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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
18/11/2016
Conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto

JENKINSON, Ms Samantha, Executive Director, People with Disabilities WA Inc

[10:19]

CHAIR: Welcome. The committee is very grateful for you appearing before us today at somewhat short notice. One of the issues we are looking at around the country is disability access to all forms of polling, so we are very grateful for your appearance here today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I invite you to make an opening statement. Then we will proceed to questions and discussion.

Ms Jenkinson : Thank you very much. I would like to thank Senator Reynolds, as the chair, for letting me know about this opportunity. People with Disabilities is the peak body for people with disability here in WA—our name says it all. Our membership and committee of management include a wide range of people with disabilities. I did write a letter to the Australian Electoral Commission quite soon after the election, raising some issues about polling places, and they did reply, but I will raise some similar issues and some others today.

I guess the first point is that having a disability does not take away your right to vote in a secret ballot. Also, more and more, we are seeing people with disabilities stepping up to be candidates and stepping up to be volunteers in political parties or wanting to be volunteers for the AEC as well. So accessibility in all its forms is really important. We were very pleased to see the AEC website listing polling places and their access. I know they have a tool that they use, which they explained when they replied to me, about how that assessment is done. It is a fantastic assessment. We actually wrote to the Department of Education and said: 'Hey look. Someone's done an access audit of all your schools. Maybe you should take note.' The reply from them was not quite as good as the reply from the AEC, unfortunately. What it also showed was some of the depth and breadth of the problem, because one of the issues with the tool was that, although it was useful, it showed that pretty much every polling booth needed assisted access to some degree. The way that was done was with the icon that said 'assisted access' but when you looked in detail what assisted access meant could be from as little a thing as the car-parking is not within 50 metres of the polling booth to there is a flight of stairs—so quite a big difference if you are not looking at the detail. So I want to raise that issue; if people are coming along to a polling booth they are not necessarily going to look at all that detail and there is an expectation that they will be able to access the voting facilities.

We also got some positive feedback on the ability to use a secret ballot by phone, from people with vision impairment. However, there are also some people with vision impairment who like to go and make their vote in person. I think this is an important point to make. Although many people still see voting as a chore, it has actually become quite a day to go to the sausage sizzle and the primary school raises lots of money by doing things at the school et cetera. So there are still many people with disabilities who want to be part of that process and want to be seen to be part of that process as well. So although it is great that there are other options, like being able to have someone bring your ballot paper to the car if it not accessible, for some people that is still not appropriate. Also, the risk of that remaining then a secret ballot is an issue.

My colleague Taryn Harvey from Developmental Disability WA could not be here today but did want me to also raise the issue of people with cognitive disability. If someone does not have a guardian and has legal capacity in other areas of their life, there are unfortunately still some attitudes in the community that that does not mean that they should be able to vote. In terms of capacity to vote, we do not ask people to understand the political process or understand the policies of different parties; we ask them to put numbers on a page, and there are lots of people who are able to do that. Some people I know who went through that process supporting their son or daughter with an intellectual disability to vote for the first time said it was great process, but there were still many other families who were like, 'No, that's not going to happen.' I guess that then comes back to accessibility in its many other forms. Accessibility is not just about physical access, but also information being made available in easy-read and easy-English formats.

We have made a couple of suggestions to the Electoral Commission around signage, access at polling booths and more nuanced information in labelling for the website about whether something is assisted access or not and perhaps using some of the full range of access symbols. There is a range of symbols for the different types of access which might assist. In WA the election is now on a set date, and we hope that some of the issues in trying to find venues have changed because we know when it is and venues can be booked in advance to ensure that they are fully accessible venues. We wonder whether when fully accessible venues have been identified that some agreement can be made for them to be available for an election rather than running around trying to do it with very little notice. The AEC seems to be open to these suggestions and, hopefully, this will keep improving as time goes on.

CHAIR: Because that letter went to the AEC here in Western Australia—

Ms Jenkinson : We sent it to the federal AEC, but I also sent a copy to the WA Electoral Commission as well.

CHAIR: Would you be able to provide a copy of that letter to the committee, because we would like to see what sounds like very sensible recommendations.

