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Tuesday, 22 March 2011
Page: 2755

Mr DANBY (9:13 PM) —My interest in democracy and democratic practices in Australia long predated my role as a parliamentarian, which I have had since 1998. Unfortunately I am not involved with the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters anymore, but no-one has argued longer, harder and in more detail on this issue than I have about these malevolent changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act made by the previous Liberal government in 2006. The 2006 legislation was brought in by the then Liberal government with the worst possible intentions, as the previous speaker, the member for La Trobe, suggested. At the time, the purported reasons for the change were that the legislation was designed to improve the integrity of the electoral roll. However, the actual reason for the 2006 changes was exactly the opposite. Simply put, the real intent of the 2006 changes that this legislation will partially invalidate was that they were expected to assist the Liberal Party in the 2007 and subsequent elections.

The particular change that this legislation will repeal is the onerous requirement whereby one group of declaration voters—those casting a provisional vote—must provide some form of identification for their vote to count, usually photo identification. Provisional votes are sought when a voter arrives at a polling booth on election day and gives their name to the official but finds that they are not on the roll. The AEC provisionally issues a vote, the voter fills it out and it is put in an envelope with their name and address on it. Under Liberal government changes brought in in 2006, the voter must provide valid ID, like a drivers licence, on the spot or present to an AEC office with a valid ID within a week. Later in the week the Australian Electoral Commission checks the voter’s details and agrees that they should, indeed, be on the roll. Their ballot paper is then counted if their vote is considered valid under this existing system.

Previously, what was the system under which the Liberal Party won the 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections? It was the quite logical system of matching signatures. If an Australian voter turned up at a polling booth and signed the outside of his envelope to say that he was that person, then the highly responsible officials of the Electoral Commission took this back to the AEC, matched it with the voter’s existing signature and they were then included on the roll. The ethos of the Australian Electoral Commission and Australian democracy ought to be to include as many valid votes as possible—not to find excuses to exclude them because they belong to inconvenient categories of people who might vote for a different political party.

Of course, this whole issue of provisional voting and the so-called integrity of the roll is completely the wrong issue. The real issue for Australian democracy ought to be the fact that there are 2.5 million Australians who did not cast a vote at the last election. That is the scandal of the electoral system at the moment, not the fact that the so-called integrity of the roll is invalid in any way. At the 2007 election 27,544 citizens voted provisionally but had their votes rejected because of the new requirements. Similarly, at the extremely closely fought election of 2010, 28,011 citizens voted but were later disqualified because of the Liberal changes. Further, the AEC has noted that the admission rate for Senate provisional votes fell from 62.23 per cent in 2004 to 25 per cent in 2007, concluding that if the 2004 admission rate had prevailed in 2007 an additional 62,000 Australians would have been counted in the Senate voting. Sixty-two thousand of our fellow citizens were excluded from voting by these bodgie changes, which we promised to get rid of at both elections. I am very proud to be associated with this legislation, to re-enfranchise my fellow Australians.

Why do people not present photo ID when they vote, you might ask. Mostly, because they do not have a drivers licence. ‘Okay,’ you might ask, ‘but provisional voters still have the opportunity to provide the AEC with their ID within a week after the election. Why don’t they do that?’ Just think of how people think—ordinary Australian citizens who are not as involved in politics as we are in this House, on both sides. The election result is already decided. Who would take time off from work, go and find an AEC office and fill out a form to cast a vote that no-one would pay any attention to? People are busy working, and how many know where their Australian Electoral Commission office is? I bet you the Deputy Speaker’s Electoral Commission office is miles and miles from many of his voters. My inner city electorate is forced to share an office with the electorate of Melbourne, and it takes you an hour to drive around Casselden Place to find an existing parking space. This is another attempt to make things difficult for people that should be made easier. In some regional electorates the AEC and the post office are many hours away, as I said. Not only do they have to prove their identity with a drivers licence or other prescribed document, there are other requirements for ID, including proving the validity of their signatures. Basically, it is a lot of paperwork that people are not willing to bother with after an election.

These Liberal changes to the provisional voting method resulted in many voters being disqualified who were admitted in the past. You might say that votes being disqualified would reflect the wider voting pattern across the nation, so that in the big scheme of things the disqualification of 30,000 votes or so really would not affect the overall result. This is not so. The types of people who make provisional votes fit into a particular demographic type, very capably outlined by the member for La Trobe in her speech. Of course, this is why the legislation was introduced, against all of the advice from the Australian Electoral Commission and the psephological experts, including Professor Colin Hughes and Malcolm Mackerras—a person who the Liberal Party often quotes as a great electoral expert. All of these people testified and argued against this; it was quite clear that this was being done for political purposes. The average number of provisional votes in the 10 most Indigenous seats in this country is 1.76 per cent of the total vote, and the national average is 1.23; in other words, it is half a per cent higher in areas with large Indigenous populations.

