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Monday, 27 September 1999
Page: 8875

Senator CROSSIN (1:01 PM) —I remember that when this issue first came before the Senate some months ago a number of us put fairly substantial arguments before the Senate as to why the status quo should remain. Basically, those positions have not varied today—except that, as Senator Bartlett said, the issue has been considered by the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters and has been subject now to comments by the Australian Electoral Commission. Let me say from the outset that, with all due respect, there are very few senators here in this chamber who have witnessed either what it is like in the week preceding a federal election or the conducting of a ballot on election day in extremely remote communities.

I stand here today actually defending the rights of at least one-third of my constituents to continue to cast their vote in this country in the way that they have done so in preceding years. There is no doubt that, if this act is amended in the way in which the government is seeking to do, there will be fewer people who feel comfortable about casting a vote; there will be fewer people in this country who will actually want to front up to vote on election day. My interests naturally lie with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, but there are significant numbers of people in this country—and, in particular, in the Northern Territory—who are of Chinese, Greek or Vietnamese origin and who rely on a vote assisted by someone in their own community whom they trust and who can clearly explain to them what the issues are and in fact what candidate is associated with which party.

A single presiding officer is not able to do that. In the Northern Territory, when we have pre-polling in the week preceding the election, as in the case last year, we can go to anywhere from three to five communities in any one day. You get on and off light aircraft from dawn till dusk and you have sometimes no more than, or not even, an hour—or, at the most, two hours—in some places, for anywhere between two and 400 Aboriginal people to cast their vote, on a day when you and I have 12 hours to do it. So we are talking about a very concentrated time frame here. To the Australian Electoral Commission's credit, they are able to get to all of those remote places, particularly in the Territory—I do not have knowledge of Queensland or Western Australia—and, to their credit, they are able to ensure that as many people as possible get to vote preceding the election or on election day.

What we as members of parliament ought to be about is ensuring that we enable more and more people to vote and that any changes we make to the Electoral Act ensure that people are comfortable about voting and feel that their vote is fair and that they have a free vote. I find it very difficult to actually explain to people how frustrating it can be if English is in fact your third or fourth language and how reliant people in remote communities are on getting people they know who understand their language, or even perhaps who have the right kinship relationship to them, and taking them in to vote.

In all the times that I have been in remote communities at polling time, I have never seen the assisted voter provision rorted or manipulated to the detriment of either party. You see, when somebody who is not an English speaking person walks into a polling booth to cast their vote, their assisting voter is able to clearly explain to them which parties are standing and whom the candidates are. But I have seen in Aboriginal communities presiding officers—who are mainly white males that fly out from Darwin—say to Aboriginal people, `Do you want to vote Labor or Liberal?' They do not understand that. Some people might; some people might understand `Australian Labor Party' or `Liberal Party'. In the Northern Territory, we do not have the Liberal Party; we have the Country Liberal Party. I have seen presiding officers hold up how-to-votes and say to them, `Do you want to vote this way or that way?' If you cannot read or write English, sometimes a how-tovote card does not help you either.

So what question does a presiding officer actually ask the voter to elicit the response that is necessary for them to clearly understand how they, as the presiding officer, will cast that person's vote? An assistant voter may well be somebody within the family who is literate in Aboriginal and English. It may well be somebody in the community who has been, on behalf of ATSIC, teaching Aboriginal people how to vote. It may well be a teacher or an Aboriginal health worker—or one of a number of people in that community—whom that person knows and feels comfortable about casting their vote in front of.

That is what assisted voting should be about. It should be about ensuring that your vote remains secret between you and somebody you trust. If a presiding officer has to be the one and only person who fills in your ballot paper, then the secrecy of your ballot becomes irrelevant and something that most people, even if you are not a migrant, disabled or Aboriginal, would feel uncomfortable about.

Senator Faulkner alluded to some comments by the Australian Electoral Commission which I think are pertinent here. These are the people who know best about what happens in a polling booth. In a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on 12 March this year the Australian Electoral Commission said that they are of the view that the federal legislation relating to assisted voting is operating properly as the parliament originally intended and should be left unamended. The AEC themselves can see no reasons why this legislation should be changed.

