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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 2072

Mr SYMON (12:17 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to implement two recent decisions of the High Court of Australia. The first of those High Court decisions is Rowe v Electoral Commissioner, as decided on 6 August 2010. This case relates to the period of time voters are allowed before the electoral roll closes to either ensure that they are on the electoral roll or update their details following the formal issue of a writ for an election. This case was a constitutional challenge to the validity of changes made to the Electoral Act by the Howard government. These amendments resulted in the electoral roll being closed to new or re-enrolling voters on the day on which the electoral writ is issued and three days after the writ is issued for voters updating their enrolment details. Previously, the electoral roll remained open for a period of seven days after the issue of the writ.

According to the AEC, the calling of an election will result in a significant number of persons enrolling or changing enrolment during the seven-day period, particularly young Australians—people who may not have been on the roll before. The seven-day period had enabled the AEC to advertise and promote enrolment and target particular groups with information campaigns, including Indigenous Australians and people experiencing homelessness.

As has been mentioned in this debate, at the 2004 federal election approximately 423,000 people enrolled, re-enrolled or updated their enrolment during the seven-day period. During the 2007 election 279,469 people enrolled or changed their enrolment in time for the election before the rolls closed. At least 144,000 fewer people were able to add themselves to the electoral roll in 2007 due to these changes. These changes have been proven in many studies to have taken away people’s ability to exercise their democratic right to vote. The proof of this is in the substantial number who did not get the opportunity to add themselves to the roll in 2007. Potentially hundreds of thousands of eligible voters missed out on being on the electoral roll due to this change by the previous, Liberal government.

On 6 August last year the High Court ruled that these Howard-era laws that closed the electoral rolls on the day the writs for an election are issued were invalid. That decision was probably overdue, but I am glad it happened at the time. The decision by the High Court, made in the early stages of last year’s election campaign, secured the ability of nearly 100,000 Australians to vote. Figures from the Australian Electoral Commission reveal that 57,732 voters enrolled and a further 40,408 voters updated their enrolment details after the High Court’s decision. The AEC ensured that those who submitted their changes within the seven-day time frame were now included on the electoral roll and thus given the right to vote.

As mentioned by the member for Melbourne Ports, there are currently 1.4 million Australians, or six per cent of the population, who are not enrolled to vote. But I prefer to put that figure in a form that relates directly to our electorates. All of our electorates are, on average, missing 9,000 voters. It is an indictment of our democratic process that there are people out there who should have a vote but, for whatever reason, do not. I do not think it should be a function of government to make it harder to vote. It should really be up to everyone in this House and in the Senate to encourage as many people as are eligible to vote to do so.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of these unenrolled voters are aged between 18 and 39, and one-third are in the 18- to 25-year-old cohort. We all live very busy lives and people do not always keep their details up to date on the electoral roll. It is usually not at the front of most people’s minds—although for people that live politics or work in this place, it may well be. It should not be expected that the AEC act in a draconian way to stop people updating their details or enrolling when they have fallen off the roll. We have to remember that many people are taken off the roll and do not know about it. They may move address and when checked by the AEC there is no response and they are removed from the roll. Usually the time they find that out is somewhere close to an election, when they are suddenly reminded: ‘I might have moved recently, but I have changed a lot of things—I’ve changed my utility providers’ addresses so my power and water bills come to me; I’ve contacted the bank and I’ve done all the other bits and pieces.’ But when events only come up every few years, sometimes that is not at the forefront of people’s minds. By keeping the rolls open for seven days people who are entitled to be on the roll have a reasonable amount of time to make the changes and enact their right to choose what will be, in effect, their own government, because if they miss out they of course do not have that right.

It would seem to me that any sensible person would say that amendments such as this, that make it easier for people to exercise a genuine vote, are sensible, needed and long overdue. I believe democracy should be inclusive, not exclusive. Everyone in this House would agree with a sentiment such as that.

Last year the government presented the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill 2010, but of course that bill lapsed at the conclusion of the last parliament. It went through the House but not the Senate. That would have restored the rights of voters to update their details or re-enrol up to seven days after the close of rolls. It has been a genuine issue that has been on the go for the time that I have been in parliament. There are people out there who deserve to have the right to vote and should not be impeded by the actions of government.

I spoke in favour of the previous bill last time it was in the House in February 2010. Of course it was opposed by the Liberals and Nationals at the time. As we know, some of the changes that were put in in 2006 have now been ruled invalid by the High Court. The High Court ruling really highlighted the unfairness of those changes. The 2006 changes disenfranchised nearly 100,000 voters in 2010. In 2007, 100,370 people missed the close of rolls deadline for enrolling or changing their enrolment details by providing an enrolment form between close of rolls and polling day—too late to be eligible for the election.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into the 2007 election noted that of particular concern to the committee was that 31 17-year-olds who would have turned 18 on or before polling day and 4,068 18-year-olds who would have exercised their franchise for the first time at the 2007 election were also denied the opportunity to do so because of the changed close of rolls arrangements. This bill is about fixing this problem and correcting what I can only call an injustice to those Australians who wanted to exercise their right to vote but were not enrolled for any number of reasons.

When we look at some of the historical reasons behind this, seven days may seem like a long time for many things that are done now—many application forms are done same day and you can do many things online. That is another argument to have in this area. But it is also part of a public education campaign. This one is a bit different and I think maybe as a parliament we need to remind people that it is a continuous requirement to keep up to date on the rolls, and maybe the AEC needs to do more outside of election campaign times.

Schedule 2 of the bill addresses the second High Court decision, Roach v Electoral Commissioner, which relates to the franchise for people who may be serving a sentence of imprisonment. The amendments would ensure that while prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer will be disqualified from voting, they may during this period of disqualification remain on, or be added to, the electoral roll. Remaining on the electoral roll will ensure that a prisoner who has served their sentence does not have to enrol for a second time, and would make that step back into society, I would hope, just that little bit easier.

It is appropriate for the parliament to respond to these two decisions of the High Court of Australia to ensure that the Electoral Act reflects the current state of the law. Not only that, but this bill amends the situation imposed by the last Liberal government that disenfranchised people who wanted to vote—people who visited their local AEC office and were told that they were too late and could not vote in the election. This bill will amend the Electoral Act to restore the close of rolls period to seven days after the date of the writ for a federal election and will reinstate the previous disqualification for prisoners serving a sentence of three years or longer from voting at a federal election. I commend this bill to the House.