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Thursday, 25 February 2010
Page: 1274

Senator RYAN (4:23 PM) —As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and a participant in this inquiry I, along with other opposition members of the committee, have grave concerns with the report adopted by the government majority of this committee. I too share the aspiration that we should have as complete a roll as possible. But the other leg of our electoral system is roll integrity, and on this occasion the government majority have got this balance fundamentally wrong.

First, I would challenge the notion, as the government majority has outlined in the report, that:

... an estimated 1.39 million eligible Australians were not on the roll and therefore effectively excluded from Australia’s democratic processes.

That is nothing but a mistruth. Every single one of those 1.39 million people just have to fill out a form—the same form that more than 10 million other Australians fill out. That is what the law requires. To allege that somehow our electoral roll system is excluding anyone from the vote is nothing more than a complete misrepresentation of the facts. The overwhelming majority of Australians comply with the law. The overwhelming majority of Australians are on the electoral roll and we know our roll is very accurate at the moment. This particular change is addressing a problem that is nonexistent and is not the problem of the government; it is a failure of individuals to comply with the law and to comply with the requirements to enrol. It poses a fundamental risk to our electoral roll and the integrity of that roll. The idea that we should be shooting for the highest number possible in terms of the percentage of Australians enrolled without sufficient checks and without assessing the risks of what this proposal entails will only undermine public faith in our electoral system. You cannot have participation at the expense of integrity. They are both equally important.

There was no evidence presented to the committee in this inquiry that showed that the small decline in the percentage of people on the electoral roll was due to the form—a form that generations of Australians have successfully filled out and completed. In fact, it is possible that better management of the electoral roll has led to that decline, as it is now more accurate than it was before regular cleansing and data testing made sure that people were not enrolled when they were not entitled to be. It is not accurate to say that, simply because we are down to 90 per cent of people being enrolled, we have to throw away a historically accurate system—one that many countries in the world would aspire to. We do not have questions over the legitimacy of our election results in this country precisely because our roll is seen as accurate. As I said earlier, there was no evidence presented to suggest that the form that people have to fill out has led to the decline.

This is not to say there is not a way to update procedures. If in fact there is evidence presented to suggest we can do this more easily, and that we can allow people to update their electoral details more easily, then that is something that should be pursued. But this is a step too far. It is not as if the government data sources themselves are perfect. I would put to the government that the electoral roll is actually probably one of the most accurate of the government data sources in Australia. In fact, as the opposition members have outlined in their dissenting report, there have been reports from this parliament and from the office of the Auditor-General that have outlined exactly some of those flaws.

Let us go to the New South Wales act which the government has decided we should replicate in this place. Firstly, Mr Barry confirmed, when providing evidence to the committee, that there is no requirement whatsoever for the Electoral Commissioner of New South Wales to announce what government data sources he or she is using. Secondly, there are no published criteria that data sources are measured against. Not only is that a recipe for error, because there is no capacity for there to be independent third-party checking, there is no capacity for oversight; it also in my view places in danger the office of the Electoral Commissioner, because one day, without this oversight and with the flaws in government databases, what we are going to see is a decision made that is wrong. The Electoral Commissioner will make the decision; it is not public. We do not yet have any published criteria from New South Wales. I do not think that the office of the Electoral Commissioner should be making such decisions which have the potential to be so contentious.

There are a number of other issues with this as well. It was indicated to us on the committee that the Australian Electoral Commission would in fact deem the New South Wales Electoral Commission to be a trusted agency. This, given the New South Wales Electoral Commission and the flaws I have just outlined in its process and in the New South Wales act, and given the fact that the Australian Electoral Commission would be relying upon that to update electoral roll data, would effectively mean that data and agencies outside the purview of the Commonwealth government, and outside the purview of the Commonwealth parliament, would be used to build the Commonwealth electoral roll.

One of the great things about Australia as opposed to some other countries with which we occasionally compare ourselves is that we have a national electoral roll for the Commonwealth. We do not allow other jurisdictions to determine eligibility or manage the Commonwealth electoral processes. Such a system is not something we should replicate; it would be a backward step for Australia. I would also challenge the argument that simply because New South Wales has decided to change its electoral act, we should match them. It does not make any sense whatsoever, without assessing whether it is a good idea or a bad idea, without undertaking a risk assessment of what such a dramatic change in our electoral processes would entail, to simply say, ‘Well, New South Wales has done it—roll consistency is the single most important thing.’ It is not—roll integrity is more important, and roll integrity and participation are equally important.

I want to briefly comment on the idea that people should be allowed to enrol on election day itself. We already have significant queues at our polling centres. We already have challenges with respect to counting provisional votes, which takes a lot of time, as does the data verification of electors, which is important. But this idea also breaches a fundamental premise: candidates from all parties for all offices have the right to know who their electors are. They have the right to know who is voting for them, and they have the right to be able to check the integrity of the roll. This proposal breaches that fundamental principle.

There is a dissenting report printed with the government’s majority report. Opposition members strongly oppose the idea that simply because New South Wales has done something, we should match it. It is not like New South Wales is setting the bar very high for any other aspect of government over the last 10 years, and I would suggest that New South Wales citizens would not want us to be matching it in many regards either. We challenge the notion that the fact that the roll contains only 91 per cent of people is a sign that some people are being disenfranchised, when we know that those nine per cent of people can simply fill out the form that the other 90-odd per cent of people have. Finally, we do not believe there has been a risk assessment of this, and we believe that some responsibility to exercise the franchise must and should remain with individuals. We should make it easy, and this country has a proud, century-long tradition of making that right easy to exercise, but with that right comes an obligation—to comply with the law, which requires that people be enrolled. This particular proposal does not meet the criteria that any substantial change to our electoral system should, which is that it is met with general agreement by all the stakeholders. The opposition, and the opposition members of this committee, opposes this recommendation by the government. I will continue to do so.