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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 2076

Mr BANDT (12:36 PM) —As we have seen recently in the Middle East and North Africa, the desire for democracy is a universal and fundamental value that people are willing to fight and die for. So it is important that we protect the basic democratic rights of all Australians. The most important of these is the right to vote. It gives me great pleasure to speak in favour of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010, which re-enfranchises the tens of thousands of Australians who were affected by the actions of the Howard coalition government.

We should not be having this debate, of course. The primary reason we are doing so is the lengths to which the Howard government went to massage the criteria for enrolment in such a way as to meet its own political ends. It comes as no surprise, then, that again today we have had the coalition approaching this bill with some rather spurious arguments. We should not be surprised that we are seeing on display the coalition’s dumping of its small ‘l’ liberal values in its argument against the restoration of democratic rights that it wrested from tens of thousands of mostly young Australians in the first place.

We have heard a lot recently about the morphing of the coalition into the dangerous doppelganger of the ultraconservative Tea Party movement in the United States and how racism is eating away the coalition’s small ‘l’ liberal values. It is a reflection of how far the coalition has lurched to the right that the High Court, not itself a radical institution, has had to act to overturn these undemocratic laws.

Mr Morrison —Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: I just ask that you draw the member back to the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Sidebottom)—There is no point of order. There is fair latitude given in these debates, taken by both sides, and I will apply it in this case. But I would remind all members of the legislation before the House.

Mr BANDT —Methinks a certain member doth protest too much. Those High Court decisions reversed the amendments the coalition government made to the Electoral Act in 2006, in effect restoring the previous arrangements. The current government should be commended for moving to have Commonwealth law reflect those important decisions—and not, I add, a minute too soon.

I revisit for a moment the rationale used to justify the amendments made to the act in 2006 and focus on the decision to close rolls on the day of the writs being issued for new voters and three days after the writs were issued for voters updating their existing enrolment details. The then coalition government’s argument to close rolls early was threefold: apparently parliament needed to remove untenable administrative burdens on the AEC, needed to minimise the opportunity for electoral fraud and needed to close the rolls as early as possible to discourage voters from changing their details with the AEC at the last minute. All of these arguments amounted to political excuses that were and still are completely unsubstantiated. We all know the true rationale for the 2006 amendments to the Electoral Act; you do not have to be a psephologist to understand the effect on the two-party preferred vote created by disenfranchising tens of thousands of young voters.

At the 2004 election, 77,231 new electors, predominately young first-time voters, got on the electoral roll in the seven-day window after the election was called. At the 2010 election, 62,583 people joined the electoral roll during the same seven-day window. That amounts to 16 per cent of the total number of new enrolments since the last election. If it had not been for the GetUp initiated High Court action and the court’s last-minute decision, those 62,583 eligible voters would not have been able to vote on election day. It is no exaggeration to say that this decision could have had an important impact on the outcome of the election.

The truth about Australian federal elections is that they are never held on fixed dates and can be called unexpectedly. The Greens, of course, have said for some time that we would like to see that changed. But, until it is changed, early closure of the rolls impacts disproportionately on young people because first-time voters have the hurdle of enrolling themselves—which existing voters do not—and often have to predict that action with very little warning. Another reason early closure of the rolls impacts disproportionately on young people is that the living arrangements of younger Australians are more likely than those of other Australians to change from one election to the next. There is no clearer example of that than my electorate of Melbourne, which has a highly mobile population and the highest proportion of young people of any electorate in the country.

If other, similar democracies can cope with the administrative requirements of keeping rolls open after the election is called, then we should be able to manage it too. The United Kingdom keeps its rolls open until 11 days before polling day. New Zealand keeps its rolls open until the day before polling day. Canada keeps its rolls open until polling day itself. Yet somehow Australia apparently could not cope with the administrative burden on its national electoral commission and needed to close its rolls as soon as the election was announced.

I suggest that, if anything, Australia could be looking at going further than the provisions in this bill and investigating measures by which maximum enfranchisement, including of first-time voters, could be achieved by closing rolls much closer to polling day itself. In my view, it is also time that the Australian Electoral Commission considered whether there is a secure way of facilitating on-line enrolments which, if we could ensure the integrity of the roll, would help maximise enrolment, especially amongst young people.

In my own electorate of Melbourne in 2010, 1,616 voters that enrolled after the election was called were initially told that they could not vote. The vast majority of those 1,616 were young, first-time voters, many of them students. That is about 1½ per cent of the electoral roll in my seat. They were completely disenfranchised through the actions of the former coalition government, and I have never heard a defensible reason as to why those 1,616 young people ought not to have been on the roll. I certainly have not heard any today.

I thank the government for the introduction of this bill, and I thank GetUp and other individual campaigners for agitating on this issue. This bill will have the full support of the Greens at its second reading.