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Tuesday, 31 March 1987
Page: 1552

Senator TATE (Special Minister of State) —I seek leave to make the Government's response to the second report of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, to incorporate the statement in Hansard and to move a motion relating to the statement.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

On 22 December 1986 the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform presented a report relating to the operation during the 1984 general election of the 1983-84 amendments to Commonwealth electoral legislation.

The Joint Select Committee has provided a good forum for seeking improvements to the Electoral Act and has made a very useful contribution to electoral reform in its report. The review undertaken by the Committee follows the substantial reform measures recommended by its predecessor, which were largely implemented by this Government in 1983-84. Honourable senators will recall that this Government, responding to the recommendations of the earlier Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, introduced the most substantial set of reforms for many years. Those changes have generally worked well. Nevertheless there was a high informal vote for the House of Representatives at the 1984 general election which was a challenge for the Committee to resolve.

The thought and experience that has gone into the present Committee's report under Senator Robert Ray's leadership has created the opportunity to make further improvements. The Committee's recommendations generally embody the values of equality and fairness within the sometimes complex procedures that are required to achieve those values.

In general terms, the report reflects a large measure of agreement amongst representatives of the major political parties on the Committee.

In view of the Committee's continuing contribution to electoral reform the Government agrees with the committee's first recommendation that there should be a joint standing committee to provide a continuing forum for review of the electoral system. A measure of the Committee's work is that the Government has seen fit to accept the great majority of the 156 recommendations in the report.

While most of the report's recommendations are technical, intended to enhance the existing provisions of the Electoral Act and its administration by the Australian Electoral Commission, there are several recommendations which will make substantial improvements to the electoral system.

Some matters in the report are considered essential for legislative implementation before the next election is held. These will be included in legislation I intend to introduce in this sitting. I will return to these essential items in a moment. But first I want to outline the Government's response to some of the significant recommendations in the report. Several of these will have budgetary considerations.

In order to reduce the high informal vote for the House of Representatives at the last election, the Government has agreed in principle to the Committee's recommendations for an intensive media campaign and to a mailing to electors of information on electoral procedures. In regard to the mailing to electors it would be cheaper to resort to the use of a `To the Householder' pamphlet prepared by the Electoral Commission. However this would not reach certain sections of the community and would have less impact than a personalised approach. The Government therefore agrees that the pamphlets be sent by the Electoral Commission to each enrolled voter. Another advantage of this approach is that individually addressed letters that are `returned to sender' will alert the Electoral Commission to the need to check the accuracy of the roll in those instances.

The Government has also agreed to the Committee's recommendations to simplify the scrutiny of Senate voting. Without such amendments to the Electoral Act any substantial increase in the number of candidates for the Senate will unduly prolong the counting of votes, and could well mean that some candidates might be delayed in taking their places in the Senate.

The Government has accepted the Committee's recommendations for ensuring that patients in hospitals and nursing homes can freely exercise their vote, including comprehensive polling facilities at all hospitals and nursing homes, while retaining the postal vote option for patients. The Government's general acceptance of the Committee's recommendation that Electoral Commission staff attend naturalisation ceremonies reflects its continuing desire to encourage new citizens to participate in our democratic electoral processes. The Government will continue to encourage all eligible citizens to enrol and vote, and accepts the Committee's recommendation for an increase in the administrative penalty for failure to vote, from $4 to $20, and for spot checks on the validity of enrolment claims. Some of the abovementioned measures will not be implemented in the first stage.

The Committee's recommendations 2 to 11 concerning the redistribution process will be implemented as part of the early legislation package. To facilitate this process the Electoral Act will be amended to allow determinations of representation entitlements to be made in the tenth or eleventh month of a parliament.

The Government does not accept recommendation 18 (e) that published electoral rolls should include electors' date of birth, gender and occupation. Prior to 1984, occupation and gender were listed on the electoral rolls. However, following a recommendation of the previous Committee, occupation and gender were removed. The Government is mindful that many electors would regard the publication of their date of birth as an unnecessary invasion of privacy. Furthermore, the dissemination of occupation and gender is unnecessary to determine an elector's right to vote, and their release would be inconsistent with the information privacy principles contained in the Privacy Bill, currently before the Senate.

