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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 78

Senator ROBERT RAY(5.13) —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

This is the second report of the current Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. The basis of our report was the Commonwealth Electoral Act as it affected the 1984 election. Although 156 recommendations emanate from this fairly lengthy report, in many ways there is really nothing radical in it. The recommendations involve just a question of fine tuning rather than a general overhaul of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. To coin a phrase that the Treasurer (Mr Keating) often uses, it is to roll out the bumps and fill in the potholes and nothing more.

Today I just want to highlight several of the key recommendations of the report. The first is the recommendation to this Parliament that a standing committee to overview the electoral process be set up. I know that many honourable senators would take the view that it is not necessary to create many more committees of the Parliament. They take the view that we are almost overburdened by them at the moment. As the Joint Select Committee, which was created in 1983, still has to deal with many areas of the terms of reference attributed to it, there is very little likelihood that the next Parliament will not set up another joint select committee on electoral reform to continue that work. It is the view of the current Committee that we should set up a standing committee to overview continually the democratic processes in this country. We recommend that because there is nothing more vital to the protection of democracy than having a fair system. We believe that a parliamentary committee constantly reviewing the electoral procedures in this country will ensure fairness for all people.

The second recommendation which I want to highlight-and it has had some publicity-concerns access to electoral rolls. The Committee believes that electoral rolls, being public documents, should be as widely accessible as possible to the whole public. At the moment, electoral rolls are accessible to Government departments on request. The Australian Electoral Commission can have all sorts of unreal demands placed on it to meet the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. In many ways one can see the Australian Electoral Commission becoming the largest missing persons bureau in this country. The Commission has not been set up for that purpose but it is required by other legislation to supply that sort of information. So we have recommended that members of the public be given the widest possible access so that they can have the same rights as Government departments in this regard.

We have also recommended that the Electoral Commission be able to sell the magnetic tapes which contain the electoral roll information. We have done that basically because this information is already made available to political parties. If the information is not made available to everyone else, it will not be long before political parties start selling it through the back door to all sorts of commercial firms. Some firms already have access to all of this information. It is simply a matter of whether they themselves put it on the computer or whether we give them a short cut method. I might note that the one, if one likes, jarring note of this recommendation is the regrettable prospect that we might be deluged with more direct mail and, in particular, direct phone calls. Nevertheless, I think it was an inevitable recommendation.

The third area concerns habitation reviews. When we were on the other side of this chamber I remember attacking Liberal Ministers for not having enough habitation reviews and for leaving us in a situation of not cleansing the rolls. That situation not only affects Federal elections but also affects State elections. I can just as confidently predict that people on the opposite side will be getting up and attacking this Government for not having regular enough habitation reviews. Although the reviews are costly processes, we recommend that they must be carried out every year. I can understand that any government would be reluctant on revenue grounds to make a commitment to carry out a habitation review every year. If we want to have a clean democratic process we must have clean rolls. The Committee, whose members represent all political parties and, I would have thought, cover the widest spectrum, unanimously recommended that we have annual habitation reviews.

We took a long while to come to a recommendation on a fourth area of controversy in the report-the rights of hospital patients to vote. Many of us have taken the view that the biggest rorting of the electoral system has occurred in nursing homes and the like. It was also equally strongly argued to us that we should not deprive hospital patients of the rights to lodge postal votes, even if polling booths are supplied. Being the Committee it is, we eventually came up with a compromise that, I guess, half satisfied everyone. We agreed that postal voting should be allowed to continue in hospitals and that mobile polling booths should be provided. But we recommend that some sanctions be placed on owners and controllers of nursing homes who might place duress on patients to vote in a particular manner that suits them.

Obviously, when we were asked to review the Commonwealth Electoral Act, the most contentious issue at the time was the high informal vote emanating from the 1984 election. It has been argued that that informal vote had many causes. I do not think the Electoral Reform Committee could be any more conclusive than anyone else. Our general view is that we do not believe that this result will be replicated at a future Federal election. A variety of suggestions have been made as to why the informal vote was so high in the House of Representatives election. The most obvious suggestion is that three different elections were being held at one time-a House of Representatives election, a Senate election and referendums. People became confused. Added to that, the voting system for the Senate was changed very substantially and that also tended to confuse people. The issue that had the most effect was the one-sided advertising of the new Senate system without a corresponding emphasis that the existing House of Representatives system had been maintained.

