A small miracle of democracy took place in the Queensland state election in March. Somehow polling booths that should represent some of the country’s least literate voters returned informal vote numbers that were among the country’s lowest.

Former editor and journalist Ken Pedersen of Cairns looked at informal voting rates in his state electorate of Cook, held by Labor’s Jason O’Brien, which encompasses Cape York. As Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute argued in early 2007, data from the first half of the decade showed a huge literacy crisis had developed in Cape York communities in recent years, with as few as 21% of indigenous kids achieving benchmark levels in national literacy testing, and Indigenous kids in the region performing significantly worse than Indigenous kids elsewhere in Queensland. Pearson’s advocacy prompted the Howard Government to provide his Institute with $10m to coordinate literacy programs.

The Courier-Mail’s “Primary Schools Report” released two months ago — which has been criticised by schools and teaching unions — also indicates that Indigenous children in the Cape York region are still being let down by the Queensland education system, with poor results in reading, writing and maths. Many of the communities also continue to endure appalling socio-economic conditions.

Yet, as Pedersen notes in research forwarded to Crikey, such communities produced remarkable voting statistics in the state election.

Statewide across Queensland in March, the total informal vote was 1.94%. Queensland state elections have a much lower informal vote rate than other states or Commonwealth elections because there is no upper house, which tends to attract large numbers of candidates, and Queenslanders have optional preferential voting. And as Electoral Commissioner David Kerslake pointed out to Crikey, crosses and ticks are accepted as formal.

In contrast, in 2007, 3.95% of all votes at the Federal election were informal, and 3.56% in Queensland.

The overall rate of informal votes in the seat of Cook in March was 1.8%, roughly in line with the statewide numbers. But results from individual booths are revealing. In Aurukun, only five out of 543 votes were informal, or less than 1%. In Bamaga, only one vote out of 393. In Lockhart River, one out of 243; in Wujal Wujal, one out of 239. Kowanyama, five out of 459. These are all communities that tend to vote strongly for the ALP.

In larger centres in electorate, such as Port Douglas (1.96%), Mossman (2.65%) and Mareeba (2.85%), the figures were much closer to, or above, the state average. Those centres vote strongly for the LNP.

Let’s be clear that none of this is to suggest that Indigenous people, or Cape York Indigenous communities in particular, are less capable of filling out an electoral enrolment form and voting formally than anyone else. Indeed, as Kerslake told Crikey, “the seriousness with which indigenous people take their politics should not be underestimated.” But these are communities that successive governments have failed, as the Cape York Institute pointed out, leading to a literacy crisis in the region. Yet they vote with greater accuracy in state elections than the rest of Queensland and other parts of the same electorate.

They also vote better than they do in Federal elections. The seat of Cook encompasses many of the same communities as the Federal seat of Leichhardt, held by the ALP’s Jim Turnour. In 2007, over 5% of votes in that electorate were informal. And at the same communities that voted so well in March, the figures are rather different for the Federal ballot:

  • Aurukun: 7.89%
  • Bamaga 4%
  • Lockhart River 9.45%
  • Bloomfield (Wujal Wujal): 15.58%
  • Kowanyama: 8.15%

Port Douglas (3.56%) and Mossman (6.7%) were also higher than the state levels, reflecting the additional requirements of the Federal ballot paper, but not as much as those communities, except for Bamaga.

David Kerslake cautions against jumping to conclusions about the data. “As Electoral Commissioner I did a number of interviews with indigenous radio stations that cover more remote areas and those stations were very co-operative in repeating these interviews at regular intervals to ensure their listeners were familiar with the voting system,” he said.

Agreed, except that that doesn’t seem to carry over into Federal elections and seems confined to small communities rather than large centres (where there are large numbers of indigenous voters).

Pedersen notes that those communities have achieved a similar performance at previous state elections, including a spectacular performance in Torres Strait communities in 2001, where 12 polling booths recorded zero informal votes.

For elections, electoral commissions hire a large number of casual staff to act as deputy returning officers to manage the rolls, hand out ballots and count the votes afterward. Staff hired by the Electoral Commission of Queensland in Cook might have an insight into the very strong performance of remote communities with very high rates of illiteracy in voting with miniscule levels of informal voting.

The majority of casual election staff in Cook are teachers, says Pedersen. Queensland’s education union is currently embroiled in a dispute with the Bligh Government over salaries. Teachers in Cairns recently staged a protest in front of the office of local member Jason O’Brien’s office in Cairns, stating that he should show teachers in his electorate the same “loyalty” as they had shown Mr O’Brien in the past Queensland state elections.

Either way, the numbers suggest something interesting is going on in these communities that have been so poorly served by the rest of us.