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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 9745

Ms HALL (ShortlandGovernment Whip) (11:12): I take very seriously electoral reform. I take very seriously the fact that as a democracy we want to ensure that as many people as possible can participate in the democratic process. I also take very seriously the democratic process. Our electoral system is designed not only to enfranchise voters but also to ensure that it operates in a fair, effective and efficient way. That is why this government has embraced electoral reform. That is why this government has introduced a number of pieces of legislation, as did the previous Rudd government, to streamline the electoral system with the underlying premise that the system will not only operate better but maximise the franchise of voters throughout Australia.

The legislation we have before us today, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012, was subject to an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The committee tabled their report on Thursday, 7 July. It made recommendations that have been accepted by the government and are included in this legislation. I would like to congratulate the committee on the fine work that they do. I have read all their reports with great interest.

This bill serves three main purposes. It simplifies and facilitates the application of technology in postal voting. I will concentrate a little bit more on that further into my contribution to this debate. It discourages candidates who are not in serious contention—candidates nominate for various reasons—from nominating, which just leads to complexity on the ballot papers, especially in the Senate. And it modernises the act.

The bill will increase the deposit required upon nomination from $1,000 to $2,000 for Senate candidates and from $500 to $1,000 for candidates for the House of Representatives. I think that every voter in Australia has been confronted with enormous Senate voting papers. I remember one occasion in New South Wales when the ballot paper for the Legislative Council was referred to as a 'tablecloth', and it certainly would have covered a small table. A few very stoic individuals actually went in and filled it out from '1' to whatever. A couple of them came and told me so afterwards. But that really disenfranchises a lot of voters. Older voters or people from a non-English-speaking background may become confused when they are confronted with an enormous ballot paper, as is often the case for the Senate and is sometimes the case for the House of Representatives—I think the Bradfield by-election was an example. Sometimes the number of candidates who nominate really creates complexities on the ballot paper—complexities that do not achieve anything other than, in many cases, disenfranchising voters. Increasing the deposit that people are required to pay at the time of nomination means that candidates are more likely to be serious about standing for the Senate or the House of Representatives because they will have to make a significant financial contribution. Whilst $500 for the House of Representatives and $1,000 for the Senate may have been a significant amount in the past, I believe that raising that to $1,000 for the House of Representatives and $2,000 for the Senate is a very timely measure.

The other issue in relation to candidates is that, instead of unendorsed candidates having to have 50 signatures to nominate, as is currently the case, each candidate will now be required to have their nomination signed by 100 electors. I would argue very strongly that, if you cannot find 100 people that are prepared to sign your nomination, then nominating will only cause frustration. On many occasions when I have scrutineered, some candidates have received under 100 or just over 100 votes. Once again, this is timely. It will lessen the confusion on the ballot papers and make it easier for people to cast a valid vote.

The other aspect of this legislation—and it is an aspect that is very close to my heart—is the change in the postal voting system. I have an older electorate, and we have a number of registered postal voters. The divisional returning officer at one stage went around to all the aged-care facilities within the electorate and had the elderly people in those aged-care facilities placed on the registered postal vote list. There has been an active campaign within Shortland electorate to encourage people who would find it difficult to attend a polling booth on the day of the election to register for a postal vote. When an election is called, I always spend a considerable amount of time contacting people and ensuring that those who should have a postal vote actually get that postal vote, because a postal vote is so much easier than having a frail aged person come to the polling booth on the day.

Other levels of government do not encourage the same level of postal vote applications. At the last local government election in my area, I was handing out how-to-vote cards for one of the candidates, and I had an irate voter come up to me because I had not sent them out information on how to register for postal votes. This was a frail aged person. After that, I not only sent that voter an application form to become a registered postal voter, but I also made a conscious effort to ensure that, every time I meet with older people or go along to groups where older people gather, I provide them with information on postal voting. With an ageing population, in many cases we are encouraging people to register for postal voting.

Invariably some people will be absent from the electorate on polling day and will choose to cast a postal vote rather than have to find a polling booth outside their electorate. If they are interstate, their choice is very limited, so they will seek to use postal voting.

In fact, in the 2010 election, over 800,000 postal vote applications were received. This bill will ensure that the AEC can use an automated system to deal with the applications for postal votes. That process will happen in a more timely way, which will benefit those people who are seeking a postal vote, particularly those who may be going overseas or those who are travelling on election day and are not sure of their destination or the place they will be on the day of the election. If the AEC can ensure that voters can receive their postal votes in a more timely manner, it can only benefit voters and ensure that people are not disenfranchised.

So, whilst this is not a very complex bill and whilst the changes it makes are only fairly minor, the changes are really about ensuring that our electoral system works in a much better way than it has. The bill ensures that a candidate that is nominating is serious about nominating. It ensures that candidates are prepared to make a significant financial investment when they nominate. It ensures that, for unendorsed candidates, at least 100 voters are prepared to sign their nomination form. Those are minor changes but important changes.

I think that postal votes are only going to increase in popularity. More and more people will be needing postal votes, particularly as our population ages, and particularly given the nature of our society, where people tend to be a lot more mobile. It is important that the AEC is able to process those postal votes in a very efficient way. We need to ensure that they have an automated system that will process them in a very timely manner.

I believe this is very good legislation. I thank the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for the report they tabled on 7 July. I believe that the opposition will be supporting this legislation. I congratulate them on saying yes. It is always really good when they say yes to a piece of legislation that the government puts before the House.

The beneficiaries of this legislation will be the people of Australia. I commend the legislation to the House.