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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters - 13/03/2014 - Conduct of the 2013 federal election and matters related thereto

HUGHES, Mr Digby, Policy and Research Officer, Homelessness NSW

[11:00]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, this is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. I ask you to make a brief opening statement, after which we will move to questions. We have your submission before us.

Mr Hughes : I thank the committee for asking us to appear. The issue of voting and homelessness has been on our agenda at Homelessness NSW for a number of years now. We are very pleased to say that the AEC has done some very good work in the past. Homelessness NSW is a peak body. We have about 170 members across New South Wales—some faith based, some non-faith-based, some very large services from St Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army, through to very small NGOs such as Women's and Girls' Emergency Centre just up the road here in Redfern.

The issues of voting are complicated for many people who are homeless. Homelessness refers not only to people who are street homeless; we have a range of people who are homeless in society. We have the rough sleeper component, and they are a significant part but still one of the smaller parts of homelessness. They have issues. An issue that is raised with us fairly regularly is women who are escaping domestic violence and issues relating to that. We have raised some matters in the past which have been taken up.

One issue that had not been taken up in the past was that we asked a number of times over a number of years for people to be allowed to declare an early vote on the grounds of physical violence, because we know that in many country areas there is only one polling place in town—or maybe two. The town of Narrabri only has two. One of our members up there has raised this with us on a number of occasions. A perpetrator wanting to track down a woman could actually use polling day, if they were so inclined, to sit outside one polling place, have their mate sit outside the other one, and keep an eye on them and find the woman going down to vote. So we are pleased to see that has now been taken up as a legal grounds for having an early vote. However, we also thought that would be a very useful data collection source, to actually have the AEC collect that data, so we know the number of people in various electorates using that as a reason for early voting. We can use that to see the trend of the incidence of domestic violence.

The only other thing I would talk about is the matter of identity. For people who are street homeless, the issue of identity and carrying identity with them is a major issue. The bottom line is that they just will not have identity with them at all times. That is why we think the issue of electronic voting, where they might have identity at some stage of their life but not at all times, is an issue. For women escaping domestic violence: if I am escaping the house at three o'clock in the morning, because that is a safe time to do it, I might not necessarily remember to bring my drivers licence or my voter identification card with me. Then, when I turn up to vote tomorrow, I might not have those with me. We understand the dynamics of those. There are nuances of public policy issues that need to be considered.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your submission. I will open it up to questions.

Mr GRIFFIN: In broad terms, what I get from what you have said is that you are pretty happy with what the AEC has been doing in recent years by engaging with homeless people and ensuring that they are able to exercise their democratic rights?

Mr Hughes : That is right.

Mr GRIFFIN: You then raised two or three other questions, which I would like to go through. On the issue of collecting data on the basis of reasons that people give for pre-poll voting, I would caution on that for a couple of reasons. The first is it is probably fair to say that with the increase in people availing themselves of pre-poll voting in recent times—as you are probably aware it has been growing exponentially—there is a question mark around the veracity of reasons that are given in those circumstances. I would say—with my experience of people and it is limited—you do often see people dealing with domestic violence in an electorate office environment. Often, they would be embarrassed and intentionally private around their circumstances for very understandable reasons.

My experience would be also that I would expect that often they would not give the actual reason for why they may be in a situation where they are required to put in a pre-poll vote. The problem with that is, if we were to get statistics, they would probably very much underestimate the size of the problem and in the context of the volume of pre-poll voting it would also very much decrease the level of significance that ought to show through when comparing what the statistics would actually show if they were scientific. So I would question that particular point. The other point you make on that issue of ID is very valid in that people whose circumstances are inherently uncertain and transient are often going to be in a situation where formal identification mechanisms are not necessarily part of what they have. That was more of a comment, wasn't it?

Senator TILLEM: Maybe you could expand on the issues that revolve around voters not having the ability to produce identification to prove their home address? It is an old chestnut.

Mr Hughes : I will talk about the first matter first. I can understand your point. I think we undercount homelessness generally. We have issues about the ABS count, which we deal with in other forums. If it were taken as the only data on women escaping domestic violence then I think that would be an issue, but I think it acts as indicative data over time and it could be a useful tool. I understand the point that people may be unlikely or unwilling. At least now, if they tick that box, they are not lying on the form—which is a good thing.

With regard to ID, there are various cohorts of homelessness. Let us talk about rough sleepers. Rough sleepers have an awful lot of violence inflicted on them by outsiders and within their group as well, because of varying issues. We know that, at any one time, they keep their belongings to a minimum. We know that issues around Medicare and issues around other forms of identification are a major problem. As a group, they are not likely to have their ID on them on any one given day. Despite a lot of effective advertising, the fact that the government is calling an election on a certain day in the future, when I am worried more about where I am going to sleep tonight, making sure that I have ID on the day of an election is not exactly the highest priority. I have spoken about women escaping domestic violence. Leaving their ID at home may be part of the safety mechanism for some people because, if they take the ID, their partner may realise that something is happening.

