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Wednesday, 2 June 2010
Page: 4909


Mr GRAY (Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia) (9:47 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to present legislation that will bring real reform to the key provision in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act) and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (the referendum act).

Three of the four schedules implement the government response to recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters following their inquiry into the conduct of the 2007 federal election (the JSCEM report). These amendments will:

  • modernise enrolment processes to enable electors to update their enrolment details electronically;
  • allow the Australian Electoral Commission (the AEC) to manage its workload more efficiently by enabling enrolment transactions to be processed outside the division for which the person is enrolling;
  • enable prepoll votes cast in an elector’s ‘home’ division to be cast and counted as ordinary votes; and
  • provide a legislative framework for people who are blind or who have low vision to cast an independent and secret vote.

Schedule 3 deals with an issue that emerged at the 2009 Bradfield by-election and relates to multiple candidates being endorsed for a single division by the registered officer of a political party. This bill contains amendments that will prevent the registered officer of a political party endorsing more than one candidate for each division.

The overriding aim of the amendments in the bill is to enhance the ability of otherwise eligible Australians to participate in the electoral process by removing obstacles to their enrolment. The Electoral Act currently contains a number of hurdles to facilitating modern and technologically up-to-date interaction between the AEC and eligible electors.

Of particular concern are the estimated 1.4 million eligible electors currently not on the electoral roll, with up to two-thirds of the missing electors falling in the 18- to 39-year age group. It is intended that the amendments introduced in the bill will address declining enrolment rates and improve electoral participation in this age group, and more generally, by enabling flexible and modern interaction between eligible electors and the AEC.

Schedule 1—‘home’ division prepoll votes as ordinary votes

The amendments contained in schedule 1 to the bill will enable prepoll votes issued in an elector’s ‘home’ division to be cast and counted as ordinary votes, wherever practicable.

The Electoral Act and the referendum act provide for prepoll voting to take place prior to polling day. This provides electors who have specified other commitments to meet their voting obligations by voting early. Recent elections have seen a large increase in the demand for early voting; at the 2007 federal election almost 15 per cent of the total votes were cast as early votes.

The increase in demand for early voting has two major consequences. First, it requires the AEC to devote significant increased resources to deal with early voting as more resources are required to issue and count this type of vote. Second, the results of an election are more likely to be delayed as the counting of these early votes generally does not take place on polling night as the declaration envelopes containing the votes must go through a time-consuming preliminary scrutiny process.

The bill provides for prepoll votes cast in an elector’s home division, prior to polling day, to be treated as ordinary votes wherever practicable. An elector’s home division is the division in which the elector is enrolled. For electors to cast prepoll votes in this manner, it will be conditional upon the electors to make a declaration at the time of voting indicating that they are entitled to a prepoll vote and each elector’s name being marked off the certified list. This will ensure that the integrity of this type of vote is maintained. Votes cast as ordinary votes in an elector’s home division will, for counting purposes, be treated in the same manner as ordinary votes cast in polling places on polling day. The AEC estimates that if this amendment had been in place for the 2007 federal election it would have resulted in an additional 667,000 votes being counted on polling night.

Schedule 2—efficient management of AEC workload and electronic address update

Schedule 2 to the bill contains amendments that can be grouped into two main themes. The first theme provides for the efficient and effective management of the AEC workload. The second theme enables electors to update their address details electronically.

Recommendation 42 of the JSCEM report recommends that the Electoral Act should be amended to enable the AEC to manage its workload in non-election periods by allocating work, principally enrolment applications and enrolment changes, throughout the AEC divisional office network. The Electoral Act as it currently stands provides that such workload sharing can only take place during the election period. There is no apparent rationale for limiting the operation of the workload sharing to the election period. Expanding this ability will result in a number of benefits to electors and reduce handling times.

Such changes will allow the AEC to manage its workload more efficiently by enabling enrolment transactions to be processed outside the relevant division. These amendments will provide the AEC with additional tools to maintain the electoral roll in a timely and efficient manner.

