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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 3804


Dr JENSEN (Tangney) (17:24): The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012 amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to directly enrol new electors on the electoral roll when it is satisfied that an individual has been living at a particular address for one month and is eligible to be on the roll. This bill follows on from the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, which will give the AEC the authority to change the address of electors when it believes they have changed their residential address. As with the previous bill, the coalition opposes this legislation because it will greatly reduce the integrity of the electoral roll, infringe on the role of the individual to keep their details up to date and reduce the privacy of Australians who may not wish to be publicly registered.

The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recently conducted an inquiry into the 2010 federal election, reporting in July 2011. One of the recommendations of the Labor and Greens committee members was to introduce automatic enrolment, a process by which an individual elector is put directly onto the electoral roll without ever filling out an enrolment form, based on information from other government sources. This bill seeks to implement that recommendation.

The coalition is concerned about how this will impact on the integrity of the roll. As Professor Graeme Orr notes in his publication The Law of Politics:

Like other official public registers, such as land registers, a chief feature of electoral rolls is their finality. The purpose of a roll is to be a definitive statement of the entitlement to vote … Thus there is a rule that the roll is conclusive evidence of the entitlement to vote.

He goes on to say:

Reinforcing this is the secondary rule … that a court of disputed returns is not to inquire into the correctness of the roll.

Given our experience at the 2010 federal election, where no political party won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and results in some electorates came down to just a few hundred votes, it is imperative that the roll which is used to elect our parliamentarians is accurate and reliable. We must not allow this very important document to be shrouded in concerns or doubts about its legal standing and validity. It is also the responsibility of the individual in our democratic society to maintain their enrolment details when they change addresses.

As outlined in the coalition's dissenting report, it is the duty of each Australian citizen 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. This responsibility is far from onerous, and moves to water down this process only detract from each Australian's right as a democratic citizen. As Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation notes:

The notion of the vote is a right—it is an entitlement—and turning it into an obligation, which is what that entails, I just do not believe is appropriate in a democratic process.

This legislation allows changes to due process that will ultimately lead to a high number of potential irregularities with little or no benefit to the democratic process. It also opens up the roll to fraud.

As with the electoral and referendum amendment bill 2012, the 2011 bill gives the AEC the discretion to determine what 'reliable and current data sources' are from which information about elector addresses can be obtained. This is far beyond the scope of the AEC. Surely only individual electors should supply details about their enrolment, rather than a mish-mash of data from various government departments. Indeed, what about people who, for instance, own holiday homes? Potentially their information could be taken out twice from these various sources to put them on the voters roll twice. I seriously question the reliability of these other data sources. As coalition members on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters noted in their dissenting report:

The reliance on external data sources that have been collated and that are utilised for other purposes does not make them fit for use in forming the electoral roll.

As outlined in the previous report into these proposals, a 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration titled Numbers on the run found that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia at the last census, that there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals and that 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Similarly, an ANAO audit report stated:

ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.

Neither this bill nor the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 specifies what data sources constitute reliable data, nor are there any restrictions on which data sources the AEC can use to enrol an elector. There is no provision specifying the standard of proof that the AEC needs to enrol an elector. Nor is there any legislative requirement for the AEC to check whether a person is over 18 or is an Australian citizen before they are added to the roll. This bill will give the AEC full discretion in these matters:

… to directly enrol eligible electors on the basis of data or information provided by an elector or electors to an agency approved by the AEC, as an agency which performs adequate proof of identity checks, where that information is subsequently provided by that agency to the AEC for the purposes of updating the electoral roll.

I believe that this is far beyond the jurisdiction of the AEC. Individuals who are not entitled to vote may also be added to the roll because of this bill. Members of the community who are not Australian citizens, who are under 18, who are not living at the address the AEC believes or are otherwise ineligible to vote may be incorrectly added to the electoral roll under this bill. Even without any contact from the individual, the so-called eligible voter will still be added to the electoral roll. The AEC submission to the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the bill stated:

… the AEC would receive data from a third party data source, conduct a data matching process including a check of the eligibility of individuals to enrol, notify eligible individuals and, after a period of 28 days, make additions to the electoral roll and inform electors of the AEC’s action.

In reality, the AEC could use any data source it likes, including records from the Taxation Office or Medicare which, as I have said before, have been demonstrated to be problematic.

In that light, I draw the attention of the House to the difficulties experienced in New South Wales state elections. Former Labor governments in both New South Wales and Victoria have introduced automatic enrolment for their recent state elections, which means that a number of electors in these states are only enrolled for state, and not federal, elections due to the differences in state and federal legislation. As such, when an elector has their details changed or they are added to the state electoral roll in New South Wales or Victoria, they are then sent an enrolment form by the AEC to complete for the federal jurisdiction.

Commentator Antony Green noted in an article on 16 July 2011 that only 64.3 per cent of those automatically enrolled for the first time at the 2011 New South Wales state election actually turned out to vote. Surely, this high non-participation rate is indicative of the unreliable nature of the information used to put new electors on the roll. Electors either did not know of their eligibility to vote or had no intention of voting anyway. This bill will only lead to electors being issued with a fine for not voting when there is no entitlement for them to be on the roll in the first place or because their address details are in fact incorrect through no fault of their own.

Most importantly, there are also significant privacy implications that this legislation raises—an issue that is glossed over by Labor and the Greens. Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation submitted valuable information to the joint standing committee about the individual privacy concerns that this bill raises. He stated:

We are not aware of any risk assessment having been performed. We were not aware of any privacy impact assessment having been performed … We are not aware of the APF or any of the civil liberties organisations being involved in any of those.

The coalition and I have very valid concerns about electors having their details published on the electoral roll without their knowledge and without the opportunity to apply for silent elector status. This is of particular concern to those who are victims of domestic violence, those involved in custody disputes or those Australians who may want their address suppressed because of safety fears or other reasons.

The coalition has long opposed moves by the Labor Party and the Greens to introduce automatic enrolment and notes that this bill is being introduced solely to improve the electoral prospects of both Labor and the Greens. The first obligation of the AEC is to uphold the integrity of the roll. The AEC has instead focused on maximising the number of people on the electoral roll at the expense of that obligation. This bill gives the Australian Electoral Commission a blank cheque to decide what information sources it uses to add people to the electoral roll. This legislation does not require the AEC to justify the use of a particular data source or the potential for parliament to disallow the use of particular data sources. Nor does it state the level of proof required for the AEC to add a person to the electoral roll. I do not believe this legislation is in the best interests of Australia. The responsibility of enrolling to vote should remain with the individual Australian citizen and should not be given to the bureaucracy.