Delivering the franchise can be a ‘hot and sweaty’ job, particularly in the Torres Strait in September. That was certainly the experience for three AEC mobile polling teams, who spent two weeks island hopping to deliver the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) election.
The Torres Strait is a waterway between far north Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Several clusters of islands lie in the Strait, collectively called the Torres Strait Islands. The islands are scattered over 48 000 square kilometres, from the tip of Cape York, north towards the borders of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. It is the only part of Australia sharing a border with a neighbouring country. Papua New Guinea is 3.73 kilometres from the northern most point and Indonesia is only 3.5 kilometres from the northwestern edge.
The various Torres Strait Islander communities have a distinct culture and long-standing history with the islands and nearby coastlines. Records of habitation go back 2 500 years. Recognition of Native Title in Australia first occurred for land in the Torres Strait.
Villages along the PNG southern coastline conduct traditional trade and cross border visits. The traditional people of Torres Strait are of Melanesian origin and speak two distinct languages. In the Eastern Islands, the traditional language is Meriam Mir, while the Western and Central Island groups speak either Kala Lagaw Ya or Kala Kawa Ya, which are dialects of the same language.
The TSRA is a Commonwealth authority, which has 20 elected representatives who are Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people living in the Torres Strait region. Torres Strait has 20 wards (electoral divisions).
The AEC conducted the TSRA elections on 15 September 2012. The task was to fill 20 positions. At the time, there were no nominations received in the ward of Kubin, so there was another election for the ward held in December 2012.
Figuring out election logistics is the AEC’s mainstay, so conducting the TSRA Board elections, with some distinct logistics, is the type of challenge AEC staff are prepared for.
Managing in the hot, steamy climate was just one challenge. A bigger challenge was navigating the geography to reach all voters, especially the small number of voters in the outer islands. AEC staff, including Indigenous Electoral Participation Program staff, conducted community how-to-vote workshops. Radio advertising ran in Creole and English. As well as static polling places, voting options included pre-polling, postal voting and mobile polling. The mobile polling teams travelled in small planes, by ferry and four wheel drive vehicles, election paraphernalia in tow, to deliver the franchise to the Torres Strait.
The teams’ efforts resulted in high voter turnout, particularly as voting in TSRA elections is not compulsory.