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Thursday, 3 March 2011
Page: 2217

Mr SLIPPER (10:59 AM) —The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010 contains a mixture of objectives, some of which are supported by everyone in the parliament and some of which are opposed by the Liberal-National opposition. I say at the outset that it is vital that all elected representatives in the Australian parliament recognise that it is important to have an electoral system with integrity so that, when an election is called and the result of the election is known, the people of Australia get the government that they actually voted for. It is very, very important in a modern democracy like Australia that our electoral system be open and transparent, free and fair, and equitable because, frankly, we are a country that has had democracy continuously and we are the envy of many other countries around the globe who do not share our long history of democratic electoral tradition. That is not to say that members on both sides of the House cannot differ on the fine points of what ought to be in the electoral law.

I would like to mention briefly a couple of items which are non-controversial amendments and which are not being opposed by the Liberal-National opposition. The first amendment permits a person who is incarcerated to remain on the electoral roll even if the law prevents that particular person from exercising a vote. The second is the insertion of an interpretive provision to ensure that 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. As I said, those amendments are not being opposed by the opposition. They are sensible amendments. The first one is practical and the second one clarifies something that possibly ought to have been clarified in the legislation before.

However, I have a very great concern about the attempt by the government, following a High Court decision, to reinsert into the electoral law a provision which would permit people who have been imprisoned—for offences of which they have been convicted—to vote in an election. Surely, voting in an election is a very important right and, at times, that right should be suspended when the conduct of a person has resulted in imprisonment, being locked away and not being allowed to operate as everyone else does, as an ordinary citizen going about their daily life. What I am suggesting is that, for the period a person is incarcerated, it does not seem unreasonable to me that such a person should be denied the opportunity to vote in an election.

The decision made by the High Court was not a wide-ranging decision. When one looks at what the government is proposing in this legislation, one would imagine that the High Court has mandated that the proposed amendments in the bill with respect to prisoner voting ought to be implemented in full. The opposition response to the High Court decision was contained in the opposition members’ dissenting report to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report on the 2007 election. While that dissent has been stated before, I will restate it here in the House today. The members said:

We acknowledge the High Court’s decision in Roach, but we also note that the Court only gave a narrow decision in relation to a blanket exclusion, and did not seek to invalidate the general principle that the franchise may be removed from certain prisoners. It is the view of the Coalition that voting should be denied to those who are currently serving full-time custodial sentences of one year or longer. …

This would align the voting disqualification with the disqualification from being a Member of Parliament, at s.44(ii) of the Australian Constitution:

Any person who … has been convicted and is under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a state by imprisonment from one year or longer … shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or member of the House of Representatives.

We have a concern that what the government is proposing will diminish the integrity of the electoral roll and will permit people who, in our view, ought not to be permitted to exercise a vote because they are imprisoned. That is why the opposition will not support what the government is suggesting.

With respect to electoral enrolment, there is a concern that the Australian Electoral Commission, while it is a body with very great integrity, clearly has limited resources, and the flood of enrolments which have occurred in the past following the announcement of an election has meant that it is virtually impossible for the Australian Electoral Commission to follow the usual, thorough processes it does to make sure that those people who seek to get on the electoral roll are in fact eligible to do so.

Prior to 2006, the close of rolls for a federal election was set at seven days after the issue of writs. In 2006, the parliament decided that, for new enrolments, the electoral roll would be closed at eight o’clock in the evening of the day the writs were issued and, with respect to changes to existing enrolments, three days after the writs were issued. It has been pointed out by the opposition that the reason that the then government took this view and the then parliament supported that view was their concern about the possibility of electoral fraud associated with high levels of enrolment activity during the seven-day enrolment period which existed prior to 2006.

Elections are held in a cycle. There is an election for the House of Representatives approximately every three years. There is an ongoing obligation on citizens to enrol to vote as soon as they are eligible to do so. In fact, the Commonwealth Electoral Act even makes provision for people not yet 18 years of age to provisionally enrol in the event that an election is called for a date not very far after they will turn 18. So there is already a provision for a young person who is approaching the age of 18 years to be able to get on the electoral roll. If people were doing their duty and getting on the electoral roll as soon as they are able to and if people were prepared to change their electoral enrolment details as soon as they moved then there would be no reason at all for the amendments currently before the chamber.

