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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 5378

Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services and Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction) (7:49 PM) —I support the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill and cognate bills for many reasons. Amongst those reasons, which I will enumerate, I will principally discuss how the bill recognises the need for people with impairment to be given greater support in their participation in elections. I do this because one of the frustrations of having an impairment is the fact that you are constantly dealing with systems that are designed as if you did not exist. Doors that are too narrow for a wheelchair, workplaces that are not equipped for your needs and a hundred other small variations and obstacles are a constant reminder that when you have a disability you are the exception; you are treated as the square peg that will not fit in the round hole. This is often a reminder that practical equality is still a long way away for many of our Australians who live with impairment.

When we witness this unending struggle with a world that is all too often indifferent to the needs of people with impairment, a world that wastes the time and drains the energy of people with disability, and when you can also see how often these problems could be avoided with a little bit of thought or creativity, I can understand why the frustration of people with disability increases tenfold.

I will return to this theme, but there are many other good things in these bills. We are reducing the age of provisional enrolment from 17 to 16. We are introducing provisions to make it easier to enrol, and keep on the electoral roll, people who are homeless—a matter that I know is very dear to the heart of the Minister for Housing, who is in the chamber. We are making it easier to apply for a prepoll or postal vote. We are limiting political parties to one endorsed candidate in each electorate to stop flooding of the ballot paper and the confusion of voters. We are removing the bizarre provision brought in by the previous government that the electoral rolls closed the day an election was called, and are restoring the seven-day enrolment period, which will allow more people to exercise their right to vote. Shutting down the electoral roll at the very time people were most interested in getting onto it and ensuring their addresses were correct was a shabby piece of political manipulation by the previous government, now the opposition, and it is only right that this be corrected.

But, as I said, I want to focus on the fact that these bills, for the first time, give the right to a secret ballot to people who are blind or have impaired vision. If you told the average Australian that there was a group of 300,000 people who did not have the right to a secret ballot in this country, they would be shocked. I think they would also struggle to identify the group, which is often the case when we fail to realise that not everyone possesses the abilities we take for granted.

While people with impaired vision have the theoretical right to cast a secret ballot, and have done since 1902, in practice this right has not existed. Australia was the first country to introduce and make standard the secret ballot—we did that in the 19th century—and we were also the first country to guarantee the right of the blind to vote. But somehow we have not quite connected the two things in practice. For over 100 years intelligent, sensible men and women with strong opinions on how this country should be run have been forced to get the help of a friend, or of an electoral officer, to fill out their ballot. This is a patronising and demeaning situation which unfortunately reinforces the inappropriate second-class status that people with impaired vision are often treated as having in our society.

In 2007 the Australian Electoral Commission ran a trial of electronic voting. This proved extremely popular with people with impaired vision. Graeme Innes, the Disability and Race Discrimination Commissioner, has spoken of his delight at finally, at the age of 50, being able to cast a secret vote through this process. The trial has been considered since then as a very costly exercise and a decision was made not to repeat it at this election. The cost was $2,500 per vote cast in the trial locations, although I believe this would come down if the scheme were extended more broadly. However, the government has moved to legislate to authorise the Electoral Commission to facilitate secret ballots for people with impaired vision.

In the next federal election—whenever that is—voters with impaired vision will be able to ring a call centre and have their vote processed anonymously. This measure will be reviewed after the election and the Australian Electoral Commission will work to improve the system in future elections and ensure that the best and most contemporary technology is used to help people with impaired vision exercise their democratic right. I want to congratulate the Australian Electoral Commission on their work in this area and their recognition that the right to vote, and to vote in secret, should not depend on your impairment.

As we work towards ensuring that people with impairment have equal participation, the Australian government is developing a national disability strategy, which aims to improve the inclusion of people with disability in all areas, and the work of the Australian Electoral Commission fits admirably within this goal.

But I want to note that I think there is more that the AEC could be doing to guarantee access to polling places for people with impaired mobility and to ensure that voting booths themselves can be accessed by as many people as possible.

I know, as do all members of the House, that votes are cast across Australia in a wide variety of buildings and that without fixed terms the Australian Electoral Commission is hamstrung in what it can do in picking the same buildings with the right disability access on all occasions. But the right of people with disability to be able to enter a polling place with ease and dignity needs to be encouraged.

Australia is one of the oldest members of the global family of democracies. We have a system of compulsory voting—or, to be precise, compulsory attendance at the polling booth—which does seem unusual to some visitors to our country. But I believe that it is as uniquely and importantly Australian as our coat of arms. It is a way of ensuring that every government elected can rightly claim the support of the majority of the population.

This contrasts positively with the great United States of America, where, despite its many strengths, congressional representatives or senators win office in elections where less than 50 per cent of the adult population votes. I believe the drift away from people voting in elections can only be a negative in any democracy and weaken the faith of the people in their political system. Democratic societies create responsibilities as well as rights. I believe one of those responsibilities is participation in elections. But this creates a responsibility for governments to preserve the right to vote by making the practice of voting as easy as possible.

These bills hold up our end of the bargain by giving people who cannot see the right to a secret ballot. The prejudices and barriers faced by people with disability are entrenched, systemic and subtle. They are embedded in all too many of the systems and institutions of our society.

I believe it is not the disability or impairment of the voter that is the problem; the rest of society’s inability to deal with it constitutes the real barrier. This legislation shows that when the will and desire to remove a barrier is there, that barrier can be removed. This measure is in some ways a small one but it is one of the many small battles that need to be won in the greater fight to remove inequality for people with disability.

This legislation contains the values of the Rudd government in their commitment to upholding and strengthening the rights of people with disability. It reaffirms our belief that the entire community has a duty to take the reasonable steps that are required to deliver equal access to people with disability. I understand that we may not be able to immediately change people’s negative attitudes towards disability. But we can ensure that people with disability are given the opportunity to achieve their potential and to be included in society in all areas, including the right to vote. By doing so, we change attitudes in the long term.

It is important to note in any discussion about this legislation and its improvement for access for people with disability that there are two million Australians with a severe or profound disability, or who are primary carers of people with disability. This legislation is part of the government’s general values of advancing the case for disability. Consistent with that is the same set of values which have seen the referral of a national long-term care and support scheme to the Productivity Commission to investigate. Such a scheme has the potential to change the way disability is supported in this country just as this legislation tries to change the way that people with vision impairment are encouraged to participate in the elections. I commend the bills to the House.