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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 2088

Mr FLETCHER (1:30 PM) —The bill before the house today, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010, has four provisions. The first deals with the status of a person serving a prison term of three years or longer. The second deals with the close of rolls period and the third and fourth deal with two minor consequential amendments. The issue I wish to focus on today is the provision to change the deadline for enrolment when a federal election has been called. I want to argue that the case which has been made in favour of changing the deadline is an unpersuasive case. I want to further argue that this is a bill which would increase the risk of electoral fraud. And the third argument I wish to make is that, sadly, the Labor Party has form in putting forward reforms to our electoral system on purportedly high-minded grounds but which are in fact for partisan political advantage.

The argument that has been put in favour of changing the deadline for enrolment once an election has been called, the argument that has been put in favour of extending that deadline, is an unpersuasive one. The position under the 2006 legislation, passed under the Howard government, was that on the day that writs were issued for an election, the deadline for enrolment was 8 pm that night. Further, the legislation meant that the rolls closed three days later and that 8 pm on that day was the deadline for changing an existing enrolment. What is now put is that the rolls should be closed seven days after the writs are issued. The argument in favour of that is that somehow the position in the 2006 legislation disenfranchised voters.

As is well known, this was the basis of proceedings brought before the High Court by the activist organisation GetUp!. The claims that were made, that the 2006 changes disenfranchised voters, are not persuasive. In his judgment, Mr Justice Heydon noted that no evidence had been put before the High Court in relation to the claim that many young electors rely on the existence of the seven-day period as a way to update their enrolment. A further point is that, quite frankly, you would have had to have had your head under a rock—if I can paraphrase the more measured judicial language of Mr Justice Heydon—not to know that there was a very high prospect of an election coming as at July 2010. A further point is that all of us, all citizens, are under an obligation to be on the electoral roll. That is one of the incidents of our responsibility as citizens.

Yet another point, which again highlights the logical inconsistencies that are contained in the argument in favour of the changes, is that if you accept the argument at its face value, then frankly you ought to take the argument to its logical conclusion—that is, the rolls ought be open until 6 pm on polling day because people might be disenfranchised because they have not had the opportunity to get on the roll at any time prior to 6 pm on polling day. The substantive point here is that a balance needs to be struck between, on the one hand, the importance of maximising enfranchisement—getting as many people as possible on the rolls able to exercise their right to vote—and, on the other hand, considerations of administrative efficiency and, very importantly, protection against the risk of electoral fraud. The arguments that are put in favour of changing from the position which applied under the 2006 bill are unpersuasive. They would not of themselves convince an objective observer that there is any need to change from the position as it stood under the law following the 2006 legislation.

But the second point we make on this side of the House about our position on this bill is that it is not simply a question of whether provisions maximise the capacity of people to get onto the roll; there is another important consideration which the parliament ought to have regard to as it assesses the merits of this proposed change—that is, the extent to which there is capacity for fraud on the electoral system, fraud on the Australian people, to be perpetrated. Is there a risk, if the Electoral Commission is required to process very large numbers of enrolments at a date very shortly before the polling day itself, that you expose the system to a greater risk of fraud? We say on this side of the House that there is a significant risk. That is not a risk to be taken lightly, that is not a risk to be dismissed, and that is a substantive reason why we are not attracted to the provision of this bill in relation to the deadline for enrolment.

The third point I wish to make is that the party bringing forward this change is, regrettably, a party which has form in bringing forward changes which are supposedly motivated by a high-minded concern for the public interest, but which are substantively due to a desire to achieve partisan political advantage. I am sorry to say we have seen that kind of thing time after time, both at a federal and at a state level, in relation to reforms proposed by the Labor Party. For example, in New South Wales we have seen the Labor government change the rules in relation to political donations by banning the receipt of donations from certain categories of donors, including tobacco, alcohol and gaming after many years—almost 15 years—of enthusiastically hoovering up donations from those very sources. The hypocrisy is rank indeed.

We also saw, in the case of the Shepherdson royal commission in Queensland some years ago, the unedifying spectacle of a former State Secretary of the Australian Labor Party appearing before the royal commission to be asked about the address at which he was enrolled on the roll some years before when he was starting out in the pursuit of his political ambitions. He was reluctantly forced to concede in cross-examination that in fact he had never lived at that address. Apparently, it was an unfortunate administrative error. It was such an unfortunate administrative error that the consequence was, after taking a recess to consider his position, he abruptly resigned as a member of the Queensland parliament. That was a state secretary of the Labor Party in Queensland. This is the party which is putting forward this piece of legislation today. It causes me no pleasure to say it, but this is the party, regrettably, which has form in seeking to amend the electoral legislation for partisan political advantage.

We do not support this provision of the bill which is before this House today. We do not accept the arguments that people are in some way disenfranchised because they are unable to get on the roll throughout the period which is available to them to do so. We make the point that the risk of electoral fraud is a serious one and not to be dismissed lightly. With regret, we ask questions about the good faith of those who are putting forward this legislation. We do that, sadly, based upon an objective consideration of the track record of the party which is putting forward these provisions.