It has been put to me and to the Committee that the high informal vote in 1984 was a result of a protest vote. More particularly, of course, it was argued that people who were upset by the issue of nuclear disarmament and who did not have a candidate in the lower House in fact voted informally for House of Representatives candidates and formally for Senate candidates. I reject that proposition. I have studied the figure. The informality pattern was exactly the same for the six seats in which the Nuclear Disarmament Party ran a lower House candidate. I believe that with a sustained educative process leading up to the next election we will see the House of Representatives informal vote returned to normal-around 2 per cent. I do not want anyone to overlook the fact that the Senate informal vote-notoriously high at 10 per cent-was reduced to below 5 per cent for the first time since 1949 when proportional representation was first used in elections. That is an achievement which I think has been overlooked by many.

I want to move on to a couple of other issues. One issue is the very vexed question of public Commission funding and disclosure. We received evidence and allegations from people that the 1983-84 Act was not honoured entirely, that people found loopholes in the Act and that people did not honour the disclosure provisions. I generally put some credence to that view but I say to honourable senators: If they expect legislation to block off every potential loophole in the disclosure laws they will have the largest piece of legislation ever in this Parliament. I suspect that it would take-maybe the new Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party here could assist me-about 40 draftsmen two years, and then some smart cookie with white shoes from Queensland would take about a day to walk through the Act again.

We take this approach: We have stated the general principles of disclosure and we have set up a degree of regulation of that in the Act. The only power we have to ask people, morally and otherwise, to adhere to that Act is to issue this warning: Any future electoral reform committee, whether it is run by a Labor Party government majority or a Liberal Party government majority, reserves the right to investigate any of these matters with the full powers of the Parliament. So if any of the apparatchiks in the political parties were thinking of flouting the law and dodging around it they might well find themselves before a parliamentary committee with its full powers-which I understand are almost limitless in terms of being able to produce documents and other things-to track through these abuses. So those who set up special funds before the last election and then borrowed money from the banks so that the original sources could not be tracked through are warned now by this Committee that in a future parliament they may have to account for their actions.

Another point I want to make relates to some recommendations about the Court of Disputed Returns. We think this area, emanating from many of the judgments from the Nunawading case, has been cleaned up. I do not oppose any of the judgments made in the Nunawading case but, clearly, some of the problems that arose at that Court of Disputed Returns have consequences for Federal ballots. Basically, we are saying two things: Firstly, any person who votes in an election may have his or her ballot perused by a court of disputed returns to determine whether the result would have been one way or the other. At the moment, judges are precluded from opening the ballot papers of disputed votes. Secondly, we recommend, in terms of a deadlock, that a draw from a hat or a toss of a coin is just not satisfactory. If there is a tie, immediately the Australian Electoral Commission will have a further recount from which it is currently debarred by the legislation. If the deadlock continues, the Electoral Commission itself will take the whole matter to the Court of Disputed Returns. It can obviously rule one candidate the winner or the loser or order a new election.

In conclusion, I would like to thank all the members and senators who served on this Committee. In some ways it is a strange sort of committee. It is not a very well disciplined committee because we wander off into philosophical discussions mid-term, leaving witnesses stranded and Hansard bemused. Nevertheless, we have derived some enjoyment from the Committee and the debates that have occurred. I would like especially to thank the Australian Electoral Commission for the contribution that it has made, in particular, Dr Colin Hughes, Mr Andrejs Cirulis and Mr Michael Maley, all of whom provided immense research material and were always available to assist the Committee. I give my heartfelt thanks to Mr Donald Nairn, the Secretary of the Committee, who, as I have said, worked very hard under trying circumstances, given the composition of the Committee. He worked very hard in producing reports and organising the Committee's work. On behalf of all Committee members I extend my thanks to him and also to Mrs Kemp for the work she put into the report as well in terms of typing, et cetera. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.