in the House of Representatives. Section 122 of the Constitution gives Parliament the power to decide on the representation of territories.

Who thinks it is necessary to guarantee the representation of the NT?

The bill was introduced into the Senate by Senator Malandirra McCarthy, who is a Northern Territory senator. In her speech she said,

The Territory's size, the remoteness of many of its communities and its unique demography all contribute to its need for more than one lower house seat.

Losing a seat would mean a single MP serving an electorate of over 1.4 million square kilometres, including the remote Indian Ocean Territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands. The Territory is enormous—it is six times the size of Victoria and almost double the size of New South Wales.

Losing a seat would mean a single MP representing a population of nearly 250000 Territorians.

Will the bill pass?

That’s a decision for Parliament; however, this is a private senator’s bill and only 29 private members’ and senators’ bills have passed the Parliament since 1901. The bill has been referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for inquiry. The committee’s inquiry will help inform debate on the bill.