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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 3715


Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (11:06): I am pleased to contribute to the debate on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. These bills amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act. They arise from the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the conduct of the 2007 federal election. The first bill is said to implement the government's response to recommendation 10 of that report and the second to recommendations 1 and 24. I need hardly add that these recommendations were not supported by the coalition members on the committee. The key provisions in the set of bills before us today will do two principal things: firstly, they will allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly update an elector's enrolled address following the receipt and analysis of what is determined by the AEC to be reliable and current data, from sources outside those already maintained by the AEC, which indicates that an elector has moved residential address; and, secondly, they will grant the AEC the capacity to directly and automatically enrol new electors.

What is the framework in which the coalition analyses the policy measures proposed in the bills which are put before the House for its consideration this morning? The coalition approaches these bills as it does every piece of legislation brought forward by the Rudd and Gillard governments on electoral matters and the electoral roll—in a spirit of intelligent scepticism. Naturally, we wish to believe the best of this government and all who comprise it, but as that great conservative statesman Ronald Reagan so well articulated, a good principle by which to live your life is 'trust, but verify'. As we apply this principle to the motives which may lie behind the Rudd and Gillard governments bringing forward this package of changes to the law as it governs the integrity of the electoral roll, we think it is important to look at the historical matrix and ask ourselves the question: does the Australian Labor Party have form when it comes to rorting the electoral roll?

The answer to that question is very plainly on the historical record. The Australian Labor Party does have form when it comes to rorting the electoral roll. I am sure you are familiar, Mr Deputy Speaker Leigh, with the Shepherdson inquiry, which looked into matters of electoral roll integrity in the state of Queensland, and I am sure you would be familiar with the episode in which a member of the Queensland parliament and former state secretary of the Queensland ALP was asked, under cross-examination, about an address he was listed as living at which had appeared on the roll some years before. He was asked whether he had actually lived at that address. After being forced to admit that he had never lived at that address, he retired to consider his position. Very shortly after, the parliamentary career of Mike Kaiser came to an end. I note parenthetically that, happily, his very good friend the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy put him into a $400,000-a-year job as the head of government relations at NBN Co. An onerous job, you might think—managing relations with the government when the company is 100 per cent owned by the government—but far be it from me to ask whether the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy had carefully turned his mind to the question of whether the government was getting value for money.

Mr Perrett: Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Is this relevant to the legislation? Also, the assertion about the appointment of Mike Kaiser to NBN Co. is incorrect. That was not a decision of the minister.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Dr Leigh ): There is no point of order.

Mr FLETCHER: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I return to the conceptual and philosophical framework in which the coalition analyses whether the changes to the legislation regarding administration of the electoral roll put forward by the Rudd and Gillard governments have merit and whether they ought to be supported. I am making the point to assure the House of the careful historical context within which we consider this question. We approach the question of the merits of this legislation in a spirit of intelligent scepticism. Having applied that analysis to this legislation, we are reluctantly forced to conclude that we are not satisfied of the bona fides of the government in bringing forward this legislation. We are not satisfied that their motives are pure and beyond reproach.

Let me make three points in the brief time I have available to me. Firstly, on this side of the House we consider that it is entirely appropriate that electors should bear responsibility for taking the necessary action to change their own address on the electoral roll. Secondly, we note with concern that the bills before the House fail to implement important safety mechanisms which were recommended in the joint standing committee's report. Thirdly, and consequently, the package of measures contained in these two bills threatens the integrity of the electoral roll and nothing could be more serious when it comes to the continuing operation of the tremendously successful Australian parliamentary democracy in which we all take justified pride. We must be tremendously sceptical of changes—no matter how high-minded the stated motives for those changes—which, on analysis, present the real and present danger of undermining the confidence of the citizens of this country in the democratic process and which are so important to the maintenance of this tremendously successful parliamentary democracy in Australia.

