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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 2081


Ms O’NEILL (12:56 PM) —I am very pleased to speak to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010, because the way we conduct our elections says a lot about how we are inclusive or seek to exclude people from participation in our nation. Australian political parties have for the most part through our history sensibly taken a bipartisan and inclusive approach to electoral matters. This bipartisan approach has given us a practical electoral system that has spared us the tyranny of hanging chads, recall elections and other electoral disasters. In fact, our compulsory voting system, which has been in place federally since 1924, has probably compelled us to value the franchise even more than those who live in other democracies around the world. I suspect that compulsory voting—which is as Australian to me as Anzac biscuits and billy tea—has led us to embrace innovations like absentee voting much earlier than many other democracies.

However, having done a few pub crawls in my area, I have to let you know that many of the young people I have met out there whom I have been trying to encourage to enrol to vote perhaps do not quite yet understand the great gift they have in their capacity to participate in our healthy democracy.

There is a lot that both sides of politics can be very proud of in this bipartisan tradition, and I am very happy to speak to these matters. The bill we addressing today has two aims. The first is to fix the seventh day after the issue of federal election writs as the date for the close of rolls. The second is to reinstate the constitutionally mandated right to vote for prisoners serving less than a three-year term of imprisonment. I know I started my contribution to this debate by praising the overall bipartisan and cooperative nature of our approach to electoral matters in our parliament, but I have to add a disclaimer. While our shared history has given us a robust democracy, our recent history has not been as happy. That is because, since 2007, we have seen the coalition turn its back on bipartisanship when it comes to electoral matters and deliberately diminish the basic right of all Australians to exercise their franchise. How did this happen?

As many here would remember, in 2006 the then Special Minister of State, Senator Eric Abetz, took advantage of the coalition’s control of the Senate to bring forward the date for the close of rolls. For those updating their details, for those turning 18 years of age between the issue of the writs and the polling day, and for those gaining citizenship between the issue of the writs and polling day, the coalition government changed the date for the closure of rolls from the seventh day after the issue of the federal election writs to the third working day after the issue of the writs. That was quite a disgraceful act, in my view as a citizen of this fine country.

For new enrolments and re-enrolments the date for the close of rolls also changed. It changed from the seventh day after the issue of the writs to the actual day of the issue of the writs. As the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters has recorded, the result of these changes by the coalition saw more than 100,000 people miss out on the close of rolls deadline for the 2007 election. They missed out because they either failed to enrol or to change their enrolment details correctly.

The Joint Committee on Electoral Matters has reported extensively on this disenfranchisement in its inquiry into the 2007 election. The inquiry found that a total of half a million voters were unable to exercise their franchise in 2007. This was because they were either not on the roll in the first place or because they were on the roll with an incomplete or incorrect detail. Unforgivably, in my opinion, those who missed out in 2007 included more than 4,000 18-year-olds, who would have been voting for the first time, their first opportunity to exercise their franchise.

That statistic in history is one of which the opposition should be deeply ashamed. At the time of the 2006 changes, the opposition mounted a spurious argument that the integrity of the roll had to be protected from so-called voter fraud. Today they still hide behind the same spurious arguments. As the member for Melbourne Ports has pointed out in this House before, there have only been 71 proven cases of fraud in the period of an entire decade, which amounts to one in a million votes.

Disenfranchising half a million voters to catch 71 fraudulent voters in 10 years makes absolutely no sense. It lacks any sense of proportionality and reveals the incredible fraud that was perpetrated on the Australian people by those changes brought by those opposite. Then there is the alleged issue of multiple voting. I do not know that there would be many people in my electorate who would be chasing an opportunity to vote three or four times in a day.

The coalition like to speak of multiple voting as some kind of important issue, but the joint committee’s report on the conduct of the 2007 federal election and matters related thereto describes the phenomenon very aptly as ‘the multiple voting myth’. I am sure it applies even more in my region if the surf is up on that day. The report notes, that of those electors who admitted to multiple voting in 2007, 82 per cent cited confusion, poor comprehension or were aged; and, of those in the aged category, 98 per cent were aged 70 or over. Of the 10 cases of apparent multiple voting that were eventually referred to the Australian Federal Police, no further action was taken. The committee concluded:

… it needs to be more widely recognised that fears about the effects of multiple voting are, and have been, overstated and should not be used to deny eligible electors the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the democratic process

Here we have the words attached to those on the opposite side of this parliament at this time: the rising of fear, a litany of fear, teaching people to be frightened of a reality that does not exist and, through that, attempting to disenfranchise those who have at the very heart of this democracy every right to have a say about the way in which our democracy should move forward.

