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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 3718


WYATT ROY (Longman) (11:21): One of the many things that is internationally recognised and respected about our great nation is the strength and fairness of our democracy. While we do not pretend that our system of democracy is without flaws, we know that as Australians we have every opportunity to contribute to the national debate about the issues that impact us and the issues that are important to us. In fact, many would say that my very presence in this place, my election to the House of Representatives, is illustrative of the fact that anyone with the passion and the desire to make a difference in their local community can actually do so. In this country, age, race and gender are not characteristics that exclude individuals from having a voice that is heard. Every single adult Australian citizen has a voice, and they have the opportunity to use it. They have the opportunity to simply stand up and put themselves forward to participate in the national debate and to be part of democracy in action. It is the very fact that people can have a say, even if it is to disagree with the majority, that adds strength to our voting system.

Democracy is a concept that is thousands of years old and has taken many forms over the ages, but it is a concept which is empowered by our voting system, a voting system that gives every citizen—every man and woman over the age of 18—the opportunity to vote for their representative in local, state and federal elections. One voice equals one vote, and the majority vote rules. In a practical sense, it is a system which enables us at the federal level to have a say about who we want to represent us on the issues that affect our daily lives and will determine the future direction of our country. And it is this system that we are here to debate today as we speak to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the cognate Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Electoral Participation) Bill 2012.

These bills propose fundamental changes to the powers of the Australian Electoral Commission under the Commonwealth Electoral Act and consequently serious changes to our voting system, changes that I have serious reservations about. The electoral roll is one of the key tools that enables democracy and facilitates our voting system. It is a key tool that ensures that our elections are fair and unbiased and it prevents electoral corruption. The accuracy of this tool is vital. Australia relies on it to ensure that no-one has more than one vote and no-one misses out on their chance to vote. But the key changes outlined in this legislation have the ability to compromise, rather than strengthen, our democracy by threatening the accuracy of the electoral roll. This legislation effectively takes away the responsibility and authority from voters and instead hands them to the Australian Electoral Commission.

Let us make it very clear what this debate is about. This is not a debate about the need to improve the quality and the consistency of the electoral roll. While there is no denying that more can be done to further increase the accuracy of the electoral roll, the debate that we are having in this place is not about the need to do so. No, what this is about is the means by which these bills seek to achieve greater accuracy. Today the debate is about the vague and nondescript powers that these bills provide the Australian Electoral Commission with. It is about the lack of accountability that there will be for the Australian Electoral Commission in determining who should and should not be on the roll and where they should be enrolled. It is about the lack of external scrutiny of the processes and information that the AEC will use when making a decision about what details are current and what details are outdated.

These bills bring us to a point of automatic electoral enrolment. We know that the Labor and Greens members who were on the recent Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into the 2010 federal election even went so far as to recommend that automatic enrolment be instigated, so it is no wonder that this Labor government is putting forward legislation that seeks to achieve this. These bills will allow individuals to be put on the electoral roll without their knowledge or their input. These bills also provide for individuals' addresses to be automatically updated by the Australian Electoral Commission without their knowledge.

We members of the Liberal Party have always believed in individual responsibility. We believe that every single person is responsible for their own actions. We also believe that it is not an overwhelming responsibility for citizens to be responsible for their own enrolment, to take the simple steps of completing a form to enrol to vote and submitting another form to update their enrolment address. But these bills ultimately undermine the responsibilities of Australian citizens and they detract from societal civic accountability.

I am concerned that this devalues the privilege that we share, as Australian citizens, to have a voice and a vote. We cannot afford to take this privilege for granted, and it should be highly respected. The last thing that we, as policymakers and leaders, should be encouraging is for citizens to lose respect for mechanisms that ensure equitable and stable democracy in our country—that is, an electoral roll that is managed by the citizens themselves, with the responsibility for updating it in their hands. By removing the responsibility for people to update their details on the electoral roll, we are breeding complacency and disengaging our constituency. This is a dangerous path to travel and one that we on this side of the House believe should be avoided.

Not only is personal responsibility a key factor in this issue; the irregularities that will potentially arise on the electoral roll as a result of automatic enrolment and updating of details are a serious concern. These bills will provide the Australian Electoral Commission with the discretion to determine what data they utilise to inform their decisions, and the combination of data sources that the Australian Electoral Commission would use to identify voters and update their details cannot be relied upon to provide accurate details. This measure makes the assumption that other data sources will be up to date and accurate, but this assumption is misguided. Not only this, but it assumes that the AEC will be able to make value judgments about which information is legitimate without any requirement on the AEC's part to justify their choices. An individual alone should be advising, firsthand, about their current details. As in so many other areas of life, when you are dealing with only half the information and half the picture, there is a large margin for human error. The opportunity for irregularity is simply too high, and it is a risk that we, for the sake of our democracy, cannot afford to take.

Not only this, but with inaccuracy comes the opportunity for abuse. With individuals being unaware of their enrolment, the opportunity for someone with malicious intent to manipulate and abuse this, effectively taking away a person's opportunity for a voice, is a real threat, a threat that I do not want to see any opportunity or any advantage given to.

There is tangible proof that systems of automatic enrolment are fraught with errors and actually decrease engagement and accuracy. Last year this system was employed for the New South Wales state election. The results speak for themselves: 35.7 per cent of people who had been automatically enrolled did not turn up to vote. It is clear that while individuals may be enrolled, there is no guarantee that their details are correct—such a high non-participation rate demonstrates this.

In my electorate of Longman, more people rent than have a mortgage. Clearly they will be changing their addresses on a reasonably frequent basis, and it is simply not possible that second-hand information obtained by the Australian Electoral Commission will be able to accurately keep up with these changes. It is up to us in this place to be doing more to encourage those young people to get enrolled on the electoral roll and to encourage all citizens to keep their electoral enrolment up to date. Education is the key, and engaging with our constituents and our communities is vital. It is through continued effort on these fronts that we will see people take their personal responsibilities seriously and understand how they go about undertaking their responsibilities.

Only through enrolment details that are advised by the individuals themselves can we maintain an accurate electoral enrolment roll and, consequently, a voting system that gives every adult citizen the chance to have an equal vote. I am aware that for the most part, and particularly for young people, a lack of knowledge is a barrier to getting on the electoral roll. Many young people are unaware of their responsibility to enrol as soon as they turn 18 and believe that they can do it before the next election. Others are confused about how this process takes place and mistakenly believe that as long as they are enrolled before polling day they will be able to vote. The key here is not automation, but education. Only a concerted educational push that engages voters, rather than disengages and distances them, can resolve this issue.

In Australia we are afforded many privileges and opportunities to contribute to the future of our country. The views and ideas of all of our citizens are valued, respected and encouraged. Our voting system is prized as an example of democracy in action. We are beholden as policymakers to uphold and strengthen this voting system, not to undermine it. These bills, and the changes they intend to make to the Electoral Act, will indeed undermine our voting system. They will remove the responsibilities of individuals, and will instead grant additional powers to the Australian Electoral Commission, making the waters of electoral enrolment murky and vague and breeding irregularities that have the potential to be manipulated. This is not what we want to see happen to our voting system, and this is why I oppose these bills.