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Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Page: 1673

Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (18:22): I want to congratulate the Special Minister of State for bringing the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2012 forward. Like Work Choices, it corrects one of the great conservative overreaches made when, in their hubris, the previous government had control of the Senate. This bill gives effect to recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which I had the honour to serve from 2001 to 2010, part of the time as deputy chair, when we were in opposition. As a result of that committee experience, I am very familiar with the issues and the government's wider project of electoral reform.

Australia has one of the best electoral systems at the federal level in the world. The combination of single-member seats in the House of Representatives, proportional representation in the Senate, preferential voting in all elections and compulsory voting is uniquely Australian. It gives stable majority government most of the time in the Lower House, and there are occasional hung parliaments, as we have at this time. It gives minor parties a voice in the Senate without allowing them to destabilise governments and it ensures that every Australian citizen participates in our democratic process so that every citizen shares responsibility for the outcome of elections. But our system is not perfect. It requires regular updating to ensure that we maximise electoral participation.

I believe that in the period of the previous conservative government a deliberate tactic was entered into where slowly, salami style, various categories of Australians were excluded from the roll. It is not good enough that we have as a result of that process an estimated 15.7 million Australians eligible to be enrolled but only 14.2 million actually enrolled. If we are to make voting compulsory—and I strongly believe that we should; that is our system and we are all, on a non-partisan basis, committed to it—we need to ensure that, logically and rationally, every Australian has the ability to vote by being enrolled. At the moment we are clearly not doing enough to ensure this.

I might point out that this is in part a problem we have created for ourselves. As I said, I think part of it was a deliberate tactic by the previous conservative government. Over decades people were taken off the electoral roll and very happily not put back on. In the previous system with snail mail only 20 per cent of people responded to changes of address inquiries by the AEC and gradually we have had this problem of 1.5 million Australians being off the electoral roll.

In 1987 the Hawke government proposed the Australia Card as a solution to identity problems and actually won a double dissolution election on this issue but, because of obstruction in the Senate, the proposal was never put into effect. We are now paying a price for that failure with over one million eligible Australian citizens not on the electoral roll.

The government has recently legislated to move to automatic enrolment. Recent amendments to the Electoral Act allow the AEC to enrol an unenrolled person without a claim being lodged by that person and to update or transfer a person's enrolment without an application from that person provided that the AEC is certain, on the basis of available information, of that person's current address. This will enable the AEC to place most of those people who are currently unenrolled on the rolls.

The member for Ryan painted this as some kind of Labor conspiracy, whereas in fact the government of New South Wales does this. Are they part of some Labor conspiracy? Has Barry O'Farrell's mind been colonised by Minister Gray? Of course not. This is not a conspiracy. This is a reaction to modernity when people travel and are not available on the day and when people do not respond to snail mail. Very few people make the deliberate decision not to enrol to vote. Most of those who are not enrolled have failed to enrol out of ignorance or forgetfulness, as we can see from the rush of last-minute enrolments that we always get when an election is announced.

The previous speaker, the member for Ryan, said that using the tax office was some kind of socialist conspiracy to steal people's rights. Of course, all previous conservative governments since the early 1980s have used the Transport Accident Commission and many other databases in order to do the continuous roll updates that form the basis of them writing letters to people to seek their enrolment.

This legislation refines the process of enrolment. The bill facilitates automatic enrolment of eligible people by allowing the Taxation Commissioner to disclose information to the AEC for roll update and maintenance purposes. Only information obtained by the Taxation Commissioner on or after the day this bill is assented to can be disclosed to the AEC. What that means in short is that the AEC will be able to determine a person's current address by, amongst other things, accessing information held by the ATO. Of course, no other taxation information can or will be disclosed.

The way the highly competent Electoral Commission organises this is to correlate various databases, so the ATO information will not be the only information that it correlates. Since most people pay their taxes—even those who have forgotten to enrol to vote—this will enable the AEC to gradually put more people on the rolls over the years.

Another section of this bill deals with procedures for people casting their vote at a pre-polling place—that is, at a place which is open before polling day. This is an increasingly urgent question. As I said, it is a question of modernity, not of conspiracy. Due to changes in people's work and leisure habits, it is no longer convenient for every Australian to vote on the Saturday in the traditional way. An increasing proportion of voters cast postal votes or a pre-poll vote.

