In the remote Northern Territory community of Ramingining, election day has already come and gone. The AEC polling booth visited the mostly Yolngu community, 500km east of Darwin in Arnhem Land, for a day last week. On the covered basketball court, a line of people stood patiently in 35-degree heat to cast their vote in the electorate of Lingiari while CLP and Labor scrutineers looked on. Labor had star power on the court: NT senator, Yanyuwa woman Malarndirri McCarthy, was chatting with locals, perhaps a sign of how worried the ALP is about possibly losing the seat for the first time.
Lingiari is huge: 1.3m sq km, covering the entire NT outside Darwin. It is named for the Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari, who led his people in the historic walk-off at Wave Hill station in 1966 to protest for land rights and equal wages. Lingiari has been staunch Labor since it was created in 2001. Retiring MP Warren Snowdon has held the seat for the entirety of its existence. Snowdon is a territory icon, well known across all the bush communities where Labor dominates. His replacement, Tiwi woman Marion Scrymgour, is a former arts and environment minister in the Martin NT Labor government and former CEO of the Northern Land Council. During the first weeks of the campaign, many of Labor’s corflutes pictured the two of them – Marion upfront, Warren over her shoulder – to reinforce their connection, presumably for bush voters.
Nine candidates are running for the seat, but the race is between the two major parties. Damien Ryan is the CLP candidate, alongside Jacinta Price, whose move into the Senate is all but official. Both are prominent central Australians. Ryan has been the Alice Springs mayor for 13 years. He is campaigning on a platform of supporting business, infrastructure, and “funding to grow our Pastoral, Agriculture, Mining and Tourism industry’s [sic]” Ryan is popular among the locals of townships like Katherine, Tennant Creek, and his hometown of Alice Springs, where the Coalition is hopeful he might win enough votes to get them over the line in Lingiari for the first time.
Lingiari is one of the least populated electorates in the country and is divided along racial lines. According to the 2016 census, 40% of residents are Indigenous, living in remote and very remote communities, and while only about 40% of the eligible voting population is enrolled, the majority vote Labor. At the last federal election, Labor won 76.4% of votes taken by remote mobile polling teams. The CLP polls well in urban centers like Katherine and Tennant Creek, where Jacinta Price’s tough-on-crime stance is proving popular.
Any election is a logistical feat in the NT. The AEC relies on mobile polling teams traveling by plane, boat, and 4WD to collect votes in Fifo visits to remote communities like the one at Ramingining. Postal voting is almost non-existent, and if people are away from home – for funerals, health business, ceremonial business, or visiting family, they often miss their chance. But these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it voting opportunities are a big reason the voter turnout in the bush is so low.
The morning after Ramingining’s election day, AEC officials were heading to the Wulkarimirra outstation, about 20 minutes drive north-east towards the Arafura coast, on a corrugated dirt road, to set up the mobile polling booth. At tiny Ramingining airport, CLP scrutineer Marcus Gathiya, a local Yolngu man, was returning to Darwin for the night, then off to Milingimbi for their voting day. Gathiya carefully parked the corflutes outside the shed while he went to check-in. “Gotta be careful,” he said, “they’ve got a long way to go yet.” The Judith Neilsen Institute for Journalism and Ideas is supporting photographer Isabella Moore’s work in the Northern Territory