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Tuesday, 22 March 2011
Page: 2753

Ms SMYTH (9:06 PM) —I am very glad to participate in this debate on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Provisional Voting) Bill 2011 because essentially it is a question of the value we place on universal franchise in this country. It is about the value that we place on participation in our democracy of all individuals who are eligible to do so. It is ultimately about confidence in our electoral system. It is about ensuring that we do not seek to make it harder for any individual to participate in our democratic processes, to participate in our elections, and that we do not make it prohibitive or something which ultimately results in individuals being disenfranchised.

As we have heard, a person can be asked to cast a provisional vote in circumstances where their name cannot be located readily on the roll, if the roll shows that the person has already voted, if polling officials have doubts about the identity of the voter, or if the voter is registered as a silent elector and their address does not appear on the roll. The Electoral Act and the referendum act, as they currently stand, require that a person who casts a provisional vote provide evidence of his or her identity by the first Friday following polling day. Under those acts, as they stand, a failure to provide that evidence of identity by that time will mean that the vote of that person does not proceed to preliminary scrutiny and is not counted. This is a curious requirement which was put in place by the Howard government in 2006. It meant that provisional votes would be and have been dealt with in a way which is inconsistent with the way in which other types of declaration votes are handled.

Voters who would otherwise be eligible to have an absentee vote, a postal vote or a prepoll vote are treated differently if they instead cast a provisional vote. If a voter who is otherwise eligible to vote does not provide evidence of their identity by the prescribed deadline, his or her vote will not be counted. This bill is about ensuring the franchise of voters and their confidence in the system of administration of voting in Australia. It will remove the requirement imposed by the Howard government for provisional voters to provide evidence of identity before their votes are admitted to preliminary scrutiny. If there is doubt about the entitlement of the voter to vote, the signature of that person on the provisional voting envelope will be compared to the signature of the elector on previously lodged enrolment records.

There might be a number of reasons why an elector does not provide evidence of identity by the deadline. There might be certain reasons which relate to their availability following an election date or a referendum date. A further possible explanation may be that an elector might ultimately not be determined to provide evidence of their identity after polling day if the result of an election is perceived by then to be known, so it does not necessarily indicate an attempt by electors to fraudulently vote. That is the first point of distinction between the position of the government and the position put by the member for Mackellar earlier. We are concerned with ensuring franchise and doing our best to ensure universality of franchise, while those opposite are largely concerned with procedural technicalities and their perception of some sort of irregularity with voting processes.

The AEC has indicated that some 200,000 provisional votes were cast at the 2010 general election. Of these, over 28,000 provisional votes were rejected because the voter did not provide evidence of identity by the first Friday following polling day. Further examination by the AEC of those provisional voting envelopes found over 12,000 instances where the name of the voter was ultimately found on the certified list. That is rather an alarming figure in the context of those voters who obviously did not get to cast their vote at first instance. We also know that the acceptance rate of provisional voting went from around 50 per cent in the 2004 election to around 14 per cent in the 2007 election. I take a different view from the member for Mackellar on these figures. I consider this to be particularly concerning in the context of disenfranchisement.

One wonders why the coalition has maintained its opposition to the amendments proposed by this bill. The amendments give consistency to the treatment of provisional, absentee, postal and prepoll means of voting. They are aimed at better ensuring that all eligible Australian voters are able to cast a vote and participate fully in our democracy. So why then is this, which is apparently fairly reasonable, opposed by the coalition? Let us look at the likely identity of many provisional voters. Many of these people will be younger Australians moving house between elections—and we know how attractive the coalition has shown itself to be to young people at the ballot box. The people who the Howard government requirement was most likely to disenfranchise were people who rent or move residence regularly, people who do not have a driver’s licence and, in particular, young people. So one wonders whether it was in fact the intention of the Howard government in its amendments in 2006 to make it more difficult for those categories of person to cast a vote.

Our changes mean that it will not be more difficult to cast a provisional vote than any other type of declaration vote. The Howard government’s tinkering with the Electoral Act in 2006 meant that more people casting provisional votes were disenfranchised than ever before, and we have to question who the people were who were more likely to be disenfranchised. The amendments proposed to this bill address the particularly urgent matter of otherwise valid votes being excluded from further scrutiny. The bill will implement the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report into the conduct of the 2007 federal election, and we know that this measure was also one of this government’s 2007 election commitments. We also know that the amendments proposed in this bill were supported by the AEC, which, in its submission to the inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2010 federal election and related matters, recommended that the requirement for production of evidence of identity by provisional voters should be repealed. In the context of that support, and bearing in mind the categories of people who are most likely to be and who have been detrimentally affected by the existing regime, I certainly commend the bill to the House and am pleased to be able to lend my voice to support on this significant issue.