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Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Page: 1665

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (17:46): It is a pleasure to follow the member for Mackellar and indeed the member for Banks on this most important piece of legislation, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2012, because voting is at the very heart of our democracy. There can be no greater privilege in this great country of ours than to actually cast a vote in a free and democratic election process. I would urge all young people out there to make sure, once they turn 18, that they enrol so that they are able to take part in this very function which, as I said, is at the very heart of our democracy.

It is interesting to hear the member who spoke previously actually praising the member for Mackellar on the initiatives she has put forward and the changes Labor has indeed made, just this afternoon, to this particular piece of legislation, because there are elements of it that are not correct; there are elements of it that need tweaking. While there might not be many speakers on this particular piece of legislation, it is, as I said, at the very heart of our democracy, and it is a most important piece of legislation.

I note that the Electoral Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill is not the government's first attempt at changing the rules to suit itself at future elections. We know that on 30 January this year the Prime Minister called a 14 September election—and, if I might say, that day cannot come soon enough. We know changes this government is trying to make to electoral administration must always be viewed with some degree of scepticism, I daresay. This is something that the Special Minister of State has tried to implement on multiple occasions, trying to make Labor's prospects of re-election that much better, that much brighter. This attempt follows a report from the Join Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that this bill seeks to implement recommendations 3, 9, 10, 11, 15, 29 and 30 made by that particular committee.

It is important that we work towards reforming some elements on electoral administration in this country, and there are tenets of this bill that address that very need for clarity. It is a shame, however, that this bill also includes the adoption of recommendations that are unnecessary and that in some cases jeopardise the integrity of the Australian electoral roll—a roll that cannot be in any way, shape or form jeopardised, because, as I say, this is just too important to get wrong. It is too important to have voters not be able to vote in a particular way, or voters who do cast their vote not to have those votes counted.

At the outset it is important to note that the Liberals and the Nationals have provided a dissenting report on the recommendations of the standing committee. As such, the coalition is opposed to recommendations 3, 10 and 11, which relate to the Australian Taxation Office and the arrangements for the extension of dates for pre-poll at federal elections.

Firstly, I would like to outline what the government wants to achieve through the introduction of this bill. The explanatory memorandum which accompanies the bill explains the bill's intention to: set the procedures which must be followed when a ballot box is prematurely opened; remove the requirement for an applicant for a pre-poll vote to complete and sign a certificate, as they are currently required to do under the Commonwealth Electoral Act and Referendum Act; change requirements that pre-polling cannot commence any earlier than four days after the date set for the declaration of nomination for election or by-election; bring forward the deadline for applications for a postal vote to the Wednesday before the date set for the election rather than the current convention of the Thursday before election day; grant further fixed periods of time to the augmented Electoral Commission to complete its inquiries; and change the Taxation Administration Act to allow the Commissioner of Taxation and other taxation officers to provide forms of taxpayer information to the Australian Electoral Commission for the purpose of administering the Commonwealth Electoral Act and Referendum Act.

There are elements of these recommendations which the coalition agrees with and is therefore keen to see enacted, and I will highlight those in greater detail in a moment. As I have stated previously, it is important we achieve electoral reform in some of the key areas this bill sets out, and the coalition indeed supports some of the committee's recommendations. The Liberals and Nationals agree with several recommendations—namely, those relating to the committee's recommendations 9, 15, 29 and 30.

Firstly, recommendation 9 pertains to the amendments to the convention regarding cases where a ballot box has been opened prematurely. I note that the government has indicated changes to its position on this, which are in line with what the coalition was arguing for in its dissenting report to the committee. I commend the member for Mackellar for her work in that regard.

Secondly, we agree with the proposed amendment, in recommendation 15, to the deadline for the receipt of postal vote applications to 6pm on the Wednesday, three days before the date set for the election. Having an additional 24 hours to process postal vote applications will further enable people who are unable to attend a polling station on the date of the election to have their application for a ballot processed in time for the date of polling. This is something the coalition supports.

Further, the coalition agrees with recommendation 29, which suggests amendment to section 72 of the act and any related sections pertaining to cases where an augmented Electoral Commission has formed an opinion in which it has proposed a redistribution which is significantly different to the Redistribution Committee proposal. We agree with the recommendation that a further fixed period should be provided, during which the actions required by subsection 72(13) of the act are to be undertaken.

