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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 5362

Mr DANBY (6:38 PM) —I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2010 because in my view it balances our ethical duty in a compulsory voting system to ensure the maximum number of people participate in elections and at the same time to ensure integrity of the roll. I will return in a minute to the issues of the close of the rolls under the system Australians had always experienced prior to the last election and the requirements for provisional voters. This bill also modernises enrolment processes to enable voters to update their enrolment details electronically. It allows the AEC to manage its workload more efficiently by enabling enrolment transactions to be processed outside the division for which the person is enrolling. Those two elements are very important because, to our disgrace, the number of people participating in Australian elections has fallen over successive years as we have had this continuous roll update done electronically by the use of government databases to take people off the roll. Every member of parliament knows how this works. People are continually taken off the roll, as it is the right of the Australian Electoral Commission to do that; but we do not have a system for equally seeing that people do not drop off the roll before an election when they move to another address, when many people do not return the snail mail that is mandated by black-letter law.

From my point of view this bill does two things. Firstly, it restores the close-of-the-roll period to seven days after the issue of the writ for an election. Secondly, it repeals the requirement for provisional voters to provide evidence of identity before their votes are admitted to scrutiny. As honourable members know, I have been campaigning on these issues ever since the Howard government’s regressive and undemocratic amendments to the Electoral Act were implemented five years ago. This bill implements the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report into the last election.

On the first point, the bill implements one of the government’s pre-election commitments to restore the close-of-the-roll periods to seven days after the issue of the writ for an election. This amendment will provide sufficient times for new voters to enrol to vote in a federal election or for existing electors to update their address details with the AEC. In a compulsory voting system, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that as many people as possible who are on our electoral roll have the opportunity to enrol. That is what we used to do with the previous system of provisional voting and the previous system of a seven-day period of grace. Particularly as it affects younger people, I think what the previous government did was disgraceful because it meant many younger people—who may not have politics at the front of their minds when they are 17, 18 or 19 but who may be responsible enough when an election comes upon them to want to put themselves on the electoral roll—were systematically excluded by the previous government at the last election. These are the kinds of voters we should be least excluding. We should be encouraging young people to participate in the democratic system in Australia because—eventually even the Liberal Party will discover this—doing such things deauthorises democracy. We in opposition opposed the Howard government’s decision to restrict the time available to enrol when the election was called, and we said we would repeal this provision when we returned to government.

The second part of the bill repeals the requirement of provisional voters to provide evidence of identity. The Electoral Act currently specifies that a person who needs to cast a provisional vote at a polling place on polling day must provide officials with evidence of identity at the time of voting or by the first Friday following the polling date. If the elector does not provide evidence of such identity by the deadline, his or her votes will be not counted. What used to happen, by which each government was elected since 1996, was that responsible polling officials were able to get someone who had a change of address within that electorate to cast a vote, their vote would be put in an envelope, they would sign the outside of it, this would be compared by responsible electoral officials with their signature back at the electoral office and, if the signatures matched, they would be included. Again, the ethos was to include as many people as possible who had legitimately tried to exercise their vote. In a compulsory voting system, in a democracy like Australia, this should be our aim. The AEC estimated that over 27,000 provisional voters were excluded from the count at the 2007 elections due to the operation of this new evidence-of-identity provision. In accordance with the recommendations of the electoral matters committee, the bill repeals the requirement for voters casting a provisional vote to provide evidence of identity at the polling place and will instead insert the new requirement that, where there is any doubt as to the bona fides of the elector, the signature on the envelope containing the provisional vote be compared with the signature of the elector on the previously lodged enrolment record.

The previous speaker, the member for Fisher, said that this was to prevent rorts. The previous government was elected at every election—until they had control of the Senate in the period prior to 2007—with provisional voters being admitted to the roll like that. The member for Fisher is suggesting that there was something bodgie about the election of the Howard government between 1996 and 2004, because all of those provisional votes were included under that commonsense and fair system until then. In accordance with the recommendation of the committee on electoral matters, we are going to repeal that requirement.

When I first spoke on this bill earlier this year I said that it represents the fulfilment of commitments made by Labor at the 2007 election. It also keeps commitments that I made in 2005, when we presented the minority report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I said then that we would overturn the Howard government’s regressive changes to our electoral laws. This bill fulfils that commitment.