In my electorate of Melbourne Ports at the 2010 election 5.5 per cent of people cast a pre-poll vote while 11 per cent did a postal vote. It is very interesting that this inner-city electorate cast that many postal votes, as the number was competitive with some of the more remote electorates in Australia that had a very high number of postal votes but obviously for very different reasons. It is international context rather than conspiracy. Twenty-five per cent of people at the recent United States election for the presidency of the United States voted before election day. This is the future. This is how Australia, too, has to move. That is why these moves on prepolling are very au fait with the way modern society is moving.

In my electorate, as I said, a total of 16.7 per cent of people, the highest in Australia, either cast a prepoll or postal vote. The reason for that is not like, say, in the electorate of Maranoa where geographic remoteness causes people to cast a postal vote. It is that we have a very large percentage of Jewish Australians who do not vote on a Saturday and seek to vote by prepoll or by postal vote. They do not do this to pull some kind of trick; it is because of their cultural or religious observance. Yet the Electoral Act as it stands treats prepoll voters with unjustified suspicion by requiring them to fill out and sign a form stating that they are eligible to vote before they can be given a ballot paper. It seems to me to be insulting to these voters that the Electoral Act makes it more difficult to cast a vote on the Wednesday before an election than on the Saturday of an election itself.

As I have said many times in debates of this sort, we have not only one of the best but also one of the cleanest election systems in the world. Numerous inquiries by the joint standing committee have shown that there is no evidence whatever of any significant level of electoral fraud or malpractice in Australian federal elections. There is therefore no justification for putting obstacles in the path of Australian citizens who want to cast their vote by prepoll. This bill does away with the requirement for prepoll voters to sign a declaration and I know many people in my electorate will welcome that.

In the years between 1990 and 2012 there were six electoral events, including a referendum, at which 72 million Australians voted. The Electoral Commission at the end of the day referred to the police 72 cases of electoral fraud in those six electoral events—one case per million people. The member for Mackellar goes on and on about the integrity of the electoral roll, but we have integrity in the electoral roll. What we have is the democratic problem of 1.5 million Australians not being on the roll because they have been deliberately excluded by a Tory plan that took a number of years to get into practice.

It is very unfortunate that the opposition is opposing aspects of this bill. It is unfortunate but not surprising, because the whole trend of Liberal and National Party policy in this area has been to restrict rather than enhance the right and ability of Australians to enrol and to vote. The Howard government in its last term passed amendments to the Electoral Act that made it significantly harder for people who did not have drivers licences or passports to enrol and cast a prepoll or postal vote. There was a scandalous growth in the number of people between the 2004 and 2007 elections who applied for provisional votes on the day and were excluded because of the restrictive requirements that were put in by the Howard government. I suspect it was because many of those people lived in apartments, were more mobile and were younger and the Howard government suspected that they might vote against them. All Australians have the right to vote and these provisions between 2004 and 2007 saw the number of people having their provisional vote submitted go down from 80 per cent in 2004 to, in 2007, in many cases less than 50 per cent.

One must ask why the opposition, when they were in government, moved to make it harder for Australians to enrol and to vote, and why now, in opposition, they are resisting our moves to make it easier to enrol and to vote. The answer is quite simply that they believe it is in their political interests to do so. They calculate that the voters they disenfranchised through their restrictive measures, and whose re-enfranchisement they are now opposing, are more likely to be Labor voters than conservative voters. The member on our side who previously spoke believes that it is neutral, but I think there is probably some truth to the idea that younger and more transient voters may vote for us.

In going down this anti-democratic path, however, the opposition is once again following their mentors, the right wing of the US Republican Party. All through last year we saw attempts by Republican governors to make it harder for people in their states to register to vote and to cast their votes. They did this in a blatant attempt to rig the electoral system against the President of the United States, President Obama, and in favour of Governor Romney. Fortunately, most of their efforts were overturned in the courts. Last November, we saw where all of these Republican attempts to deny people the right to vote finished up. In fact, it was a cause celebre in the United States that people were faced with these electoral restrictions and more people turned out—and more people turned out early, I would suggest—as a result of these attempts to change the electoral system. I suggest the same thing will happen to the opposition in this country unless they change their tactics.

The issue addressed by this bill is the real issue of democratic deficit in Australia—that is, is the 1.5 million Australians disenfranchised by the continuous restrictive elements that were put into practice by the previous conservative government between the time of their election in 1996 and 2007. Enrolling people with the proper integrity is the great democratic purpose of this legislation and I commend it to the House.