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Monday, 18 June 2001
Page: 24477

Senator MASON (4:35 PM) —I present the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters entitled User friendly, not abuser friendly: report of the inquiry into the integrity of the electoral roll, and seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator MASON —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

This report of the electoral matters committee addresses the integrity of the Commonwealth electoral roll. The report recommends 18 changes to the management of the roll and the regulation of political parties. It is aimed at restoring public trust in the electoral system, which was damaged by last year's revelations about electoral fraud in Queensland.

The majority of the committee, comprising the Liberal Party, the National Party and the Australian Democrats, support all the recommendations made. A key intention of the committee's inquiry was to identify the weaknesses and the strengths in current roll management practices and make recommendations aimed at restoring public confidence in the accuracy of the electoral roll. While the allegations of fraudulent enrolment in Queensland have achieved the most prominence, the evidence gathered by the committee leads it to believe that this practice is most likely not confined to Queensland. The committee concurs with the finding of the Shepherdson inquiry that enrolment fraud is not uncommon.

On this basis, the committee believes that the Australian Electoral Commission has to be careful that it is not overly confident about the effectiveness of its current roll management practices. Indeed, at times the evidence of the commission bordered on the defensive. A more circumspect and perhaps less assured attitude is more appropriate in light of the findings of both the Shepherdson inquiry and this committee.

I would like to highlight six key areas for improvement identified by the committee. Firstly, the Australian Electoral Commission has made various improvements in maintaining the integrity of the roll through its computerised roll management system and the continuous roll update process. The committee supports further enhancement of this approach. However—and this is critical—the committee believes that many of its concerns about electoral fraud would be alleviated if identification were required for new enrolments and the movement of existing enrolments. This reform was recommended by previous inquiries of the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters. The government has adopted it, but the states have failed to agree on a uniform application of identification for enrolment. Because of the importance of bringing about this long needed reform, the committee believes that the Commonwealth should proceed with identification for enrolment without the states, if that is required.

Section 85(1) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 provides for the creation of new rolls for divisions. The committee has recommended that the AEC investigate the possible use of this section to create new rolls in divisions such as Herbert, where the accuracy of the roll has been brought into great question. Evidence provided to the committee suggests that the deterrent value of the penalties for enrolment fraud is not sufficiently high. The report recommends that the benchmark penalty for enrolment offences in the Electoral Act be increased to 12 months imprisonment or a fine of 60 penalty units. This will have the added benefit, pursuant to the Commonwealth Constitution, of disqualifying people convicted of these offences from running for the Commonwealth parliament. The Australian National Audit Office is currently conducting a performance audit of the electoral roll. The committee believes that, as part of the performance audit, it would be useful for the Audit Office to test the accuracy of the roll by conducting a data matching exercise. If the exercise is successful, the Audit Office should use such exercises to test the accuracy of the roll on an annual basis.

Penultimately, the committee found that one of the main motivators for electoral fraud was to gain control of preselections, both by union and non-union forces, in the Australian Labor Party.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—Senator Conroy, you are unruly. I ask you to desist.

Senator MASON —The step from defrauding the roll for the purposes of internal party preselections and voting for fraudulently enrolled electors on polling day is but a small one. For that reason, the committee has recommended breaking new ground in the regulation of political parties and proposes the insertion of `one vote, one value' as a requirement of registered political parties' constitutions. Finally, the AEC's fraud control plan is 18 months out of date and is currently under review. The committee would like to see the AEC develop a more comprehensive approach to dealing with enrolment fraud as part of the new AEC fraud control plan.

I reiterate that the recommendations in this bright red report are designed so that public confidence in the electoral roll can be restored. The committee believes that these recommendations should be adopted as a matter of urgency. While these recommendations are commonsense—this is not rocket science—and they enjoy the support of the majority of the committee, it saddens me to say that the Labor members of the committee do not seem to share our commitment to protecting the integrity of the democratic process in this great country.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Conroy, you continue to defy me. You are unruly. Please desist!

Senator MASON —I have had the great advantage and the great joy of reading the dissenting report submitted by the Labor Party. There are a couple of unsavoury and unappealing aspects, but one might expect that. Underpinning it all is a concern that the recommendations of the majority might hinder voter participation at elections. That is a concern of the Labor Party's. I think it might even be true to say that the Labor Party seems more concerned with maximising voter participation even where that is achieved at the expense of the integrity of the electoral roll. We in the coalition disagree. We in the coalition, joined here by the Australian Democrats, assert that good public policy can be better found by adopting the recommendations contained within the report. We assert that the integrity of the electoral roll is critical. For this reason, to compromise the integrity of the electoral roll, or to be seen to allow the compromising of its integrity, is to corrupt the administrative touchstone of our democracy. Worse, it corrodes public confidence in the legitimacy of our democracy. That is a price we cannot afford to pay.

I do not wish to comfort those who believe that our democracy is a rude joke and that our electoral system is a rort. These people will never be completely satisfied with the electoral system no matter what reforms we propose, but the committee's recommendations will, I believe, satisfy many sceptics. Much more importantly, they will go a long way to re-establishing that perception of integrity among the broad populace. It is difficult to overstate the importance of that.

As befits an issue of this importance, there was wide community participation in this inquiry. The committee received 87 submissions and held public hearings in Canberra, Brisbane, Townsville and Sydney. There was also wide media interest in the course of the inquiry. I would like to thank the Australian Electoral Commission and members of the community who contributed to the review. I would also like to thank all members of the committee and in particular the chairman, Mr Christopher Pyne, and the committee secretariat for the contributions to the inquiry and to the report. I commend the report to the Senate.