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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 9651

Mr NEVILLE (HinklerThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (18:37): I would very much like to talk to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. I for one have always taken a great interest in voting procedures in Australia. As a kid of 12 I would sit up at night—pre-TV—and as the figures came through on the radio I would write them down and try to predict who was going to win that election. My taste for politics began early—around the radio at 12 years of age, trying to predict elections. My interest in it has never faded.

When my mother went voting I would get her to bring back the how-to-vote cards of the various candidates, which were very basic in those days. Eventually, I got involved in politics. I stood for the first time in 1969. In fact, had I won then, I would be the Father of the House now—but I probably am in age anyhow, so it doesn't much matter.

The electoral acts are very important. How we vote is very important. During the Howard years we brought in some rules—I know the current government felt that they were too restrictive—but I thought it was fair enough to ask someone who was going on the electoral roll to identify themselves, whether by a birth certificate or a driver's licence and so on. You go into a video shop to get a movie out and you are required to identify yourself, and yet for the most important thing we do in community life—that is, vote—we have a bit of a slapdash attitude.

The other thing I thought was fair enough was that when people came in to vote they could be asked for identification. I do not know the person in question but I heard the story all right. It happened in my electorate. He was going up to have himself ticked off to vote at the last federal election and, as he was standing in the queue, the person in front of him gave his name and address. That is a million-to-one shot: the bloke who was recording a false vote by using someone else's name was one in front of the guy whose name he had subsumed. When the guy said, 'Hey, wait a minute, mate, that's my name,' the guy took off through the door—took off at the speed of a thousand gazelles, as well he might. A lot of that stuff used to go on. I can remember in one election a carload of guys was reputed to have gone to four or five polling booths and voted. You are never likely to catch a group like that, but it does happen that the electoral system is rorted.

Anything that makes the electoral system safer has my support. This bill is going to change the method of postal voting. I think some of the things proposed are probably fair enough. There was one I had some concern about, and that was the centralising of all power in the Electoral Commissioner rather than the DROs, the district returning officers. I understand that that process will probably continue within the department because the Electoral Commissioner under this bill will have the right of delegation. I know the shadow minister at the table—the member for Mackellar—has checked this matter out and she is fairly comfortable with it. That is one thing that had me a bit concerned.

I am always suspicious when you start centralising the process of sending out postal vote applications. It is usually done by local officers, but someone in head office in Brisbane or Sydney says, 'We can do it better than you guys.' I think you, Mr Deputy Speaker, one year had all your postal votes mucked up. The postal vote applications for one of the western New South Wales seats ended up in Maranoa. That sort of thing can happen when you have excessive centralisation. I would hope that, if the Electoral Commission does go to some form of centralisation, they have a very good system. If it is a system that is slower than the current one, then to some extent it will limit democracy.

Over the years, I think, we have had a few silly rules. One was: if you were having a postal vote and you were out in the country, you had to have your application date marked by 5 pm on the day before the election. But out in country areas, you do not have postmen and post offices in every suburb where you can get a letter date stamped; you have the mail contractor who goes from property to property, from little country hamlet to little country hamlet. He might collect up all the mail—he might pick up 50 or 60 letters and little parcels that afternoon—and he goes back in to the town he operates from, but he does not get in until, say, quarter to six or six o'clock. The post office is closed, the postmaster has gone home, and nobody date stamps those things until Monday morning. What happened? All those votes were ruled invalid. In the spirit of things, they had handed their postal votes to the representative of the postal service before 5 pm on the Friday, but lost the technical stamping of the envelope. I think we need to drive those sorts of things out of the system and have regard for people in the west, in inland Australia or on remote islands and the like.

This bill gives precedence to allowing electronic applications for postal votes. I was a bit nervous about that at first until I thought it through. Providing you have certain identification points so that every man and his dog cannot use your name to get into the electoral system, I suppose it is fair enough. The application for a postal vote has to go to either the Electoral Commission or the DRO's office, should the Electoral Com­missioner delegate it to the DRO, and it is then his or her job to make sure that the application accords with the roll. If it does not accord with the roll, it could be declared invalid.

We are moving into a new technological age in this regard. I support that, but with some ambivalence until this process occurs for the first time and we are able to see its after-effects—for example, whether it leads to rorting or to too many postal votes. I would be happier if it were trialled in, say, one electorate in each state initially just to see how it worked.

The bill deals not only with electronic applications for postal votes but also with the Senate ticket. We have above-the-line voting, which is easy enough, but a lot of people seem to think it is their right to vote below the line in Senate elections. In New South Wales, the ballot paper has reached its maximum size for most printeries in Australia. If we get any more candidates, the font size on the ballot paper will be quite small, and that is a problem. To address that, this bill proposes that the deposit required to nominate for a Senate election rise from $1,000 to $2,000. I think a deposit of $2,000 is fair enough to get into the Senate. Further, the number of nominees required for someone to apply to stand for the Senate will increase to 100. If two Independents want to sit on the paper as a team or 'grouped', as it is called, each of them will require 100 nominees. It will not be sufficient to get 100 nominees for the two of them unless they are a formal political party. Similarly, the deposit for the House of Representatives will go up from $500 to $1,000, and the number of nominees required will increase from 50 to 100. I think that is also fair enough, because you do not want a lot of people making a protest on a ballot paper with silly party names, just to make a statement. Elections are far too serious for that sort of nonsense.

There were 84 candidates at the last New South Wales election. If you are voting below the line, that really is an effort. You only have to get two of them wrong—write '68' or '69' twice, or whatever it might be—and your whole ballot paper is invalid. At the last election in New South Wales 42 candidates recorded fewer than 200 votes. Those 42 candidates represented only 0.6 per cent of the total number of people voting. That is something we could help to eliminate.

There were some minor amendments, which I do not think we need to canvass tonight. I think we should concentrate heavily on making sure that the integrity of the roll and the integrity of the postal vote—and also the provisional vote application, which is not subject to this bill—are watched very closely. I hope the committee, in its report after the next election—which, as we know, is only about 12 months away—will be equally rigorous in dealing with these matters.

If I can speak for the opposition and the shadow minister, I say that we accept this bill. We had a little concern about a few aspects of it, but the shadow minister has talked that through with the Electoral Commissioner to her satisfaction, and on that ground we will support the legislation.