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Thursday, 6 October 1983
Page: 1451


Mr BEAZLEY (Minister for Aviation and Special Minister of State) —by leave- The political legitimacy of government-any government-and its right to develop and implement policies for all its citizens must rest upon two inescapable and inseparable facts. Government must be elected by majority vote, and that majority must be drawn from the maximum number of citizens eligible to vote. Early this century our nation led the world in many spheres of reform, not least , democratic reform. Reforms such as compulsory voting, votes for women and the secret ballot developed for us an international reputation for democratic initiatives. During these years Australia, in its institutions and laws, as well as in its outlook and temperament, did something to make democracy a reality as well as a name. But we lost our way; we lost our momentum. For some 60 years our electoral arrangements have remained stagnant with little or no initiative or reform. In particular, despite the existence of compulsory voting at State and Federal levels for more than 60 years, governments between elections have not conducted ongoing education, information and enrolment campaigns to inform the electorate of its rights and responsibilities. The Joint Select Committee on Elecotral Reform observed after its survey of electoral developments this century:

The electoral process has not atrophied (but) it has not always progressed at a rate in line with expectation.

Over the years, confusion and ignorance of our political system have manifested themselves in high levels of informal voting, confusion between Federal, State and local government, donkey voting and so on. Yet governments have done little to educate and inform voters and potential voters of their rights and responsibilities. We on this side of the House have long been aware of an increasing sense of apathy and alienation in the electorate. In recent years this trend has been accentuated by neglect on the part of the national Government. However, even those of us who realised there was a tendency for people deliberately to opt out of the democratic process were shocked at the numbers involved.

The figures have just been highlighted by two surveys carred out on behalf of the Australian Electoral Office, details of which were released at the end of last month. These reports are of great importance for all involved in the political process in Australia. The first survey shows that between 500,000 and 600,000 eligible Australian residents have failed to register to vote. That is the equivalent of seven full divisions of this House, or almost twice the voting strength of Tasmania.

A second survey issued by the Australian Electoral Office explored the attitudes of certain specific groups in the Australian population, mostly young people and those of ethnic origin, in an attempt to discover why so many fail to enrol, to vote and to exercise their right to participate in our system of parliamentary democracy. The qualitative research of attitudes of Australians, particularly those of the young and the young unemployed, show that they are becoming increasingly alienated from the political process. More than 30 per cent of those aged 17 to 19 years in this country are unenrolled and it is estimated that 62 per cent of the half million or so unenrolled are under 30 years. Many young Australians believe the vote at Australian, State and local elections has no intrinsic value in itself and no relevance to them, their lives or their future.

There is, and I paraphrase the qualitative research report released by the Chief Electoral Office, an almost universal lack of confidence among young, unenrolled Australians that their vote has any significant impact on government, the Parliament, the bureaucracy and, thereby, their own lives. The survey found disturbing and widespread ignorance of enrolment requirements, fear that there would be retribution against people who failed previously to enrol, and a pervasive distrust and dislike of politicians, political parties and our democratic system. Additionally there was identified criticism amongst young people that the education system has failed to provide them with the information , education background or forum they need to discuss, understand and accept the need for a democratic voting system, a fairly elected government and a political process designed to work in their interests. One very encouraging aspect of the research was that the non-English speaking foreign born people interviewed had a good grasp of the electoral and parliamenary systems and were generally keen to participate. They saw benefit not only for themselves but for their families and future generations.

The essential message of this research should come as a sobering warning to everyone in this Parliament. Many young Australians have come to view politicians and the system as being alien and irrelevant to them. Unfortunately I believe that many of them are justified. For an 18-year-old who has not had a job for two years since leaving school and for a 19-year-old apprentice who has been thrown out after only two years of work, the system has failed. Recently the Catholic, Uniting and Anglican churches described this loss of faith in a document entitled 'Changing Australia' in the following terms:

There has been a loss of public confidence in political institutions . . . policy makers are less accountable to the community; political parties submit themselves to the electorate on the basis of promises that they are unable or unwilling to fulfil; power is centralised into the hands of fewer people. For many years, there has been insufficient moral and ethical leadership in Australia's economic and political life.

It is our job as a government to provide information, motivation and reason where there is ignorance, apathy and cynicism. It is our task, particularly in a time of mass unemployment, poverty and economic uncertainty, to remind the youth of Australia that they have a crucial role to play in the running of and the future of Australia. Without them, and I mean all of them, Australia has a very flawed future.

