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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 3702


Mr SYMON (Deakin) (10:09): I speak in support of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. Our side of parliament is about enfranchising people, not ensuring they remain disenfranchised—as many people have been up until now. So many people turn up to vote on election day, find out they are not on the roll and scratch their heads and wonder why. They may now get a bit of an insight into what has gone on.

These two bills amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to allow the Electoral Commissioner to update the address details of an elector on the electoral roll and automatically enrol new electors based on reliable third party information. These bills are based on recommendations of the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2010 federal election. That committee tabled a report entitled The 2010 federal election report on the conduct of the election and related matters. In the report, the committee said:

When considering electoral reforms, our priority must be: enfranchisement, not disenfranchisement.

That is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. The report continued:

The Committee remains concerned about the long-term effects of the decline in enrolment participation rates, and notes that the decline has continued despite ongoing efforts on the part of the Australian Electoral Commission, the AEC, to arrest it using measures currently permitted under the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Over recent years, the AEC has invested substantial funds in encouraging people to enrol and keep their details up to date. Indeed, in the lead-up to the 2007 election, the AEC spent $36 million on a project to increase enrolments, including $14.9 million on pre-election advertising.

In its submission to the committee's inquiry, the AEC said:

If we have to spend $36 million every election year then that is a significant amount of money over successive elections. But, perhaps more importantly, it does not lead to a permanent or long-lasting improvement in the electoral roll. These gains are quickly dissipated months after the close of rolls as people start to move again and the same challenges

There is an ever-growing number of people in Australia who should be on the electoral roll but are not. The Electoral Commissioner told the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that an estimated 1.2 million eligible electors were not on the electoral roll in mid-2009. By the end of December 2009, that number had risen to approximately 1.39 million. By 30 June 2010, that number had grown to 1.59 million people—people who should be electors but are not.

If you were to average that number across the seats represented here in the House, you would come up with a figure of about 10,000 people per electorate who are not voting in elections—for either side. They have no say. It is not participative democracy if there is a large group in the electorate not having a say. In its submission to the committee's investigation of the 2010 election, the AEC addressed the question of the best way, in their view, to deal with this decline in participation. They said:

Our view is that we now need to go further with our recommendation, suggesting direct update of the electoral roll based on third party information

I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. These bills will introduce automatic address updating based on third-party data from sources such as state driver-licensing bodies.

When people move house, one of the last things on their minds is changing their enrolment address. There are good reasons for that. It is not something that comes around every month or every quarter as do power bills. It is not something that you necessarily think about outside of an election period. This happens with other services as well. Some of the things we all use which are only paid annually or which are only renewed every three or five years, such as a licence perhaps—that sort of updating can simply slip people's minds. They eventually catch up, but in the meantime, especially when it comes to enfranchisement—the right to vote—it can actually impact quite severely and take that right away.

In addition to the challenges of encouraging people to update their address, the AEC actually takes people off the roll without their consent. Information from reliable third-party sources is currently used by the AEC to monitor the accuracy of the roll and to remove people from the roll. Current examples of data used in datamatching are Australia Post redirection advices, Centrelink change of address advices and some state motor transport data on new licences. What that means is that the very data that these bills propose to use to put people on the roll or keep them updated on the roll is currently used to take people off the roll. To those who say there is a lack of integrity in the process, I would say you cannot have it both ways—if there is integrity in the data that is used at the moment to take people off the roll, the integrity in the data should equally be good enough to maintain people on the roll.

The AEC posts out a single monthly mailout to addresses identified by this external data as being addresses of current electors who appear to have moved address without updating their enrolment with the AEC. Last financial year the AEC mailed out over four million letters reminding electors to update their enrolment details. The AEC has advised that response rates were generally between 15 and 20 per cent for the monthly mailouts during periods when there are no major electoral events—when, as I said, the vast majority of the population do not have their minds on what happens in a place like this. Each year approximately two per cent of all electors are removed from the electoral roll by this process. The AEC advised the joint standing committee that the votes of over 200,000 people who had cast pre-poll, absent or provisional votes at the 2010 election were rejected due to those individuals being incorrectly enrolled or not enrolled at all. The Electoral Commission has suggested that 'they are clearly potentially part of the group that have fallen off the roll because, at some stage, they did not respond to an AEC letter' and were removed under this process.

Some of the decline in participation in Australia's elections can also be traced back to a number of people not enrolling for the first time when they turn 18. This is a very longstanding problem, and something that I have direct experience of. I missed out on voting in the 1983 election, having turned 18 only shortly before the election was called. At the first opportunity I had to enrol I went to what I thought was the local AEC office on a Friday afternoon, the last day before enrolments closed. They said to me, 'Sorry, you have turned up at the wrong division—you need to go up the road to the next office'. I had just turned 18 and, like most people of that age in Victoria, I did not have a car, so I can admit here that I missed out on voting in the 1983 election. Subsequently I, like of course many other people in Australia, have continued to exercise my right to vote—a right which is a wonderful thing.