Ms Jenkinson : Yes, absolutely.

Mr GILES: And perhaps also the responses.

CHAIR: Perhaps both responses—the ones from the Department of Education, but I understand that is not part of your remit.

Mr GILES: Ms Jenkinson, thank you for coming along today and for giving evidence which I found really useful. It was very pleasing to hear your reflections on the quality of service that the AEC delivers. That has perhaps been uneven across the states. There are a couple of matters I would not mind exploring a little further. I am very conscious that, when we talk about accessibility to the democratic process, we need to talk about a very wide form of enabling people with various disabilities to vote and that we need to give everyone some choice in how they participate in the electoral process. I was struck by your evidence about the community formation aspect of voting for many people—the desire to be part of election day and not simply being able to cast a vote. That is something I am mindful of as we go through this process of ensuring that all Australians with disabilities have an opportunity to participate in the electoral process. One matter that came to our attention in Tasmania was a concern about the voting area, as opposed to the polling place itself, in catering for people with disabilities. I am wondering whether that is a matter that your organisation has given thought to or whether it is something your members have raised with you. Are the voting compartments within the polling place suitable?

Ms Jenkinson : Yes, it has been raised. We had some people let us know through Facebook and other means about people having a booth brought to them. Someone talked about having a cardboard box put around them in the street or the car park, but even lower booths are not suitable for the variety of people who will use them. I did not even notice whether there was the opportunity, say, if someone was what we might call a wobbly walker, could sit down and actually do it. The cardboard booths are not really that great, I am afraid.

Mr GILES: This is something we have heard a little bit about. It was not a matter that I had personally given thought to prior to us commencing these hearings.

CHAIR: Wobbly walker—a nice way to describe it. Yes, we have had a lot of evidence. It is not just people with disabilities; there is a wide range. It is people who are more elderly having trouble walking or standing for long periods of time or who are infirm at the time.

Mr GILES: The change in the Senate voting system meant that people took longer to complete their ballots. That is another prompt in this regard.

Ms Jenkinson : I was pleased to say that at the polling booth I was at—partly because I was volunteering out the front on how to vote—when we saw someone with a disability or someone who was elderly, we alerted the officials and they would let them in first rather than letting them wait in the queue because there was a very long queue. Again, we found even at that booth that there was no clear signage of where the accessible parking was. So we had people walking long distances to get there and then seeing the car park right next to the polling booth after they had already walked all that way. I think my husband actually drove a couple of people back to their cars because of that. But that is the sort of thing that puts it off and makes it much more difficult. Certainly, we have lots of people who say that they have an expectation that they will be able to vote easily and who want to be there on the day voting.

Mr GILES: Is your organisation involved with the AEC's consultative process for people with disabilities?

Ms Jenkinson : Our organisation is not with the Australian Electoral Commission, although we have had contact with the WA Electoral Commission around state voting procedures.

Mr GILES: Are you affiliated with a national peak?

Ms Jenkinson : Yes, People with Disabilities Australia.

Mr GILES: We might follow-up with them. I want to clarify something you put in your opening statement, and you can correct me if I have your evidence wrong. I think the flavour of what you were saying in terms of the AEC's conduct of this advertising responsibility is that highlighting access is a difficult job, but there needs to be a greater degree of information provided on what partial access or whatever the term is in terms of parking or other matters to better enable people with disabilities who intend to cast a vote on the day to make a decision as to which polling place. Is that what you are trying say?

Ms Jenkinson : Partly, because they did actually provide lots of information but the information was only available if you looked at a polling booth, saw that it had assisted access and then clicked deeper to get information about what assisted access meant. There was nothing to indicate at that higher level and there is the opportunity that there are different symbols that can be used. For example, a voting booth might not have the things that are available for someone with a visual impairment, but it would still have the assisted access symbol. It is only by clicking down that you find out that it is actually fully wheelchair accessible but just not accessible for someone with a vision impairment. We found that not a lot of people necessarily went into that detail, so we were still getting people saying, 'They've all said assisted access; none of them are accessible.'