These changes will ensure that the Electoral Commissioner has the obligation to receive and action any enrolment related transactions rather than only the divisional returning officer or the Australian electoral officer. The Electoral Commissioner will then use an enhanced delegation power to delegate the processing of the transactions to any AEC officer or member of staff, which may include divisional returning officers and Australian electoral officers.

The second theme of amendments in schedule 2 provide for modern enrolment processes to enable electors to update their address details electronically. Despite recent trends encouraging Australians to communicate with government agencies electronically, the Electoral Act still requires voters to complete and sign paper forms when enrolling or updating their enrolment details. These forms are then required to be sent to the AEC by post to be entered into the electronic database used to maintain the electoral roll.

These amendments give effect to recommendation 9 of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report and will enable persons who are already on the electoral roll to update their address details by providing this information to the AEC in an electronic format. In addition to the requirement that the person is already on the electoral roll, the bill foreshadows the making of regulations which will prescribe minimum verification information that the elector will need to provide to the AEC before the Electoral Commissioner can act on the electronic communication. The regulations will enable the AEC to request prescribed information from electors, for example date of birth and drivers licence number, to ensure that the electronic transaction is authentic and is being undertaken by the elector to whom the information relates.

These amendments will facilitate the maintenance of an effective electoral roll by enabling voters to communicate with the AEC by electronic means rather than by written hardcopy forms.

Schedule 3—Limitation on the number of endorsed candidates per division

Schedule 3 to the bill contains reforms which will restrict the number of candidates that can be endorsed by a political party in any one division. At the by-election in the division of Bradfield on 5 December 2009 there were 22 candidates, nine of whom were endorsed by a registered officer of a single registered political party.

The ability for a registered officer of a political party to endorse candidates for an election was introduced into the Electoral Act in 1987 to provide a streamlined way for political parties to nominate candidates. If not endorsed by a registered political party, a person seeking to be a candidate for an election must obtain the support of 50 electors in the division in which the person is seeking to nominate. The current provisions of the Electoral Act do not prohibit political parties from endorsing more than one candidate in each division for an election.

For a voter to cast a formal vote they are required to number a ballot paper from ‘1’ to the number of candidates on the ballot paper without errors in the numbering sequence. At the above mentioned by-election for the division of Bradfield the rate of informal votes was nine per cent. This is a record for any election for the division of Bradfield and more than double the informality rate for the division at the 2007 federal election. The average national informality rate at the 2007 federal election was 3.95 per cent.

The practice of multiple candidates for a single division being endorsed by the registered officer of a political party has not emerged on this scale prior to the 2009 Bradfield by-election. Legislative amendment is required to prevent a similar rise in the informality rate in multiple divisions at the next federal election.

Schedule 4—Electronically assisted voting for people who are blind or have low vision

Schedule 4 to the bill will provide a mechanism for people who are blind or have low vision to cast an independent and secret vote. Without the amendments in schedule 4 there is no provision in the Electoral Act or the referendum act for such voters to cast a secret vote.

The amendments in schedule 4 provide a framework for the making of regulations that will provide for a flexible regime of electronic voting while maintaining the integrity of the voting process.

This approach provides the flexibility to amend the mechanics of the electronically assisted voting process as technology changes from election to election.

The integrity of the voting process is ensured in the amendments as any regulations made under the amendment may include:

  • a process for casting an electronically assisted vote;
  • methods to ensure the privacy, secrecy and integrity of the vote;
  • places, days and hours at which the electronically assisted vote will be available;
  • recording of each person who has been issued with a vote; and
  • recording of the vote and how this vote record will be treated.

Conclusion

The government is committed to restoring the integrity of our electoral processes and systems. The first step in that process was the introduction of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008, and the subsequent 2009 bill, which aimed to restore accountability, integrity and transparency to our system of donation disclosure. Unfortunately, those provisions have been blocked by the Senate. The reforms contained in this bill will continue the important process of updating the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

I comment the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mrs Gash) adjourned.