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Wednesday, 27 June 2012
Page: 8158


Mr GRAY (BrandSpecial Minister of State and Minister for the Public Service and Integrity) (09:58): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to present a bill to amend the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act which will substantially improve the interactions that Australians have with elections and referendums.

The bill implements the government's response to three of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) in its Report into the 2010 federal election, specifically, recommendations 12, 31 and 32. I note that the opposition members of the committee did not oppose these recommendations in their dissenting report.

Schedule 1 to the bill will modernise the postal voting provisions to facilitate the use of technology to improve the way in which postal vote applications are made and processed.

One hundred and ten years ago the first Commonwealth Electoral Act provided for postal voting in much the same way as the current act. The current act provides that applications are made to a divisional returning officer who processes the applications and dispatches the postal vote packages. The postal votes are then returned to a divisional returning officer, processed again and counted. This was fine, in earlier times, when there were few postal vote applications.

At the 2010 election, however, the Electoral Commission processed over a million postal votes, which was a 17.8 per cent increase in the number processed at the 2007 election.

Schedule 1 to the bill will simplify the postal vote arrangements by directing all applications to either the electoral commissioner or an assistant returning officer.

Assistant returning officers, who may receive postal vote applications from overseas voters, will be located outside of Australia at such places as Australian high commissions and embassies or certain Australian Defence Force operations.

Upon receiving an application, the electoral commissioner or an assistant returning officer will then send, or arrange for the sending, of postal vote packages to the applicant.

Directing the majority of postal vote applications to the electoral commissioner will enable the centralised processing by computers and the centralised dispatch of postal vote packages.

As technology changes over time, the electoral commissioner will be able to take advantage of new efficiencies to process the applications.

The amendments do not fundamentally change the existing policy underpinning the current arrangements for postal voting, with two small exceptions.

The first policy change is that a 'person' rather than an 'elector' may make an application for a postal vote. This means that the electoral commissioner can issue the postal vote package in a timely way without assessing the applicant's entitlement to vote at the issuing stage.

This change does not necessarily mean that the person's vote will be counted. Once the completed postal vote certificate is returned to the electoral commissioner the person's eligibility to vote will be ascertained before including the ballot papers in the count in the weeks following polling day.

The new arrangements will continue to ensure that only postal votes by 'electors' will be counted, thus maintaining the integrity of the postal voting process.

The second small policy change is the repeal of a ground upon which a person may base a claim to be a general postal voter.

The repeal is merely a tidy up following amendments made in 2010 to the mobile polling provisions. The ground that is repealed is that a person may be a general postal voter if they live more than 20 kilometres from a place that will be visited by a mobile polling team.

As mobile polling teams are no longer limited to remote divisions, and the places that they visit are not confirmed until the writs for an election are issued, it is impractical to maintain such a ground upon which to base an application to be a general postal voter.

Schedule 1 to the bill implements the government's response to recommendation 12 made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report into the 2010 federal election.

The amendments made by schedule 2 to the bill seek to address concerns arising from the increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections. They are proposed as a means of discouraging candidates who are not seriously in contention for election and thereby would reduce the number of candidates on ballot papers.

The Senate election in New South Wales in 2010 provides some context for these amendments.

In this election there were 84 candidates distributed across 33 columns.

Of the 84 candidates, 42 candidates received fewer than 200 first preference votes. The total of the formal votes polled by these 42 candidates was 2,697 or 0.06 per cent of the total formal vote.

None of them came from a group which had a candidate elected and all lost their nomination deposits.

The increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections has an impact on formality due to a ballot paper that is growing in complexity in a voting system that requires every box to be numbered below the line if the elector chooses that voting option.

There are also practical issues associated with printing of such a ballot paper. The Senate ballot paper for New South Wales is already the maximum size that can be printed in Australia—1,020 millimetres—using currently available print technologies, and it is quite unwieldy. If more Senate groups contest the next election than in 2010, the font of the ballot paper must be further reduced in size. Reducing the font size significantly affects readability and therefore risks increased informal voting, thus affecting ballot outcomes.

Schedule 2 to the bill will increase the nomination deposit that must be paid by or on behalf of a candidate from $1,000 to $2,000 for all Senate candidates.

It will increase the nomination deposit that must be paid by or on behalf of all candidates for the House of Representatives from $500 to $1,000.

The last time that the deposits were increased was in 2006.

The increases were recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in recommendations 31 and 32 and are supported by the government.

Schedule 2 to the bill will also increase the number of electors required to nominate an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 electors. Unendorsed candidates are candidates who either are not endorsed by a registered political party or are not a sitting Independent candidate.

Further, for unendorsed Senate candidates who have made a request to be grouped, each candidate will require 100 unique electors to nominate them. For example, if two Senate candidates have made a request to be grouped, the group will need 200 unique nominator electors.

There is no change to the number of nominators required for endorsed candidates of registered political parties or sitting Independent candidates as defined in the act.

The amendments to increase the required nomination deposit and to increase the number of nominators required for unendorsed candidates seek to strike the right balance between providing the opportunity for all eligible citizens to stand for parliament while at the same time putting in place some reasonable thresholds that candidates must meet; thresholds that will contribute to ensuring the effectiveness of the electoral process.

There are also a number of minor and technical amendments to both acts.

One of these amendments makes a change to the law relating to who may be enrolled and may vote at elections. Even before Federation there was a longstanding prohibition on people who were described as being 'of unsound mind' so that they are 'incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting'.

The amendments in this bill replace the outdated reference to 'unsound mind' with a non-judgemental requirement to obtain a letter or certificate from a 'qualified person' with respect to a person's capacity to vote. The amendments now provide a disqualification from enrolment if in the opinion of a qualified person the potential elector does not understand the nature and significance of enrolment and voting.

The inclusion of the words 'unsound mind' in the Commonwealth Electoral Act generates considerable concern in the community. General practitioners advise that they are not qualified to say whether somebody is or is not of 'unsound mind'. Such inappropriate language is both unhelpful and misleading.

The definition of 'qualified person' is adopted from the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and includes medical practitioners, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

There is no change of policy behind these amendments.

These amendments, by modernising these references, will help address the concerns on this issue of family members, carers and carers of people who have a substantial illness or enduring disability.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.