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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 9748

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (11:25): I, too, speak in support of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. The bill makes common-sense changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act to better reflect practices in today's society. In particular, the changes which facilitate on-line postal vote applications recognise that we have an ageing and increasingly mobile population for whom postal voting is practical, and that the internet is very much part of life and we should make use of it.

Not surprisingly, we are seeing an increase at each election in the number of people who apply for and use postal votes. In the 2010 federal election over 800,000 postal vote applications were requested. I looked back to 1998 and I found that in that year the figure was 489,000. We have almost doubled, in the space of just over a decade, the number of people requesting the use of postal votes. And I suspect that that trend will continue. I suspect it will continue, not only because people are living longer but because people today are travelling a lot more than they used to in years gone by. And if they happen to be away, and know that they are going to be away, at the time an election is called, then they will apply for a postal vote.

It should be the intention of any government and every government to make voting as easy and as practical as possible for the people of Australia. After all, we have compulsory voting and, if we are going to have compulsory voting, let's do our best to ensure that everybody genuinely has the opportunity to vote. The use of postal voting is one of the mechanisms by which we are able to do that.

The same applies with respect to the increase in the deposit required for Senate candidate nominations from $1,000 to $2,000 for each nomination. For House of Representatives candidate nominations the fee rises from $500 to $1,000. Those amounts better reflect today's real costs in terms of the administrative expenses that are incurred by the government and the community broadly when someone nominates to stand for election. Importantly, they also reflect real costs in terms of what people can afford to pay today as compared with years gone by.

The two changes—that is the use of the postal votes and the increase in nomination fees—are linked to trying to ensure that we have a much better system. Both changes seek to strike a reasonable balance between ensuring all Australians can stand for election and weeding out those who simply nominate for mischievous purposes.

The member for Banks, in his remarks earlier today, made extensive reference to this very issue. I believe he used some examples of how elections can be manipulated by using frivolous candidates. I am sure that all of us in this House have seen that occur from time to time over the years. We should not allow the system to be in any way abused and misused, as has often occurred.

I want to refer particularly to a matter that other members of the House have also referred to and which was covered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report—the issue of whether people are of sound mind. This is a matter that was canvassed at length and initially there were some proposed changes intended for the act but, on reflection, those changes were not proceeded with. This is a matter I do not have a great deal of experience with because in all my time in politics it is not an issue that has been raised with me and therefore I cannot speak on the merits of changing the current definition. I do want to quote a section of the act that deals with who is eligible and who is not eligible to vote. Section 93(8) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act states:

A person who:

(a) by reason of being of unsound mind, is incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting; or

(b) has been convicted of treason or treachery and has not been pardoned;

is not entitled to have his or her name placed or retained on any Roll or to vote at any Senate election or House of Representatives election.

Section 118(4) then goes on to say:

The Electoral Commissioner shall not remove an elector's name from the Roll on the ground specified in paragraph 93(8)(a) unless the objection is accompanied by a certificate of a medical practitioner stating that, in the opinion of the medical practitioner, the elector, because of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting.

I expect that this is an issue that will arise even more in the years to come. I said earlier that people are living longer, and that trend will continue. Regrettably, however, we also know that as people continue to live longer some of them end up with illnesses such as dementia. Whether they are capable of making up their mind about who to vote for then becomes an issue. I expect that people being of sound mind is an issue that will not go away, and we may have to deal with it at a future time.

I want also to talk a little more about the provisions requiring increased deposits by candidates. I said earlier that it should always be our intention to make voting as simple as possible, ensuring that we do not disenfranchise people. It would be common for informal votes in both state and federal elections to be in the order of four to five per cent. Some of those informal votes are deliberate but many of them are not. They are informal votes because people have unintentionally made a mistake when filling out their ballot paper. Unintentionally making a mistake when you fill out your ballot paper is more likely to occur if you have a long list of candidates, which in turn complicates the ballot paper. This is particularly unfortunate when some of those candidates are deliberately putting their name on the ballot paper and nominating because their surname may be similar to that of another candidate on the list. Confusing and complicating ballot papers has been a tactic used to win elections over the years. This is particularly of concern in electorates that have high numbers of new citizens who are new to the Australian voting system and the processes required and who quite often are the ones who intended to lodge a formal vote but regrettably were unable to do so.

Given that we also know that so many elections hang on a handful of votes—Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, you would know that better than anyone else in this House—every vote does count. Those informal votes which are not intended to be informal votes could quite often make the difference to an election outcome. So, we need to take every step we can to make ballot papers as simple and as easy to complete as possible. That is what I believe these amendments propose to do—to weed out mischievous candidates and ensure that candidates nominate only if they are genuinely seeking election to public office and not simply putting their name on a ballot paper to complicate the process.

The electorate of Makin was established in 1984. My understanding is that since that time there has been an Australian Electoral Commission office located in the electorate. Up until a couple of months ago it was located adjacent to my own electorate office. A couple of months ago the office closed and relocated to the Adelaide CBD as part of the Australian Electoral Commission office there. I accept the undertaking that when an election is called the Australian Electoral Commission will temporarily establish an office within the Makin electorate. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that that office has been closed. Given that it was located adjacent to my own office for the nearly five years I have been the member for Makin, I know just how many people used the services of that office. I know that because more often than not they would in fact come into my own office first and then we would redirect them to the office next door.

My real concern is simply this: given that the office has been relocated, if people in the Makin electorate want to make changes to their enrolment, they have to go into the Adelaide CBD, unless of course they can do it online. I am not sure if they can, but assuming that they can, that might be of assistance to them. But more often than not people want to personally go in and ensure that the details they are providing are correct and the forms and the changes they are proposing to make are all in accordance with the requirements of the act. I just hope that that does not result in a higher informal vote or that it does not result in a high number of people who simply do not vote because they have not taken the time to make changes to the electoral roll in respect to their own individual circumstances.

The next election will be the first election since the Electoral Commission office in Makin was closed, so it will be interesting to see just what kind of an impact it does have on future elections. I understand that the Makin electorate is not unique in that but that it has happened across the board in many other electorates. But it will be an interesting exercise to evaluate what impact it has had on electoral registrations and the like, particularly in some electorates. I am referring to electorates where there have been a lot of new citizens, who will go into the office to register so that they can be placed on the roll. Not having an office presence could be a problem. I know that the Australian Electoral Commission—and I commend them for this—always provide a presence at citizenship ceremonies and the like. But nevertheless not everyone takes advantage of that opportunity. For those electorates that have high numbers of new citizens it will be an interesting exercise to see what happens in the future.

In referring to the offices of the Australian Electoral Commission in Makin, I close by thanking the officers who were there during the time I have been the federal member for Makin. I always found them to be of great support not only to my office but to the people we in turn referred to them. I believe they did provide a very valuable service over the years, particularly during election times, and for that I am very grateful. This legislation brings in some common-sense changes and I commend it to the House.