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Monday, 15 February 1999
Page: 1810

Senator ROBERT RAY (1:18 PM) —I have listened with interest to the contributions of Senator Bartlett and Senator Brown on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998 , and I commend them on their speeches. There is no doubt that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Australia led the world when it came to electoral reform. Many of the innovations that occurred in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are now the political norms around the globe. I think we can look back with pride at our country's history in this regard. For instance, I think we were the second country in the world to enfranchise women, one of the first countries in the world to pay our MPs and one of the first countries in the world to set up a proper electoral roll system. Certainly we were the first country in the world to introduce a properly controlled secret ballot—so much so that even in the United States in the 1990s the secret ballot there is referred to as `the Australian ballot'.

So in that early part of our formation around Federation, we led the world. We can also say that at a federal level throughout that history for the most part we have had a very fair electoral system. For instance, unlike states, there has been very little gerrymandering in the federal process since Federation. The only major criticism that exists is that malapportionment was embedded into the system and was only rooted out in 1983-84—it took that long to get rid of malapportionment from our system.

But if you look at the history of the Liberal Party, remembering the Liberal Party was founded around 1944-45, you will see that they have an absolutely disgraceful record in regard to electoral reform at a national level. Between 1949 and 1983 they let this current Electoral Act ossify. They did virtually nothing in the way of improvements. They took the attitude: this is a system that might favour us, any change will not favour us so we will leave it as it is. For instance, in the 1966 federal election—this is only 30-odd years ago—we had electorates in Melbourne of 28,000 and 29,000 voters and two other electorates with 140,000 voters because the Liberal Party would not apply themselves to think about electoral reform and update the previously existing act.

The only real change they made in that time was the introduction of a 5,000 square kilometre provision, introduced by the Fraser government. And this was just to entrench malapportionment in this country. This was to favour country electorates—not even provincial electorates, because they put a size in—so that there would be some sort of bias within the electoral system from which they could take political advantage. This is the Liberal Party of Australia, which regularly accepted that the Senate informal vote would be well into double figures and there was no need to do anything about it. Why? Because it suited their self-interest.

It is true that most political parties approaching the electoral system always put self-interest at the front. I think one of the great moves made by the first Hawke government was to set up the joint select committee to look at our electoral system, to review elections, and to bring forward recommendations. They have not always had unanimous consent—there are some issues of principle that will always divide political parties—but that committee, since its inception in 1983 to the current day, has brought forward many sensible bipartisan suggestions that have been incorporated in the Electoral Act and justify some sort of claim at the moment that we still have one of the best electoral acts and democratic systems anywhere in this globe.

But we did have to tackle the more contentious areas of electoral reform, for instance, public funding. Senator Brown mentioned before he does not like the dependence of political parties on donations; neither do I. Public funding, at a national level, has helped relieve that burden enormously and probably constitutes 70 to 75 per cent of Labor Party campaign expenditure in any federal campaign. I am not sure whether there would be much difference in the Liberal Party, although their corporate fundraising goes much more to supporting their own administration rather than campaigning. But the Liberal Party oppose public funding.

Of course, the National Party always went one step further. They opposed it on moral grounds. I ask the Senate: can anyone recall the Liberal or National parties not taking public funding? After every election, can you imagine Lightweight Lynton over at Robert Menzies House saying, `Here is a cheque for $12 million, I will send it back. I do not want public funding, we oppose it.' The National Party opposes public funding on moral grounds but they always take the money. They oppose public funding, but the real core of their opposition—and at least you can say the Liberal-National Party are being consistent—is that they have always opposed disclosure of donations. The only trite argument they can come up with is, `If the Labor Party in government knows who donated to us, they will persecute us.'

