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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 9743

Ms SMYTH (La Trobe) (11:02): I am very pleased to be able to contribute to this debate on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. Clearly, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has done an excellent job in its deliberations on the bill. It follows on from the excellent work that it has done in previous matters relating to the electoral system of our nation. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that we were considering those amendments which related to franchise and ensuring that we have a suitable approach for ensuring that our electoral roll truly represents the full complement of persons entitled to vote in Australia. I commend again the member for Banks for his efforts as chair and the committee for its consideration of the details in this legislation before us today.

As many of the speakers in this debate have remarked, some of the reforms that have been put in this bill really are very sensible and go towards giving the Electoral Commission an opportunity to continue doing the fine job that it does in a very practical way. The amendments in the bill before us today, as many members have remarked, facilitate online applications to ensure that the Electoral Commissioner may use an automated system to receive and to process applications for postal votes. In addition, the bill considers arrangements relating to the requirements for those nominating for election and some of the practical arrangements which will ensure that ballot papers in future do not become things that confuse potential voters and make it more difficult for voters to have their say at election time. Certainly all members of the committee and all members of the House are concerned about ensuring that that is the case.

The bill will require that those nominating for election are given the support through the nomination process of an increased number of citizens. This is a very important measure that has been considered thoroughly by the committee and by the minister. The nominating process obviously is seeking to strike quite a fine balance. We do not want to prevent those seeking to nominate from having the opportunity to present themselves for consideration by the Australian people, nor do we want to see the circumstances that, for instance, we have seen in jurisdictions such as New South Wales, where we have had quite unwieldy ballot papers. I note that in evidence to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters the AEC discussed the expansion and complexity of ballot papers and did consider it to be a problem. I note that, at 2.49 of its report, the committee cited the words of the AEC:

… 'we are reaching a point where, if the candidates increase in New South Wales with the restrictions that we have on the size of the ballot paper, the type size will become so small that it will cause considerable difficulty'.

The committee went on to say:

The size of the ballot papers also increases the complexity of the task of voting.

So, while the committee and all members of the House want to ensure that those who wish to nominate for election have the capacity to do so and have the capacity to be considered by the Australian people, the committee is seeking to strike a balance. Indeed, the committee, at 2.58 of its report, said:

While having a variety of candidates is a feature of Australia’s democracy, having a large number of candidates leads to an expanded ballot paper and increases the complexity of the voting task for electors.

It went on to say:

Setting appropriate nomination requirements is one way to help ensure that prospective candidates appreciate the seriousness of their participation in the electoral process, and that they can demonstrate … community support for their candidacies.

The bill before us will have the effect of increasing the number of people who are required in order to nominate a candidate from 50 to 100. The committee noted:

At the core of discussions on changes to nomination arrangements must be the objective of striking the right balance between providing the opportunity for Australians to take part in elections and having reasonable requirements to reflect that political candidacy is a serious matter.

The bill before us today also contemplates arrangements whereby the fees associated with nomination will be somewhat increased. Once again, this is a practical measure designed to ensure that those who seek to nominate are appropriately serious and are prepared to put themselves forward in a considered way for potential election.

The bill in its original form had considered arrangements for those considered to be of 'unsound mind'. I know that the committee did consider in some detail those provisions in its deliberations and took advice from a range of people including disability advocates. Accordingly, while it has been considered that there may be some offence associated with the term used in the legislation it was considered on balance that it was appropriate not to amend the bill further to remove those provisions relating to persons of unsound mind and their participation in elections. It was felt that there should not be any further amendment to the legislation on that issue.

The bill before us today, as I said, reflects ongoing considerations by both the committee and by the minister to give effect to very sensible and practical reforms to our electoral system to ensure that the AEC can continue to do its job effectively and to ensure that we strike the right balance between getting proper representation and maintaining the robustness of our electoral system.

One of the changes made in the bill before us today ensures that there may be a centralised and automated system to receive and process applications for postal votes. Postal voting, as we know, is becoming increasingly popular, as is pre-poll voting and that is the case in electorates such as mine. It is increasingly popular in electorates where there are people living in quite remote locations, where elderly people may find it difficult to come to the ballot box and where, for a range of reasons, people are working hours which make it difficult for them to attend a polling place on election day. To ensure that people are given franchise and to ensure that they have the opportunity to vote, the postal voting mechanism and pre-poll are becoming increasingly popular. I understand that the AEC received over 800,000 postal vote applications at the 2010 election. So this bill will ensure through its measures that the Electoral Commission can use automated systems to deal with applications for postal voting in a timely way.

I note in the committee's report the AEC was keen to emphasise that these were really practical changes in the bill which reflect its practice at present. The report stated at 2.7:

The AEC stressed that the changes proposed to postal voting are ‘not about changing fundamentally any of the current processes for dealing with postal vote applications’. These changes are intended to have the current practices reflected in the Electoral Act.

The AEC advised:

This is primarily an amendment that is designed to reflect the fact that the application for postal vote information system is now highly centralised while the act reflects a postal vote processing system which was designed 100 years ago. All we are trying to do here is get an act that reflects the practice.

The bill in many ways is designed to facilitate better processing of arrangements by the AEC, to ensure that current electoral practices are reflected in the text of the act and to ensure that the AEC is able to go about its role in the most efficient way possible. The bill reflects a very timely set of measures to enable the AEC to undergo the processes it needs to in the lead-up to the next election. I hope the measures in the bill will assist it in fulfilling its role. I commend the bill to the House.