Another group would be young people who are couch surfing. We know that that is an inordinately undercounted group in society. In New South Wales, the statistics show about 25 per cent of people who are homeless are couch surfing. We think the figures are higher than that. Again, it is for many reasons including shame, including feeling guilty about staying with friends and a whole range of other reasons. They are not necessarily going to have their identification on them because it could still be at their primary place of residence. So for that group of people the issue would be having ID on them on a particular day. However, if the system were moved to a fully electronic voting system, then during a period of my life my identification could be set up. I could register, I could have my ID and the service that I am working with could ensure that I am in the system, if I am a rough sleeper. I could then remember my password and on the day I could go in and vote. We think there are issues that could be explored by the Electoral Commission.

Mr GRIFFIN: Have you got any advice about how to remember passwords, because that is what I always have trouble with? I am just saying that that is a general point there.

Mr Hughes : I am not sure. It is one of those things. If and when I get dementia, I would be on the street very quickly because I would not be able to access any of my money. You could have passwords in there like your mother's maiden name and other standard ones that people could fall back on.

Mr GRIFFIN: It was a general comment on the nature of electronic activity. The issue of passwords often produces an issue in itself, that is all.

Mr Hughes : I do not think it is a problem that we could not overcome. People can remember passwords of generally their best mate's name or whatever. They will always have some name or numbers that they should be able to remember.

Senator RHIANNON: You set out about congratulating the AEC in terms of the work that they do. It is certainly excellent that they have clearly identified the information on the website and so if you are homeless you can gain the information. Do you think the AEC could also be more proactive in working to getting more homeless people onto the rolls?

Mr Hughes : Yes, I think they can. In the lead up to the last election, they came and had a meeting with us—Homelessness New South Wales—as a structure, then they met some of our members at one of our general members meetings, and then they went out to south-western and Western Sydney and met with some services out there. I think they could always do more.

Senator RHIANNON: Did they organise some meetings where they would actually be enrolling people when they came along?

Mr Hughes : Yes. They went down to south-western Sydney, met with the services and then went back and had a meeting with some of their clients. They talked to them about the importance of voting and talked to them about whether they wanted to be on the electoral roll. If they thought they were on the roll they checked up whether they were on the roll and, if they were not and wanted to enrol, they got them on the roll.

Senator RHIANNON: I suppose something practical they could do is to do more of those meetings where homeless people gather.

Mr Hughes : Far more of those sessions would be fantastic.

Senator RHIANNON: For my own understanding, when somebody is homeless how do they determine what electorate they will link that person with?

Mr Hughes : They have a few grounds. One is based on where they last lived. Another might be the electorate or the area which they are most familiar with—for instance, if I were down in Woolloomooloo, Sydney might be the area. Finally, it could be the area where they have actually grown up as a young person—for example, if they travelled into Sydney but came from another region.

Senator RHIANNON: It sounds like there is a flexibility to fit in with the needs of the individual. All right, that is impressive. You said in your submission too that you believed if full electronic voting were implemented the issue of domestic violence could be re-examined. Could you explain what you meant by that?

Mr Hughes : A woman escaping domestic violence tonight would not necessarily take all of her identification or any of her identification with her. If I were her I would get out the door because that is the only way I could escape. As you know the statistics are horrendous. I would get out the door tonight. I do not necessarily take my identification with me. If we had electronic voting, at some time in my lifetime—to me it seems not overly complicated—I could go into the Electoral Commission website and I can enter that I am going to be a voter in electorate whatever. If she then leaves that premises at night time she does not need to have her identification with her to go back into the system to vote. When I originally set up to vote I have the identification with me at that stage.

Senator RHIANNON: It is sometimes suggested that when people are voting under the current system they should have ID with them. I am assuming that you would see that as disadvantaging many homeless people.

Mr Hughes : We think it is problematic for some people. For some people among the homeless cohort—rough sleepers or women escaping domestic violence or couch surfers in particular—it would be problematic to have that identification on voting day.

Senator RHIANNON: The result could be that—

Mr Hughes : They would be disenfranchised.

Mr HAWKE: In Western Sydney they have an initiative, called Western Sydney Homeless Connect, where they bring all agencies, state and federal, together—the RTA gives free transportation and so on. I am fairly sure the AEC was involved with that. Is that what you are referring to in your submission about peak bodies and services? They solve a multiple range of problems for a multiple range of people.

Mr Hughes : I am not sure. There is a number of those sorts of hubs now—there is one in Sydney, Sydney Homeless Connect; Western Sydney; one at Chatswood; one at Manly.

Mr HAWKE: We will follow that up with the AEC to make sure they are involved in those. Those hubs generate a lot of participation and really do a lot of good.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Are you happy with the situation with women escaping domestic violence as it now exists. I don't mean the violence, but their situation.

