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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 5347

Mr ROBB (5:28 PM) —The four electoral amendment bills before the House today, theElectoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2010, theElectoral and Referendum Amendment (Pre-poll Voting and Other Measures) Bill 2010, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2010 and theElectoral and Referendum Amendment (How-to-Vote Cards and Other Measures) Bill 2010, represent a mix. They are mostly good measures but they do include some very bad measures. The coalition welcomes the decision of the government to not proceed with its original Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill 2010. It was disappointing to see that the government had broken with tradition and had included both controversial and non-controversial amendments in the same bill. Under the previous government there were always two bills which came out of the JSCEM report into the previous election—a non-controversial one for machinery provisions and a controversial one for policy changes. I am happy to see that the government now, albeit tacitly, admits its original error and we will now be dealing with these matters as has been done in the past.

I will go first to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2010. This bill represents schedules 1 and 2 of the original close of rolls bill. The coalition will be opposing this new bill. I do not wish to dwell too long on this bill, as the reasons for our opposition to these measures have been laid out previously, both by speakers in this House at the time of the consideration of the original bill as well as in the coalition members’ dissenting report on the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

On the close of rolls, the fundamental point is this: the closure of the rolls seven days after the issue of a writ is a significant threat to the integrity of the electoral roll. The previous coalition government, in line with longstanding policy, moved to protect the integrity of the roll and prevent fraudulent enrolments by reducing the time period between the calling of an election and the close of the rolls. Closing the roll at 8 pm on the day the writs for the election are issued—which is usually three or four days after the election is called—for people enrolling for the first time and people re-enrolling after being removed from the roll currently gives the Electoral Commission an extra seven days to verify new enrolments and an extra four days to verify changes of address. At a time when the Electoral Commission is processing a large number of enrolments, hundreds of thousands in some cases, these changes have greatly assisted the commission in identifying and discounting fraudulent enrolments.

Under the old scheme, to which Labor want to return, more than 520,000 changes to enrolment or new enrolments were submitted to the Australian Electoral Commission in the seven-day period before the close of rolls during the 2004 federal election. Bear in mind that it was after the 2004 election but before the 2007 election that the previous government made this fundamental change—that the roll close on the day the writs for the election are issued—because of these 520,000 changes to enrolment or new enrolments being submitted to the Electoral Commission, giving them very little time to deal with them. The proposed time frame of seven days will again make it virtually impossible to exclude fraudulent votes from the count. The commission simply does not have the resources, whether people or time, to go through such large numbers.

Furthermore, official AEC figures show that under the coalition’s rules the number of people missing the close of rolls deadline in 2007 was 100,370, compared to 168,394 in 2004. In short, our scheme, the scheme of the previous government, was 40 per cent more effective than the scheme Labor is now trying to reimpose on the roll. The combination of a very effective campaign run by the Australian Electoral Commission before the 2007 election to encourage enrolment, combined with the fact that failure to enrol prior to the election being called would result in not being able to vote, had a very positive effect on encouraging enrolment.

Despite that difference in outcomes between 2004, under the system that the Labor Party is now seeking to reimpose, and 2007, we are now going back to a system which will be unable to be properly monitored and processed by the Electoral Commission, open up opportunities for fraudulent activity and work against the interests of democracy and the interests that all of us in this House should be aiming for. The 2007 outcome highlighted the virtue of an enforcement incentive over the liberalised approach that we are seeing in this bill.

The coalition consider that the existing arrangements ensure that the electoral roll contains a high degree of accuracy and integrity, and we are concerned that the extra time period allows for a return to a system which permits calculated, fraudulent enrolments to take place. The coalition also believe that a return to the previous system of seven days will serve to discourage citizens from making or maintaining their enrolment in the ordinary course of the year, as they will have the opportunity to delay such action until an election is called. The numbers support this: as I said, in 2007, 100,000 people had to be processed; in 2004, under the system that the Labor Party is seeking to re-impose, it was 168,000—a level which the commission would be unable to process, given the sheer weight of numbers and the resources that the commission has at its disposal.