The coalition is also in support of recommendation 30, which would seek to amend the act so that, in cases where a further fixed period is provided during which the actions required by subsection 72(13) of the act are to be undertaken, the number of days specified in subsection 72(13) of the act also be increased by the same number provided for in the further fixed period.

While electoral reform is important—indeed, vital—it is critical we use this opportunity to get it right. Recommendations 9, 15, 29 and 30 will seek to do that. In saying this, however, the coalition has significant reservations about three of the standing committee's recommendations, which we therefore cannot and do not support.

Firstly, the government is seeking, in recommendation 3, to remove the current restriction of the Australian Taxation Office to provide information to the Australian Electoral Commission for the purpose of automatic enrolment. Under the current Taxation Administration Act 1953 it is an offence for the Australian Taxation Office to disclose protected information, and the coalition firmly believes this convention should stand. The coalition does not believe granting the Australian Taxation Office such an ability is in the interests of maintaining people's right to privacy. Convention ought to stand on the manner in which people enrol to vote in Australia. Such a move to grant the Australian Taxation Office this ability does not have our support.

Further, recommendation 10 of the committee is that the requirement, at section 200DH of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, for an applicant for a pre-poll vote to sign a certificate be repealed. The coalition, in its dissenting report to this committee, stipulated that the move to repeal the requirement for a pre-poll applicant to sign a certificate:

… will increase the likelihood of voter fraud and threaten the integrity of the Electoral roll.

We cannot and must not let that happen. It is not necessarily an onerous or difficult task for an applicant at pre-poll to provide a signature when casting their vote at a federal election. Surely that is not too much to ask. The coalition members of this committee have said that not only is there no fathomable reason for the requirement of a signature to be repealed but also that we have significant concerns that such a move could lead to an increase in fraudulent voting.

Thirdly, the coalition does not support recommendation 11—that an application for a pre-poll vote cannot be made prior to the Monday 19 days before the current date set for the election. This proposal is an increase on the current 12-day convention, which the coalition believes is sufficient. The date for an election for the federal parliament is set for a reason, and that is when the Liberal and National parties think that the majority of votes ought to be cast. We need to have a polling day, not a polling period. Currently it is 12 days. The other side wants 19. We feel 12 is satisfactory. The current convention of pre-poll voting opening 12 days prior to the election gives voters who cannot attend a polling station on the date of the election a sufficient window of opportunity to cast their vote. A move to increase this by a week may well take the focus off polling day, and we believe it is unnecessary. The coalition therefore stand opposed to this recommendation.

I reiterate the importance of achieving electoral reform in some key areas, which this bill has the potential to achieve. While such reform is important, there are recommendations put to the House through this bill which are unnecessary, such as the recommendation to give the Australian Taxation Office the ability to give private details of people in order to enrol them automatically.

This bill is not alone in being an example of the Labor Party trying its best to improve its standing at the next election by changing electoral processes. We know Labor could amend its policy on introducing the carbon tax we were promised would never happen under the government this Prime Minister leads. Instead, Labor seems hell-bent on introducing electoral reform to make its re-election prospects better. The member for Mackellar has informed the House before of attempts by the Labor Party and its former coalition partners, the Greens, to ensure their survival at the next election. I recall the debate on maintaining addresses and the speech the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop gave on Tuesday, 20 March last year about the Labor Party getting so desperate it tried manipulating election laws to enable prisoners to vote. The member for Mackellar highlighted in that speech the fact that the former Liberal-National coalition removed the right of prisoners to vote. The good old Labor Party, in the depths of its desperation for votes at the next election, amended that to enable people who are sentenced to prison for less than two years to vote. I share the member for Mackellar's concerns about the number of people who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison for less than two years having the ability to vote. While there are aspects of this bill which are worthy of support, it is essential that we take the government's attempts to reform electoral procedures with a grain of salt, with scepticism.

This bill, which seeks to implement recommendations 9, 10, 11, 15, 29 and 30 of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report into the conduct of the 2010 federal election and related matters, has some good ideas for electoral reform. Unfortunately, they are cloaked in the move to implement some unnecessary changes which jeopardise the integrity of the electoral roll. It is because of this that the coalition only supports recommendations 9, 15, 29 and 30 of the joint committee's report. I thank you, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, for the privilege of speaking on this very important matter.