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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 9752

Mr DREYFUS (IsaacsCabinet Secretary, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Innovation) (11:50): The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 is going to amend the Electoral Act and the referendum act. It makes some machinery reforms and I am pleased to see that it is being supported by the opposition. In particular, it is going to ensure that the Electoral Commissioner can use automated systems to receive and process applications for postal votes. As a number of speakers have commented, postal votes have become increasingly popular in recent elections. I think every member of this House would be familiar with the increasing number of postal votes that are cast. At the last election, in 2010, the Australian Electoral Commission received over 800,000 postal vote applications. What these amendments do is not only recognise what has become the practice but they have been written in a way that will allow for future technological changes.

There is a very helpful report by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on the bill that is now before the House. As the chair of the committee, the member for Banks, commented in his foreword to the report, which approves this legislation and recommends that the House does pass it, most postal vote applications are already processed centrally and postal vote packages are distributed through the Australian Electoral Commission's central print system. It is no longer the case that the divisional returning officers are primarily responsible for postal voting activities, as was the case some decades ago. The electoral commissioner is going to continue to delegate his powers in relation to postal votes to divisional returning officers, and the change in this bill is not going to affect the way individuals or political parties interact with the divisional returning officer on postal voting matters. As is the current practice—and these amendments recognise this—political parties are still going to be able to distribute postal vote applications with campaigning material, receive the completed postal vote applications and forward them to the relevant divisional returning officer.

The committee was at pains to reiterate the advice it had received from the Australian Electoral Commission in relation to this proposed amendment about postal voting. It said—and this is recorded in the joint standing committee's report—that 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' and that these changes are intended to have the current practices reflected in the Electoral Act. The committee thought it useful to set out another statement by the Australian Electoral Commission:

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 other important changes that are included in this amending bill are some changes to the deposit requirements for nomination for a seat in the House of Representatives and for nomination for a seat in the Senate—an increase in the deposit for a seat in the House from $500 to $1,000, with the matching amendment for nominations to the Senate involving an increase from $1,000 to $2,000. It is some time since the deposit was increased; the last time this sum was increased for candidates for election to both houses was in 2006.

There are complementary amendments that are intended to—and will—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. There is no change to the law with respect to endorsed candidates. The government's view is that these amendments, in increasing the deposit requirement and increasing the number of nominators required, strike the right balance between providing an opportunity for eligible Australians to stand for election to this parliament while putting in place some reasonable thresholds that candidates must meet.

I think all of us have become familiar in recent years with what the committee described as the 'expanding size' of ballot papers for the Senate. I would suggest that we should perhaps describe it as 'exploding size'. For example, the committee referred to the 2010 federal election, when the New South Wales Senate ballot paper contained the names of 84 candidates distributed across 33 columns. It was 1,020 millimetres wide, which is the widest ballot paper that can physically be printed as a single sheet. I think we have all seen voters at polling stations wrestling with the scale of ballot papers that look like that. It involved reducing the font size on the ballot paper to 8.5 point. As the committee also commented, if we were to see any increases in the number of candidates appearing on ballot papers or the number of columns appearing on future ballot papers, it would be necessary—because we have already reached the physical limit of the size of the ballot paper—for the Australian Electoral Commission to further reduce font sizes and hyphenate names and for voters to cast their vote on over a metre of paper.

It is obviously undesirable that there be a proliferation of candidates in certain circumstances. This is not to be suggested as any wish on my part or on the part of the government to reduce the number of people who are standing for election. Nevertheless, we need to ensure that standing for election to this parliament is taken as the serious act that it is. Where candidates are endorsed by political parties, it can be taken that they have the support of a substantial number of people in the community already, through the endorsement process in their political parties. These amendments seek to look at the position of candidates for election to the Senate and candidates for election to the House of Representatives who have not received the endorsement of a political party. It is really to impose on unendorsed candidates a requirement that shows that they are intending seriously to participate in an election campaign and stand for the high public office of membership of this House or membership of the Senate.

I would suggest to the House that the way these amendments have been framed will impose some small brake on the scale of the ballot papers we have come to see in recent elections. They do lead to an increase in the complexity of the voting task for electors. These amendments will simply ensure that prospective candidates do appreciate the seriousness of what they are about in standing for election, in participating in the electoral process. It imposes some requirement that they can demonstrate some level of community support for their candidacy. I commend these practical amendments to the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act to the House.