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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 9750

Mr GRIFFIN (Bruce) (11:40): The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 is designed to improve the operation of our electoral system. It is one of a series of bills that has come before the House in this term. I would like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate my friend the Special Minister of State for his diligence in ensuring that we maintain an up-to-date and effective electoral system, an electoral system that ensures we have free and fair elections and that everyone has the right to contest, but at the same time also puts a responsibility on people to be good citizens within the electoral process. I note once again that the system is organic and requires updating and changing at times to ensure it keeps up with the developments and changes occurring within our society. This legislation is part of that. It is another example of the government taking up opportunities to ensure we have and continue to have one of the best electoral systems in the world. I would also like to take this opportunity in that respect to thank the Australian Electoral Commission, Commissioner Ed Killesteyn and his officers for the work they do in ensuring we do have free and fair elections and an electoral system we can all be proud of.

With respect to this particular legislation, there are a couple of points I would make about the changes it introduces. The two points I will particularly focus on go to the questions of postal voting procedures, the deposits required for nomination and the number of nominators required for unendorsed candidates.

First is the issue of postal votes. This is an example of what has been happening within our electoral system over the last 20 years. When I first stood for federal parliament, in 1993—what feels today roughly a hundred years ago, but I am told is only 19½—postal voting was very much for those who were travelling and the elderly. A very important part of what you needed to do as a candidate was to ensure that people had the opportunity to make a postal vote, but it was only one of a number of things. In relative terms the number who utilised that means of casting their vote was quite small.

Now, the best part of 20 years later, with an ageing population and a more mobile population, postal voting has been steadily on the increase. In fact, in more recent times that increase has been exponential. More than 800,000 postal vote applications were received by the AEC for the 2010 election. That was a significant increase of, I think, between 15 and 20 per cent on the 2007 election. What it shows is that it is becoming a means for more and more Australians to exercise their democratic right, and in those circumstances we need to be very conscious of ensuring they get that opportunity.

Also, over time we have seen new technologies develop. The one thing we need to ensure is that those new technologies are opportunities to improve the electoral system and are not impediments to ensuring that people are able to exercise their democratic right.

These amendments will ensure that the AEC is able to better centralise the casting of postal votes and the processing of those postal votes—so, applications coming in and postal vote packages going out. That centralised approach is necessary, given the volumes we are talking about and given the times that we are now facing.

I would also like to take this opportunity to say that I think there is more we could do in this area, and I think it is something the government should look at—the fact that, if you like, postal voting has become a very important part of the electoral system and, when we look to the future, I think there are other reforms that could be made that could ensure the system is improved even further. I would urge the minister to consider some of those questions in the future; they are important questions.

On the question of the figures in relation to deposits required to nominate for a seat in the House of Representatives, which is proposed to be increased from $500 to $1,000, and with an equivalent amendment for the Senate from $1,000 to $2,000: these figures have not been changed since 2006. In conjunction with the complementary amendments to increase the number of nominators for an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 electors, as well as requiring each candidate to have the nomination form signed by 100 electors, these are also important reforms. But it is always a balancing act. The argument—and you will hear it sometimes from minor parties or from Independents—is all about the question of ensuring we have an electoral system which gives people the opportunity to stand, the opportunity to take part and the opportunity to test the will of the people. And that is a very important principle in any democracy.

But, again, you go to the question of when is it a right and when is it a responsibility. There is no doubt that we have seen, for example, in the Senate—and certainly, at times in some individual lower-house seats—a proclivity for people to stand in a situation where they have no reasonable expectation of any electoral success. We have seen in New South Wales, for example, Senate ballot papers basically a metre long. Also in the New South Wales upper house we have seen people accused of endeavouring to 'farm' preferences in order to try and achieve electoral outcomes. So I think it is an important reform, to ensure that those who would stand are able to exhibit (1) some financial willingness to, if you like, 'put up', and (2) that they are in a situation where there is some indication that they may have some electoral support. Through those means we should be able to ensure that we do not take away from people the right to stand, while ensuring that those who do stand are in a situation where they can actually show they have some level of support within the broader community. That point of balancing those rights is an important point from an electoral point of view, with respect to the operation of our system.

There are a number of other, minor, amendments which I will not go into at this stage. What I would say, though, is that our electoral system and our Electoral Commission are something that the parliament can be proud of and that the community can be proud of. We have a luxury in this country, compared with many other parts of the world, in that we can actually be confident that when we have an election—even if they are really close sometimes—we end up with a democratic outcome that we can all live with and work with into the future. And we can be confident that, when our Electoral Commission undertakes those elections, they do it fairly, they do it honestly and they do it with integrity. These measures, which arguably on their face are not significant, are part of an ongoing process of amending a system that has worked well, a system which provides us with the opportunity to test the will of the people and to come to a conclusion which will lead the nation into the future.

The commission, as I have said, does a very good job with respect to administering the system. These changes are a small part of ensuring that that system keeps up with the times, that the system is able to adjust to the requirements of modern technologies and, through those processes, ensure that we get a good, sound electoral system in place on an ongoing basis.

I again congratulate the minister for coming forth with this legislation. It is one of a number that he has brought forward in his time as minister. I think all of that has led to the system adjusting to the needs of the future and, in those circumstances, ensuring that we can all be confident with the electoral system we have. In that respect, I commend the bill to the House.