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Monday, 15 February 1999
Page: 1807

Senator BROWN (1:00 PM) —The Greens oppose the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998. The outcome of the provisions, the amendments, incorporated in this legislation would be to leave this country less democratic, and to leave the country's citizens with less equality in their approach to the ballot box and, indeed, more vulnerable to the approaches of the political parties—and in all cases this would be discriminatory.

Firstly, this legislation contains provisions that would allow electors' dates of birth and salutations—that is, titles such as Mr, Ms, Miss, Mrs, Dr, and so on—to be made available to political parties. The caveat there is that there would be provisions to ensure that no-one gets an economic advantage or allows the information to be passed on to business interests.

Questions need to be asked at the outset. Are not the political parties in themselves business interests? Are not members of parliament interested in the business in which they are engaged? There is no dividing line between the role of parliamentarians and the fact that they are sustained by the public purse on good salaries and provisions with amenities and staff. The aim of approaching electors in a discriminatory fashion through groupings based on their dates of birth, their particular interests perhaps relating to their ages, or their salutations is to particularly inveigle those voters in a more honed down way, in a more market research based way, if you like, to gain favour to help politicians and parties to stay in power.

It is an insidious process, and I defy anybody in the Senate to say where the demarcation line is beyond which we will not go in the future if this process continues. This measure should not be allowed. It simply is a stepping stone to further measures whereby incumbent politicians and parties who are represented in the parliament gain an advantage in a political system which is already very much lopsided in their favour.

I note that the ALP will support this provision. But that speaks volumes in itself because, in particular, it will help the major parties in the business of getting to the electorates in a way in which people who are not already in the parliament have no chance to get to them. It will help those major parties to get to electorates with, no doubt, selective information—because all politicians and members of parliament do that—and to put themselves in an advantageous position. We ought not allow this legislation because, through this measure, we would be putting forward a matter of self-interest, and I do not think that should be the case. We, the Greens, will strenuously oppose it.

The next measure, which the ALP does oppose, is the provision for prisoners who are serving sentences of less than five years to be struck off the roll; effectively, to be denied a vote. It has already been pointed out that this provision is discriminatory in that those prisoners who happen to be in gaol serving short sentences—maybe as short as a month—at the time the Prime Minister calls an election will lose their vote. Those who are serving a month just before that or who get a sentence of a month after that or, indeed, have suspended sentences for the same crime will not lose their vote.

It is already wrong that the laws of this country discriminate against long-term prisoners in taking away their vote. It is easy to have a reaction which says `vengeance is ours; we ought to be denying prisoners basic civil rights'. But it is muddle-headed at best, and it is bad civic practice; it is bad for the whole of the community when you analyse it fully.

Let me put a couple of specific points about this. Firstly, it is up to the courts to judge people and penalise them by sending them to prison. That is where the penalty should start and finish. It should not be up to us to be legislating in a general way to take away the rights of people who go to prison—in particular, basic civil rights and the right to vote. If this were being done in a proper fashion, we would be handing to the courts the right to deny prisoners the vote. I believe that it is being done simply because the coalition has looked at the demographics and the voting patterns of prisoners and decided that prisoners do not vote for the coalition, by and large—

Senator Robert Ray —They vote against incumbents.

Senator BROWN —and incumbents, as Senator Ray says, so, `Let's deny them the vote.' That is what this is about. It is not about getting a better rehabilitation rate. It is not about protecting the wider interests of society against crime. It is about getting political advantage.

As to what this might do for society at large, there is a strong case to put that if you deny prisoners the right to vote you send a message to them that society has rejected them. You take away—and I have been in prison on a number of occasions—the tendency there is to discuss politics, like all other people in society do, and to feel part of the process, and therefore to feel the want to get back into society and to continue to be part of that process as wanted and full citizens.

It is a muddle-headed amendment, but it becomes worse when you look at who is in prison. In this country, unfortunately, the statistics show that, from detention centres for young people through to prisons for adults, indigenous Australians are incarcerated at somewhere between 10 and 20 times the rate of other Australians. Whatever the seat of that discrimination—and I would say it has a lot to do with the taking of the lands, the destruction of culture and the robbing of hope from the indigenous people in this country, allied to the extraordinary poverty in general the indigenous people live in compared with the rest of the community—this denial of the vote is going to hit indigenous people at a rate 10 to 20 times that of the rest of the community.