On the question of production of proof of identity for provisional voters, the previous government, in line with longstanding policy, moved to prevent fraudulent voting by people impersonating other voters, by requiring that people who claim a provisional vote at an election produce evidence of their true identity and their enrolled address, either on polling day or in the week following polling day. It is simply a common-sense and sensible measure and not an unduly difficult requirement to place on people. The coalition is opposed to any weakening of the proof of identity provisions in relation to provisional voting on the grounds that it removes an important deterrent to citizens seeking to engage in multiple voting. According to the Electoral Commission, approximately 75 per cent of provisional voters showed evidence of identity when voting. Of the 33,900 provisional voters who failed to provide such identification on polling day, only one in five subsequently provided proof of identity by the cut-off date—that is, the close of business on the following Friday.

The government has argued, without any supporting evidence, that the attrition rate is a result of voter apathy as a result of the election result being known. This conclusion is difficult to reconcile with the fact that in the electorates of Swan and McEwen, for example, there were 260 and 188 provisional voters respectively who failed to provide their proof of identity in the week following the poll and each seat, as we all know, hung in the balance throughout the following week and well beyond. So here we have across two seats that went to the wire nearly 400 voters who the Labor Party asserts were just apathetic or knew the result of the election so did not turn up and provide proof of their identity.

The argument is made that the validity of these voters can be determined by comparing signatures; however, such a process would fail to provide any deterrent or consequence for voters who fail to meet their obligations to maintain their enrolment under the act. Such failures should trigger a requirement for a more stringent process. Any proposal to weaken the rules in relation to proof of identity for provisional votes should be opposed because it makes voting fraud easier.

The provisions that are in place now and are being removed are not punitive or unduly difficult for people to comply with. It is a reasonable request. It is common sense. You have to ask why the Labor Party are doing what they are doing on these two essentially common-sense provisions. It will certainly make it more difficult for the Electoral Commission. We had a better result under the previous government’s provisions in the 2007 election. It makes no sense that the government would move to make these changes other than to provide opportunities for people to run fast and loose with our electoral system. For these reasons, the coalition cannot support these two measures and will be opposing the close of rolls bill.

The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Pre-poll Voting and Other Measures) Bill 2010 will be supported by the coalition. At the current time pre-poll votes are treated as declaration votes and must go through an administrative checking procedure in the week following polling day. This creates a significant and unnecessary administrative burden on the Electoral Commission. The government’s proposal seeks to treat these votes as ordinary votes, although electors who wish to cast them will still be required to fill out and sign a declaration asserting their need to cast such a vote. The benefit will be that these pre-poll votes will now be able to be counted on the night, leading to an earlier and more accurate result.

This is a sensible and significant provision, given that I have observed over the last few elections a very significant increase in pre-poll votes. I know in my seat that the combined pre-poll and postal votes went from around 14 per cent in 2004 to 20 per cent in 2007. I think that is probably true across many electorates too. If these votes are treated as ordinary votes—and they can be; there is no threat to the integrity of the system—we will get a far clearer idea in many seats on election night because they can be counted on election night.

There is an administrative amendment that allows the Electoral Commission to transfer workload relating to the processing of enrolments between different divisional returning offices. There are strong efficiency arguments to be made in allowing divisional returning offices to farm out work to other offices, particularly when there are high levels of demand or if sickness or leave requirements make a divisional returning office short-staffed for a period and unable to manage their expected workload. We support this measure.

The coalition supports the change to electronic updating of voter records. Increasingly, transactions are being done online for the sake of convenience and speed. By allowing individuals already on the roll to maintain their own records, you effectively cut out the double or triple handling of enrolment forms. The coalition note there is no provision for new enrolments to be lodged electronically. We support this restriction and reconfirm our strong view that all first-time enrolments should be done in hard copy.

On the question of single party nomination per seat: the coalition can see no reason for a party to run multiple candidates in a single seat other than as a campaigning tactic to try to push up the informal vote. As such, we support this measure.

Prior to the 2007 election the coalition moved to give blind and vision impaired people the opportunity for the first time in their lives to cast a secret ballot. Labor discontinued this on the basis that it was too expensive. This returned blind and vision impaired people back to the unhappy situation of having to cast a non-secret vote. The coalition supports this measure on the understanding that this is only an interim arrangement ahead of further consultations which will be held with various community organisations. As such, I can advise the House that the coalition will be supporting this bill without amendment.

