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Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Page: 1670

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (18:08): 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, the very rock upon which our electoral system stands. Today's bill includes provisions that represent a further attack on the integrity and accuracy of the electoral roll. It is for that reason that I rise to speak today on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2012.

This bill seeks to implement seven recommendations contained in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report following the 2010 federal election: The 2010 federal election: report on the conduct of the election and related matters. The bill was first introduced on 29 November 2012 and was referred by the selection committee to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for further scrutiny, through which the committee released its report on 27 February 2012, with the coalition providing a dissenting report to note its opposition to some components of the bill. Specifically, the coalition opposes recommendations 3, 10 and 11. Recommendation 3 includes further changes as to how information is added to the electoral roll by allowing the Australian Taxation Office to share information with the Australian Electoral Commission.

I have previously spoken in this House about my commitment to the integrity of the electoral roll, a system whereby each individual elector acts on their own initiative to comply with the responsibilities that come with being a resident of Australia. In March last year the government passed in the House the Electoral and Referendum (Maintaining Address) Bill and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill, which allowed automatic enrolment based on an elector changing their address with the Department of Human Services, state and territory motor registries or Australia Post. This has created the potential that at no stage is the actual elector involved in changing their electoral address. Instead, if they change their address with the previously mentioned bodies the AEC will post a letter to their proposed new address to confirm the change. If they do not respond, the AEC will go about changing their address anyway. This is a serious concern because we know that only 20 per cent of electors respond to letters from the Electoral Commission. Even more alarming is that last year's changes mean that now someone can be added to the electoral roll without their prior knowledge and without their consent. There is no signature required, and not even a required acknowledgment that the elector understands the rights and responsibilities that come with being on the electoral roll. They might simply get a learner's permit from a convenient motor registry and then, without their knowledge and without their consent, a public servant sitting in Canberra comes across their information and puts them on the electoral roll or changes their enrolment details.

One particular argument often used in the defence of making voting compulsory in Australia is that voting should be considered to be not merely a civil right but also one's civic duty. The argument maintains that it is the responsibility of every single person capable of casting a vote at an election to educate themselves about the issues and to vote accordingly. Indeed, it is technically compulsory in this nation for someone to not just attend a voting booth but to specifically mark their preference on their ballot paper, thereby making a deliberate informal vote illegal—although of course there are ways around that obligation. If we were to accept that argument we must also accept that attempts to reduce or remove the responsibility of Australians to engage with the electoral process must not occur. Yet this is exactly what automatic enrolment does. It takes the responsibility away from the elector and places it in the hands of a public servant.

Automatic enrolment and the further dilution of the integrity of the electoral roll will be a huge problem, potentially, for thousands of students who reside at the 11 colleges at the University of Queensland. Just last Friday my office dropped off forms so that more than 2,000 students in St Lucia can ask to check their enrolment status. Many of those students may reside at the college while their electoral address may be thousands of kilometres away. With automatic enrolment their address may be changed, as I have said, without their consent and without their knowledge, so they may show up on election day having no idea that their electoral address has changed, which could impair their ability to cast a formal vote at their correct address in the correct electorate.

This bill adds further ambiguity to the electoral roll because it includes legislative changes to the Taxation Administration Act, which governs the protection of personal data collected by the ATO. This means that the ATO will be allowed to provide personal information and data to the AEC for the purposes of automatic enrolment. The coalition has warned this government previously about what damage could occur if the AEC uses information from the ATO to update the electoral roll, because there are very serious questions about the accuracy of the data it keeps.

We know that there was a very extensive and thorough review in the Australian National Audit Office report on the management of tax files numbers considered by a House Standing Committee on Economics, Financial and Public Administration in 1999. From that report the House discovered that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia when compared with the most recent census. There are 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals and, very alarmingly, 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. There is no reason to suggest that in 2013 the records of the ATO are any more accurate.

The government majority report maintains that the AEC should be able to use a so-called 'trusted' data source and that the AEC by itself can declare whether or not it thinks a data source is trustworthy. However, when there are so many gaps and mistakes, which I have just mentioned, we must question the very integrity of that data and whether the ATO can be considered to be a trusted data source. As the coalition's dissenting report noted:

The inclusion of such data, if erroneous, would be extremely damaging to public faith in our electoral process.

