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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 3741


Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (13:12): I rise to speak on the cognate debate of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. Just as we have seen on several occasions in this place, these bills may have harmless-sounding names but they represent a dangerous step in our nation's democracy. As a result I speak in strong opposition to these bills before the House today.

In brief, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 will give the Australian Electoral Commission the ability to change the address of electors when the AEC believes that the elector has moved addresses. The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012 will give the Australian Electoral Commission the ability to add individuals to the electoral roll when they believe they are 18 years of age, living at a particular address and entitled to vote. This is known as automatic enrolment.

These bills do not carry the civic responsibility that the government spin doctors may try to attach to them. They are plainly and simply an attempt by the Labor Party-Greens alliance to gain an electoral advantage. This legislation will severely damage the integrity of our nation's electoral roll, where a centralised and unelected government funded bureaucracy can add new electors and change the enrolled address of new electors without the individual's knowledge and potentially without their consent. We are a nation that embraces the idea of individual responsibility. It is an elector's individual responsibility to enrol to vote and to inform the Australian Electoral Commission if they change address. It is also an elector's responsibility to vote at an election. These are pretty simple responsibilities and they should not become yet more victims of state intervention. This point has been made time and again by my colleagues since the formation of the inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2007 election.

My colleagues have also noted the extensive implications for issues of privacy that this legislation raises. Dr Roger Clarke of the Australia Privacy Foundation provided the joint standing committee with some valuable insights regarding the individual privacy concerns that this legislation raises. He was particularly concerned about the lack of consultation about the legislation, and he said that he was not aware of any privacy assessments taking place and that the outcome of the inquiry appeared to have been predetermined. He said:

We are not aware of any risk assessment having been performed. We were not aware of any privacy impact assessment having been performed. We were not aware of consultation processed which the Electoral Commissioner has just referred to. We are not aware of the APF or any of the civil liberties organisations being involved in any of those. We have checked back through our records and confined our evidence of that in our own records.

…   …   …

Finally, the outcome of the inquiry does appear to be predetermined. The inquiries being held by the same committee came forward with a related proposal, and when we sought further time to address this matter we were told that, 'The committee was merely focusing on the adequacy of the bill in achieving its policy objectives.' This sounds rather less than substantive consideration of the matter.

It must be of very real concern to all individuals if their personal details are published on the Commonwealth electoral roll without their knowledge and without them being given the opportunity to register as a silent elector. This would cause alarm in particular for people who are victims of domestic violence, for people involved in custody disputes and for people who, for any other reason, wish their name to be suppressed. These bills pose some genuine dangers to people who are most at risk in our society, and their needs and protection should far supersede the stated motivations of these bills.

The process of automatic enrolment will put into question the integrity of the electoral roll. There are few documents which we have greater dependence on for their integrity to ensure an effective and representative democracy. When a centralised system has authority over an individual's listing on the electoral roll, we are opening our system up to error and the possibility of fraud. As we have seen in times past, the Labor Party are capable of very creative strategies when faced with a campaign to hold onto power. Allowing automatic enrolment is opening a Pandora's Box that may commence with good intentions but can quickly become corrupted. A procedure where the Australian Electoral Commission relies on notification received in reply to their correspondence is a very dangerous way to manage an electoral roll. The chief electoral commissioner of New South Wales has admitted that the response rate is about 20 per cent. This means that on average 80 per cent of people whom the AEC writes to to inform of a change to their enrolment will not confirm their receipt or understanding of this change. Progressively, the integrity of the electoral roll will become diminished as a result of these bills.

In the coalition's dissenting report on these bills, the shadow minister quoted Professor Graeme Orr's book The Law of Politics. I repeat the words of the shadow minister:

… Mr Orr writes: 'Like other official public registers, such as land registers, a chief feature of electoral rolls is their finality. The purpose of a roll is to be a definitive statement of the entitlement to vote'—leaving aside the provisional provisions—'Thus there is a rule that the roll is conclusive evidence of the entitlement to vote. Reinforcing this is the secondary rule in almost all jurisdictions that a court of disputed returns is not to inquire into the correctness of the roll.

In his chapter 'Enrolment and the Roll', Professor Orr also cites the case of Perkins and Cusack: 'The federal Court of Disputed Returns faced a petition claiming that many people were on the roll for the seat of Eden-Monaro whose real place of living was outside the electorate. Even though it was alleged that some enrolled electors lived at addresses that lay outside the divisional boundaries, Justice Starke refused to allow any evidence to be tendered that might contradict the face of the roll.'

One of the curious aspects to this bill, which should raise many an eyebrow around the nation, is that it is even more extreme than the recommendation made by Labor and the Greens in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2010 federal election. In this inquiry, Labor and Greens members recommended that the sources of data used by the Australian Electoral Commission to automatically enrol electors should be subject to disallowance by parliament, yet these bills provide sole discretion to the Australian Electoral Commission. To quote from this report:

The Committee recommends that, wherever appropriate, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 should be amended to allow the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to directly enrol eligible electors on the basis of data or information provided by an elector or electors to an agency approved by the AEC, as an agency which performs adequate proof of identity checks, where that information is subsequently provided by that agency to the AEC for the purposes of updating the electoral roll. Approval of such agencies by the AEC should be made by disallowable instrument.

Whilst I have a lot of faith in the Electoral Commission and respect for the impartiality of the work that they do, it sets a very dangerous standard for an unknown future when an unelected bureaucracy has this kind of power. The Electoral Commission has confirmed that under these bills they will list any individual on the electoral roll if they believe the individual is eligible after consulting various data sources. These bills do not specify what data sources are required or will be considered reliable, nor are there any restrictions placed on which data sources the AEC can use to enrol an elector. There is no provision in these bills to specify the standard of proof the Electoral Commission needs to enrol an elector. These judgements and decisions fall far outside the scope and jurisdiction of the Australian Electoral Commission. The first obligation of the Electoral Commission is to maintain and improve the integrity of the electoral roll. Instead, these bills will focus their attention on maximising the number of people on the electoral roll at the expense of that obligation.

Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation told the committee on 29 February 2012 that the intention of the AEC should be to maximise the opportunity for people to enrol, not to do it on their behalf. He said:

I believe part of the problem is that the presumption is that there is a desire to maximise the number of people on the rolls. I do not believe that is an appropriate objective. The notion of the vote is a right—it is an entitlement—and turning it into an obligation, which is what that entails, I just do not believe is appropriate in a democratic process. The intention should be to maximise people's opportunity to enrol and to vote, and this goes well beyond that.

In the dissenting report, my colleagues made clear our concern about the risk of duplicate records as data is sourced from organisations as varied as the ATO, Medicare, roads authorities and Centrelink. The report stated:

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.

A previous report found:

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 stated:

ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.

There are also serious concerns that, as a result of these bills, individuals not entitled to vote will be enrolled. There is no requirement in these bills for the Electoral Commission to check whether a person is over 18 years of age or an Australian citizen before they are added to the electoral roll.

For these reasons, many constituents may well ask why these bills are being introduced into this House. The answer is clearly that the Labor-Greens alliance has determined that it will be the recipient of an electoral advantage. Any move that threatens the integrity of our electoral roll and therefore tarnishes our democracy should be rejected by this parliament. The responsibility of enrolment should remain with the individual Australian citizen and not be given to a centralised government bureaucracy.