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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2373

Senator ARCHER(11.14) —The timing of the presentation of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 1987 to the Senate has made things a little difficult-somewhat unnecessarily so-but we will cover the issues as we go. Firstly, I pay tribute to the work done by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. We all appreciate its great dedication to the job. It is probably the most difficult and unrewarding committee in the whole of the Parliament to work on. There are certainly no thanks and no good publicity for the work that is done. It is a genuine labour of love.

A note of caution must be expressed that elections do not become just an art for those who organise them, instead of serving the purpose for which they were intended. I would not want the running of an election to become more important than the result. At all times we must ensure that elections are not merely exercises in political science. The effectiveness of the result should be the goal. Amongst other things, we should ensure that all forms of fraud, misdemeanour, stacking and so on are detectable and adequately punishable. Fairness must be achievable.

The legislation should not be turned into a mere exercise in political science. Elections should not become an exercise in the way the Australian Electoral Commission runs parliamentarians. The system must be reasonable to operate, at all levels of understanding, by those who work in it and from it. The present Act is already very difficult and complicated. Very few members and senators, if any, fully appreciate or understand their responsibilities and liabilities under the Act, not because they are not interested but simply because the Acts we have passed and the amendments we have before us are very difficult. I particularly ask the Special Minister of State (Senator Tate) and the Electoral Commissioner to concentrate on taking steps to make the legislation easier and less complicated as their next project. The present Act runs to 272 pages-that is before the addition of the amendments before us and the next lot, which we may get later this year, early next year or whenever it is to be and which, I gather, will be considerably more substantive.

When we consider the effects of some of these amendments and of some of the things that are in the pipeline we should take into account the costs of running an election. The latest estimate I have, given in answer to a question on the estimates for this year, is that we are facing a cost for the next election-that is, just the additional costs of running the election-in the order of $50m. Items include extra election staffing, at a cost of $19.354m; freight, $1.296m; hire of premises, $0.883m; postage, $4.773m; printing, $1.325m; tally rooms, $0.341m; advertising, $3.406m; ballot boxes and voting screens, $1.59m; data preparation, $98,000; training, $1.346m; payments to political parties, $10.344m; and other miscellaneous charges, $1.124m. The total is $45.88m and does not include the cost of sending out election leaflets, which has been estimated-I think undergenerously-at $2.5m, staffing increases at a cost of $0.75m and training programs for polling officials at a cost of $0.443m.

I realise that democracy comes at a price but we need to consider whether the price is reasonable and, more importantly, whether the price represents value for money-or whether the election is merely a Commission exercise. The cost of sending personal letters, printed envelopes, checked and posted, to every elector is listed at 30c each. I would like to get on the tail end of a postal service under which it costs $2.5m to send out about eight million personal letters. The figures at this stage indicate that we will reach the $50m involved quite readily.

The Minister's second reading speech covered many of the issues for which the Bill provides. Intensive media campaigns and the mailing to electors of information on electoral procedures are included. It is hoped that the exercise will be very successful. I guess that the test of that will be the number of informal votes at the next election compared with the number at the last election. If the process is to cost some millions of dollars, those last few informal votes may be very expensive. I am pleased that the Government accepted the Committee's recommendation to ensure that patients in hospitals and nursing homes can freely exercise their vote. I realise that that matter was under some discussion. I am glad that those people are at least as important as some of those who cast informal votes previously. I believe that they are entitled to be treated just as adequately.

I am concerned about the enforceability of the legislation as far as failure to vote and failure to enrol are concerned. In our system, both those functions are compulsory and there are penalties for non-compliance. From the answer to another question that I asked at Estimates hearings I find that, while in theory these matters are compulsory, their implementation is rarely carried out. That is so for a variety of reasons. Firstly, on the scale of penalties, undoubtedly it would cost considerably more to prosecute for failure in either of those areas than the amount of the penalty, and I gather that it always brings poor publicity. It makes compulsory enrolment and voting a farce. We do not have compulsory voting; we have the compulsory taking of a voting paper. That is the nearest thing we have to it. I put it to the Government, the Committee and the Commission that what we have at present is not quite what we say we have. With the other alterations and amendments that we are considering, we are going right over this issue which requires a lot of attention for a variety of reasons. When I look at the trouble that we have taken on other issues, I feel that we need to cover this more adequately than we are doing at the moment.