These bills will enable the AEC for the first time to automatically enrol people on the proviso that the Electoral Commissioner is satisfied that the person is entitled to enrol and has lived at an address for at least one month. Under this proposal the AEC would write to the individual that the AEC proposes to enter his or her name and address on the electoral roll, and they will be given 28 days to respond if they do not live at that address or are not entitled to enrol. These bills will allow the AEC to place people on the roll based on external data such as driver licence details, school enrolments, Centrelink information or Australia Post redirections.

This legislation adopts changes that have already been put in place in Victoria and New South Wales. Automatic enrolment was introduced in Victoria and NSW in 2010—slightly different systems but they certainly go along the same path as this legislation. The SmartRoll project, established by the New South Wales Electoral Commission, minimises the need to complete and lodge enrolment forms; electors who have changed their address details and notified a New South Wales agency of that change are automatically enrolled at their new address. It has been estimated that over 500,000 electors change their address each year in New South Wales. SmartRoll will help to ensure that eligible voters retain their right to vote. The Victorian Electoral Commission estimates that there may be up to 180,000 electors in Victoria with out-of-date details. After finding voters that have moved without notifying the VEC, the VEC writes asking them to change their address. The average response rate to this program over the five years to 2009 was only 23.5 per cent and dropping. According to the VEC:

Generally, people are becoming less inclined to respond to written communications.

The intent of these bills is also to ensure that young people get on the roll as soon as they are eligible to vote. Before the introduction of SmartRoll in New South Wales the enrolment of young people, those who have just turned 18, was low. Of the approximately 67,000 17- to 18-year-olds who were registered with the New South Wales Office of the Board of Studies and completed the HSC in 2009, only 50 per cent enrolled to vote. That was even after a letter was sent to students asking them to enrol. It only got through to half of them. This lack of enrolment can lead to many of these potential electors not exercising their right to vote for a considerable time. The Victorian Electoral Commission, upon adopting an automatic system, reported back on its success:

We wrote … telling them that they were on the roll and they had 14 days to let us know if we had got it wrong. We received no correspondence from anyone saying that we got it wrong, due to the safeguards that we had in the process.

The Commonwealth now needs to adopt this legislation because of the impact over time of the New South Wales and Victorian automatic enrolment system working alongside the Commonwealth roll. Since the introduction of SmartRoll in NSW there has been a growing gap between the Commonwealth electoral roll and the New South Wales state roll. As at June 2011 there were around 20,500 additional voters appearing on the New South Wales roll that were absent from the federal electoral roll. Based on the New South Wales Electoral Commission automatically enrolling approximately 10,000 people per month, Antony Green, the well-known political commentator, estimates that there could be a difference of 200,000 people between the Commonwealth and New South Wales state electoral rolls by the time of the 2013 federal election if current provisions remain the same.

As I have said, automatic enrolment is already in place in New South Wales and Victoria, and Queensland is on track to adopt the process after this year's state election. It would appear that if the federal roll does not adopt automatic address change there will be a growing number of people who will be eligible to vote in a state election but excluded from voting federally. The AEC in their submission to the joint parliamentary committee inquiry anticipated that direct enrolment would provide the following benefits: assist eligible persons in meeting their obligation to enrol; build on the direct update model already supported by the Australian government; and balance existing provisions which enable the AEC to remove an eligible elector from the electoral roll where it believes, based on data received from a number of agencies, that an elector is no longer entitled to be enrolled at an address.

On 24 November 2011 the House of Representatives Selection Committee requested the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to inquire into and report on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011. Their report on the bill was handed down only recently and the committee recommended that this bill, which is one of two bills in this cognate debate, be passed by the House. In the public hearing held on 8 February 2012, Mr Ed Killesteyn, the Electoral Commissioner of the Australian Electoral Commission, said:

… direct update of elector addresses using reliable third-party information is not only a next logical step in the evolution of electoral roll administrative practices but also consistent with growing expectations of many in the community for seamless use of data across government agencies.

There is a clear trend of declining enrolment participation in Australia. These bills provide the Electoral Commissioner with the ability to use modern processes to protect the participation of eligible Australian citizens in the electoral process. It is therefore a matter of logic that the more people who vote the more accurately parliament will reflect the will of the total electorate. Currently, it is estimated that over one and a half million Australians are not enrolled to vote. As I said, that is an average of 10,000 potential voters for each electorate represented in this House.

These bills will not change the grounds on which a person becomes entitled to enrol or entitled to vote. They will simply enhance the integrity of the Australian electoral roll and help the AEC do its job. I commend these bills to the House.