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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3558

Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (19:00): I am delighted to rise to speak to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and cognate bill, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. The words 'protecting elector participation' are very good and appropriate words. Let me repeat them, to declare clearly the intention of these bills: protecting elector participation. This is at the core of our democratic Australian society. It is also at the core of the legislation that this Labor government has been bringing before the House to enable as many people as possible to benefit from participation in our economy, in the same way that this legislation seeks to enable as many people as possible to benefit from participation in our democracy.

Stories from places around the world where democracy is not quite as stable and developed as it is here in this country reveal to us that the desire of people to vote is such a powerful thing, such an important thing, that people actually give their lives for this opportunity. We could perhaps do a much better job, through civic education and citizenship education in our schools, to help young people, who we fund as citizens through our taxes, to more deeply understand their rights and responsibilities in participating in voting and setting the direction of the nation.

I would like to put on the record again what this legislation actually does. It amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to provide for direct enrolment and the reinstatement to the electoral roll of certain persons casting declaration votes. The bill will implement the government's legislative response to recommendations 1 and 24 of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report entitled The 2010 federal election: report on the conduct of the election and related matters. I commend the chair of that committee, the member for Banks, and his colleagues for the work of the committee—and also the member for Melbourne Ports—and for their continuing and passionate advocacy for this particular cause. They are certainly true believers in freedom and will always support Australians in their capacity to exercise their franchise.

This bill deals with a number of elements. One of them is direct enrolment. The proposed bill will amend the electoral act to allow the Electoral Commissioner to use accurate and timely information received from a reliable source—not just anywhere; it is not a note from your mother—to enrol an eligible person without the person submitting a claim for enrolment. Direct enrolment will assist in meeting the urgent need to arrest the decline in enrolment rates across Australia by ensuring the federal electoral roll is as current and accurate as possible. Direct enrolment without having to submit a claim-for-enrolment form is particularly important for those Australians for whom schooling might not have been the most positive experience and whose literacy efforts might not have been 100 per cent successful. Because people might not be able to read, because they might not be able to write or because they might be limited in their capacity to participate in the form filling that is part of our modern society does not make them any less valuable as a citizen of this country and should not impinge on their capacity to participate in voting. The whole notion of agency and the capacity to participate is one that we take very seriously and it is important that we make it as easy as possible for any Australian who wishes to vote and exercise their rights and responsibilities in this democracy to participate.

This bill also deals with the problem of reinstatement to the electoral roll. The amendments will provide that, where a declaration voter who is entitled to vote has been omitted from the electoral roll and the omission was due to an error or mistake of fact, then his or her votes may progress to further scrutiny in certain circumstances. This is very important to make sure that people who find that there is a problem very close to the date of a poll still have the capacity to participate and that their vote is part of setting the direction of this country. The bill will also amend the electoral act to provide that the Electoral Commissioner may enrol a person who meets certain criteria. Reinstatement to the electoral rolls and the admission of votes to scrutiny will assist in ensuring that the votes of otherwise eligible electors are counted.

Sadly, as many of those who have spoken before me have indicated, there is a decline in enrolment rates across Australia, and I am sure members here would agree with me that we must ensure that as many votes as possible are counted at the next federal election. That is not controversial at all, but it is certainly the right thing to do. I know there are some on the other side of the chamber who represent rural and regional areas. This legislation will raise enrolment rates in rural and remote areas. The bill will amend the electoral act and the referendum act to allow the Electoral Commissioner to place a person on the electoral roll at a particular address if the Electoral Commissioner is satisfied that the person is entitled to enrolment, has lived at an address for at least one month and is not enrolled. As a result of this legislation, the commissioner will have the capacity to make sure that that enrolment goes ahead and that the vote is able to be counted.

This process will take place following the receipt and analysis of reliable and current data from sources external to the Australian Electoral Commission that indicates that a person is an eligible Australian citizen and actually lives at the particular address. An electricity bill, for example, would provide a reliable source. The bill does not amend the qualifications for enrolment. It is very important that this goes on the record. The bill requires the Electoral Commissioner to inform a person that the Electoral Commissioner is proposing to place them on the electoral roll at that address and provide the person with 28 days in which to object to the proposed enrolment. The decision to enrol a person or not enrol a person is ultimately able to be reviewed. That would be undertaken by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The bill will also allow the admission to scrutiny, in specified circumstances, of the declaration votes made by people who had been enrolled but were removed from the roll due to an error. The bill will return the law to the pre-2006 position so that, if a person has been removed from the roll by objection action on the mistaken belief that they were not living at the enrolled address, this will constitute a 'mistake of fact'.

