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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3585


Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (20:54): There is nothing more fundamental to democracy than elections. And there is nothing more important to proper, honest and fair elections than the integrity of the electoral rolls. It is accurate to say that the integrity of our electoral rolls is the very rock upon which our electoral system stands. It is for that reason that I rise to speak today on the two electoral and referendum amendment bills—the maintaining address and the protecting elector participation bills.

The coalition opposes both changes proposed by this Labor-Greens government. We oppose these changes as a matter of principle. We strongly believe in maintaining fundamental principles and long-held conventions of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. Our very system of democracy depends upon the principle of ensuring that all citizens are entitled to vote and to choose their member of parliament. It is as simple as that. As soon as we begin to fiddle with the mechanisms that underpin the security of our electoral rolls we put that principle at risk and in so doing we undermine public confidence in our electoral system. Today's bills do put that principle at risk under the false underlying premise that increasing the number of people on the rolls is a desirable objective.

If you look at the titles of the bills, you can see the very euphemistic and Orwellian way in which they have been named. The bills are not about maintaining an address but about changing it—without an individual's knowledge. The bills are not about protecting elector participation but about allowing automatic enrolment of voters without their knowledge and without their consent. At the most fundamental level, all these bills do is subvert the privacy of voters and the integrity of the electoral roll simply to increase the aggregate number of people on the roll, no matter whether they are entitled to be there or not.

The bills today are the ultimate outcome of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters review of Australia's electoral laws following the 2010 election. In July 2011, the first report was tabled by the committee and it contained two recommendations which appear today in the form of these two bills. The protecting elector participation bill will allow automatic enrolment of Australians on the electoral roll—after the Australian Electoral Commission are satisfied that an elector has been enrolled at a particular address for one month and is, to their knowledge, eligible to be on the roll. The maintaining address bill subsequently gives the AEC the authority to change an elector's address where they see fit. These changes will reduce the integrity of the electoral roll at every step of the way, and the coalition is resolved to see that these changes are opposed and defeated.

In the original 2010 Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report following the 2010 election, Labor and the Greens recommended that the data sources used by the AEC should fall under the purview of the parliament. For some strange reason, they have now decided that the AEC should have sole discretion for what they consider to be a 'reliable source', which opens up the commission to a raft of problems. The coalition has time and time again reiterated to this government the huge risk involved with a move to give all control to the AEC without any further oversight by the parliament. This is especially relevant given that the use of any particular agency will not be legislated through these bills; nor have we received any kind of final confirmation from the AEC about what types of organisations it will use to derive its data.

Of course, there is no specific legislative requirement for the AEC to check that a voter is over 18 or indeed even an Australian citizen—yet another oversight by the government. In its submission, the AEC mentioned that data from Centrelink, road and traffic authorities at the state government level and Australia Post might be used. The AEC told the inquiry that the AEC considers these organisations to be reliable, although it neglected to inform the inquiry about why it considered them to be reliable.

With so many of the bills that the Gillard Labor government introduces into the House the devil is in the detail. Today, the devil is in the lack of detail. At this stage we have three sources—first, Centrelink, a Commonwealth agency; second, motor registries at the state and territory level; and, third, Australia Post, a federal government business enterprise. If the government are proposing a specific overlap or the sharing of information between these very disparate types of organisations, they should at least explicitly come out and say so. Would there be an explicit direction by Australia Post to share information with the AEC? Will the AEC be calling up Centrelink and using up their resources to find out someone's address, or at least the address according to a public servant? If they are proposing an impost on the privacy of Australian citizens, they should explicitly come out and say so. It is worth pointing out at this stage that not all Australians receive Centrelink, not all Australians have a licence and, indeed, in this day and age, not all Australians even receive mail. In any case, people are just as lax in updating their address on drivers licences with Australia Post and Centrelink.

This goes to the heart of how and why the AEC consider these sources to be a reliable source of information for someone's electoral or residential address, and the coalition are not satisfied that this has been adequately explained. It is true, however, that all eligible Australians have a civic duty and responsibility to ensure that they enrol to vote and have legal obligations under the Electoral Act as to how and when they inform the AEC of a change of details. The coalition do not believe that these responsibilities are too onerous for individual electors. What we do not want is this responsibility being taken out of the hands of the individual and handed to a government department, which is what these bills do.

