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Thursday, 14 May 1987
Page: 3243


Mr YOUNG (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs)(4.49) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

On 1 April 1987 I presented the Government's reply to the report of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform relating to the operation during the 1984 general election of the 1983-84 amendments to Commonwealth electoral legislation. The report was presented to the Speaker on 22 December 1986. The reply acknowledged the very useful report of the Committee which was so ably chaired by Senator Robert Ray. The review undertaken by the Committee followed the substantial reform measures recommended by its predecessor, which were largely implemented by this Government in 1983-84. Honourable members will recall that this Government, responding to the recommendations of the earlier Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, introduced the most substantial electoral reforms for many years. Those changes have generally worked well. Nevertheless the Committee's latest report has made further sound suggestions for improving our electoral system, and the report reflected a large measure of agreement among the representatives of the political parties on the Committee.

The Government's response to the report indicated to honourable members the reasons for the non-acceptance of a small proportion of the recommendations. It is a measure of the Committee's work that the Government has seen fit to accept the great majority of the 156 recommendations in the report. The implementation of some of these recommendations will not require legislation.

Due to the exigencies of the legislative program, legislation to give effect to the acceptable recommendations in the report will be introduced in two stages. The first stage comprises those recommendations for which legislation is essential for the effective conduct of the next general election and for improving the redistribution process. This Bill is concerned with this first package, and I will draw honourable members' attention to the key elements which amend the Electoral Act. They are intended to simplify and to speed up processes which, because of their emphasis on protection of the individual rights of electors and the integrity of elections, naturally tend to complexity and legalism. In the redistribution field they are intended to amplify the extensive opportunities already provided to the public by this and previous governments to participate in the drawing of electoral boundaries. In certain instances they are intended to close minor gaps which have been identified in the 1983 changes to the Act, while continuing to pursue the widely accepted objectives of those changes.

Australia makes a considerable effort to ensure that electors who happen to be out of the country at election time still have the opportunity to vote. The Bill ensures that overseas polling officials are subject to the same penalties for neglect of duty as officials in Australia. It also extends from 10 to 13 days the period for the return of postal votes sent by electors directly to divisional returning officers.

At present the Electoral Act does not bind the Crown in the right of the Commonwealth or the States. During the 1984 election distribution of material prepared by a Commonwealth department and advertisements by a State government pointed to deficiencies in the Act. Adoption of the proposed amendment will not prevent government advertising but will simply ensure that governments comply with the Act to the same extent as private citizens and corporations.

In response to a number of recommendations of the Joint Select Committee in regard to the redistribution process, the Bill provides for more flexibility in the redistribution timetabling and for enhanced public participation in the redistribution process. Amendments are also proposed to remove the requirement for redistribution committees, and for subsequent augmented electoral commissions, to endeavour to achieve absolute equality of enrolment at the 3 1/2 year mark after a redistribution. In practice this has been difficult to achieve and led to what some regarded as less than ideal electoral boundaries in a few areas. The amendment will permit a 2 per cent plus or minus margin in seeking to achieve future equalities.

The Bill proposes two amendments to ensure that as many eligible electors as possible may vote. The first one is to enable the divisional returning officers and the Australian Electoral Officer in each State to process claims for enrolment for any division in their respective States in the period between the public announcement of the election or the issue of the writs and the close of rolls. At present claim cards may be processed only by the divisional returning officer for the division concerned, which can cause delays in the period immediately prior to the close of the roll.

There is also an amendment to repeal the requirement that enrolled voters live within the division in which they vote at some time during the three months prior to the poll. This requirement is unenforceable. With the simplification of procedures at the polling booth, the question of real place of living within three months of polling day is hardly ever likely to arise and, if it does, it will disenfranchise only the honest elector who admits to having moved from the division for which he is enrolled.

The provisions of the Act relating to the registration of candidates are to be repealed. The requirement to register did not serve any useful purpose and in fact caused some confusion since it duplicated similar requirements in the nomination process. Furthermore, the nomination process is to be simplified.

A key element in this Bill is the simplification of the scrutiny of votes in Senate elections. These measures include the distribution at a single count of all ballot papers received by a candidate at a particular transfer value, and the exclusion under certain circumstances of candidates in bulk. Without such amendments to the Electoral Act any substantial increase in the number of candidates for the Senate could unduly prolong the counting of votes, and could well mean that some candidates might be delayed in taking their places in the Senate.

The Bill provides for a provisional scrutiny of preferences to be conducted as part of the fresh scrutiny of House of Representatives ballot papers in those divisions where a distribution of preferences will be required to determine the result. This will give an earlier indication as to the likely outcomes.

Provision is made for the extension of time in the election timetable to provide greater flexibility to meet emergency situations, and to enable adjustments to be made on a divisional basis without affecting the rest of the State. Another amendment enables the Electoral Commission to extend by 48 hours the time in which acts must be completed in the event of a failure by any person to perform a statutory duty or function.

A comprehensive definition of what may constitute election advertising is to be introduced. The definition is designed to enable all participants in the election process to determine more readily than at present whether particular advertisements are subject to the reporting requirements of the Act.


Mr Tim Fischer —It doesn't cover the issue of writs though, such as in the Vardon v. O'Loghlin court case.


Mr YOUNG —I will have to get an opinion from the honourable member.

It is a fundamental right of the general public to know who is supporting political parties and candidates, and who might therefore be able to exercise influence. At present political parties and candidates who stood previously are required to disclose gifts received during the period between one election and the next, while `third parties' need only disclose gifts they make between the date of issue of writs and polling day. The Bill provides for removal of this anomaly by requiring that the disclosure period for `third parties' be also from one election to the next. For the next election, the disclosure period applicable to `third parties' would apply only from the date at which the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 1987 comes into effect.

The Bill also provides for a common release date for all public funding claims and financial disclosure returns, in order to avoid any particular claim or return receiving unwarranted publicity by its earlier or later release. The amendment provides that copies of claims and returns are not available for public inspection or purchase until 24 weeks after polling day. The Bill also contains a number of other machinery provisions in keeping with the objectives I have already specified.

The amendments to the Electoral Act are largely based on recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. I again congratulate that Committee on its work. I draw to the attention of this chamber that there was agreement in general terms, among all the parties' representatives on the Committee, regarding the amendments introduced by this Bill. I believe that these amendments, plus the implementation at a later stage of the other acceptable recommendations that I foreshadowed on 1 April will further enhance the Commonwealth Electoral Act. That legislation has already established, at our Federal level, one of the best electoral systems in the world, especially after the redistribution of 1984, but there is still room for further improvements.


Mr Hodgman —Are you going to have another go at Denison?


Mr YOUNG —We do not need to. The honourable member for Denison is down there campaigning for us. Today I have introduced several machinery amendments that are essential for the conduct of the next general election and for any subsequent redistributions. I commend the Bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum to the Bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Shack) adjourned.