The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (How-to-Vote Cards and Other Measures) Bill 2010 will be supported by the coalition, but we are concerned that the response does not match the crime. We are reviewing provisions in that regard. It is notable that this bill arises because of a deliberate scam by the ALP in the 2010 South Australian state election. The South Australian ALP handed out how-to-vote cards that appeared to be official Family First how-to-vote cards, but the preferencing order favoured the ALP candidates. Labor operatives were brought in, some even from interstate, to wear T-shirts that appeared to indicate that they were Family First booth workers and to hand out the bogus how-to-vote cards.

This is not a one-off, sadly. It is a deliberate scam that the ALP have used before, both in New South Wales and Queensland, which was legitimised by the infamous cases of Webster v Deahm in 1993 and in Carroll v Electoral Commission of Queensland in 1998. It is nice to see that after only some 17 years Labor have now admitted that the decisions in those cases were morally wrong and that they are now seeking to correct the judicial errors. Of course it has taken the shame and the disgust of the community over the actions in the Adelaide election for Labor to move on this matter.

This bill would require all how-to-vote cards to place, in a prominent size, the name and party of the authoriser or face a fine of $1,100. A false authorisation would incur a similar fine. Given the hullabaloo which the Labor members on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters made about the unauthorised pamphlets, it seems a rather light penalty, and an insipid penalty if you like, for such a serious offence against the Electoral Act. There is no doubt that many operatives in the Labor Party would be willing to forgo $1,000 to ensure the victory of the local ALP candidate through false preferencing arrangements. After that election in South Australia the veteran Flinders University political scientist, Professor Dean Jaensch, said it was:

… the worst example of its kind I’ve seen in a 40-year career …

He went on to say:

It is deceitful, deliberately designed to mislead voters … No doubt at all.

On the primaries and two-party preferred, more people voted Liberal than Labor in that election, but Labor won more than the 50 per cent of seats they needed to form government through the vagaries of electoral boundaries and by using trickery and fraud. Three key marginals were so tight in that election that Labor needed them all. The material was deceptive and misleading and plainly showed nothing but contempt for the political process.

It is not drawing a long bow to suggest that the current government in South Australia is illegitimate because of the way in which this fraudulent activity influenced votes across three or four marginal seats. The government has been elected on a fraud. This was the case of an election that was rorted. It is the shameless thieving of an election result. You would think—on the basis of such a consequence of the democratic process being so compromised and being put under attack in this way—that the government, who have run 100 miles from this action but have condoned it not only in South Australia but in other elections in other places, would see the need for a penalty which met the crime. As I said earlier we will be looking to see what we can do to address that matter and we would hope to get the cooperation of those opposite. The penalty of 50 or more units might be far more appropriate especially in the instance of deliberate false authorisation details.

The coalition strongly supports the principle of the how-to-vote bill. We have not engaged in such activities but we have overwhelmingly been the victims of such underhand tactics by the ALP. We support the government’s belated attempt to place a legislative prohibition on its own party’s rorting. I will seek at a later stage to introduce some amendments which look at the severity of the penalty that will be imposed for any return of such action by any party.

Finally the fourth bill, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2010, purports to be a series of uncontroversial minor amendments arising out of the unanimous recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into the 2007 federal election. In the main this bill is acceptable but there are some significant problems which need to be addressed.

The first measure moves the Australian Electoral Commission towards a more digital system of records management. We will be supporting this measure. The second measure changes the evidence of identity rules for enrolments. It removes the mandatory need for a witness to attest to the identity of a person and reduces the acceptable identity documentation to a smaller field of items. We will be supporting this measure. The third measure allows for provisional enrolment at age 16 as opposed to the current age of 17. We support this move by the Australian Electoral Commission to get a more accurate electoral roll and, as a consequence, we will support this measure. The fourth measure moves the Australian Electoral Commission towards a more digital system of electoral roll management, distribution and use on polling day. It also allows for a more flexible production of ballot papers with appropriate security devices on polling day. We will be supporting this measure. The fifth measure, standardised mobile polling booth practices, is a sensible and welcome measure and we will be supporting it.

