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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 2087


Ms SAFFIN (1:21 PM) —I speak in support of this bill, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010, and I do so for two reasons. One is the general reason that anything that this parliament can do to enfranchise voters is something that we have to take seriously, to consider seriously and to do. It is not our role when we come into the parliament to disenfranchise voters. The right to vote is one of the rights that are in our Constitution, and it is something that we have to be very mindful of and give expression to. That is the general approach that we should adopt in how we do things, whether we are in government or whether we are in opposition. So it is very clear, I am talking about the parliament and our role as law makers and members of parliament.

When I went to the election in 2007, what disturbed me was that there had been provisions introduced to the act which had disenfranchised voters, particularly young people and others who were enrolling for the first time. We should be encouraging young people—we should be encouraging everybody—to exercise their democratic right to vote. There was that period where they had to get on the rolls and they had to register almost immediately, and by the time they realised that it had to be done it was over; they could not do it. That is going from the general to the particular.

The primary purpose of this amendment is to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to give effect to two decisions of the High Court of Australia. It pleases me to be able to talk to an amending bill that is giving effect to those two decisions. The previous speaker said a number of things, but he said that we should not be doing beyond what we are constitutionally bound to do. That is precisely what we are doing; the High Court made two decisions, and we are giving effect to those two decisions.

The first decision is Rowe v Electoral Commissioner, and it was decided on 6 August 2010. It concerned the process following the calling of an election through the formal issue of a writ and the period of time allowed for relevant voters to either ensure they are on the electoral roll or update their details. I can remember people coming to my office, trying to get forms faxed through to the Australian Electoral Commission. My staff stayed at work until eight o’clock that night trying to get them through, because the fax clogged up and nobody could get anything through. We were on deck to make sure that people were able to do that.

As to how they would vote, I did not have a clue, but they were my constituents and that was what they wanted to do. Some missed out because they went to the post office and the post office was closed. The post office actually could not get the forms through to the AEC. The AEC were sending them to my office; some got there. There was a whole range of things that were going on at that time. Even though that was all rather messy, what was pleasing was that there were people who really wanted to get on the roll and exercise their right to vote, so it is really important that we make these changes to the act.

The second decision was Roach v Electoral Commissioner, which was decided in August 2007. That concerned the franchise for relevant people who may be serving a sentence of imprisonment. I heard some contributions recently from someone in the coalition—I cannot remember who it was—talking about the issue about prisoners, saying that we should not be giving them the right to vote. It is a longstanding philosophical view, but we should be giving the right to vote to people wherever they are without fear or favour. There are some constraints on it, but we should not just keep making it harder and harder for anybody to exercise that right to vote. In keeping with rule of law principles, the punishment is actually the sentence and the detention, so we do not have to further sentence through legislative sentences here. That is exactly what was being suggested by the other side. Legislative sentencing is a dangerous area to stray into.

If the bill is enacted, it will do a number of things. It will update the text of the Electoral Act to reflect the current legal position as declared by the High Court to restore the close of rolls period to seven days after the date of the writ for a federal election and reinstate the previous disqualification of prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer from voting at a federal election. Consequential amendments to the referendum act would have to be made to ensure consistency between the two acts. The explanatory memorandum also deals with two other related matters that are also addressed by the bill.

In June 2009 the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters delivered a report entitled, Report on the conduct of the 2007 federal election and matters related thereto. I will just stop and make a comment about the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I have read a lot of its reports, and it has done some really fine work over the years. It behoves us to read those reports and use them as a guiding principle—not every report, but in general the committee has done some fine work, particularly over the last few years. The bill would implement the government’s response of 18 March 2010 to recommendation 47 of that report, and the amendments would ensure that, while prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer will be disqualified from voting, they may remain on or be added to the electoral roll. The other related matter that would be addressed by the bill is an interpretive provision to ensure that certain references in the Electoral Act to an election for a division or similar expressions can operate in the event of a half-Senate election held independently from an election of the House of Representatives.

In closing, it pleases me to be able to talk on this bill. It pleases me that we are able to further franchise voters, voters who were disenfranchised by the previous government, the Howard coalition government, who one after another will be here today, seeking to continue that disenfranchisement. I commend the bill to the House.