In simple terms, where there are such examples of inconsistency in Commonwealth data, there cannot be sufficient faith in this data being used to automatically add people to the electoral roll.

Furthermore, there are very important privacy concerns that this change introduces. Previously, the ATO has always claimed that it maintains the highest level of confidentiality when it comes to a taxpayer's personal information. With today's proposed changes, the ATO will be able to pass on confidential information to the AEC without the individual taxpayer's knowledge or consent. This is a dangerous path that the Labor government is following. Bit by bit, the Labor Party is increasing government scope in our lives—and not only in the electoral process. With so many other regulations and policies, it proposes to increase taxes on families to regulate what we can or cannot say and to regulate what we can and cannot see in the media. With these changes to the Electoral Act, the Labor government is sending the message that your personal, private information is not your property because, once it ends up in the hands of a government bureaucrat, they can do whatever they want with your information.

Therefore, the coalition remains opposed to automatic enrolment and the provision within this bill which provides for the Australian Taxation Office to release a taxpayer's personal data for the purpose of automatic enrolment. What the AEC should be concentrating on is continually checking the accuracy of the roll and advertising to ensure that people are aware of their obligations to properly enrol initially and to then advise the AEC of a change of address, should it occur.

This bill also enacts recommendation 10, reducing the responsibilities of an elector should they complete a pre-poll ordinary vote. Currently, if someone wishes to complete a pre-poll vote, they must complete and sign a certificate declaring their identity. This bill removes that requirement. It is not an onerous task for an elector to provide a simple signature so that the AEC can ensure that fraudulent and multiple voting does not occur in elections. Given the inherent difficulty for the AEC to successfully prosecute a case where they believe someone has engaged in fraudulent or multiple voting, which has been previously noted by the committee, we must not introduce changes which make that activity easier or more likely to occur. We do not want the onerous requirement of someone, for example, having to prove their identity with a drivers licence—I am not suggesting that—but it is not onerous for someone to sign a form so that the AEC can protect against voter fraud. Therefore, I oppose removing the requirement for electors to sign a certificate when they cast a pre-poll vote.

The coalition further opposes the provision in this bill which adopts recommendation 11 of the electoral matters committee report to provide that pre-poll voting cannot commence earlier than four days after the date fixed for the declaration of nominations for an election. This would allow for pre-poll voting to occur on the Monday 19 days prior to the general election date, a change from the current practice of opening pre-poll voting on the Monday 12 days prior to the election date. There are significant concerns about this change being implemented as it would take the focus away from the polling day itself. Ultimately, while pre-poll voting is an important way through which those with health issues or those who travel can be engaged with democracy and vote at an election, we must also accept that the appropriate day for the overwhelming majority of votes to be cast is the declared general election day.

Finally, the coalition does support those parts of this bill which relate to four recommendations of the original Electoral Matters Committee report—firstly, recommendation 9: to amend the act where appropriate 'to specifically provide that a ballot box containing votes cast by electors may not be opened before the close of polling other than in accordance with the relevant provisions of the act'; secondly, recommendation 15: to amend the act to provide 'that the deadline for the receipt of postal vote applications be 6 pm on the Wednesday, three days before polling day'; thirdly, recommendation 29: to amend the act to provide 'that, where an augmented Electoral Commission has formed an opinion that its proposed redistribution is significantly different to the Redistribution Committee proposal, a further fixed period be provided during which the actions required by subsection 72(13) of the act are to be undertaken'; and, fourthly, recommendation 30: to provide that 'the number of days specified in subsection 72(2) of the act also be increased by the same number of days provided for in the further fixed period' in the case that an individual or an organisation makes a further objection. The coalition supports these necessary changes.

I would like to again thank members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their commitment to the electoral and referendum acts, and particularly thank the member for Mackellar for her decades-long commitment to the integrity of the electoral roll.

At the end of the day, it is inconceivable that the government cannot be alert to the real issues raised by these amendments. Our concerns are born of a genuine belief that something so fundamental as the integrity of our electoral system must be protected by legislation which 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. Any attempt to reduce the integrity of our electoral roll—a cornerstone of our democracy—must be opposed, and that is why I oppose this bill in its current form.