Last week the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised about the subjects of the survey and described them as the 'lost generation'. I want to assure the House, the unenrolled and the people of Australia that this Government has no intention of losing a generation, however deep is the extent of the apathy and distrust felt by so many towards the political system. The Electoral Office research confirmed the fears of Government Ministers with responsibilities for policies affecting young people. The feelings of apathy and insecurity that the very high level of unemployment induces in this age group makes policy implementation very difficult. Those young people unemployed for considerable periods suffer particularly, and I quote from the report to emphasise their situation:

The unemployed stand out from all the other groups in their attitudes because of the enormous feeling of rejection and the complete demoralisation of their self-esteem. Without exception they feel that society, the system, has rejected them. They see themselves as outsiders, dividing the world very clearly between the employed and the unemployed. They believe that the unemployed are 'treated like scum' by potential employers and governments.

To assist the departments relating to youth the Government has decided to undertake a research project which will thoroughly investigate the views and attitudes of youth on such matters as the education system, employment training opportunities, income support, employment expectations and government policies and programs in these areas. The research project will cover the interests of several departments with responsibilities in these areas and will be co- ordinated to ensure that the project meets their needs.

This Australian Government, unlike its immediate predecessor, has acted to analyse the problem. We can now begin work on resolution of the problems identified last month in this research by the Australian Electoral Office-the first research of its kind. One of the bright spots in the research is that with proper information and attention to education most of these people described as a potentially lost generation can be involved in our parliamentary political process. The Government as part of its rejuvenation and reorganisation of the Australian Electoral Office has provided adequate funding to allow an education and advertising campaign to be developed by the Australian Electoral Office to address the problems identified by the research.

Next week the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) will launch a sophisticated and carefully integrated eight-month education and information campaign directed not just at the unenrolled but at all Australians. The promotion will comprise a television, radio and Press campaign in which some $3.5m will be spent between October 1983 and April 1984. This cost includes a component for non-English material to be disseminated through ethnic Press and radio, including the Special Broadcasting Service. The sum of $356,000 will be spent advising British subjects who may otherwise be disenfranchised by the changes to the citizenship requirements. The sum of $350,000 is to be spent informing Aboriginal people of electoral matters so that they will be well informed when compulsory enrolment is introduced. This latter sum of course is only supplementary to the $1.8m already allocated for the expanded Aboriginal electoral education program and is a reflection of this Government's concern that all citizens of our country will be able to participate fully in the democratic process. The sum of $142,000 will be spent advising people who move house that they must re-enrol on taking up residence in a new district. The bulk of the campaign funds will be spent on a general advertising campaign, to cost $2,003,000. People in need of further information will be encouraged to telephone the Australian Electoral Office where an extended free answering service is being installed. This will cost $130 ,000. Research, development and support costs for the campaign will cost $369, 000.

The campaign will concentrate on the positive aspect of the research, and its major objectives will be to make the vote relevant to the individual. We must capitalise upon feelings of national pride; we must link the vote to adult responsibility; and we must emphasise the importance of people having a say about matters significant to them. The campaign will emphasise that the individual must have responsibility for enrolment.

An extensive public relations campaign will support the main media thrust and seek to make information universally available in a wide range of media- television, cinema, radio and Press. In particular, I will be seeking the active participation of honourable members from both sides of this House in explaining the aims and purpose of this campaign. We also intend to feed into a distribution system embracing all relevant Federal and State government departments, including the Department of Social Security, Commonwealth Employment Service offices, community services outlets and agencies, a redesigned electoral claim card. This card should also be available through such outlets as cinemas, largely patronised by people in the age groups most likely to be unenrolled, apathetic or unmotivated. In addition, people in need of further information will be encouraged to telephone the Australian Electoral Office.

Honourable members will see over the forthcoming weeks and months that this enrolment and education campaign has been carefully designed to reach the people who are in greatest need-the young, the unemployed and those previously disenfranchised. This campaign is the first attempt at adequately informing and educating all Australians about their electoral rights and responsibilities. I do not for one moment pretend that an education and enrolment campaign is the only solution to the apathy and the alienation amongst the unenrolled. Indeed, the message contained in the survey results published must be taken up by many organisations-by education and immigration authorities, by political parties-and even by families. But there is a heavier responsibility incumbent upon us. Governments, and politicians from both sides of the House, must earn credibility through performance. This Government, through its policies and actions, must show that a vote is a worthwhile and meaningful exercise. If our policies fail, we are deserving of censure, effectively applied through the democratic process. This is the only alternative to the survival of the strongest, evidenced in so many non-democratic regimes around the world.

An education and enrolment campaign may not be enough to convince all Australians of the value of the vote, but it will be a very significant departure from the attitude of the past. I do not know that this campaign will necessarily enchant everyone, but I can assure the Parliament and the Australian people that this campaign will honestly and straightforwardly inform, motivate and educate in a way entirely new to voters and potential voters in this country .