Much of what is in the Bill is completely of a technical and machinery nature. I accept that many of the items are there purely and simply to make the situation for senators and members easier, for the parties involved to be able to do things more reliably and for the electoral staff, at election time, to do their job a little better and, hopefully, in some cases a little quicker. The first problem that I strike concerns the definition of what constitutes electoral matter. Page 2 of the Bill states:

`electoral matter' means matter which is intended or likely to affect voting in an election;

Everything that we do in the course of our lives as politicians is designed to affect the voting in an election. Last night when I was trying to satisfy the questions of some of my colleagues, I rang Dr Hughes and had a discussion with him on this subject. I believe that his interpretation is important. I request the Minister, in the course of the debate, to provide us with a full and detailed list of what that definition is intended to cover. We would like a full description of what is and what is not meant by the definition. We would like to have examples of both so that there can be no trouble and no misunderstanding, in line with Dr Hughes's private comments to me last night.

It is important to know exactly where we all are. I do not believe that it is desirable that members can do things erroneously, which they are unaware of, or wrongly do things which they have done for the past 20 years because the rules have been changed by rather obscure wording which may catch up with them in some way. It is important to tidy that up. If the Minister could arrange to get as full a listing of that as possible I would be most obliged.

There is room for considerable dispute. The Bill seeks to amend sections 305 and 308 of the principal Act by replacing the words `election period', wherever occurring, with `disclosure period'. That amendment makes being a member of the Parliament a most onerous occupation. At this stage I am unable to see how that can be properly and accurately fulfilled. If the Minister is able to provide details of that before we reach the voting stage, I would be greatly obliged.

The inclusion of third party groups in the legislation means that there will be identical coverage for everybody involved with an election-an existing member, a prospective member or a third party participant. The rules will be the same throughout. However, the rules are not nearly clear enough for the practitioner. It may be all right for those who sit in judgment over the Act, but it is not nearly clear enough for those who have to live by it. I ask that greater attention be given to trying to ensure that the Act is workable, that it is not there just to trap people but to secure equity. If it can be shown to do that, I am sure that it will have the complete support of all members and senators. In the meantime, I feel that there must be a better way to go about it.

The matter of redistribution is one of the heartburns that go with being a member of the House of Representatives in particular. At the last election there was great criticism of the way in which the system operated and the way that it did or did not work out. Considerable publicity was given to the situation in New South Wales. I was largely in support of those who were critical. Also, I was completely in support of those who were critical of the Tasmanian situation, which I thought was deplorable. However, we are stuck with it. We must ensure that such a situation cannot happen again without far better participation from the community and the people involved. On my reading and my study of the provisions that now pertain, I believe that should be possible, but it will take the operation of the provisions to see whether or not that is so.

I now refer to the question of the margin. It is proposed that what used to be a 10 per cent margin between the highest and the lowest should be reduced to 2 per cent. Clearly this is going to create difficulties because it is a very fine margin. We have never tried to work with such a close margin before. It remains to be seen whether it is too close. But it is something that was discussed at great length by the Joint Select Committee. Recommendation four of that Committee said:

That the degree of permitted variation under paragraph 66 (3) (a) should be 2 per cent variation above or below the future average and that the Electoral Act paragraph 66 (3) (a) and sub-section 75 (4) should be amended accordingly.

That was a unanimous decision taken by the full Committee. We will support a 2 per cent variation in accordance with that decision.

The changes to the methods of nomination appear to be quite satisfactory, and they are supported by us. The ballot scrutiny amendments also appear to improve efficiency in procedures to bring about earlier results. But I do not wish to see earlier results at the expense of the pre-ballot and absentee voters. The amendment to the Electoral Act that we have before us provides that the period for the acceptance of such votes be extended from 10 to 13 days. But when we look into the operation of the Act, we find that there is really no reason at all why this should be needed because every one of these votes is known to exist by the close of polling. There is no reason at all for any closure on when the pre-poll votes should be admitted. The constraint of 13 days would certainly discourage laxity in the dispatch of these votes. I believe that anything we can do to ensure that the polling clerks get those votes into the system and get them sent off in safe hands as fast as possible is to be encouraged. They will all be in the hands of the Australian Electoral Office. Safe delivery on the Monday after the election would ensure that there is never any circumstance where they could not and should not be taken into the count.

