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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 159

Mr LEE —by leave-The second report by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform is a very important report. I hope that honourable members get time to study its recommendations in detail. I say `in detail' because 156 recommendations have been brought down by the Committee. It will require intensive work by honourable members if they are to appreciate all the recommendations we are putting before the House. I would like to associate myself with remarks made by the Deputy Chairman of the Committee, the honourable member for Warringah (Mr MacKellar), praising Mr Nairn, the Secretary of the Joint Select Committee, his support staff and the many organisations and individuals who made submissions to the Committee during its hearings. I would like to pay tribute also to the Australian Electoral Commission for the high quality of its submissions and, in particular, of the evidence which was given to the Committee on many occasions by Dr Colin Hughes, the Australian Electoral Commissioner; and Mr Andrejs Cirulis, the Deputy Electoral Commissioner.

I would like to make a few brief comments about several of the Committee's more important recommendations. The first point I touch on is the Committee's recommendation that the Electoral Act be amended to allow all prisoners to cast a vote in future elections. The current Act disqualifies persons convicted of an offence which has a maximum penalty of five years or more. The Electoral Commission reported to the Committee that it has had major problems in identifying which prisoners should be permitted to vote and which prisoners should be disqualified. The reason is simple. The Act requires prisoners to be disqualified from voting if the maximum penalty for their offence is more than five years. It does not refer to the actual penalty but to the maximum penalty which could have been applied by a judge. The prison authorities around Australia have great difficulty in telling the Electoral Commission the maximum penalty which corresponds to the offence for which a particular prisoner was sentenced. The Committee concluded that prisoners, like all other citizens, should be forced to meet their civil and political obligations by being required to vote at all elections.

I was pleased to note that one of the first comments yesterday by the new Special Minister of State, Senator Michael Tate, was his call for an increase in the level of enrolment from young Australians. One of the more innovative amendments to the Electoral Act in 1983 was the provision for provisional enrolment. I can see that that has the support of my colleague the honourable member for Cowan (Ms Jakobsen), who is nodding her head at the moment. The Parliament's decision to allow young Australians to obtain provisional enrolment when they turn 17 allowed almost 4,000 more young Australians to vote. The provision worked this way: People were able to enrol when they were 17-before they turned 18-but they were not allowed to cast a vote unless they turned 18 before the date of the election. Four thousand young Australians who were 17 at the close of the rolls-when they were no longer able to submit an electoral enrolment form-who filled out provisional enrolment forms and who turned 18 before the date of the election were able to cast a vote because we allowed provisional enrolment for 17-year-olds. That measure also has the endorsement of the Committee.

The Committee has also made several recommendations for voting in nursing homes. There was a lot of discussion within the Committee about what were the best procedures to be adopted for people in nursing homes. I am glad to say that, while there was a lot of debate in the Committee, the final recommendation had the support of all members of the Committee. That recommendation provided for mobile polling facilities to be provided wherever possible in all hospitals and nursing homes so that voting by residents of nursing homes, wherever possible, could be supervised by officials of the Electoral Commission, whose impartiality is beyond question. The Committee has also recommended that it be made an offence for a proprietor of a nursing home or a staff member of a nursing home to seek to influence a patient when that patient is seeking to cast a vote. That recommendation certainly has my endorsement.

The Committee has also recommended that the penalty for not voting be increased. While at the moment the Act provides for a maximum fine of $50 to be imposed by a court, through administrative measures the Electoral Commission can apply a maximum fine of only $4 to anyone who has failed to vote. In many cases that does not even cover the costs of inward and outward correspondence to those people who have neglected to cast a vote. The Electoral Commission submitted that this was ridiculously low. I agree with its analysis. The Committee, by a majority-I am sad to say that we did not have the support of the Liberal and National parties on this measure-recommended that that administrative penalty be increased to a maximum of $20. I think that is a reasonable fine which the Electoral Commission can apply through administrative measures.

Following the 1984 election, when there was a large increase in the level of informal voting for the House of Representatives, there was a lot of debate in Australia. In fact, the level of informal voting for the House of Representatives on average throughout Australia increased from 2.1 per cent to 6.4 per cent. That massive increase was very disturbing to many members of the Committee. The good news was that the level of informal voting for the Senate fell markedly because of the introduction of the list voting system. In fact, the level of informal voting for the Senate fell from 9.9 per cent in 1983 to only 4.3 per cent at the 1984 election. The Electoral Commission carried out an analysis of the informal votes for the lower House. Seventy-four per cent of the informal votes were due to people using ticks, crosses or defective numbering and in most cases they were informal because people placed only a number 1 next to their preferred candidate and forgot that for the House of Representatives one must extend a preference to all the other candidates. As the honourable member for Warringah has stated, the Committee has decided on balance not to recommend a change in the voting system but to recommend that the Electoral Commission improve its advertising prior to the next election and also seek to mail out to all electors detailed information on the voting procedures to ensure that wherever possible ordinary Australians will cast a formal vote. I commend the Committee's report to the House.