The changes made by the Howard government had the effect of disenfranchising tens of thousands of Australians at the 2007 election, which is exactly what I predicted would happen. At least 50,000 people who, on the basis of past experience, we know would have enrolled during the traditional seven-day period of grace after the calling of an election were prevented from doing so. They were primarily young people, and, if you study it, this has a permanent effect in the electoral system.

Many more people were disenfranchised when they changed addresses by being taken off the rolls by the AEC and then deterred from re-enrolling by the more onerous enrolment procedures. In 2004, 77,000 people were added to the rolls after the close of the rolls because they had been incorrectly removed. In 2007 only 1,400 people were able to be added. This was entirely due to the deliberate changes made by the Howard government.

The AEC estimated that 27,000 provisional votes were excluded from the count at the 2007 federal election due to the new identity provisions but, in my view, the impact of the Howard government’s changes was much greater than that. I estimate that about 100,000 Australians were prevented from enrolling or voting by the changes made by the Howard government. What happened was that, when people got to the polling booths and saw that there were these onerous requirements, they thought, ‘Go to hell; I’m not going to participate.’ And they did not—you can see from the fall in the number of provisional votes in individual seats that would previously have been cast.

The AEC’s report on the 2007 election found that more than 27,000 provisional votes were rejected because they did not comply with the new requirements. The number of formal provisional votes fell from 112,000 in 2004 to 42,000 in 2007—so, of the 42,000 votes, 27,000 were rejected yet the number of people applying for enrolment declined. Did the population of Australia decline? No. Did the number of electors decline? No. This was the effect that was deliberately sought. A disproportionate number of these voters would, I think, have been Labor voters, and this was the motivation behind these changes. In my view, if the number of provisional voters in the 2004 election were compared to the number in the 2007 elections, enough Labor voters were disfranchised to allow the coalition to win at least four seats—Bowman, Dickson, McEwen and Swan—that they would otherwise have lost.

Professor Brian Costar, of Swinburne University, one of Australia’s most respected political scientists, told the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters:

I think a case can be made that it changed the result … We know that provisional voters, because of their choice, are not a mirror image of the electorate as a whole. They tend to be more Labor and Green than they are Liberal, National, or anything else.

I have yet to see any member of the opposition deny that this was the Howard government’s intent. I do not say that all of them knew that this was what they were doing, but the hardheads in the Liberals who were behind all of the salami tactics in changing electoral law understood the intent of this.

The Howard government’s justification for these measures was what they called the ‘protection of the integrity of the electoral roll’. That was what they alleged in their majority report in 2005 and it is what they said in their speeches but in fact there was no evidence of any significant degree of electoral fraud in Australian federal elections. These claims were nothing but a fig leaf to cover the coalition parties’ desire to rig the electoral system for their own benefit.

Let me provide you with some well-known figures to show the hollowness of the opposition’s claims. There were 12.4 million votes cast at the 2007 federal election. After the election, the AEC identified 20,000 possible cases of multiple voting. That represented less than 0.2 per cent of all votes cast. Of these, 18,037—87 per cent—were found on investigation to require no further action. What happens is that often brothers, sisters, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters vote at the same electorate, and the electoral official, not hearing them in the rush of votes, crosses them off. Then the AEC, in comparing the votes later, works out that the officials have made a mistake and there has been no case of multiple voting.

Only 1,167 of the possible cases of multiple voting identified by the AEC in 2007 were found to represent actual cases of multiple voting. Of these 1,167, a total of 955—82 per cent—were found to be the result of confusion in the mind of elderly voters who voted once by post and again on polling day, having forgotten their earlier vote. There was no desire to rort the electoral system and no evil intent—it was a simple mistake that all of us have encountered among elderly voters in our electorates but it is not an attempt to rort the electoral system.

After the AEC’s exhaustive investigations, a grand total of 10 votes in the whole of Australia were found to have been deliberately cast more than once, and these cases were referred to the AFP for investigation. That is less than one vote in a million—a very striking figure. There can be few countries in the world whose electoral systems are as clean and as free from corruption as Australia’s, and that is something we should all be proud of.

So the AEC found that in 2007 there was no evidence whatsoever of any significant level of electoral malpractice. Even more remarkable was the fact that there was no substantial difference between the 2007 figures and those recorded at the 2001 and 2004 federal elections—in other words, the regressive changes made by the Howard government made no change to the level of electoral malpractice for the very good reason that there was no significant evidence of electoral malpractice to start with. That should not surprise us, because that was not the intent of the legislation; the intent was to create a partisan advantage. The Howard government knew perfectly well that their justification for making the amendments was spurious.