Likewise, the Government does not accept recommendation 18 (b) which would allow the Electoral Commission to sell magnetic tapes of habitation indexes and electoral rolls, and microfiche of the electoral rolls at a commercial price. The availability of electoral roll information in a computer compatible format increases its commercial value, particularly to mail order and other direct selling companies. The Government does not wish to facilitate access by commercial and other interests to personal information provided by electors to the Electoral Commission.

The question of disclosure of personal data under the Freedom of Information Act, and the possibility that commercial and other interests will attempt to use this avenue to obtain elector information, are matters that the Government currently has under examination.

The Committee recommended that the Act be amended to provide for annual habitation reviews. The Commonwealth presently meets the full cost of biennial habitation reviews in each State with the exception of Western Australia, which already contributes half the costs. The Government has decided to examine further the financial aspects before proceeding with this recommendation.

The Committee also recommended the retention of the standing appropriation for habitation reviews and legislative amendment to guarantee funds for the printing of the electoral rolls. The Government prefers to remove standing appropriations from legislation, wherever possible, to allow greater scrutiny by the Parliament and the Government of proposed expenditure. Funding for future habitation reviews and the printing of electoral rolls will be sought in the normal budgetary process.

The Government has already announced that the use of the Australia Card would be limited to taxation, social security and medicare purposes. It therefore does not agree with the Committee's recommendation that, if an Australia Card is introduced, a reference be made to the Joint Select Committee-or its successor-to determine if, and to what extent, the card should be given an Electoral Act function.

Due to the exigencies of the legislative program, legislation to give effect to the acceptable recommendations in the report will be introduced in two stages. As I have already indicated those recommendations which are essential to the effective conduct of the next election will be introduced as soon as possible in this sitting. These essential matters include:

Simplifying the Senate scrutiny to speed up final results (recommendations 89 and 90);

implementing a 14-day cut-off for receipt of postal votes and extra-territorial operation for the Commonwealth Electoral Act (recommendation 59);

extending the statutory period between the issue and the return of the writs from 90 to 100 days (recommendation 46);

repealing the registration of candidate provisions introduced in 1983 (recommendations 40 and 104);

consolidating provisions relating to the nominations of candidates (recommendations 40, 47, 48 and 49);

improving the arrangements for group voting tickets for the Senate (recommendations 45, 62, 63, 64 and 65);

standardising the way party affiliations are shown on ballot-papers (recommendation 67);

making provision for the extension of times in the election timetable when emergencies occur (recommendations 148 and 149);

amending the definition of an election advertisement (recommendation 102);

amending the Commonwealth Electoral Act to bind the Crown (recommendation 136);

extending the period to be covered for the returns of election expenditure by third parties (recommendation 121);

repealing the requirement for returns by printers (recommendation 127);

repealing the requirement that enrolled voters live within a division in the three months prior to the poll (recommendation 20);

providing for the Electoral Commission to make amendments to claims and financial disclosure returns when a genuine mistake occurs (recommendation 134);

providing for a common release date for all public funding claims and financial disclosure returns (recommendation 135);

allowing for the processing of enrolment claims up to close of roll (recommendation 29);

providing for advice to be given to divisional returning officers regarding the number of absent votes issued (recommendation 77); and

providing for a provisional scrutiny of the House of Representatives preferences to take place as part of the fresh scrutiny, thereby providing an earlier indication of likely outcomes (variation of recommendation 98).

Over a period of 85 years the Commonwealth Electoral Act has established one of the best electoral systems in the world. Australians were early in achieving the vote for women and the secret ballot. The Act required, first compulsory enrolment and then compulsory voting, to ensure that the elected representatives truly represent the real majority of Australia's citizens. It introduced preferential voting for the House of Representatives and later proportional representation for the Senate to give each elector a full expression of his or her preferences among candidates. The Act now embodies the principle of one vote one value for the House of Representatives so that the next general election will reflect equality of representation to a greater extent than ever before. It has developed redistribution procedures which exclude partisan pressures and gives individual electors and community organisations ample opportunity to be heard. In periods of political turmoil and social conflict, the neutrality and basic fairness of Commonwealth electoral procedures are universally valued.

I congratulate Senator Robert Ray and his Committee for this work which has culminated in another very useful report, which does further credit to the parliamentary committee system.

Senator TATE —I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.