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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 9735

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (10:31): I rise to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. The bill seeks to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 with a number of technical and minor amendments. The bill is a response to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report The 2010 federal election: report on the conduct of the election and related matters—specifically, recommendations 12, 31 and 32.

Schedules 1 and 2 of this bill are fairly straightforward and are welcomed by the coalition and me. The changes in schedule 1 reflect the fact that, in the 2010 election, the AEC received more than 800,000 postal vote applications. Parliament has previously accepted changes to the Electoral Act which would facilitate the Electoral Commission moving to the application for postal votes occurring online. This bill will allow for a more effective method of more expeditiously processing postal vote applications and of issuing postal vote ballot papers. The changes will also facilitate further adoption to any future changes in technology. Schedule 2 includes provisions that increase the deposit one must pay in order to be a balloted candidate for both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This is the first change to that amount in six years and it raises the limit for the House from $500 to $1,000 and for the Senate from $1,000 to $2000.

Some might be worried that this increase might dilute the plurality of candidates and consequently dilute the contest of ideas at each federal election—and it is easy to see, on the surface, why this is a worry. On the other hand, proponents of this change argue that it would be a positive move to reduce the number of frivolous candidates, the number of which has grown over the decades in both the House and the Senate. I agree that any change that could decrease the democratic nature of Australian elections must be scrutinised very heavily, and I am confident that this scrutiny has occurred during the committee process. I note that the nomination deposits for any candidate who receives more than four per cent of first preference votes are returned, which means the Electoral Act does recognise the value of those people who clearly are backed at some minimum level by the community. The original 2010 joint standing committee report noted that the nomination deposit 'should be an amount that does not unduly hamper participation but acts as a deterrent to frivolous candidates,' a statement with which I broadly agree.

The main practical consequence of this increase is that it may reduce the number of candidates at the election. Indeed, many who take the privilege of voting below the line in the Senate would welcome this change. At the 2010 election, the Senate ballot paper for New South Wales had 84 candidates across 33 columns; it was over one metre wide and had a font size of 8.5. As the committee has noted, that width is the maximum available that the AEC is able to use, so if there are more candidates or columns a further reduction in font size would be required.

Already at federal elections one hears many stories and complaints about electors having to decide whether to put Labor, Greens, the Socialist Party or the Communist Party last as their below-the-line preference and the anxiety that comes with making that decision. Clearly, having a metre-wide ballot paper with 84 candidates makes it unwieldy and overly burdensome, and complex for voters to decide which candidates they want to represent their state in the Senate.

However, today's bill includes provisions not directly related to those recommendations—that is, the changes in schedule 3 in relation to the 'unsound mind' provision, which was previously before the House in March this year as a part of the Electoral and Referendum (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. At that time, the Senate amended the bill and removed the changes to the 'unsound mind' provision. The bill was then passed in the House in agreement with the Senate's amendments.

Before I delve into those concerns, I want to record my appreciation on behalf of many constituents in Ryan for changes in items 8 and 9 in schedule 3. These items amend section 104 of the Electoral Act, which allows for the suppression of an elector's address if the safety of that person or their family could be at risk by having their address disclosed on the publicly available electoral roll. At present, if someone moves residences, they must make a new request to the Electoral Commission to have the new address suppressed as well. When someone with a suppressed address moves residences, the AEC should not presuppose that the reasons for the original suppression have changed. Some constituents have expressed their frustration with this process to my office. I certainly welcome these amendments, which will mean that, when moving, an elector will not have to make a new request, nor will their new address appear on the electoral roll at any stage.

Regarding the 'unsound mind' provision in section 93(8)(a) of the Electoral Act, the coalition remains concerned that the government plans to remove this provision from any final or amended version of this bill or indeed from any future bill which might seek to amend the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act. I would point out initially that the final recommendation of the joint standing committee's report was:

The House of Representatives and the Senate pass the bill after deleting the changes proposed in schedule 3 in relation to the 'unsound mind' provision and consequential amendments. The term 'unsound mind' and the current requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner should be retained.

I acknowledge and appreciate the concerns among the community, and particularly of disability groups, that the term can be perceived as anachronistic and possibly construed as prejudicial towards those with a disability. I also understand that at face value a layman might see the wording and think that is a provision by which a government or the Australian Electoral Commission could exclude someone from their right to vote—a right we hold very dear in Australia and in other democratic countries around the world. I would like to point out, however, that this provision is not intended or designed in any way to target anyone specifically or disenfranchise any group of people. Indeed, the Australian Electoral Commission itself cannot by its own accord use this provision to exclude someone from the electoral roll.

While we might, in 2012, find it bizarre to say that someone is of an unsound mind, this measure is a convention of Australian democracy and was included in the original Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. In practice, the committee noted that it is 'usually someone close to the individual who will have to raise an objection' such that the person be 'excused from the obligation of compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting'. In practice, a series of steps must be followed to ensure the integrity of the process, which I note includes the opinion of a medical practitioner on a medical certificate that the person is 'incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting'. Importantly, the divisional returning officer from the Australian Electoral Commission gives notice to the person and provides them with a chance to respond. Therefore, by design and in practice this measure has historically been used and is used today to ensure that someone who is genuinely of unsound mind does not have to vote.

Some submissions expressed their view that this provision be removed completely, but that would be a step too far. We must of course accept that someone, either for permanent or transient reasons depending on each circumstance, may be mentally incapable of enrolling or voting. What comes to mind is, of course, the many thousands of families in Australia who face the battle of having a parent or grandparent with Alzheimer's, whom they think may not have the mental faculty to fully appreciate the full meaning of voting. Nor would we want the integrity of the democratic process to be undermined by the vote of someone who might fall within section 93(8)(a) being unduly influenced by any other person. The 'unsound mind' provision in the Electoral Act should therefore be retained.

Another concern in this bill is about whether the list of qualified people should be expanded to include so-called paraprofessionals, such as social workers, as opposed to the limitation on qualified medical practitioners. Forgive me for using at length the words from the submission by People with Disability Australia, but they address so eloquently the concerns associated with expanding the qualifications of a person required to deem someone of unsound mind:

Universal suffrage is an integral part of democracy and the power to remove the right of a person to participate in the political process is a significant one. Would the "opinion of a qualified person" simply be a conclusion they make based on their own degree of experience and professional judgement? Alternatively, what mechanisms would exist to ensure that any assessment tool was used consistently across jurisdictions and across the professions of the "qualified persons", especially as they represent different knowledge and skill sets? Which body would provide guidelines and/or training to the professions on how to use the assessment tool and monitor standards, compliance and complaints or appeals? What would be the financial implications of running this system? Would these costs be proportionate to the policy goal of disenfranchising people deemed 'incapable', especially in light of the fact that the policy goal in itself is discriminatory?

All of the issues that People with Disability Australia mentioned in their submission to the inquiry are very important and all of their questions should be thoroughly addressed before making any changes to the Electoral Act.

Lastly, I would like to thank members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their commitment to the Electoral and Referendum Acts, and particularly the member for Mackellar for her decades-long commitment to the integrity of the electoral roll. I agree with the substantive intention of today's bill, and I appreciate that all members must be vigilant when it comes to amending the Electoral and Referendum Acts, such that Australia's democracy continues to serve Australians as it has done for so long. I do, however, place on the record my objections to schedule 3 of this bill, and I ask all members to consider these concerns and indeed those very same objections included in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into today's bill.