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Thursday, 3 March 2011
Page: 2220

Mr GRAY (Special Minister of State and Special Minister of State for the Public Service and Integrity) (11:14 AM) —in reply—I thank all of those who participated in this debate. There have been 17 contributors; they have varied, and probed and made observations on the nature of these amendments. But in essence there is one golden thread that runs through the commentary on all sides of this House, and that is the importance of our electoral system and the great good fortune that it bestows on our nation. When it comes to our electoral law and its integrity the important thing is that we do actually believe in the ballot and we do believe in democratic elections. As we look at troubled regions around the world as we speak here today we can only reflect again on the great wisdom of our forefathers and of the great contribution that our democracy and the Electoral Act itself bring to this place.

All of those who have contributed to the debate on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010 have made a range of observations, but the bill gives effect to two decisions of the High Court. The first decision, which relates to the close of the rolls period, is Rowe v Electoral Commissioner as decided on 6 August 2010. The second, which relates to prisoner voting, is Roach v Electoral Commissioner as decided on 30 August 2007. This bill responds to these matters that were found to be constitutionally invalid, and it responds by removing provisions added to the Electoral Act in 2006.

As I said when I introduced the bill into the parliament in November of last year, it is appropriate for the parliament to respond to these decisions of the High Court to ensure that the Commonwealth Electoral Act reflects the current state of the law. The shadow minister has claimed that the bill is politically motivated; this is wrong. The purpose of this bill is to ensure that the electoral law in this area complies with Australia’s paramount law: the Constitution. I find it remarkable that the shadow minister would oppose such an action.

Allow me to summarise the key measures contained in this bill. The bill updates the Electoral Act to reflect the current constitutional position as declared by the High Court to restore the close of the rolls period to seven days after the date of the issuance of the writs for a federal election, be that a double dissolution election, a House of Representatives election, a House of Representatives and a half-Senate election, a half-Senate election, a by-election or a referendum. The close of rolls period helps to ensure eligible voters are able to exercise their obligation to enrol and thence their right to vote.

The bill also reinstates the 2006 provisions that the disqualification from voting at a federal election covers prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer. Furthermore, the bill provides that while people serving a sentence of imprisonment for three years or longer would be disqualified from voting they may remain on or be added to the electoral roll. This gives effect to a recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters following its inquiry into the 2007 federal election. The bill also addresses an anomaly in the Electoral Act regarding certain references to an election for a division, or similar expressions. An interpretive provision in the bill enables such references to operate in the event of a half-Senate election that is held independently from an election of the House of Representatives. Consequential amendments to be made to the Referendum Machinery Provisions Act 1984 would ensure consistency with the Electoral Act.

I note that the shadow minister has foreshadowed moving an amendment to provide that persons serving a sentence of imprisonment of one year or more cannot exercise their right to vote. The government will not be supporting this amendment on the basis of good and proper reasons, including the longstanding view of this parliament and legal advice from the Attorney-General’s Department. I am happy to discuss this further during the consideration in detail stage of this bill.

The government believes that it is an important bill that is necessary to ensure that the electoral legislation complies with the requirements of the Australian Constitution. Again, I would like to thank all the members who contributed to the debate on this bill, and I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.