Mr GILES: Yes, that is really the point that I was trying to make, that simply saying 'assisted access' is not terribly helpful.

Ms Jenkinson : No.

CHAIR: All the issues that you have talked about reminded me of this particular booth that I went to in Midland Town Hall on the corner of an intersection, where 100-plus people had to line up on the path in these long queues at any one time. It did have disability access for anybody with any wobbly legs or a wheelchair, but in my observation there was no signage of where to go. In this case it looked like it was just up the flight of stairs into the town hall, but you actually needed to go around to the side of the town hall to get direct access into it. There was no signage, volunteers had to go in and ask somebody to open the side door, and it was very messy. Given there were a lot of people in the queue, to me it seemed very unwelcoming. Had I had a disability, I would have felt almost like a bother trying to find out how to do this, relying on the goodwill of the people handing out how-to-vote cards to assist them. Is that a common experience?

Ms Jenkinson : Yes, that was a common experience for people. I think that is where different people take it in different ways. Some people might think, 'Next time I'm just going to postal ballot,' but there are many people who would think: 'This is just not fair. No way I'm going to postal ballot. I'm going to stick to my guns and make it difficult for them until they let me go in.'

CHAIR: Do you think there is any requirement for consideration that people who are infirm, have walking issues or a range of disabilities, or just because of their age cannot wait for half an hour or an hour in a queue should have a separate priority line where there might be some seating or some other space to accommodate that? Have you given thought to that sort of arrangement?

Ms Jenkinson : Yes, I do think that that would assist. Again, there are some people who would not do that anyway, because they want to be there with everybody else. But I think if it is done well, it can be quite useful. It was very interesting that for some reason—I do not know if there were slightly less than last time—a lot of polling booths were very busy, and there was always a queue at the one that I was at, whereas at previous elections you tended to know a time you could go when it would not be so busy and you would not need to wait as long.

CHAIR: You could not pick it this time, could you?

Ms Jenkinson : No, there was a queue all day. If that is going to be the case in the future, I think that you would need to have some priority access, and particularly the signage. A lot of the time people just did not know.

CHAIR: If you need assisted access, you would have signage visible to those inside the polling booth to give you that bit of access.

Ms Jenkinson : That is right, yes.

CHAIR: Something else I noticed during the Canning by-election, and at one of the polling booths I was at this election, is that the entrance to the polling booth was actually a choke point. Once you got into the building, it was very narrow. If you wanted to then you could get some people to take off their paraphernalia and try to assist people through the queue. Most people did not mind at all, when they saw it was somebody who was elderly or perhaps in a wheelchair, but the physical ability to get them through a crowded laneway was quite challenging. Is that something else that you have observed?

Ms Jenkinson : Yes, and also there are always issues if someone has an invisible disability. Young people might have disabilities which mean they cannot walk far, but it is not necessarily easily seen—

CHAIR: Or autism, for example. That would be an autistic person's worst nightmare, to be caught in a narrow corridor like that.

Ms Jenkinson : Yes, absolutely. Those are times where being able to have some sort of easy access—probably the best I have ever seen of that type of priority access working well is through US customs, where they have separate access for people with special needs or anyone who is elderly and needs assistance. It is streamlined and works really well.

Mr MORTON: I am thinking about how we achieve this. There are always limited resources and if we were wanting a utopia we would have complete access, at every booth, to accommodate for varying abilities. We cannot always deliver on utopia. Obviously we want to continue to increase the standards of accessibility, particularly in areas where there is one booth in a particular region or town and that is the only booth you can access but there should be the highest level of accessibility there. However, in a lot of metropolitan areas, booths can be less than a kilometre away from each other. You can have a whole cluster. Not putting aside wanting to always push for the best standards, should we spread that across a whole range of booths that are close by, geographically—I take the point that the AEC might be trying to apply partial accessibility symbols to booths, to increase their statistics, and maybe we need to be more stringent on what we say is accessible so that you have that information—or should we have a 'super booth', one per electorate?