It is very concerning to me that these bills will essentially extend how the government can check up on its citizens. We are not talking about voluntarily giving your details over to the AEC or signing a form indicating the veracity of such information. Indeed, we are not talking about a signature at all. These bills will allow some bureaucrat sitting in the offices of the AEC to put your name on the electoral roll without your knowledge and, more importantly, without your consent.

At present, voters have the option at any time to inform the AEC that they wish to be considered silent voters, such that their address is not listed on the publicly available roll. For victims of domestic violence, those involved in custody disputes or for any other important reason, these bills would allow such people to be put on the publicly available electoral roll without their consent. This is a severe abuse of an individual's privacy, an issue that has been completely ignored by Labor Party and the Greens. For this reason alone, the House must reject these bills. As the coalition's dissenting report notes, voters should at the very least have the option to apply for silent elector status before being added to the electoral roll.

Moreover, the coalition are very concerned that the AEC could, under these pieces of legislation, use any data source it wants which could also include records from the Australian Taxation Office or Medicare. Although the commissioner informed the inquiry on 8 February 2012 that it is not proposing to use tax records, there are no provisions in this bill that would restrict the AEC from changing its mind. Under these bills as they stand, we could even have a horde of diligent public servants sifting through Facebook to ascertain the addresses of Australian citizens.

Regarding possible information from the Australian tax office, there was a very extensive and thorough review in an ANAO report on the management of tax file numbers that was considered by a House Standing Committee on Economics, Financial and Public Administration in 1999. The House discovered that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia compared to the most recent census; that there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals; and, very alarmingly, that 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match.

Regarding Medicare, a 2005 ANAO report Integrity of Medicare enrolment data discovered:

that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.

Anyone interested in the integrity of the electoral roll should be very, very concerned about the amendments being debated today. I have discussed the principles involved, but there are also very concerning issues relating to the practicality of using external data to change someone's electoral details.

The coalition believe in personal responsibility, the responsibility of electors in Australia to update the AEC of a change of address. Sometimes voters are very diligent in letting the AEC know of a change. Sometimes, however, this does not occur. I acknowledge that, but I also acknowledge that there are many legitimate reasons that there might be a delay. When someone moves to a different place of residence, there are many organisations that need to be contacted immediately and some that, to be frank, do not really need to know. If you want to receive your bank statements in the mail, you tell your bank. If you want to continue to use your Medicare card, changing your address is not necessarily a high priority. Similarly, if a loved one dies, letting the Australian Electoral Commission know is most certainly not high on the to-do list.

The government would have you believe that people's tardiness in updating the AEC is justification for giving the AEC the power to update someone's roll details without their knowledge. There are also a whole host of reasons that someone may have more than one address. Many people have more than one place of residence. Some use a place of employment as a mailing address, while others might use a post office box. In my electorate, there are many thousands of students living at the colleges at the University of Queensland, while their residences may well be hundreds of kilometres away. Therefore, giving the AEC the power to decide what is and what is not someone's electoral address increases the potential for ambiguities and irregularities of the electoral roll, ultimately reducing its integrity.

Nor has the AEC come up with a way to rectify such ambiguities. Under current arrangements, only 20 per cent of electors respond to letters from the AEC, and I am not confident that somehow this figure will magically change in the future. As mentioned by the member for Brisbane, I point to the following exchange between the member for Mackellar and the Electoral Commissioner, Mr Ed Killesteyn, on 8 February 2012, in which the commission was asked what would happen after the AEC was confident someone had indeed moved, to which the commissioner responded:

we would write to the individual and say, 'We have information which leads us to believe that you are at this address. You have 28 days to advise us whether that is not the case'. If there were no response, then we could change the address at that point.

Such a course of action would be comical if it did not so grievously attack the integrity of the electoral roll. They will write you a letter and if it is not your genuine address, of course you will not be able to respond, but then your inability to respond means you are put at the wrong electoral address.

At the end of the day, it is inconceivable that the government cannot be alert to the real issues raised by these amendments. It leaves the electoral system at risk because a question of how the AEC should assess a source as reliable is ignored by this legislation. Our concerns are born of a genuine belief that something so fundamental as the integrity of our electoral system must be protected by legislation that reflects that importance, legislation that secures that integrity by spelling out in the clearest terms how it is to be protected and legislation that acknowledges that a flawed protection of our electoral rolls must inevitably lead to the wrong candidates being elected. It is as stark as that. This is a government driven by gross arrogance or gross stupidity. It pays lip service to democracy. It has lost touch with honesty in its actions and it has once again let all Australians down.