Anyone who has examined the record of this government and its petty Nixonian persecutions of the last three years would know it is much more likely to come from that side of the chamber. Right through the 1980s, when disclosure laws came in and were tightened up, the Liberal Party opposed them. They set up their Free Enterprise Foundation and they set up the McCormack Foundation to channel donations through so that they would never be revealed. This parliament has faced a constant battle to try to catch up with the latest chicanery of the coalition in terms of disclosing donations. They used to say once, `It does not matter about donations because our politicians never know about them.' They said their politicians had no role in fundraising but, in the weeks before a federal election, what do you think former Prime Minister Bill McMahon did? He visited every boardroom in Sydney. He was known as `the vacuum cleaner' because, once he had been through, there was no money for anyone else's political donations. That was always the grand farce of the Liberal Party, that their upper echelon people did not know where the donations were coming from. Here in this Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1998 is at least part of that aspiration—the lifting of the threshold on donations from $1,500 to $10,000 in terms of party and up to $5,000 in terms of individuals. What have they got to be ashamed about? Are they ashamed of their corporate donors or of their individual donors? What have they got to be ashamed about? Why not have them on the public record and why not have it at a reasonable level? People say, `Why have any level at all?' That is simply a processing issue: you only really record the relatively significant donations.

What we know about the coalition is that when they were getting into financial strife in 1996, they had to devise a new method to bring money in. They used the old Greenfields Foundation trick—essentially, I think, to hide who the donor was. Once they got caught out on the loan and the similarities and whether it was an associated entity, they finally—at least on the surface—came clean and said, `I am sorry. It was Ron Walker who donated the money.' Ron Walker apparently donated $4.6 million to the Liberal Party to get them out of debt and then assigned the debt, in their terms, across to Greenfields. Who is the federal treasurer, to be donating that sort of money? He happens to be the absolute beneficiary and current mendicant of the Victorian state Liberal government, because they have put all their dough into the casino. It has not fired up terribly well and they are constantly requesting concessions from the Victorian state government. I reckon Ron Walker's $4.6 million is a bit mean, because he has basically got at least $73 million in concession out of one state government decision. If you percentage that out, he has not even paid his 10 per cent to the deduct box. He has not even done that. This bill, in miniature if you like, reflects the constant coalition objection to disclosure. They will continue it by trying to put forward this bill here.

This government has had two electoral bills so far. The first one really fits the description of a bipartisan bill. We virtually all agreed with what they put in it. I think it was sensible for the government to divide that bill from its more contentious bill because the other one was able to go through in time to operate in the last federal election. I must commend the Electoral Commission—and I hope this will be passed on—for getting the Senate results by computerisation this time. It was a revelation. They were much quicker and much easier to follow. I think they did a terrific job in getting those Senate results out. I am not speaking out of personal interest here, because I have never actually had to run in the death seat—at No. 3—and to worry about it. I have always believed in being on top of the ticket and dragging my colleagues through on my own personal vote rather than necessarily having to expose myself to the death seat.

Senator Patterson —Five weeks is a long time.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Senator Patterson, speaking from the heart, may, I think, have been in the death seat at one election. You would agree with me, Senator Patterson, that that was a good reform. I also suspect it saved a lot of money.

But when you come to the bill itself, as other colleagues have mentioned, it does have some very odious aspects. I take a slightly different attitude to Senator Brown and the Democrats and even, probably, Senator Faulkner, on the question of prisoners voting—only because I have got form on this! Back in 1983-84, when I was on the joint committee, I believed one to two years was a fair cut-off point. It was arbitrary, there was not a lot of science to it, but I thought that was a reasonable cut-off point in terms of prisoners having rights.

Provided people know before they commit crimes that if they are sentenced to more than two years gaol they will lose the right to vote, it is not double jeopardy. Later that was moved out to five years without much consultation with me. I am not sure I would have supported that. The points being made in this chamber today are absolutely valid. This particular cause does not have fair application. If someone is fined and cannot afford to pay the money and has to spend six weeks in gaol, they do not get the vote. If some other character facing the same choice forks out the $10,000, they do get the vote. Where is the fairness in that?

Several speakers today have said: what happens if you are committed for a vicious assault and you serve two years in gaol but you actually started serving that sentence on 10 May 1996 and you got let out on 10 May 1998? You can vote in the federal election. Where is the fairness in someone who serves two years and gets the vote but someone else serves six weeks over a maintenance order they cannot afford or a speeding fine they cannot pay and they lose the vote?

I think Senator Faulkner summed it up when he said to leave the five-year provision as it is but disqualify a further group to bring it back to more like the 1983 reforms where, if you are continuously in gaol from the issuing of writs to the return of the writs, you do not get a vote. That seems to me a very fair compromise. Why don't we adopt that? You could not get on the redneck talkback radio shows and blow this up as an issue.

