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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 3706


Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (10:24): I rise today to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011. I do not support these bills as I believe that they will significantly reduce the integrity of the electoral roll. The integrity of the roll is at the heart of the issue that we are debating today. The integrity of the roll is something that we need and must preserve now and into the future, and we must be very mindful of that with any amendments that are being proposed. We must ensure that wherever possible the integrity of the roll is maintained and that the data contained on that roll is as accurate as it is possible to make it. I do not believe that the proposed bills are the way to go about achieving the integrity of the roll.

We are debating two bills today and I would like to briefly discuss the provisions of each bill. Firstly, there is the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011. This bill seeks to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. The amendments provide for the details of an elector to be added to the electoral roll when the commissioner is satisfied that the elector lives at the address. This bill does not propose to directly enrol electors on the roll. However, the other bill being debated today does seek to do this.

This brings me to the second bill being debated, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. This bill does propose to introduce automatic enrolment. Under this bill, amendments are being introduced to provide the Electoral Commissioner with an ability to directly enrol eligible individuals who are not on the electoral roll. This direct enrolment will occur if the commissioner is satisfied that the person has lived at an address for at least one month and the person is not enrolled. This bill also seeks to allow the commissioner to enrol certain persons who have been removed from the electoral roll and to admit their declaration votes.

In Australia, voting is compulsory and it is therefore vitally important to our very democracy that the integrity of the electoral roll is upheld to ensure that we have the most efficient and fair electoral system. I believe the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 as it currently stands is appropriate in respect of enrolments. Section 101 of this act already requires individuals to update their enrolment details within 21 days of residing at their new address for at least one month. A person who fails to comply with this requirement will have to pay a $110 fine as per section 101(6).

An inquiry into the 2010 federal election was recently conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, with numerous electoral matters inquired into and subsequently reported on. The Labor and Greens committee members recommended that eligible electors be put directly on the electoral roll through the introduction of automatic enrolment. Automatic enrolment will mean that individual electors may be put straight onto the roll without an enrolment form ever being filled out by them. Instead, automatic enrolment will occur based on information from other government sources. This is the central provision being introduced that I have several concerns about.

My concerns are threefold: firstly, that the individual responsibility of electors to update their own enrolment details, such as changing their address, will be diluted; secondly, that the accuracy of the information to be relied upon for automatic enrolment is compromised; and, thirdly, that automatic enrolments will erode the integrity of the roll.

In relation to individual responsibility, electors must currently update their own details and the onus is on them to ensure that they do so. However, I am concerned about proposed changes which will permit personal address details of individuals to be changed by the government, on the individual's behalf, without their knowledge or consent. The Australian Electoral Commission's website talks about the importance of the right to vote and actually states:

The right to vote is one of the privileges of living in a democracy—you get a say in who runs your country.

I could not agree more with this point.

In their dissenting report on the conduct of the 2010 election, the coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters noted that Australian citizens have four duties in relation to their enrolment:

to enrol to vote,

to accurately maintain their enrolment at their permanent place of residence,

to cast a vote when an election is called, and,

to fully extend preferences to all candidates contesting election for the House of Representatives in their local electorate.

The Gillard government does not have faith in the Australian people to maintain these responsibilities. It should not be seeking to dilute these duties. These are not obligations that are too onerous for Australian citizens and electors. If individuals are told they do not have to take proactive steps to ensure that their electoral details are correct, then they will just presume that their engagement with government agencies will guarantee the accuracy of their electoral details. This is a direct dilution of an elector's responsibility to compulsorily enrol.

The other concern I have with regard to automatic enrolment relates to the accuracy of the information relied upon to make entries on the roll. An inquiry into automatic enrolment in New South Wales made reference to this issue, stating:

One of the concerns about receiving data from trusted agencies for the purpose of automatic enrolment or automatic update of electors is that any address data sourced from these agencies was not gathered for the purpose of collecting electorate information.

The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2012 will allow the Australian Electoral Commission to change elector address details by determining what are 'reliable and current data sources'.

The coalition has concerns about this provision. It does not take into account the fact that the address provided by some electors to particular government agencies is merely a point of contact rather than their actual place of residence. Under this provision, however, this point of contact address may be applied to the electoral roll. Furthermore, if data is being relied upon from state and territory governments, there is an additional risk of error as the accuracy cannot be verified by the Commonwealth. As I mentioned previously, the only way to ensure this information is accurate and to maintain the electoral roll's integrity is to continue to give the responsibility of updating these details to the individual and not to a third party.

The final concern I would like to discuss today is in relation to the impact automatic enrolment will have on the integrity of the electoral roll. I believe this is also closely linked with the issue of individual responsibility of electors, which I have already discussed. The basis of my concern is straightforward: if an individual updates their electoral details, details which they know are accurate and appropriate to them, then the accuracy and therefore the integrity of the roll will be ensured. However, if this responsibility is taken away and given to the Australian Electoral Commission, there is a much higher chance that an error will occur, particularly if this change of address is made without the knowledge of the elector. We must remember also that there are many people who have multiple places of residence and, if their enrolled address is changed without their knowledge, there is clearly a high likelihood that an error will occur and they will be automatically enrolled at an address that is not their principal place of residence.

In their dissenting report on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill, my coalition colleagues highlighted three groups of people who will be impacted by this legislation, to the detriment of the integrity of the roll: firstly, those who have more than one place of residence; secondly, electors who move temporarily; and, thirdly, those people whose place of employment is a residential address or who, for whatever reason, receive mail at a different address. The best way to ensure the integrity of the electoral roll is to maintain the not-so-onerous responsibility on the elector to update their details, not to transfer this responsibility to a third party who could make errors.

Automatic enrolment already occurs in New South Wales and Victoria and has been tested at their recent state elections. Because there are several variations between the federal and state legislation, numerous electors in New South Wales and Victoria are enrolled for state elections but not for federal elections. This means that these electors are sent an enrolment form by the AEC when their details are changed or added to the relevant state electoral roll. Following the New South Wales state election last year, it was found that only 64.3 per cent of those electors who were automatically enrolled for the first time turned out to vote.

Based on the New South Wales experience, the high non-participation rate indicates that the information used to put new electors on the roll is unreliable. This also means that, because incorrect address details have been used on the electoral roll, some electors will be issued with a fine for not voting when it was in fact their information that was incorrect in the first place. Does this sound like a ringing endorsement for automatic enrolment? It certainly does not and I do not support it.

Individual responsibility is a tenet of our great liberal democratic system in Australia and efforts should not be made to dilute this. Electors can and currently do update their enrolment details themselves—these are not onerous requirements. These bills, however, will introduce a system of automatic enrolment which forces government into the lives of people to change their enrolment details, at times without their knowledge.

I therefore oppose these bills on the three premises I have outlined: firstly, the dilution of individual responsibility; secondly, the problems with ensuring the accuracy of information which is being relied upon to change an elector's details without their knowledge; and, thirdly, the overall impact on the integrity of the electoral roll. Let us not have government intrude into the lives of Australians and let us have confidence that the current responsibilities placed on electors to update their own electoral details are not too onerous. I oppose these bills.