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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 9754

Mr GRAY (BrandSpecial Minister of State and Minister for the Public Service and Integrity) (11:58): The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 implements three of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—specifically, recommendations 12, 31 and 32. I note that opposition members of the committee did not oppose these recommendations in their dissenting report, and I thank those members. I thank all members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for the work they have done to ensure that these amendments arrive in this chamber with the support all our respective members.

That is important because modernising postal voting provisions, as we will do through these amendments, is a task which the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has had under consideration for quite some years. Schedule 1 to the bill will modernise the postal voting provisions to facilitate the use of technology to improve the way in which postal voting applications are made and processed. These amendments implement the government's response to recommendation 12 made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report into the 2010 federal election.

We have heard many speakers speak on this bill. I appreciate that and thank all of them for their contributions. At the 2010 election the Electoral Commission processed over one million postal votes, which was nearly 18 per cent higher in volume than the number of postal votes which were processed at the 2007 election, which itself saw an increase in the number of postal votes processed at the 2004 election. This rapid escalation in postal votes allows the Electoral Commission to think through the measures which it might like to introduce that would create efficiencies in the counting of those postal votes.

The amendments in schedule 1 to the bill simplify postal vote arrangements by directing all applicants to either the Electoral Commissioner or an assistant returning officer. Assistant returning officers, who may receive postal vote applications from overseas voters, will be located outside Australia at places such as Australian high commissions and embassies and certain Australian Defence Force operations. Upon receiving an application, the Electoral Commissioner or an assistant returning officer will then send, or arrange for the sending of, a postal vote package to the applicant. Directing the majority of postal vote applications to the Electoral Commissioner will enable the centralised processing and centralised dispatch of postal vote packages. The amendments do not fundamentally change the existing policy underpinning the current arrangements for postal voting.

The amendments made by schedule 2 to the bill seek to address concerns arising from the increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections. They are proposed as a means of discouraging candidates who are not seriously in contention for election, thereby reducing the number of candidates on ballot papers.

We have heard many comments in this debate about the size of the New South Wales Senate ballot paper at the 2010 election. I have a copy of that ballot paper here at the table. The ballot paper was in excess of a metre wide and, as we have heard on many occasions, reached the printing logistics capability of those printing firms that supply ballot papers for elections. At that election there were 84 candidates distributed across 33 columns on that ballot paper. Of the 84 candidates, 42 receive fewer than 200 first preference votes, none of them came from a group which had a candidate elected, and all lost their nomination deposits. Only 2,697 people voted for such candidates.

The increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections has an impact on formality due to a ballot paper that is growing in complexity and size and a voting system that requires that every box below the line be numbered if the voter chooses that voting option. At more than a metre wide, the Senate ballot paper for New South Wales is already the largest that can be printed. If more Senate groups contest the next election than did the 2010 election, the font for the ballot paper will have to be reduced. Reducing the font will further affect readability, and that increases the risk of informal voting.

Schedule 2 to the bill will increase the nomination deposits that must be paid by or on behalf of the candidate from $1,000 to $2,000 for all Senate candidates and it will increase the nomination deposit that must be paid by or on behalf of all candidates for the House of Representatives from $500 to $1,000. The last time the deposits were increased was in 2006. The increases were recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, recommendations 31 and 32, as supported by the government and the opposition—and I thank them for that.

Schedule 2 to the bill will also increase from 50 to 100 the number of electors required to nominate an unendorsed candidate. Unendorsed candidates are candidates who are either not endorsed by a registered political party or not sitting independent candidates. Further, for unendorsed Senate candidates who have made a request to be grouped, each candidate will require 100 unique electors to nominate them. For example, if two Senate candidates make a request to be grouped, that group will need 200 unique electors. There is no change in the number of nominators required for endorsed candidates of registered political parties or for sitting independent candidates as defined in the act. The amendments to increase the required nomination deposits and the number of nominators required for unendorsed candidates seek to strike the right balance between providing the opportunity for all eligible citizens to stand for parliament and, at the same time, putting in place some reasonable thresholds that candidates must meet—thresholds that will contribute to ensuring the effectiveness and integrity of the electoral process.

There are also a number of minor and technical amendments to both acts. One of the proposed amendments sought to make a change to the law relating to who may be enrolled and who may vote at elections. There has been a longstanding prohibition on people who are described as being of 'unsound mind' such that they are 'incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting'. Following the introduction of the bill on 27 June 2012, that matter was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for consideration. The joint standing committee report does not support amending the Electoral Act to omit the use of the term 'unsound mind'. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, in its unanimous report, considered that the amendment could result in some persons using the change to circumvent the compulsory voting obligations contained in section 245 of the Electoral Act. In reviewing that matter, I am persuaded by the reasoning contained in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. These amendments are found at items 3, 4, 10 and 11 of schedule 3 of the bill and they will be omitted. The government amendments to the bill will remove the proposed amendments.

I would like to thank all members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their deliberations on this bill and for the work that they have done in providing the reports on the 2010 election and on subsequent matters. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is a unique facility of our parliament that allows members of parliament, political parties and interested political participants to make their views known on the execution of elections and it allows this parliament to maintain an Electoral Act and an elections culture, which is both up to date and which allows for immediate response to problems as they arise and opportunities as they become available. I believe that in the matter of postal votes, in the matter of deposits and in the manner of candidates standing for public office that these amendments respond in a timely fashion to the outstanding work that has been done by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.