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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 3739

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (12:57): I rise to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012 out of a great concern for the implications that these two bills will have for Australian democracy. Australia is one of the world's oldest democracies. We have been a democracy since our inception. At the very heart of our democracy lies the fact that each Australian citizen has the franchise; the ability to put themselves on the electoral roll so that they can vote for their representative in this place and in the Australian Senate.

Under existing legislation it is very clear who is currently able to put themselves on the Australian electoral roll: anybody who is over 18 years of age and who is an Australian citizen, a British subject and or on the Commonwealth electoral roll as at 25 January 1984. This is pretty clear. More than this, in advance of somebody turning 18, at the age of 16, a citizen of this country who meets the criteria can in advance put themselves down on the electoral roll so that when they reach their 18th birthday they will automatically become entitled to vote, should an election be called. These two bills, however, seek to undermine the way people are put onto the Australian electoral roll. It is, according to this government, a necessary evil. They say that so many people are disenfranchised under the existing system. They say that many young people, in particular, are disenfranchised because they do not have time to put themselves on the electoral roll. But of course any basic examination of these facts demonstrates the paucity of the government's argument and invites anybody who understands this issue to ask themselves the question: what is the real motivation for this government in seeking to make a change to how citizens are put onto the electoral roll? Already, under the existing rolls—and I quote from the AEC website:

The electoral roll is continuously updated, however, following the issue of the 'writ' for an election, which sets the election timetable, the roll for the election is closed. The roll for the election closes at 8pm local time on the third working day after the writ is issued and cannot be updated after that date.

So it is very clear that when an election is announced—when the writs are issued—people most certainly do have the ability to put themselves on the electoral roll. Whether they be young or old, they themselves can go to the AEC and put themselves on the electoral roll so that they may vote in that election for their representative.

Instead, the government is seeking to automatically put a number of people onto the electoral roll. It is seeking to do this through data matching. Without anyone's consent or permission, this government would put people onto the electoral roll or make changes to an entry for an existing person on the electoral roll as to where they are entitled to vote. This would be the result of the Australian Electoral Commission, in and of itself, determining how that person is to appear on the electoral roll.

This concerns us greatly, because it should be for the individual themselves to go through all the proper and correct processes to put themself on the electoral roll. Only in this way can we be assured of the integrity of the electoral role, that there are proper checks and balances—that people are in fact entitled to be on the electoral roll and are enrolling in the correct place and not seeking to skew the electoral roll in any way. This government would rather see the Australian Electoral Commission make a determination as to who should be on the roll and how they should be on it. This concerns us because the Australian Electoral Commission will be forced to rely upon information that is provided to it by third parties that it determines are of sufficient quality to be allowed to make that determination, yet there are no criteria on which this is based.

I would like to refer to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. My colleagues Bronwyn Bishop, Senator Scott Ryan, Alex Somlyay and Senator Simon Birmingham wrote such a stellar report pointing out a number of the flaws with this legislation. Bronwyn Bishop spoke with the AEC and asked a very pertinent question about the process that went to the issue of the integrity of the roll:

I want to go back to the process. Supposing you have decided, because of your checking with your material, that Mrs Bloggs has actually moved from her previous address. Under this legislation, you would write to the new address and say, 'We have changed you', because you are satisfied that she has moved.

Mr Killesteyn replied:

We would not say that we have changed it; we would write to the individual and say, 'We have information which leads us to believe that you are at this address. You have 28 days to advise us whether that is not the case.' If there were no response, then we would change the address at that point.

That is a great concern. You could have a situation in which somebody has provided their address details to one of these third-party organisations or government agencies and the AEC decides to write to a new address, which could in fact be a holiday home that is frequented only on occasion. As a result of this, someone's electoral enrolment could be radically changed. The enfranchisement of that person to vote for the individual or representative in the electorate in which they live would in fact be changed, and there are no adequate checks and balances in order to deal with this. I think this is a very critical point, and it goes to just how flawed this legislation actually is.

When you look at it even more closely you can see that there are some significant flaws in the way in which the Australian Electoral Commission will go about supposedly matching up data. They are going to rely, as I said before, on third-party sources. I quote again from the dissenting report, which refers to another dissenting report:

In their dissenting report in July 2011 to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters’ investigation into the 2010 Federal Election, Coalition members of JSCEM noted the risks of using external data sources such as the ATO, Medicare or other Government agencies to update elector details:

It then quoted from that dissenting report:

The reliance on external data sources that have been collated and that are utilised for other purposes does not make them fit for use in forming the electoral roll. As outlined in the previous report into these proposals, a 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration: Numbers on the Run - Review of the ANAO Report No.37 1998-99 on the Management of Tax File Numbers, found that:

There were 3.2 million more Tax File Numbers than people in Australia at the last census;

There were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals; 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match.

Similarly, an ANAO Audit Report (No.24 2004-05 Integrity of Medicare Enrolment Data)stated that ‘ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased’

So there is no level of comfort here that the records that are supposed to be data matched are in fact accurate themselves. Yet this is the information that the Australian Electoral Commission will rely on in order to change the electoral roll. We think this goes to the very heart of the integrity of the electoral roll and it is incredibly flawed and dangerous for our democracy.

Moreover, the third-party sources are going to be entirely at the discretion of the Electoral Commissioner and can be changed at any time. This also concerns us because, while the ATO have supposedly been ruled out, now this could in fact change and it is of the initiative of the Electoral Commissioner to determine what may or may not be appropriate. There are no guarantees. So much is unknown. Again, as can be seen from my previous statement about previous reports, this is clearly a government agenda to change the electoral roll. You have to ask yourself the question why—why are they seeking to do this? The only response you can give to that question is that the government believes it can seek an electoral advantage by changing the electoral roll, which is why it has been so committed to try and achieve this.

But there are other significant concerns. Privacy, of course, is one of them. Dr Roger Clarke from the Australian Privacy Foundation gave very strong evidence to the JSCEM, stating that there were concerns regarding the matching of data, particularly in light of the fact that there may be a number of people who do not wish that data to find its way onto the electoral roll. We hear of many awful instances of domestic violence, of stalking, whether that be cyberstalking or physically stalking a victim. We know that there are a number of people for a variety of reasons who would not wish to appear on the electoral roll, for reasons of safety and the safety of their family. Yet under these changes put forward by the government we would see circumstances where these people are automatically placed onto the electoral roll without any consent, without any checking, which could pose a grave risk to them. This concerns us, and again there is no sufficient response from the government to give us any comfort that they have considered these most serious issues.

There should be an incredibly high burden of proof. There should be some incredible harm that is occurring for the government to make such serious changes to the electoral roll. Yet we do not hear any such evidence from the government—far from it. In fact, the evidence that has been heard by the committee, not only in the most recent inquiry but in the inquiries before it, has been that we do have a strong electoral roll now. It works well and it balances many competing interests, and it is the best way to ensure the enfranchisement of citizens of this country. The potential for fraud and the potential for error are very significant if these changes are made. I have mentioned privacy breaches. We do not support these bills. (Time expired)