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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5929

Senator ROBERT RAY (4:03 PM) —This is the first report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters since the last election, and I think it will be one of quite a few that will come into this chamber. The integrity of the electoral roll is of fundamental importance to democracy. The electoral roll must be accurate and protections must exist to protect against the possibility of fraud.

I welcome the fact that the ANAO have examined this issue and have found that a high level of integrity exists. However, looking at the methodology adopted by the Audit Office, one could not be fully satisfied that they have the methodology right. What they have done is to compare names and dates of birth between the Medicare database and the electoral roll, and they have found that it is 96 per cent accurate. That is not to imply that it is four per cent inaccurate; they can only go so far as to say that it is 96 per cent accurate. The Audit Office assert—and I think quite correctly—that the electoral roll and the integrity of the electoral roll is in very good shape. However, given the variety of databases that now exists, the next time the Audit Office undertake such an activity we hope they can access more than just the Medicare database in order to verify the accuracy of the roll, because the missing element here is addresses. They never at any stage addressed the question of whether people's residential addresses were correct and up to date.

The committee notes that the Electoral Commission is now using the continuous roll update method as a way of keeping an accurate roll. This is highly dependent on the Post Office and state based databases to keep it accurate. But, compared with what was done in the past, it is certainly a cheaper method and a more up-to-date method than the old habitation reviews. To make it work, one of the crucial elements is that we keep the joint state and federal roll arrangements—something that has been cast in doubt, as this government, in a vanguardist way, wants to rush off and put all sorts of changes into the Electoral Act that no other state or territory government agrees with. But I think that is coming under some control at the moment.

I postulate about how much simpler this all would have been if 15 years ago we had adopted the Australia Card principle. It could have been used as a basis for verification and elimination of electoral fraud. I know what the objections were 15 years ago, but my privacy is far more invaded now than that proposal ever would have caused because it had protections in it. These days with data matching there is virtually no protection for the individual in Australian society.

The Joint Committee on Electoral Matters made several recommendations. I commend them to the Senate; I will not go through them all. One of the recommendations suggests that we do a habitation review of a whole federal division and check it against the roll as delivered by the continuous roll update, as a verifier of just how accurate a particular roll is. We also recommend random spot checks in other divisions, because with census districts it will be quite easy to do random spot checks via habitation review and check them against what the roll currently says. We also stress that staff training should be upgraded with regard to the electoral fraud control plan.

The main problem with the accuracy of the electoral roll is one of perception rather than reality. There has been a sustained campaign from various right-wing organisations to try to create the impression that there is a problem. The H.S. Chapman Society time and time again make allegations that the electoral roll is fraudulent. The problem is that when you ask them for evidence it is always going to come but never arrives. The same old recycled canards come out time and time again. Accusations that have been totally disproved are just recycled time and time again.

This not only extends to extreme right-wing organisations; there are a couple of stupid members of the House of Representatives that also give truck to these particular theories. It is as though they think that they could only ever have been beaten in an election if fraud were involved, because they are just such wonderful, brilliant candidates. What other explanation could there be?

The one missing element here, of course, is evidence. There is no denying that there were problems in Queensland two years ago. There is no question of that. They were dealt with at a political level and quite a few political careers were terminated as a consequence. Of course, the motive there was not to rig electoral results; it was to determine internal party arrangements. The motive was not to affect the outcome of the state or federal election. The Queensland government, having dealt with this matter in a very authoritative way, were then judged by the electorate. The judgment was pretty overwhelming: 66 Labor members and three Liberals were elected. I think at least the Queensland electorate thought the matter had been dealt with expeditiously and quite well.

What should the future hold with regard to enrolments? The electoral matters committee is going to keep the question of enrolment under constant review. It urges the Australian National Audit Office also to play a key role. Almost certainly at some stage in the future we would like to see tougher fines and sentences for anyone convicted of fraud with regard to enrolment. It is also possible, I think, to entertain the idea that sustainable ID should be introduced to check enrolments. The previous government had done this but in a very draconian, complex way. There are simple methods that can be used to check the validity of enrolment. Drivers licences make a pretty good start, with well over 90 per cent of those over the age of 18 holding a drivers licence. That could well be at least the starting point of a good regime that requires identification before people are enrolled.

But, of course, this misses the point. The whole point of some of the more stringent identity checks was just a smokescreen so that the roll could be cut off from day one of an election, so that 80,000 or 90,000 new enrollees could not get on the roll and another 350,000 could not change their addresses. I think that is an appalling approach to democracy. Arguing that there might be five or 10 fraudulent enrolments Australia-wide yet capriciously wanting to knock off 440,000 at the stroke of a piece of legislation seems to me passing strange.

The real problem with the electoral roll is that five per cent of eligible Australians are not on the roll. That is where we should be concentrating our effort. That is where we should be encouraging the Australian Electoral Commission to concentrate their efforts. It is certainly true that with their upgraded systems—systems that are far more sophisticated than those they used in the past—they now have the scope to bring about those improvements. I think they have the will to do so as well. It is not good enough to say that Australia is better than the rest of the world with regard to enrolments and electoral systems. There is no doubt we are, but there is always room for improvement and we should try to encourage that improvement.

In conclusion, I thank the staff of the electoral matters committee for all the work they have put into this inquiry and other inquiries we are currently undertaking. I also acknowledge that the committee is working smoothly thanks to the competent chairmanship of Mr Petro Georgiou. What a contrast to his predecessor, a hired hit man put in to drag the Labor Party through the mud and to totally disregard the normal committee processes!

Now we have someone who is trying to rebuild the esprit de corps of the committee. That is not to say that we will take a bipartisan attitude on everything. There will be disagreements but they will be disagreements based on decency and not political opportunism. However, I suppose in the end it was all for nothing. There was all that dirty work done at whoever's behest, and Mr Pyne has been rewarded with nothing. It is really gratifying to know that a groveller got his best and proper deserts.