It is racially discriminatory. I would like to hear arguments from the other side if they disagree with that. The Greens will be moving an amendment to the legislation to ensure that the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 has precedence over these amendments—in other words, to ensure that if there is racial discrimination it is challengeable in the courts. This legislation is subsequent to the RDA and, if we do not do anything, it will escape the aegis of the RDA. I want to make sure that that does not happen. I would put it to all other members of the Senate that they support this amendment, because we do not want to extend the discrimination there is in this country against indigenous peoples, particularly in the fundamental matter of their having the right to vote.

Until the referendum in the sixties there was a shameful history of universal denial of the right of Australia's indigenous population to vote. This legislation echoes back to that shameful history. This legislation is going to take away the rights of indigenous people disproportionately. It is racially discriminatory, therefore, and we need to make sure that that discrimination is expunged. I put it to the government, in particular, but to all senators that they support the amendment that I will be moving to make sure that the Racial Discrimination Act has aegis over this legislation.

The matter of early closure of the rolls was referred to by both previous speakers. In short, some 80,000 young voters are likely to be unable to cast a vote at future federal elections where the Prime Minister says, `We are having an election three weeks from now. The writs will be issued tomorrow.' The information is that, given the opportunity, some 80,000 people would enrol in the week. What does this mean? If you average it out, about 500 voters in each electorate would lose their right to vote. They will be stymied by this amendment being brought in here for quite clear political motives. There were some five electorates at the last election decided by less than 500 votes—Bass, Dickson, Herbert, Eden Monaro and Hinkler.

Clearly, in any election there is real potential for the result in marginal seats like those to be altered by this measure, and therefore who wins government in a close election. You cannot tell me that the officials in the coalition party offices have not been pouring over this legislation to see that that is the result, and that is the totally wrong basis for bringing forward amendments to the way in which this country works at election time. This is not free of political bias. These are politically biased electoral amendments which have the aim specifically of keeping the coalition in office at any future close election. Nothing could point to that more than this particular means of disenfranchising tens of thousands of young Australians, many of whom will be young Australians on the move, many of whom will be poorer young Australians. I have no doubt that the analysis at coalition head offices was `likely in the main not to be coalition voters'.

The final matter I want to speak about is the provision to raise the requirement for the disclosure of donations to political parties upon individuals from donations of $1,500 or more to $10,000 or more. Once again, this is a measure to help cover the donations going to the major political parties, particularly the coalition. It is designed to increase the opportunity for major individual donors particularly—although it need not necessarily be individuals; it can be from the corporate sector—to put, as Senator Faulkner showed the Senate, much larger donations, donations of over $100,000 spread out through the states, into the party political coffers without that being revealed to public notification and therefore public analysis.

This goes totally against the spirit of electoral disclosure legislation. It is a move towards protecting people who make donations to political parties. I have said this before, but I will say it again: people do not make large donations to political parties without having in mind favour in return. That particularly applies to the corporate sector. And if it applies to big donations in big amounts, it applies to smaller donations in smaller amounts. I only have to point to the fact that somewhere between half a million dollars and $1 million coming from the woodchip companies to the big political parties per annum is enough to sway both of the big political parties to support woodchipping in wild forests in this country, though all the opinion polls show that 70 to 80 per cent of the Australian electorate does not want that to happen.

I only have to point out as well that it is irresponsible for executives or boards of corporations making donations to do so without expecting a result. That is not a proper way to be using shareholders' money. There is a lot of deliberation behind large donations to political parties. But, in particular, the government of the day is expected to return a favour, and in the main it does return a favour. That, Mr Acting Deputy President, is against the interests of the average Australian. I believe it is corrupt and corrupting not to call a spade a spade.

We have, at least, in this country moved to have these donations disclosed. But this amendment is a move in the opposite direction—to start to reintroduce the veil of secrecy, to start to cover up the approach to political parties by people with money in their back pockets to curry political favour. We start to move back to the large brown envelopes, brown paper bags, with money inside, with no name ever registered for the public to look at. It is anti-democratic. It goes against the interests of the average Australian—that is, it is against the public interest—and we will be opposing it.

I again say that there is little to commend this legislation at all. In almost every respect it is against the wider public interest. It is against the average Australian's interest. It is therefore democratically negative. I also believe is racially discriminatory. We will be moving to at least try to ensure it is not. In particular, we will be testing the government, who I am sure will say it is not racially discriminatory, by putting forward an amendment which they should not have any trouble with if that is the case.