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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6664

Senator COOK (10:00 PM) —I acknowledge Senator Ian Campbell and support his remarks. Last week we witnessed the astonishing spectacle of Dr Robert Dean, the Victorian Liberal Party's shadow Treasurer, being forced out of politics by virtue of his ineligibility to stand in the upcoming state election because he found himself not enrolled to vote. My purpose in speaking tonight is not to focus on the extraordinary incompetence of Dr Dean and the Victorian Liberal Party's campaign machinery, although I doubt that anyone in this chamber or elsewhere listening would be surprised if I made the observation that the State Director of the Liberal Party in Victoria, Mr Brian Loughnane, is probably no longer the frontrunner to replace Lynton Crosby as National Director of the Liberal Party. There are many things in politics which we trust others to do for us; however, for once, I think I can genuinely speak for every single one of my 75 colleagues in this chamber and the 150 members of the House of Representatives when I say that matters of electoral enrolments and election nominations are things only a fool would ever trust wholly to others, no matter how much we trust them. In other words, these are things we should take care of ourselves and do properly.

Dr Dean was not the first person, however, to be knocked off the electoral roll. The Liberal Party has long had an obsession with doing this. Of course, it is generally used to knock people off the roll who typically vote Labor—people in remote Aboriginal communities, people with very poor literacy skills, people in solid Labor areas within marginal electorates, and transient workers who follow work. All I can do is congratulate the Liberal Party. Your obsession has just netted you your biggest goal imaginable. Dr Dean had been enrolled to vote but was summarily removed from the roll because he did not answer correspondence. That is a point that I want to come back to in a few minutes.

There are several longstanding and consistent themes that have underpinned Labor Party platforms for the 110 years of our existence. One of them is that of electoral enfranchisement. We have sought to introduce and enhance the universal franchise of one vote, one value—that is, every person's vote being equal and every person having every opportunity to cast their vote. We have never been able to achieve this easily, but we have maintained the struggle to do so. To achieve this, in my own state of Western Australia as I speak, the Gallop government is being forced to change the state's constitution so that the president of the upper house in that state can exercise the vote that the electors thought they gave him when they voted him into parliament—a vote like the one that you, Mr President, have in this Senate.

It goes without saying that this is being resisted to the very last by the conservative opposition in Western Australia—the latest incarnation of the same people who have opposed every piece of progressive legislation from the rights of workers, to a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, to equal pay, to universal health care, to universal education for all kids, regardless of the economic circumstances of their parents. Indeed, many Western Australians still recall with shame that the WA upper house property franchise only came to an end in 1967, well within the lifetimes of the great majority of senators here.

In this chamber, we have heard much from Senator Abetz and others over the last few years of the alleged corruption of the electoral roll. We have had various bits of legislation bowled up to us to clamp down on this despicable alleged corruption of the electoral roll, despite not having one shred of evidence that the current legislation is in fact inadequate to the task. We still hear the plaintive whingeing from conservatives that the system needs to be tightened up—that it is harder to open a bank account in Australia than it is to enrol to vote. There are a number of reasons for that.

I come back now to Dr Dean, who was removed from the electoral roll, as I said before, because he did not answer mail. My electorate office is in the city of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. A number of the constituents of the federal seat of Kalgoorlie have been taken off the electoral roll for the same reason. It is the argument I put tonight that that is unfair to them. While it is correct in the Dean case, it is unfair to them. It is unfair to these electors of Australia because they are Aborigines living in remote tribal communities in the federal electorate of Kalgoorlie who have a cultural predisposition to, at various times, go walkabout, and they are not at a fixed address in the classical way. It is not part of their culture to be at a fixed address, and when letters are sent to them at an address, which they do not answer within a certain time and which are then returned to the sender and presented to the Electoral Commission, they are removed from the roll. As a consequence, they are disenfranchised.

Mr President, you will remember, as I do vividly, that in 1967 the Holt government introduced a national referendum to enable Aborigines to vote. It remains a distinctive and landmark referendum. It was a referendum that arguably should have been introduced much earlier. It was a referendum that, unlike many referendums, was carried. Significantly, it was carried by a majority vote in every electoral district in Australia—the only referendum ever to achieve that distinction. The objective of that referendum was to enfranchise Indigenous Australians. We now find that the very cultural nature of Indigenous Australians—particularly people living in tribal communities, at missions or in remote locations in the Western Desert in the electorate of Kalgoorlie—is being taken advantage of and they are being removed from the electoral roll because of their nomadic lifestyle and their perceived non-desire to lead a 21st century lifestyle where you are able to be reached by mobile phone or by letter at any time of the day.

I believe that there is a clear campaign to write to these people, produce the evidence that they are not at the address in which they are registered—although that is their address—and then remove them from the roll and thus reduce the vote. What is also clear—and it has to be said in this debate—is that many of those people in those communities have a predilection to vote Labor. It is not therefore in the interests of the Labor Party for this to occur. One only has to look at those whom I believe are undertaking these steps to see in whose interests it is to remove large numbers of Aboriginal voters in the federal seat of Kalgoorlie from the electoral roll to work out what is at play here.

This comes from a long tradition of trying to disenfranchise Aboriginal voters, the most spectacular and outstanding example of which occurred in 1977 when the Court of Disputed Returns found in that year's state election that some lawyers employed at that time by the Liberal Party had taken 44-gallon drums of port to Aboriginal communities in order to get them drunk the night before polling day. The court overturned that election and that caused a by-election to be held in the state seat of the Kimberley.

Indeed, just two years ago, with the compliance of the then WA Electoral Commissioner, there was a push that removed 600 people, mainly Indigenous Australians, from the electoral roll in the state seat of Ningaloo, which is wholly contained within the federal electorate of Kalgoorlie. Fortunately, their efforts came to nought, because the Aboriginals who had been taken off the roll realised themselves what had happened and, together with community workers and volunteers, managed to re-enroll themselves so that the total enrolment came to 800 people rather than the 600 that had been removed and those 800 were able to exercise their franchise.

During the New Zealand elections just a few months ago, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that in New Zealand you could enrol right up to the day before election day, in which case you simply had to cast a special declaration vote, which was not counted until such time as your enrolment was verified. This is in marked contrast to our system, where rolls close about four weeks before the election—although, as Senator Abetz has said in this place, if the government had its way it would close the roll the day the writs were issued. This alone would disenfranchise about 300,000 mostly young Australians. In the last federal election, 351,915 enrolments were received after the writs were issued because it has been common practice amongst Australian voters since time immemorial to make their enrolment or change it once the election is imminent.

The important question I want to address tonight is that I do believe the Electoral Commission and the laws of this country have to take into account the lifestyle practised by traditional Australians and have to fit the electoral system to their needs, not require a one-size-fits-all approach that means that they have to fit their way to a white way. (Time expired)