They have searched and I have searched for any cases or any substantial evidence that has been brought before the AEC that would show us or convince me that this legislation needs to be changed. There has never ever, so the AEC have informed me, been a single substantiated allegation of impropriety or electoral fraud concerning assisted voting. So if we do not have any evidence before us that the current system is not working properly, then you have to ask yourself: why is the government seeking to change this?

Coming from the Northern Territory, and I concur with some of the comments from Senator Bartlett, there is only one reason why we are seeking to change this. It is based on the premise that an informed vote by an Aboriginal member of our community for the Liberal Party is a good vote, is an informed vote; but if a non-literate Aboriginal person decides to vote for the Labor Party, it is construed as being a manipulative vote. We can cut to the quick here. We all know the arguments about fair voting and free voting and the secrecy of your vote. But let us face it: at the end of the day, people from this government, particularly people from the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory, believe that an assisted vote is a manipulative vote on behalf of Aboriginal people which therefore translates to a vote for the Labor Party.

It is about sour grapes on behalf of people in the CLP in the Northern Territory. It is about them not being able to attract the majority of votes from Aboriginal people for their own political party. If that is the case, then there is some belief that Aboriginal people are not electorally aware of the issues when it comes to election day. They are well and truly aware of the issues. When Aboriginal people go to vote they know exactly whom they want to vote for. Sometimes they need to relay that to people who understand their language as opposed to a presiding officer who would not. They may need some clarification—and, by and large, in the last election of the Northern Territory 80 per cent or more of people voted for the Labor Party—as to where they would put No. 1 on their ballot paper so it translates into a vote for the Labor Party person. But, by and large, once they have had that assistance they know very well whom they want to vote for.

Let me leave you in no doubt whatsoever that the changes to this system are about ensuring fewer people in the Northern Territory get a vote, which in reality translates to fewer people in Aboriginal communities voting for the Labor Party. This will ensure that this government minimises as much as possible the votes in the Northern Territory with respect to Labor Party votes from Aboriginal people.

The amendments that we have considered are based on submissions by the Country Liberal Party to the inquiry on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, an inquiry that was conducted into the 1998 federal election. The CLP submission to that committee also accuses the Australian Electoral Commission of collusion and overt political action, but there is no evidence of any of that and there is no evidence, as I said before, of any impropriety or fraud concerning the use of the assistant voter. This is purely and simply about a political party making changes to the Electoral Act for its political gain. If that is the case, then the motivation for restructuring this legislation to accord with the whims of a political party makes this a sad day in relation to what we have held up to be a fair and free voting system within this country.

In the Northern Territory nearly 27.3 per cent of our population are indigenous but only two per cent of the population in the rest of the country are indigenous. The literacy levels in the Northern Territory are the worst in Australia. Our school retention rates are abysmally low. Of those indigenous people who attempt secondary education only nine per cent complete their education compared to 54½ per cent of non-indigenous people. So we are talking about not only people who have second and third languages—Aboriginal languages before English—but also people who are not literate in the English language, and of course ballot papers are presented only in English.

Under this proposed scenario we have not got just two people in the ballot box, that is, the person wanting to vote plus the assisting voter—an assisting voter is the person whom they choose to assist them filling out the ballot paper—but we now have the presiding officer in the ballot box. And not only that, but the very first question the presiding officer will ask the voter is: do you want a scrutineer? What does that mean? Do you want someone else to watch you vote? No, thank you, not if I have a choice. So we could have a situation where we may even have four other people in the booth besides the voter. Under the current legislation we have only two people in the booth and that second person is only there at the invitation of the voter, whereas under the proposed changes to the legislation once that voter decides to bring a person in to help them then the presiding officer must fill in the ballot paper.

We have no evidence that the assisting voter has never recorded a vote in the way in which the voter wants it to happen. We have no evidence of that. So we ask ourselves, `Oh, yes, if the presiding officer fills in the ballot paper, then we have at least some guarantee that they may well record the vote impartially. They may well record what the voter actually wants.' There is no guarantee of that. There is no more a guarantee about that than there is that the assisting voter would fill in the ballot paper correctly.

If you cannot guarantee that the changes you are suggesting will improve what is happening, then leave the current scheme alone. We do not have any evidence that the current system relates to fraud or is up for any impropriety. We do not have any evidence that the current system disadvantages people from voting, but we do know from our experiences of being in the bush that, when people do conduct their ballot and do try to cast their vote, the system you are proposing will disadvantage them and is entirely unfair.