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Monday, 23 June 2003
Page: 17153

Mr DANBY (1:15 PM) —I commend to the House the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters entitled The 2001 federal election. It is an example of the major political parties working together sensibly to achieve quite a substantive outcome. The committee's bipartisan recommendations on proof of identity for enrolment resolve many years of disagreement between the government and the opposition on this matter.

The member for Kooyong noted that the government accepted the use of some streamlined identification—I would like to emphasise the word `streamlined'—in the identification process. The committee's proposal that driver's licences be used as the primary form of identification for enrolment are consistent with the scheme originally proposed by Mr Mark Dreyfus, QC in his report to the ALP on the ALP form of identification in internal voting. It is very pleasing to see that we have now overcome some of the angst on this issue and moved to a process that all sides can identify with.

The calm way in which the chair of the committee and the secretariat proceeded with these kinds of issues is another reason why this matter has proceeded so smoothly. Prior to the last elections, there was some hysteria about the number of deliberately false enrolments. I remember the statistics given to me by the Electoral Commissioner. He explained that, in the six national votes, including a referendum, prior to the previous election, there had been 72 proven cases of electoral fraud. As there were 12 million votes at each of those six elections, that means that there was one case of proven electoral fraud for every million votes in the previous decade. That is something of a tribute to the clean way the Australian electoral system is conducted. I am pleased that we have gone to an even higher level of verification so that there can be no question by anyone that these high standards are continuing to be adhered to.

The Labor Party has continuously resisted calls made, in the name of the integrity of the electoral roll, for the seven-day close-of-roll period to be eliminated. In the view of the opposition, this would disenfranchise voters and lead to a less accurate roll rather than a roll of greater integrity. The committee has now unanimously agreed to the seven-day close-of-roll period being retained. That neatly balances the streamlined identification process identified by the chair of the committee, the member for Kooyong.

In my view, the retention of the seven-day period after an election is called is particularly important for young people, who often do not get around to enrolling until after an election is called. I was at a local high school recently and took enrolment forms along so that 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds could enrol. I make a practice of doing that wherever I am. The Electoral Commission continues its excellent work, with all federal members of parliament being present at citizenship ceremonies and people enrolled as soon as they become Australian citizens.

About 100,000 people enrolled or changed their enrolments after the election that was called in 2001. This bipartisan recommendation ensures that those 100,000 people can keep their right to vote. It is important for homeless people, who are just as entitled to vote as anyone else, to have their say. The ABS estimates that there are around 100,000 homeless people, yet only 4,200 people are enrolled as itinerant electors. This may mean that a larger number of homeless people are being denied the right to vote. Perhaps that is something that we should look at in the future.

In this report, the committee notes that it awaits a report from the AEC on options for effective delivery of the educational enrolment services to Aboriginal electors following the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Electoral Information Service. The opposition has consistently called for the reinstatement of the Aboriginal electoral information service. We are awaiting with interest a report from the AEC on Aboriginal enrolment and what they can do out of their existing budget.

The committee also recommended changes aimed at ensuring that homeless people are better able to exercise their entitlement to enrol and vote. In the opposition's submission, this was stressed as an important measure.

The committee recorded evidence from the Labor Party and the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission that a group known as the Citizens Electoral Council received a very high proportion of its income from undisclosed sources—$941,000 out of $1.1 million. While the CEC was an infinitesimal recorder of votes, this made it one of the highest recipients of donations to a political party in Australia—in fact, coming after the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, higher than the Australian Democrats or the Greens. While the report states that this does not of itself prove that the CEC is in breach of the Electoral Act, the committee's recommendations 32 and 33 double the penalty for accepting anonymous donations and ask the AEC to report back at each federal election on cases of overseas donations.

I echo the remarks of the member for Kooyong on eligible overseas electors. There are 720,000 Australian expatriates. Only some 63,000 recorded votes at overseas posts at the last election. I believe the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a great deal more work to do to enhance its activities at overseas posts to see that Australians can enrol. I am particularly grateful to my friend Peter Hansen, the Victorian Agent-General in London, for putting me in contact with a number of Australian expatriates who had a great deal of trouble in voting at the previous two elections. I also note that the committee's report unanimously endorses four-year terms.

The Labor Party made an extensive submission to the inquiry on the use of taxpayer funds to promote the Liberal Party. In our submission we regretted that $122 million a year was spent on advertising by the federal government, making it the biggest spender in advertising in this country, more than Coca-Cola, Telstra, Coles Myer, McDonald's and Toyota. Even the Auditor-General agreed that this was unacceptable. The Labor Party twice introduced bills, which I support, to curb government advertising which, in my view, is clearly political. This kind of advertising has continued even in the last couple of weeks, with all students receiving from the Australian Taxation Office a pamphlet advertising the Liberals' policy on higher education under the motto `Sustainability, quality, equity and diversity'. In my view this is clearly political advertising, as the legislation this pamphlet promotes to students may not even be passed by the parliament.

The report notes arguments in favour of Australia's compulsory voting system. While the report does not take a position on the issue, it does discuss full participation providing electoral outcomes with greater legitimacy because there is a higher voter turnout and parliaments are elected according to the wishes of all Australian citizens. In my view, voting is a civic duty and the significance of national elections should not be undermined by apathy, as it appears to be in some other countries. I remind this House that people can choose not to vote. They are merely asked to attend a polling booth and return a ballot paper to the ballot box; they do not have to vote for any political party. What is required of Australian citizens is just attendance and some minimal attention to the democratic process that runs this country.

A number of studies have found that Australians are familiar with the mechanics of voting and have a fair understanding of the Australian political system—the 1994 report of the Civics Experts Group, for instance. This weighs against the argument that the participation of those who are indifferent to, or uninterested in, political processes diminishes the significance of the vote. Contrary to the argument that compulsory voting encourages complacency in safe seats, political parties assert that they value their safe electorates, and the political activism of electors in safe seats is demonstrated through good participation in party membership, branch activities, party forums, election campaigning et cetera. Indeed, many of us would know from experience that it would not be possible to campaign in some of the more remote or marginal seats if it were not for the political participation of people in safe seats.

Regarding the prominence of major party advertising, it can be argued that compulsory voting may reduce the role of money in elections as parties and candidates do not need to convince people to turn out to vote. Finally, a national survey carried out immediately after polling day for the 1996 federal election found that 74 per cent of respondents supported compulsory voting at federal elections. Just last Friday I saw Gary House and Pauline Barron from my local FEC at a local school; the Electoral Commission continues to perform an excellent role, as did the secretariat of this committee. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Does the member for Kooyong wish to move a motion in connection with the report to enable it to be debated on a future occasion?