Without a licence, provisional voters need to provide a passport or a birth certificate in order to vote. No-one expects to have to present their birth certificate when they vote. For most Australians there is no need to prove ID at a polling booth at all. It will not surprise anyone with passing knowledge of Australian politics if I point out that the particular demographics described vote largely for Labor, Greens or left-of-centre parties. I argue that this is the reason that the previous government made these terrible changes to provisional voting.

In my view, if the number of provisional votes in the 2004 election were compared to the number in the 2007 election, enough Labor voters were disenfranchised to allow the coalition to win at least four seats—Bowman, Dickson, McEwen and Swan—that otherwise would have been won by the previous Labor government in 2007. It did not affect the election result, fortunately, because Labor won by a sufficiently large margin for those four seats not to be germane to the result. But that was not the plan of the people who put this nefarious legislation into practice.

Professor Brian Costar of Swinburne University of Technology, one of Australia’s most respected political scientists, told the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters:

I think a case can be made that it changed the result … We know that provisional voters, because of their choice, are not a mirror image of the electorate as a whole. They tend to be more Labor and Green than they are Liberal, National, or anything else.

I expect that the rejection of the 28,000 voters in the 2010 election may have affected the results in a number of electorates as well. In light of the result of the 2010 election, every Australian now knows that the fate of one electorate can decide the fate of a government. So, if the 2007 result of changing the result because of these provisional voting changes had been effected at the 2010 election, these malevolent, nefarious, bodgie changes which are now being invalidated by this legislation would have won the Liberal National Party office on these antidemocratic manoeuvrings.

Australia, despite being a young country, is in fact an old and strong democracy, especially when we look at it in a global context. Even before Federation Australia was known for its progressive electoral policies, including, as the member for Mackellar knows, giving women the right to vote before many other countries—in fact, leading the world in that—and introducing the secret ballot, which for many years was known throughout the world as the Australian ballot because it was not done in other countries. However, the Liberals’ 2006 changes to the provisional voting procedures are an example of regressive rather than progressive electoral policy. This bill will restore the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to its pre-2006 statutes with the law, custom and practice established over almost a century. I would have thought that was the conservative practice with which the member for Mackellar would identify instead of regressive changes designed to affect the result at two elections. The voter’s signature provided on the declaration envelope in which the provisional votes are contained would be compared with the signature of the elector which exists in its original or subsequent enrolment forms which were held by the AEC. It was good enough for the Liberal Party in 1996. It was good enough for the Liberal Party in 1998. It was good enough for the Liberal Party in 2001. It was good enough—

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop interjecting

Mr DANBY —Are you arguing, Member for Mackellar, that all of those elections were somehow fraudulent? Are you saying that they were not won on a proper basis? We, of course, conceded the fact that they were won by your side of politics. And the system of comparing signatures, which we had had for nearly a century, was the system at the time. Come on. We know why these changes were made in 2006. It is blindingly obvious to everyone now.

Perhaps the most powerful endorsement of this legislation comes from the key institution responsible for safeguarding the integrity of our elections: the Australian Electoral Commission. In its submissions to the inquiries of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2007 and 2010 federal elections, the AEC—the neutral body responsible for our electoral legislation—commented that the requirement of evidence of identity for provisional voters should be repealed. A knife-edge federal election and the strong support of Australia’s key election body—I cannot think of any better reasons for repealing this unjust and politically motivated legislation brought in by the Liberals in 2006.

There are many things that this government is doing in the areas of early closure of the rolls in this area of provisional voting. They are completely the wrong issues. They are the issues that were focused on by the conservatives in order to divert from the fact that in a compulsory voting system we have 2.5 million Australians who for a variety of reasons did not participate in the last Australian election. This is a pattern that has been obvious for a long period of time. The Australian Electoral Commission, working neutrally, will do as much as it can if it is given the powers by this parliament to enrol as many people as possible. Surely this is the ethos that should inform all democrats in this parliament. As many Australians should be empowered to vote as possible, and getting people off the roll is exactly the wrong attitude. Disenfranchising Australians is the wrong attitude, and this is what we are addressing with this legislation. I am very proud to be associated with this bill.