I have a great concern because in the electorate of Fisher I have seen vast numbers of new enrolments and it was simply not possible to identify those people. We wrote to some of those people and much of the correspondence came back unclaimed. So, if these people ever did live at the addresses they were seeking enrolment for, they certainly did not live there a very short time after their name went on the electoral roll for that electorate.

I believe it is important for the Australian Electoral Commission to be able to do its job in an orderly and timely way. It ought to be able to check the veracity of the details of people seeking to join the electoral roll. It is entirely unreasonable for us to ask the Australian Electoral Commission to make sure that the electoral roll has integrity when we have a huge flood of people seeking enrolment after an election is called. Everyone knows when an election is approaching and there is ample opportunity for good citizens to get on the electoral roll in a timely way so their enrolment details are able to be checked by the Electoral Commission to make sure that, as far as possible, only people entitled to be enrolled are enrolled.

All of us know that the Electoral Commission works extremely hard in the run-up to a polling day, so we ought to support anything we can do to ease that workload, to minimise mistakes and to avoid dodgy and fraudulent enrolments. The existing time frames are practical, sensible and reasonable and they do assist in maintaining the integrity of the electoral roll. The amendments the government is proposing undermine the integrity of the electoral roll, and I do not believe these amendments will be supported by the community at large.

The government ought to reconsider the proposal with respect to the closure of the electoral roll. The seven-day period is unnecessary. It places additional demands on the AEC and its staff. It creates a mad flurry of activity and increases the possibility of mistakes. For 365 days a year voters are able to enrol and change their details. I do not believe we ought to risk the integrity of our electoral roll to assist those people who do not carry out their community duty and enrol as they are required to under the law of Australia.

Regarding those people who launched the High Court action after missing the enrolment deadline just prior to the 2010 election, Mr Justice Heydon on the High Court bench said:

They are simple steps. It would have been very easy to take them. There was ample time to take them.

…            …            …

It is they who disqualify, disenfranchise, exclude or disentitle themselves, not the legislature.

I believe the government ought to heed the very sound words of Mr Justice Heydon. The High Court decision was a four to three ruling. Admittedly, it becomes part of the law of Australia because there was a majority on the High Court, but it was a very close decision. The government will say that this bill formalises the decision of the High Court, but I believe that the bill goes beyond what the High Court actually said.

All of us have heard stories of cats and dogs and even of goldfish being placed on the electoral roll. Although it is funny, it does not assist the integrity of the system. We need to make sure that the Australian community does not disengage from the political system. When one hears of mistakes or oversights and sees cats, dogs and goldfish enrolled, it is really very unfortunate. I am not for a moment suggesting that the Special Minister of State for the Public Service and Integrity wants to see cats, dogs and goldfish enrolled—I am sure he does not want to go to kennels, pick up dogs and put them on the electoral roll; I would not suggest that for a moment, because I do have very high regard for the minister—but I think the minister’s brief in this matter is flawed. He ought not to be seeking to make the amendments that he is.

Australians over the years have had an electoral system which has been admired and respected. The Australian Electoral Commission is often asked to send observers to other countries to assist them to conduct fair and free elections. We in Australia have the right to vote freely and without reprisal, and that is the way it should be. We do not face the threat of assault or beatings if we do not vote a certain way, we do not have the risk of riots in the streets and we do not face the fear of losing our lives or having our fingers chopped off, as has been faced by some in Afghanistan, but this does not mean that we should now become excessively complacent with respect to the integrity of our electoral system.

While we might not agree with the result of an election, it is always important that we respect the process. It is important that we have an electoral system of integrity. While I believe honestly that the government does also share that belief, in my view the amendments before the chamber today go some distance towards reducing the integrity of the electoral system. Frankly, I do not think that is a good thing for the electoral system and I do not think it is a good thing for Australia. I ask the government, through the minister, to reconsider these retrograde amendments.