The sixth measure has both controversial and non-controversial aspects to it. The non-controversial aspects include the removal of the need for a witness in a request for a postal vote and allow the signature date as opposed to the postmark date on the postal vote to be accepted. The first point makes it easier for single people to request a postal vote. The second point goes a long way to addressing the very legitimate concerns that postal voters in rural and regional Australia have had given that they do not have every-day postal services. Of course we will be supporting these sensible measures.

However, Labor has added two controversial aspects. The aspects were not considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and we are disappointed that Labor has attempted to sneak these provisions through in an otherwise non-controversial bill. One proposal is that postal vote applications could only be returned directly to the AEC and the other is that there would be a prohibition on the attachment of extra material to a postal vote application form. The coalition can see no valid reason for the introduction of these measures by the government and strongly suspects that this has been done in a cynical attempt to undermine the extremely successful postal voting processes of the coalition parties. Even a simple reading of the voter returns shows that the coalition consistently polls higher with postal votes than with any other type of declaration vote.

The Labor government is seeking to make substantial changes to a system of voting where the coalition does well, despite there being absolutely no evidence to support any need for such a change. There has been no argument which supports the move by the Labor Party. This is a totally cynical move and the motives of the Labor Party on these aspects of the bills need to be very seriously questioned. We will be strongly opposing those parts of the PVA measures which appear to have no merit other than that of being an attack on the coalition. This bill is not intended to be a bill used for the purposes of improving the electoral prospects of either side of the House. This bill is intended to improve the democratic process, yet it is very clear that without any arguments, good or bad, being advanced in support of it, the Labor government has sought to sneak this measure in without putting it before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It is a pathetic attempt to overcome an advantage.

This process works well. People regard highly the opportunity to have their postal vote application assisted by this process. Both parties inform their electorates about positions of the party and the process that people need to go through. It has been a very satisfactory measure. There has been no community discontent with this measure. There have been no arguments advanced. It is a purely cynical measure by the ALP to remove a practice which we exercise more effectively than the Labor Party.

The seventh measure modernises the provisions for homeless voters. In principle, the measures were supported by the coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. However, the coalition has identified concerns about item 9. Item 9 seeks to repeal section 96(9)(a) of the act. This section states:

(9)   A person ceases to be entitled to be treated as an itinerant elector under this section if:

(a)   while the person is being so treated, a general election is held at which the person neither votes nor applies for a postal vote …

The implication that flows from such an amendment is that there is no practical provision to ever remove an itinerant elector from the roll. It is axiomatic that you cannot do a habitation review on a homeless person. Unless the itinerant elector is unusually diligent in keeping their enrolment details up to date, the only way to determine if they have left the electorate or died is if they do not show up on polling day.

This proposed amendment from Labor is an open invitation to abuse the integrity of the electoral roll. Once a person gets on the roll as an itinerant elector in a particular division, they will never leave the roll for that particular division, irrespective of their true place of residence. The opportunity for organising a campaign of fraudulent voting is obvious and the Australian Electoral Commission could never check the bona fides of any potential roll rorter. Thus the proposed repeal of 96(9)(a) is bad policy because it fundamentally weakens the integrity of the electoral roll. Again, under several provisions in this series of bills, we see the integrity of the electoral roll being fundamentally weakened. It is unacceptable and the government has provided no alternative mechanism for roll-cleansing of itinerant voters. I foreshadow moving amendments to schedules 6 and 7 in the detailed debate.

The eighth measure broadens and standardises the reasons for claiming a prepoll vote. In many ways this legitimises what has been existing practice in many DROs. It is well-known both to officers and prepoll booth workers that many people come in to prepoll because they will be out of the electorate or otherwise engaged on polling day. This measure is a sensible change to make voting easier for those who simply prefer to lodge an early ballot and we will be supporting this measure. The ninth measure is simply a series of minor technical amendments. These do not change policy in any way and, despite not having gone through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, will have the support of the coalition.

In summary, we welcome the majority of the measures in this bill, but we will be seeking to make a number of important amendments to address changes which would eat at the heart of the integrity of our electoral process. We are concerned that a series of important bills, which should have the mutual support of both sides of the House, now present three changes which will fundamentally attack the integrity of the electoral process and one change which is simply a change out of spite—a change to remove a process which the coalition is currently more effective at using. It is quite unfortunate, but we will be seeking to make changes to some of these bills. The remaining measures will be supported, as I have indicated throughout my address.