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Monday, 23 June 2003
Page: 17151

Mr GEORGIOU (1:05 PM) —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I present the committee's report entitled The 2001 Federal election: report of the inquiry into the conduct of the 2001 federal election, and matters related thereto, together with minutes of proceedings.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mr GEORGIOU —It is worth noting that this report on the conduct of the 2001 federal election coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and its predecessor, the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. These committees have made an important contribution to free and fair Australian federal elections, by reviewing the conduct of each election since 1983 and making recommendations for improvements to electoral law and practice in Australia. It is worth noting that this is the first unanimous post-election report the committee has produced in 13 years. I thank my colleagues on the committee for their commitment to a consensus approach.

In all, this report contains 34 recommendations for either legislative or procedural changes. The recommendations cover many aspects of elections, including the management of the electoral roll, preparations for the election, polling, scrutiny, the publication of election results and the regulation of political parties, donations and electoral campaigning. The committee considers that all its recommendations will contribute to ongoing reform of the Electoral Act and election management procedures.

Two of the committee's recommendations in particular would, if implemented, result in quite fundamental reform to electoral procedures. These two recommendations are aimed at strengthening electoral roll integrity. Australia's electoral roll is the bridge between the right to vote and the ability to exercise that right. Australian democracy depends on an electoral roll with high integrity and inclusiveness, which maximises voting by those entitled to do so while minimising the opportunities for manipulation. There have been a limited number of demonstrated manipulations of the electoral roll, but there is no persuasive evidence of any widespread malpractice. However, the committee believes that it is not sufficient to rely on the absence of such evidence alone. The electoral roll must be of the highest integrity and inclusiveness, and it must be publicly demonstrated that this is the case.

One of the keys to electoral roll integrity is ensuring that enrolments are accurate in respect of the identity and address of the enrolee. The AEC and the Electoral Act do have some measures in place to verify this, but the reality is that the proof of identity required to enrol to vote to determine the government of Australia is less than that required to join a video library. Over the past 10 years—in the committee, this House and the Senate—there has been a contentious, protracted and as yet unresolved debate on proof of identity requirements. The committee believes that the time has come to seek to achieve a consensual, constructive resolution of this matter.

The committee has agreed on a streamlined proof of identity requirement that addresses proven cases of manipulation; that sets standards that all people entitled to vote can reasonably meet; that is consistent with proof of identity requirements in other areas of Australian life; and that reassures the public that barriers against roll manipulation have been strengthened. The committee unanimously recommends that all applicants for enrolment and re-enrolment be required to verify their name and address using their driver's licence or other documents accepted by the AEC or, where that is impossible, by providing a confirmation supplied by two people who are on the electoral roll. The committee recommends that these identification requirements be trialled with a three-year sunset clause.

Another significant issue before the committee was concern about provisional voters and their entitlement to vote. A person whose name cannot be found on the electoral roll may cast a provisional vote. In 2001, nearly 200,000 provisional votes were admitted to the count. This happens after their entitlement to vote is checked by the AEC. However, the AEC submitted that many provisional voters `are not living at the address they claim as their enrolled address and may not have lived there for some years'. The committee recommends that a person who claims to still be resident within the division of their last enrolment but whose name does not appear on the certified list of voters shall only be issued with a provisional vote where they can validate their entitlement by providing proof of their name and address.

The close of rolls period is the period after the issue of writs for an election. It is currently seven days. During these days, people can enrol or change their enrolment details. This has been a controversial issue since 1993. Some perceive that the AEC cannot properly check the validity of enrolments made during this time, and that inappropriate enrolments could influence outcomes in marginal seats. Accordingly, there have been successive proposals to shorten the close of rolls period. The committee examined the AEC's processes for checking enrolment transactions during the close of rolls period. It found that these did not differ from the processes that applied at other times. Where the checking processes indicate anomalies in enrolment applications, such applications are not added to the roll. Given this, the committee concluded that, particularly in light of its recommendations to strengthen proof of identity requirements for enrolment and re-enrolment, the close of rolls period should remain at seven days.

The committee also considered submissions concerning the franchise of particular groups of voters. An Australian moving overseas may register as an eligible overseas elector three months prior to or up to two years after their departure if they intend to return to Australia within six years. Australians living overseas who are not enrolled to vote may enrol as eligible overseas electors, but only if they are overseas for the purpose of their career or that of their spouse. Submissions objected to the conditions for admission to EOE status, saying that they derogate from the general right to vote. The committee sees no justification for differentiating between Australians overseas on the basis of their reasons for moving overseas, and considers that the time limit for enrolling while overseas should be extended.

Submissions to the committee contended that the Electoral Act restricts the ability of homeless people to enrol to vote in federal elections. Estimates of the proportion of homeless people eligible to vote but not enrolled vary considerably. Estimates for the 2001 federal election range from 29,000 to 80,000. The committee acknowledges the difficulties of homeless people in relation to enrolment and voting. It notes that the Electoral Act has provisions for itinerant voters—people who have no real place of residence—and these provisions may take in homeless people. The committee recommends that the itinerant elector provisions be amended to elucidate their applicability to homeless persons. The committee also believes that the AEC should continue its efforts to simplify and clarify the itinerant elector application form, and should target homeless persons in its next public awareness campaign.

The committee has made a number of other recommendations, such as recommendations relating to the sale of the electoral roll. It recommends that that should no longer be possible.

The committee believes that the time has come for a focused inquiry into the administration and funding of the AEC. The committee will seek a reference to conduct such an inquiry. Pending this inquiry, the committee has recommended that there be no further co-locations of AEC divisional offices, and that the AEC be provided with funding which ensures a minimum of three full-time electoral staff in each House of Representatives division.

In conclusion, the committee thanks all those who made submissions to this inquiry and appeared at the public hearings. Participation in such inquiries makes an important contribution to the work of the Australian parliament. I extend my thanks to the deputy chair, Mr Michael Danby, to our fellow committee members and to the committee secretariat—Russell Chafer, Sonia Palmieri and Bronwen Jaggers—for their dedication and patience. It is worthwhile noting that Senator Robert Ray, who was on the original electoral reform committee in 1983, is now a member of the committee on its 20th anniversary. I commend the report to the parliament.