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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3571


Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (19:54): I rise to speak in strong support of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. Here in Australia we enjoy a healthy democracy. It has endured, stable and strong, since Federation without civil war or major crisis—Remembrance Day 1975 aside. In fact, Australia is one of the longest standing democracies in the world. When Australian citizens head to the polls, as Queenslanders will do this weekend, they do so without fear, and governments are elected peacefully without a shot being fired. There may be a few tears, but it is a peaceful process. To paraphrase Malcolm X, in Australia it is always the ballot, not the bullet. Australia's democracy is free from the allegations of fraud and intimidation that mar elections in developing democracies.

The integrity of our election process is crucial for our democracy. That is why I was so disgusted with the former Liberal-National coalition government's efforts to manipulate our electoral process. The 41st Parliament oversaw a shameful moment in the history of our democracy. By closing the electoral roll to new enrolments on the same day as the issuing of the writ, former Prime Minister Howard ensured that thousands of pesky young people did not get an opportunity to vote in the 2007 election.

It is the Australian Electoral Commission that is responsible for running elections in this country. Part of that job involves maintaining the current electoral roll. Today there are more than 14 million Australians on the Commonwealth electoral roll. As we well know, the electoral act states that enrolling and voting are compulsory for every Australian citizen over 18 years of age. Compulsory electoral enrolment and compulsory voting makes our democracy strong. Anyone thinking we should adopt optional voting need only to look at voter turnout in so-called democracies—for example, the United States. In fact, in the 2000 election that saw George W. Bush become president there was a 51 per cent voter turnout. You might remember that George W. Bush only just scraped in. It was a very closely fought election. Barely over a quarter of eligible Americans voted for the President of the United States.

Optional voting is not the way to go. In Australia, we want everyone to have a say—the motivated, the not-so-motivated, the disillusioned and everyone in between. If they do not want to have a say, I can give them a long list of countries to move to where they will not have to worry about their voice being heard on election day.

The AEC are required to ensure that every elector knows about our electoral laws and adheres to these laws. Electors are required to, firstly, enrol and, secondly, keep their enrolment details current. But, as we know, whether you are moving across town, across a suburb or changing states, moving house can be a very stressful experience. After dealing with real estate agents, lawyers, banks and removal companies, redirecting mail and possibly starting a new job, with a new school for the kids, and changing the phone, electricity and utilities et cetera, often the last thing on many Australians' minds after they have moved house is notifying the Electoral Commission about their change of address.

Currently, the AEC are able to use information from reliable sources to monitor the accuracy of the roll, but they do not have the power to change or update an elector's details. They are, however, able to remove someone from the roll. The result of this anomaly is that eligible voters are being removed from the roll, resulting in dropping enrolments across the country. We need to be doing whatever we can to ensure that there is greater participation in our wonderful democracy. That is why the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 amends the Electoral and Referendum Act to allow the AEC to update an elector's enrolled address when it becomes apparent from other reliable data that the elector has moved residential addresses. The bill requires that an elector be notified about the AEC's intention to enrol them at a new residential address. They will also be given an opportunity to object to the change. This common-sense bill will ensure that there is a more accurate roll, using information that is already available to the AEC. It will not, however, enable the AEC to enrol people not already on the electoral roll, which is the subject of the related bill before the House.

The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012 is another measure on the part of the Gillard government to improve the accuracy of the electoral roll. The AEC go to a lot of effort to encourage young people to enrol to vote. For example, before the 2010 election they were part of a youth enrolment program called 'Count me in!' with the United Nations Youth Association and the Australian Youth Forum. They hit the streets to enrol as many young people as possible over one weekend. The AEC also run many other campaigns, including 'enrol to vote' week in schools, aimed at making sure all young people are ready to vote when they turn 18; university campus O week activities, to encourage university students to enrol to vote; and youth enrolment campaign Rock Enrol with Triple J, which I know is your favourite radio station, Deputy Speaker!

Despite these efforts, there are still too many young people who miss out on voting because they are unable to enrol before the rolls close before an election. I understand that there are still at least 1.5 million eligible voters not on the rolls, and at least a third of these are aged between 18 and 25. That is about another 15 or 16 MPs who are not here in this chamber. This bill will allow the AEC to place a person on the electoral roll at a particular address if the Electoral Commissioner is satisfied that: (1) the person is entitled to be enrolled—that is, they are an Australian citizen over 18 years old; (2) they have lived at the address at least one month; and (3) they are not currently enrolled.

For the first time people will be enrolled without submitting an enrolment form. Direct enrolment will directly turn around declining enrolment rates across Australia and make the federal electoral roll as current and as a accurate as possible. New South Wales and Victoria already have a system of direct enrolment and therefore we are seeing a growing inconsistency between the state and federal rolls, something which cannot continue. This bill will bring greater consistency between these state and federal electoral rolls.

I can understand why in years gone by there was a reluctance to embrace direct enrolment. In the days of paper records, pencils and horses and carriages, ensuring the integrity of records might have been a bit more difficult. But today a number of government departments operate accurate databases that the Electoral Commission uses to verify the integrity of the rolls. We are not talking about information that falls off the back of a truck. This is reliable information that is currently obtained from road traffic authorities, Centrelink, Australia Post and other such respectable institutions.

It was not that long ago that women were not allowed to vote. Even a little closer to my time, it was Indigenous Australians. When I was born, Murrays in Queensland could not participate in the electoral process—and I am not that old, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you know. The idea that anyone could be excluded from the electoral process is downright repulsive to every decent-minded Australia. As a parliament, we should do whatever is necessary to ensure the integrity of our electoral process. Certainly, the Gillard Labor government believes that all eligible people should be given the opportunity to vote, but the opposition, in voicing their opposition to this bill, have strayed dangerously close to the land of the hypocrite on this issue. You cannot on the one hand say that you stand for transparent and free elections and on the other hand put in place roadblocks that stop eligible people from participating in the electoral process. What is there to be scared of?

This Labor government wants to ensure that all Australians who are eligible to vote are on the roll and able to do so. The integrity of our strong democracy requires no less. The quick passing of this bill will ensure that these reforms are in place before a 2013 federal election, and I hope still for bipartisan support from those opposite. I strongly commend the bill to the House.