We would therefore oppose the amendment that is before us and move not to limit the taking into account of these votes because we believe that that is quite reasonable. There should not be any limitation at all. It may well be that we can encourage the operators of the system to work harder in getting them counted.

Senator Tate —We are talking about postal votes, not absentee votes.

Senator ARCHER —We are talking about the pre-poll votes. The majority recommendation of the Committee was:

. . . that there should be a fixed cut-off period of 14 days for the return of postal and pre-poll votes.

We have now moved to change that period to 13 days. The report continued:

There is some merit in a cut-off period for postal votes since although the number of ballot papers issued is known, there can be no way of knowing the number completed and committed to the post.

Pre-poll votes, however, are quite different. All such votes are in the hands of electoral officials prior to polling day. There is no reason, by any action of the voter, why they should not be admitted to the ballot.

There should be no limit on pre-poll votes. Similar procedures to absentee votes should be followed.

That was the recommendation of the minority report, signed by Senator Sir John Carrick, the Hon. Michael MacKellar and Mr Charles Blunt. Accordingly we will be seeking to have the limit on the acceptance of those pre-poll votes lifted altogether.

The other matter which has caused quite an amount of concern is that of residential qualifications. The Liberal Party at this stage finds it very difficult to support the reasoning that went with this in the report. There still appears to be an inadequate check on stacking or other illegal practices. We concede that the present system is not ideal, but we do not support changing a less than adequate system for one that may be no better, and may even be worse, and only time will tell. The reasoning that was used in the report is stated as follows, on page 29 at paragraph 3.29:

It can be seen that the 3 month rule is therefore in practical terms incapable of across the board enforcement. More seriously, however, its operation is anomalous in that it only works to disenfranchise those electors who have not correctly maintained their enrolments, but are honest enough to admit it. This clearly raises the general question of whether the rule continues to serve any useful purpose.

The Committee believes that the regular maintenance of the Rolls by annual habitation reviews should ensure improved accuracy and reliability. The 3 months real place of living requirement has been needed because the accuracy of the Rolls at any given election could not be guaranteed. It might be reasonable to suppose that if the Rolls could approximate better to the ideal, the significance of the 3 months rule would be diminished.

It may be and it may not be. Whether there is an advantage remains to be seen. On behalf of my Party I inform the Senate that at this stage we are not prepared to vote for the elimination of that until such time as there is much better evidence to determine that it is possible that there can be an improvement. I realise the deficiencies under the present system, but nobody has convinced me or my Party of the advantages of the proposed change.

The National Party of Australia has an amendment for the deletion of requirements on financial disclosure. This will not be supported by the Liberal Party. We cannot agree that there should not be some financial accountability, and the amendment that the National Party has put forward at this stage seeks to eliminate the entire section. The Australian Democrats also have an amendment, which provides for what I suppose they would term the `truth' question. I am of the opinion that it would be unenforceable. I regret that it is impossible to determine this because it comes back to who determines what is truth. I believe it is quite normal and logical that the voters will determine whether they see people putting propositions to them in the course of an election as being truthful or not.

I do not wish to induce party political problems at this stage, but I wonder: At what time does an election promise or an election statement cease to be a promise? At what stage can it be held to be untrue or at what stage can a statement, that is made now, be held to be misleading or deceptive later on? I say this only because the example that always comes to mind is the promise that there would be no capital gains tax. Whether that statement was said to be untrue, misleading or deceptive is a matter of opinion. It was probably made in good faith at the time, but there is nothing in this amendment that would give that sort of latitude to the interpretation in this legislation. I completely support the principle. I know that Senator Tate would totally agree that it should be the principle behind election advertising, but I regret that there is no way that I could see that we could ever reach the stage of being able to legislate for what is untrue or likely to be misleading or deceptive.

Apart from those few comments we have no other objections to the legislation. We certainly look forward to the next package or information on when this might come through. It is a bit difficult to deal with a Bill that goes through and picks out half a dozen or a dozen items out of 156. We do need very carefully to see how the next lot of amendments will fit into the operation of the legislation. I am concerned that my colleagues and I are all facing problems as the Act is getting more difficult and extremely unsure in a lot of areas. I believe there are now definitions in the legislation that are quite unreasonable.