For the record, Labor has tried several times since winning office in 2007 to right the wrongs of the former coalition government. The measures in the current bill relating to the close of rolls are in fact the third set of proposed changes in this area of electoral law to be introduced by the federal Labor government. Unfortunately, Labor’s previous attempts to legislate to return the close of rolls to seven days, as it was before, lapsed with the conclusion of the last parliament. Despite the overwhelming evidence members on this side of the House have cited about the mass disenfranchisement of voters in 2007, the coalition has resisted our attempts to reinstate the seven-day close-off every step of the way.

Today we try again in a legislative sense. But since last year there have been some welcome and significant developments towards restoring the franchise to the Australian voter. Regrettably, these developments have not been in the parliament where the government continues to face all manner of opposition obstruction. The developments in the positive frame of which I speak were in the High Court, which on 6 August 2010 recognised the fundamental injustice of the Howard government laws in its historic decision Rowe v Electoral Commissioner. The decision handed down by Chief Justice French and Justices Gummow, Bell and Crennan held that the provisions of that legislation contravened the requirement in sections 7 and 24 of the Constitution that members of both houses of the Commonwealth parliament be ‘directly chosen by the people’. The upshot is that today’s legislation will simply allow our legislation to catch up with that fair and valid decision of the High Court.

The second set of changes this bill aims to bring in also flows from a High Court decision to overturn a 2006 Howard government amendment to the Electoral Act. In this case the High Court decision was Roach v the Electoral Commissioner and it related to the franchise of a person serving a sentence of imprisonment. In 2006, the Howard government removed voting rights from prisoners serving any term of imprisonment. When that was tested in Roach v the Electoral Commissioner, the High Court found the change to be constitutionally invalid.

As a consequence of the decision, voting eligibility reverted to the pre-existing requirement where prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer are disqualified from voting and cannot be retained on or added to the electoral roll. It is not lost on me that Vickie Roach of Roach v the Electoral Commissioner is an Aboriginal woman. Sadly, despite her contribution to the field of voters’ rights, Ms Roach was unable to convince the court to let her vote.

I am deeply worried about the kind of negative messages that were unspoken yet implicit in the coalition’s 2006 changes. Young people need a positive environment in which to grow. This is even more the case for our vulnerable, disenfranchised young people. I fear negative messages are often self-fulfilling. For example, the seat of Robertson is home to the Frank Baxter Juvenile Justice Centre. It is the largest juvenile justice centre in the state of New South Wales with a capacity for 120 young people. We also have the Mount Penang maximum security section adjacent to Frank Baxter. According to the details that I have at hand, the juvenile justice centre accommodates males aged 16 to 21 years, mostly on control orders.

I mention the centre because at last year’s federal election the declared institution results from the centre were very striking. They were striking in that there was a complete lack of result. No votes at all were recorded. Not a single vote was cast there, despite the age range of the inmates, who should have been participating. There may be some other explanation that I do not know about—and I hope we find that to be the case as we dig deeper and find out—but the bottom line is that not a single vote was cast at the state’s largest juvenile justice centre in the country’s most populous state.

I have spent a lot of my time promoting the concept of active citizenry. School classrooms and university classrooms, in which I have spent most of my time, are the places in which we practise the discourse of our democracy, where we model and we enable young people to find ways to get on in a community where they are connected with one another and where each day they learn ways of being better citizens. We practise and learn how to be citizens in that construct. In terms of active citizenry, turning 18 is a critical moment. It is the moment when you move in a very powerful symbolic way to participation by your eligibility for a vote in the Australian nation.

The current situation, as was put in place by the Howard government in 2006, is simply untenable. I would like to conclude by saying that we simply cannot continue to make it difficult for young Australians to access their basic democratic rights. All young people deserve a right to vote. I definitely welcome the changes incorporated in the bill that is before us today and I commend it to the House.