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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 157

Mr MacKELLAR —On behalf of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, I present the second report of the Committee entitled `The Operation during the 1984 General Election of the 1983/84 Amendments to Commonwealth Electoral Legislation', incorporating three dissenting reports, together with the minutes of the proceedings. I ask for leave of the House to make a short statement in connection with this report.

Leave granted.

Mr MacKELLAR —The report I have just tabled is the second report from the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform appointed for this Parliament. The Committee, in March 1985, decided to review the operation of the 1983-84 amendments to the Electoral Act in the light of the experience of the 1984 general election. The report I have just tabled is the result of that inquiry. Honourable members will already have received a copy of the report, which was authorised for distribution by Madam Speaker during the summer adjournment pursuant to the resolution of the House on 27 November last. The inquiry found that the 1983 reforms had been effectively implemented and resulted in major improvements to the operation of the Commonwealth electoral system. Consequently, despite the fact that 156 recommendations are made in the report, it does not propose radical or dramatic changes. The recommendations relate to fine tuning rather than a general overhaul of the Electoral Act.

The first recommendation proposes that future parliaments should appoint a joint standing committee to overview the electoral process and to monitor the work of the Australian Electoral Commission. As a statutory authority independent of direct control by the Government, the Australian Electoral Commission operates in a political vacuum. This inquiry has demonstrated that a forum in which the AEC can test party political and public opinion on proposals it has under consideration is a useful safety valve for the Commission. The Committee found that the 1984 redistribution of electoral divisions was undertaken and completed by the AEC in a most efficient and satisfactory fashion. It makes some recommendations in the report which relate almost entirely to improving the mechanics of the process of future redistributions.

With regard to the electoral rolls and their maintenance, the Committee is proposing that the information on the rolls should be more accessible. As well as the hard copy of the electoral rolls now available to the public for purchase, the AEC should be permitted to sell magnetic tapes and microfiche at commercial rates. The Committee is also proposing that, as well as the elector's name and address, the publicly available information on the roll should be extended to include the gender, occupation and date of birth of the elector. This would not involve electors providing any additional information to the Electoral Commission beyond the information now provided on the electoral claim card. Honourable members will recall that gender and occupation were printed on the rolls prior to 1983 and that their removal engendered some dissatisfaction which was reflected in the submissions received. The report emphasises the importance of the maintenance of the rolls for the integrity of the electoral process. To ensure that rolls are up to date, the Committee recommends that annual habitation reviews should be undertaken by the AEC. This would ensure that electors are enrolled correctly for their divisions.

The Committee reviewed the position of prisoners and their entitlement to the franchise. Currently, prisoners under sentence for an offence punishable by sentence of imprisonment for five years or more are not entitled to the Commonwealth franchise. The report proposes that the franchise be extended to all prisoners except those convicted of treason. There is a dissenting recommendation on that point.

With regard to the registration of parties and candidates, the Committee has recommended the repeal of Part XII of the Electoral Act which requires the registration of political candidates. The inquiry found that this register served no useful purpose as it is essentially a duplication of the nomination for candidature process. These processes caused much extra work and expense for all concerned and no real benefit accrued from it. Part XI, registration of political parties, is not affected by this recommendation.

The Committee considered whether patients in hospitals and people in nursing homes should continue to have a postal vote where they have access to mobile polling. It concluded that they should retain this right. Mobile polling facilities should, however, be made comprehensive and provided at all hospitals and nursing homes. The Committee recommends that it be an offence under the Electoral Act for a person associated with the administration of a hospital or nursing home to influence a patient or inmate as to the candidate or candidates for whom that person would vote.

The Committee received evidence from the AEC and political parties on the question of the high informal vote for the House of Representatives in the 1984 general election. The Committee concluded that the rise in the informal vote does not justify changes to the formality requirements of the voting system. Reduction of the informal vote will best be achieved by an educative program at each election to ensure that electors understand the complexities and differences between the voting systems of the two Houses of Parliament and the requirement to be observed for recording a formal vote. Some technical changes to the Senate scrutiny procedures are recommended.

In chapter 8 of this report, the Committee considers the operation of the electoral funding and financial disclosure provisions of the Electoral Act. The Committee found that the system had operated effectively and recommendations made relate mainly to machinery aspects of the scheme. Problems had emerged in relation to the disclosure of gifts by third parties where these were channelled through intermediaries. The Committee concluded that these problems were amenable to solution through a process of negotiation. Should there be evidence of attempts to subvert the intention of the funding scheme by avoiding the clear intention of the scheme then the AEC should employ its investigative and coercive powers to the full to ensure that the scheme operates as intended. The Committee itself would respond to any evidence that the scheme was being undermined and, if necessary, invoke the investigative powers of the Parliament to expose attempts to undermine the scheme.

A development of considerable importance for electoral law and practice generally was the dispute over the election for the Legislative Council Province of Nunawading at the 1985 State election in Victoria. In the last chapter of the report the Committee analyses in depth the decision of His Honour Mr Justice Starke in the Nunawading Court of Disputed Returns and the implications of His Honour's findings for the Commonwealth electoral system The report makes recommendations chiefly to ensure that ballots are not excluded from the scrutiny as a result of electoral officials' errors that led to the nullifying of the Nunawading election result. The report recommends that the Electoral Act be amended so that, in the event of a deadlocked election, the result no longer be determined by a Presiding Officer's casting vote.

In future cases of deadlock there should be an immediate recount of votes and, if the deadlock persists, the Presiding Officer should declare the election accordingly deadlocked. Upon receipt of this advice the AEC would take action to file a petition disputing the election. In these circumstances the Court of Disputed Returns would be required to determine the case within three months and either declare a winner or order the election be held again.

The Committee wishes to acknowledge the assistance provided by all those who have made submissions to the inquiry. It particularly wishes to thank Dr Colin Hughes, the Australian Electoral Commissioner; Mr Andrejs Cirulis, the Deputy Electoral Commissioner; and the staff of the AEC. As well as providing, very promptly, submissions on all aspects of the operations of the Electoral Act, the Commissioner and his staff have made themselves available at short notice to give evidence or consult with the Committee or to provide additional written responses to requests by Committee members for supporting information and analysis.

The Committee also wishes to praise the AEC for the high quality of its research and analysis which is a contribution of great assistance to all Australians concerned with ensuring a continuance of the tradition of equitable electoral practices for Commonwealth elections. The Secretary of the Committee was Mr Donald Nairn and the report was typed by Mrs Elizabeth Kemp. The Committee is very grateful for their assistance. I commend the report to the House.