Senator Brown gave an eloquent defence of prisoners. Do you know what is going to happen, Senator Brown? You are going to be blackguarded on talkback radio. The old rednecks are going to rip you to shreds. They are not going to properly run the articulate arguments you put here today; they are going to distort them and use them as political capital against you and anyone else who expresses these views because they are arguing a very emotive issue.

Prisoners are not just there to serve time. Prison is about—we hope—rehabilitation, playing a role in society. As such, we should encourage them to take their civic duty. I disagree with Senator Brown when he said that he did not think prisoners voted Liberal. My experience in looking at figures from mobile booths in prison is that they vote against incumbents. If it is the Labor government, we cop a thrashing because they see us as responsible for putting them there. I have not seen many in the mobile booths voting Green. So I think it is very noble that you have come in here to support their rights. Really, it should not be blown up as a redneck issue.

There will have to be compromises made in terms of the parliament determining who has a right to vote and who does not. I think about a two-year period is the fairest possible period. If we want to make it five and exclude those who are in prison continuously between the issuing of the writs and the return of the writs, then I think that is a good compromise.

The real rort in this is closing the rolls 24 hours after the writs are issued. Does anyone here know why the one-week period is there? I agree with it. Who pushed it hardest? Which senator from this chamber on the joint select committee actually pushed this harder so we have a 33-day election? The reason why we have a 33-day election period is that we have a one-week period for people to get on the rolls. It was not Senator Richardson or Senator Ray; it was former Senator Carrick. Having had that fixed timetable for elections, he argued—and we agreed with him—that you need a week to close the rolls.

Why have the coalition included closing the rolls 24 hours after the writs are issued within the legislation? The fact is all people should enrol the moment they turn 18. We know that. I should not smoke. I know that, but I do. Young people put off enrolling because it is not at the forefront of their minds when they turn 18. Can you think of many 18-year-olds who wake up on their 18th birthday and start thinking about going on the roll rather than the party that night? What triggers them to go on the roll is when an election is called.

We have evidence that 80,000 new people enrol before elections. Their enrolment is triggered by the election. This government wants to deprive every one of them from having a vote. That is pure demographics. They have done their polling. This is a group that even now they are not doing well with. The coalition will punish them and get an electoral advantage out of it. The by-product of that is there are another 323,000 people who, having moved address, regularise their position in that one week. When Senator Brown talked about 500 per electorate, this extends to a much higher figure.

They will vote but they will vote in the wrong electorate because of this legislation. They will not be taken off the roll because they have not changed address; they will just vote in the electorate they were in previously. That is not about cleansing the roll. That is not about representation. Surely you can give them that week to move to their proper address. That should be encouraged. Again, the coalition and the hatchet men up at Menzies House have worked out that they may get some minor electoral advantage out of this, and therefore they should support it.

This leads them then to the more draconian sections of the bill, on identification. This falls short of having to do a DNA test to get on the electoral roll. It goes back to outmoded regulations that existed in the fifties. The philosophy of the AEC in the 1980s is very easy to sum up. They used to say: easy to enrol, easy to vote. That was their philosophy. It is not anymore but not of their own volition, I might add; it was of this government's volition. I think it is a very sad thing that they have to bring in these sorts of regulations.

I want to finish on one other note that is not in this bill. When people reflect on our Electoral Act and our electoral system, I want them to think back on the reforms brought about in the 1980s as to the distribution of electoral boundaries, because it is in this area when you look around the globe you see that Australia, at a national level, leads the world. I would say that we have the fairest redistribution system—or redistricting, as they call it in the US—anywhere around the globe. It was basically a combined effort between the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the Democrats at the time to bring in a whole series of reforms—and it was independent people doing this—that, in the end, has given us this particular system.

When you look at the problems that exist even today in the United Kingdom, with malapportionment, to gerrymandering in the US, to arguments right around the globe about the drawing up of boundaries, you will see that those reforms put in place in the 1980s still stand the test of time today. They are still the best anywhere around the globe. This shows that this parliament, when it applies itself in a bipartisan way, can produce electoral legislation that is envied by others.