Mr Hughes : Yes. They have the capacity to vote on the day. They can still vote. They can now fill in a form that says, 'I don't want to turn up on the day to vote; I can early vote; and I can tick the box that says I am in fear for my safety.'

Senator IAN MACDONALD: For homeless people who at some stage have been registered to vote, do you have similar issues? They can just rock up and vote wherever they happen to be.

Mr Hughes : Correct.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You have an issue with new people enrolling to vote for the first right. Am I reading your submission correctly?

Mr Hughes : One of the issues I am not sure about—I am just thinking it through now—is when the AEC cleanses the roll, what happens to people who are rough sleeping at that stage? That is something I should follow up with the AEC. But it is not just new people. If people are going to have to bring identification along to vote with them on the day—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But we don't do that. You are pre-empting.

Mr Hughes : Yes. There are upgrades after every election. After this election I read a lot of news reports about the Western Australian result and other issues—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Is it where the roll is cleanest or where someone isn't on the roll or for other reasons?

Mr Hughes : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Does your organisation get government funding? How do you exist?

Mr Hughes : Yes, we largely exist on government funding. We are funded through Family and Community Services.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Have you ever heard around the traps a rumour that people who claim to be homeless can move to vote in a particular electorate where 20 or 30 votes might make the difference?

Mr Hughes : I have never heard of a cohort of homeless people moving like that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Are you a state-wide organisation?

Mr Hughes : Yes, we are.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Are the issues of concern also state-wide or are they Sydney only issues?

Mr Hughes : No, it is right across the state. The issue about women being able to mark fear of physical violence is raised with us from Narrabri to Cooma—those small towns with one or two polling places.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I understand that completely. I am trying to get my head around the issue of defrauding the electoral system. I am not suggesting that homeless people are involved in that. It is a fear that is often raised. If you rock up and say, 'I'm homeless. I don't have to prove that, but I'm homeless and I want to vote in this particular electorate which is where I come from.'

Mr Hughes : They would have to be on the electoral roll already.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: If they are on the electoral roll, that is fine—they will get a vote anyhow. It is really only new people enrolling for the first time that you have concerns.

Mr Hughes : The matter of when you enrol might not be an issue because people will have ID at some stage in their life. Our concern is if they have to have ID on a particular day. To have identification on polling day is problematic. They might have had identification at some stage prior to that. Enrolling might not be the issue.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I will repeat the fact that you are pre-empting a move in the future. Do you have any solution for the concern of some people: that unless you can prove who you are you could rock up to 15 different polling stations. You could have 15 different votes in 15 different electorates.

ACTING CHAIR: To follow through on the issue of turning up to each polling booth, you are either going to have (a) a name crossed off on the roll in order to be able to access a vote on the spot or (b) do a declaration vote which would be enveloped and checked subsequently. So you can't just rock up to go on the roll at any particular polling booth. The issue of identification in this context is identification of the individual and not a question about the roll.

Senator TILLEM: The point is about enrolment and not a homeless person driving from polling booth to polling booth on election day to skew the election result.

Mr Hughes : I have heard rumours of busloads of people driving from polling booth to polling booth—not necessarily homeless people. I have never witnessed it. I occasionally dabble in politics and in 35 years I have never seen a busload turn up at a polling booth.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: If you had, they would be in jail. Nobody ever sees it, but there are a few people in jail for electoral fraud. To get your name crossed off it is very easy to look over the thing and say, 'Yes, that's me.' Then go 50 miles away and say, 'Ah, that's me' again. Until there is electronic voting there is no cross-referencing.

ACTING CHAIR: There is cross-referencing after the event and after every election the AEC comes to us with a listing of where that has occurred and the follow up that has been done to ascertain the circumstances. Overwhelmingly, it is explained as people with dementia or with mental health issues rather than anything else.

Senator TILLEM: It is not a priority of homeless people to go from polling booth to polling booth to vote more than once.

Mr Hughes : Rough sleepers don't have cars.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: This isn't really a question about the people you look after. I am raising with you an issue that is often raised with me: you don't get a certificate of homelessness, so you can rock up anywhere and say, 'Look, I'm homeless. I can't prove who I am or prove that I am homeless.' I am simply saying to you that there is the fear that many have that anyone can rock up and claim a vote. How do you address that fear and still look after the people who you are rightly trying to assist?

Mr Hughes : I think the issue of electronic voting could somewhat overcome that. I would have a unique identification. I would have a unique password. Digby Hughes would get one vote. I could not re-enter the system. If someone else did that and voted on my behalf then that would be another issue, I suppose.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thanks very much for that, Mr Hughes, and, again, my congratulations on the work you do.

Senator FAULKNER: I have just one question, Mr Hughes. Having read your submission and listened to your evidence, is it fair to say, in terms of the current provisions of the Electoral Act itself—the current legislative framework—that you are satisfied that the current procedures and processes, as applied by the AEC, are adequate and working well?

Mr Hughes : Yes.

Senator FAULKNER: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence today and for your submission.