Sadly, there are no prizes for guessing which party was actually responsible for this attempted mass disenfranchisement of the Australian people between 2006 and 2007. Some of it was revealed in the language choice of the member for Wright who was just speaking before—the 'honour of voting' I swear I heard him say. I suppose you might think about it as an honour, but in fact it is a right and a responsibility. That is quite a different frame to put around what a vote is. As I and many others have noted in this place, the result of this incredibly disappointing period of our history was a period of gross disenfranchisement by the most mercenary government of this country; it happened under the Howard government. It saw more than 100,000 people miss out on the close of rolls at the deadline of the 2007 election.

Opposition members interjecting

Ms O'NEILL: Members opposite might find that quite humorous. My response is that that is an absolute disgrace. If it were to happen in another country where we were looking to support free and fair elections, we would be reporting that as inappropriate behaviour. I find it hard to stand here in this legislative chamber—

Mr Robert: Then sit down.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. DGH Adams ): Order!

Ms O'NEILL: and think that that piece of legislation was actually put forward. While I have the opportunity to stand here and speak for ordinary Australians who have the right to speak, I will certainly take every moment of that time, despite the discouragement of those opposite who tried to shut down voters then, just as they would like to shut down my speaking right now.

Amongst those who missed out in 2007 were more than 4,000 18 year-olds who would have been voting for the first time. I have actually met a few of these 18-year-olds. I have spent a lot of my time working with young adults, and I know that there are moments when there is an opportunity for engagement. As a teacher you see them and you know that there is a teachable moment in it. And one of the most important things that can happen for an Australian citizen is to engage in voting at the very first opportunity. Through that act, young adults participate fully and come to an understanding of the power of their vote, collectively with others, to set the course of this nation, to contribute in a real and tangible way to a democracy. There is the whole process of going to a polling booth, taking one or a number of indications of how you might cast your vote, going through the process of having your name marked off, looking at the pages and pages of names of citizens there beside yours, taking those appropriately signed papers and going into a booth to cast your ballot in private. Yet, having desired to have that experience, as was their right at age 18, that experience was rudely ripped away from these young people as they were about to enter into that contract with our nation.

It is appalling that that actually happened and it indicates incredible cynicism and incredible negativity. It reveals the very significant difference between the Labor Party on this side of the House and the Liberal-Nationals on the other side, who still hold on to some notion, disconnected from our modern reality, that there are some people who should have rights, some people who should have a big voice, and that some people who have a lot of money can buy more place in our public debate than others. While those opposite support that, they oppose the participation of ordinary young Australians.

Those opposite also seem to engage in putting up arguments about the integrity of the roll. But I think it is important to put on the record how dangerous that fear-mongering is. When I looked back at some remarks I made last year in a previous contribution on an electoral legislative amendment, the facts showed that there were 71 proven cases of electoral fraud over a whole decade, which amounts to one in a million of the votes cast. Those opposite enacted a legislative amendment that saw the disenfranchising of half-a-million voters to catch 71 fraudulent voters over a period of 10 years. I would say that that is like cutting off your head to fix a broken fingernail. There is no sense of proportionality there whatsoever.

But I will return to what the bill does. It provides the Electoral Commissioner with the discretion to enrol, in specified circumstances, those people casting declaration votes who had been enrolled but were removed from the roll due to an error by an officer or a mistake of fact. The bill will also stop the divergence and inconsistency that is occurring between state and Commonwealth electoral rolls in the largest jurisdictions of New South Wales and Victoria. That is a significant improvement that the bill will bring.

Most importantly, the bill will enable the Australian Electoral Commission to deliver a more accurate electoral roll, because the Electoral Commissioner will be permitted to use accurate and timely information from reliable sources to maintain the current address of already enrolled electors. This bill will ensure that an elector will be notified of the Electoral Commissioner's intention to enrol him or her at a new residential address and be given the opportunity to object to the change. The bill will not provide the capacity to directly enrol new electors. People who are not on the roll will still need to enrol, in accordance with the current requirements of the Electoral Act. Perhaps that is the part where the Australian populace, and particularly those who lead in our communities—community leaders who are involved in politics at all levels of government, community leaders who are involved in schools, and community leaders who are involved in great institutions that help us stay alive, such as surf life saving clubs, and in Lions and Rotary clubs—can take part in actively supporting a citizenry to understand the full responsibility and capacity of engaging in casting a vote.

I commend the important changes that are embedded in these bills to enhance our democracy, and I commend the bills to the House.