Mr Robert —Madam Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: standing order number 90 is about reflection on members. The member is reflecting on and imputing improper motives to members.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms S Bird)—The debate is underway according to the normal procedures. I do not find that there is a point of order.

Mr DANBY —If the member recalls, I said there are many people here in this House, including him, I am sure, who were not aware of the intent of this legislation—of how this works on the ground—but the grand poobahs who were behind this legislation were aware of it.

In the AEC’s submission, it said:

It can be clearly stated, in relation to false identities, that there has never been any evidence of widespread or organised enrolment fraud in Australia.

In 2001 the AEC said:

It has been concluded by every parliamentary and judicial inquiry into the conduct of federal elections, since the AEC was established as an independent statutory authority in 1984, that there has been no widespread or organised attempt to defraud the electoral system … and that the level of fraudulent enrolment and voting is not sufficient to have overturned the result in any Division in Australia.

The last time I spoke on this bill I quoted Emeritus Professor Colin Hughes, a highly respected former Electoral Commissioner, and I think it is appropriate to do so again today. Professor Hughes wrote in 2005:

The thorough review of the electoral roll conducted in 2002 by the Australian National Audit Office concluded that ‘overall, the Australian electoral roll is one of high integrity, and can be relied on for electoral purposes’. There are adequate safeguards in the current electoral laws and procedures to deal with any future attempts at fraud without stripping the vote from hundreds of thousands of citizens.

This is a man who is revered by all sides of politics, who is an academic expert appointed by the previous government to many roles within the Electoral Commission and whose views should be listened to.

Let me return to the provisions of the bill. Schedule 2, part 1, item 2 inserts a new paragraph in the Electoral Act which is designed to reduce the number of provisional votes being rejected. It states that when a divisional returning officer examines the declaration envelope that contains a provisional vote, and where the DRO has some reason to doubt the signature on the declaration envelope is the actual signature of the voter, then the divisional returning officer may check the signature against the most recent record that contains the elector’s signature. Only if the divisional returning officer is of the view that the signature on the envelope and the signature on other records is not the same should the vote be excluded at this point of the count. That has been the system since at least the late seventies. This was a system that tried to incorporate and involve as many Australian citizens as possible. As I have said, we have a compulsory voting system in the democratic system: it is our ethical responsibility as democrats on all sides of parliament to include as many people as possible.

I understand in the Senate that some of the current opposition’s obsessions with integrity of the electoral roll are being addressed by an amendment that would allow the Liberals, without losing face, to keep their obsession with people producing photo identity at the polling booth but also give people the common-sense rights that they had and under which the previous government, the current opposition, was elected time after time after time.

This is a very important provision. We know from the evidence presented at many hearings of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that the overwhelming majority of people casting provisional votes are genuine voters who are trying to cast a vote and have no intention of misleading or deceiving the returning officer. In nearly every case, when they have made a mistake in completing and signing the envelope, it is the result of inadvertence rather than malice. Many such voters are elderly, do not have a high level of education or may not have proficient English. It is not fair for their votes to be excluded because they made an honest mistake.

The provision will give the divisional returning officer the discretion to check the voter’s signature and make an independent judgment about the voter’s bona fides, rather than automatically excluding the vote. This will, I hope, reduce the number of provisional votes unjustly excluded from the count. The member for Fisher said that the period of grace that was given Australian voters when the writ was issued—that is, five working days after it is issued—and the previous system of comparing signatures for allowing provisional votes were ‘a rort’. I call them democratic necessity, ethical democratic behaviour and the kind of system that the previous government was elected under. I find it a great shame and a great traducing of Australian democracy that this issue has not been made more of and that the Liberal Party has been allowed to get away with this rort. What I fear is that, if people who have gone to divisional returning officers and changed their electoral address were expecting to be able to vote via the provisional voting system and then become aware at election after election that they are going to be rejected, they will be ‘routinised’ into not trying to exercise a vote. This will be a great victory for the antidemocratic element in the previous government that tried to change this legislation for partisan ends.

As I have said before, this bill fulfils a Labor election commitment, and will help to make our already great election system even better—fairer, more open and more inclusive. I commend this bill to the House.