Let me turn, firstly, to the question of personal responsibility. As you would be aware, under the law today citizens have an obligation to enrol to vote and to accurately maintain their enrolment at their permanent place of residence. We do not think that these requirements are unreasonable and we fundamentally object to the measures in this bill, which would remove that responsibility from an individual. We think it is poor policy and objectionable in principle. We also take the view that the positive action required of a citizen to notify of his or her change of address is not unduly onerous. We think it is a perfectly reasonable responsibility to expect a citizen of our democracy to exercise. In addition, I note that the Australian Electoral Commission regularly conducts information campaigns to encourage Australians both to enrol and to maintain the currency and accuracy of their enrolment. I have myself participated at forums in local high schools in my electorate where the Australian Electoral Commission has been informing 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds about the importance of getting on the roll.

The second point I wish to make is on the grave failure in this bill to implement vital protections recommended in the joint standing committee's report. In its report the committee was careful to recommend a number of very important preconditions to the notion that the AEC should be able to obtain data from external sources to update the roll. The first precondition was that the elector should provide their proactive and specific consent to opt in for the data to be used to update the roll, and the second was that there must be surety that the proof of identity processes used by the respective government agencies have sufficient integrity. What is proposed in this bill is that a data source which has not previously had anything to do with the electoral roll or the integrity of the electoral roll is now to be drawn on for the purpose of automatically updating somebody's enrolment. Yet we have had no satisfaction provided to us by the Rudd-Gillard government as they bring forward this legislation as to the methods which will be used to ensure the integrity of the data in that external data source which is now to be used for the purpose of upgrading the electoral roll. That is a vital protection which one would expect as a bare minimum before a change of this magnitude were proposed; extraordinarily, there has been no satisfaction provided to the coalition side of this House as to the adequacy of those protective mechanisms.

That brings me to the third point that I want to address, which is the vital need to protect the integrity of the electoral roll and the loss of integrity to the roll which will inevitably result from these ill-conceived changes contained in the bill before the House. When you think about the matter, a very important safeguard of the integrity of the roll is that the citizen is required to take a proactive step to update the commission as to a change in his or her address. Amongst other things, that means that there is a paper trail which can be followed to verify any particular entry in the roll, because there must be a form signed by the relevant citizen or there must be alternative high-quality data sources that are based upon processes of proven existing integrity and which can be resorted to in order to verify the quality of the information in the roll.

The measure proposed before the House today does not build in those safeguards. Therefore, it represents a fundamental undermining of the processes which exist for a very good reason, which is to safeguard the integrity of the roll, which in turn is vital to underpinning public confidence in our parliamentary democracy. If confidence in the integrity of the roll is lost, if a suspicion emerges that there are large numbers of entries on the roll which do not accurately reflect the existence and the true address of those individuals, that will greatly undermine confidence and, in turn, will undermine the quality of our parliamentary democracy.

In this regard, I note that in the minister's second reading speech and in the explanatory memorandum we are told that the Australian Electoral Commission will rely on data sources that are 'reliable' and 'current'. Those words appear nowhere in the bill. The bill does not explicitly require that the data sources used by the AEC are 'reliable' or 'current'. The only requirement is for the commissioner in his or her absolute discretion to be satisfied that the elector lives at another address.

This is a highly dangerous degree of discretion to give to the commissioner, and the danger inherent in that is reinforced by the fact that on all the evidence available about large-scale databases managed by the Commonwealth government, there are very large numbers of false positives. There are very large numbers of entries in those databases which do not correspond on a one-to-one basis with real, living people. As other speakers from this side have done, I refer the House to a 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration which found that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people. Similarly, an audit report found that 'up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records are probably for people who are deceased'.

I cannot comment as to whether any of those people appear in Labor Party branch records. I have a strong suspicion that they do, based upon the evidence of the Shepherdson inquiry and other indicators that we have seen of a lack of commitment on a day-to-day basis by the Labor Party to the integrity of the roll and indeed based upon the conduct of individuals, including Labor parliamentarians, to actively rort the roll. It is because of that grubby and shameful record that we look at this set of provisions with a degree of intelligent scepticism. There is a high burden of proof which ought be discharged if these fundamental changes are to be made, and that burden of proof has not been discharged. These changes are a threat to our democracy and we strongly oppose them.