This is where we would have AEC staff in the car park, helping people out of their vehicles, and where there is a booth with a variety of heights of tables and desks, where we have maybe volunteers from organisations like yours who are able to assist with the people who are arriving. We could even have a sausage sizzle—noting that my electorate had the most sausage sizzles of all electorates in the country. It is an important part of election day! A lot of my friends thought that was quite curious, particularly that I visited every one of them.

Sometimes we can try and apply standards to every booth and be mediocre, or we can put our resources into 15 metropolitan super booths that are fully equipped for dealing with disabilities. How do you feel about that?

Ms Jenkinson : I do think there is merit in trying to get at least one booth from every electorate that is fully accessible. If I remember rightly, there was an attempt to do that in a previous WA election, which was quite good except there was—unfortunately, the area that I was in did not have any. But yes, I would say that in the metro area that would be quite easy to achieve.

I would also agree, particularly in the regional areas, that making sure—an example is Northam, or is it Toodyay? One of them has only one fully accessible building in the whole town, and it is not one that gets used for elections.

Mr MORTON: And it should be.

Ms Jenkinson : And it should be.

Mr MORTON: That is where I am trying to head. We have partly accessible and we have fully accessible, and I am suggesting that we might have fully accessible gold standard, where we have all of the particular facilities that we need, but we need to make sure that they are available as well.

Mr DICK: Thank you, Ms Jenkinson, and thank you for the advocacy work that you do in Western Australia. Thank you for coming along today. It is very important, as all members of parliament are contacted by people with disabilities. Allowing people to have their say—I take a different view from Mr Morton. There are enough mobility issues for people with disabilities getting around, let alone another obstacle—although well-intentioned. I understand the logic behind it. I am much more in favour of doing what we can in the booths. They could be simple, practical things, like VIP lines, better parking and all of those things.

From my own experience, and you would probably have seen this, simply having a 'disabled' piece of paper on a stick, to indicate the park, does not necessarily mean that it is—I have seen that before. At some car parks there is no disability access if it is on private property and all of those things. There should be but there is not.

CHAIR: Or someone else is parking in them!

Mr DICK: Sometimes campaign workers—on both sides of the aisle, I will note—which is not acceptable. In terms of ballot papers, I am really keen to look at the font size issue for vision impaired people. We have had some good discussions at other hearings about that. Can you give me your view? People find it difficult. Obviously the Senate ballot paper is a case in point. You mentioned before cognitive disabilities and whether it is an issue at polling booths to have people assist if they do not have a carer with them. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Ms Jenkinson : Assistance needs to be done very carefully. Font size is an important thing. There should be standards that are used in government anyway. We see this issue all the time. The standards are used by the areas that deal with people with disability, in terms of the pension and DSS, but nowhere else. Font size and that type of thing should be in the AEC as well. In relation to people with cognitive disability, it was also about having information available in an easy to read format, such as the instructions on how to fill in the papers. We would encourage the political parties to have all of their information available in those formats as well. I do not know if that partly answers your question—

Mr DICK: Yes. I am leaning towards your views then on electronic voting. We have had evidence from Mr Antony Green about ACT prepoll voting where people go and use a computer. I am trying to find ways for people with disabilities, perhaps those with visual or cognitive issues, to use electronic voting as an option.

Ms Jenkinson : We would see electronic voting as something that makes it more accessible for a range of people, not just people with vision impairment but also people with limited hand function and things like that. The quite easy clickable type devices make electronic voting easier for lots of different people. We do think that is the way to go but we understand that obviously there needs to be lots more security in place at different levels for how that works. But we would see that as the way to go in the future. We understand there will be a trial in WA as well at the state election.

Mr DICK: Thanks very much.

CHAIR: We have gone over time. I do not know where the time has gone. Ms Jenkinson, thank you very much for coming here today. The committee greatly appreciates your evidence and the opportunity to ask questions and explore a bit more detail. You have been asked to provide some additional information to the committee. If you could forward it to the secretariat by 2 December, we would be very grateful. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence here today and you will have the opportunity to request corrections to any transcription errors. Again, thank you very much.

Ms Jenkinson : Thank you very much for your time.

Proceedings suspended from 10:48 to 11:0 8