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Friday, 16 June 2006
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Senator CARR (9:01 AM) —I move:

At the end of the motion, add  “but the Senate is of the view that this bill should be withdrawn until undemocratic provisions that:

              (a)    reduce the period of time Australians have to enrol to vote and update their details on the electoral roll;

              (b)    introduce new proof of identity requirements;

              (c)    increase the disclosure of thresholds to $10,000; and

              (d)    increase the tax-deductibility of political donations,

                are removed”.

I wish to express the opposition’s very strong objection to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2006. The opposition’s opinion is that this bill should be entirely rejected. It should be withdrawn, and I have moved a second reading amendment to that effect. There are things about the Australian electoral system which make it unique in the world. The Australian electoral system makes us a symbol of what can be achieved in a democratic franchise. There are things about the Australian ballot that make us unique in our capacity to involve our citizens in the processes of government to a level which is pretty much unrivalled around the world.

Australia has a long and proud history of progressive electoral reform. As the minority report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters highlighted, this history dates back to the introduction of the secret ballot in Victoria in 1856. Voting rights for women were introduced in South Australia in 1894 and at a national level in 1902. The preferential voting system was introduced in 1918 and compulsory voting was introduced in 1924. Proportional representation in the Senate was introduced in 1949 and the right to vote was extended to 18-year-old citizens in 1973. It is fair to say that the responsibility for these quite substantial initiatives rests right across the political spectrum. All parties have participated, which has ensured that Australia enjoys probably one of the most democratic ballots in the world. The proposals before this chamber will bring that to an end. They will fundamentally change the nature of the Australian ballot in such a way as to seriously undermine our capacity to ensure that all Australian citizens have the opportunity to participate.

What we have with the proposals before us today are undertakings by this government to change the nature of our political system to make it increasingly difficult for ordinary citizens to participate. On this side of the chamber, we are very alarmed that the government is pursuing these reforms. There is no evidence to support the claims of the government or to justify what is in essence a pretty shabby attempt to take a narrow partisan advantage—short term at that. There is no evidence that the claims the government makes about the nature of electoral fraud in this country justify these sorts of draconian changes, which undermine the fundamental principles that make a real difference to the way in which our electoral system works.

This government seems to imply that fraud is widespread in the Australian electoral system. On the contrary, what makes us different from so many other countries that claim to be the harbingers of the democratic principle—take the United States as an example—is that Australia does not get the sorts of claims about rigged electoral systems that are seen in the United States, but this government is asserting that there is some sort of widespread electoral fraud in this country. We will come to that in some detail.

What this government is trying to do through this legislation is to make it more difficult for Australians to participate. That is my fundamental objection to these changes. The government is trying to restrict the capacity of Australians to participate in the electoral system and the governance of this country. This government is seeking to close the electoral roll earlier and to make it more difficult for people to get onto the roll. This government is making it more difficult for people to change their enrolment details so they can cast a vote. It is making it more difficult for voters to participate in the ballot, by forcing people to produce photographic or documentary identification before they are able to cast a provisional vote, and it is making it more difficult for voters to vote formally for the Senate.

We are seeing attempts being made through this legislation to fundamentally change the way in which our electoral system works. If you look at the nature of the changes that are also occurring with the donation system, you see that what this government is trying to do with these electoral bills is change the manner in which people contribute financially to the electoral system. It is the introduction of big, dirty-money politics into the Australian voting system.

What we are seeing here is the Americanisation of the Australian electoral system. What we are seeing through this is, like so many areas of public policy, a government that seems to take its model from overseas. And it is not the very best that America has to offer; it is some of the very worst aspects of American political culture. Look at the way our Senate is put together. The fact is that there are some wealthy people here, but not that many. You do not have to be a millionaire to get elected to the Australian Senate. But in the case of the United States, where there are 100 senators, the latest information that I have shows that, of those 100 senators, 40 would consider themselves to be millionaires—40 per cent are millionaires. Those sorts of statistics are quite alien to the Australian electoral system.

What you have here is a cynical attempt to redefine and reshape the Australian electorate through a deliberate sequence of regressive and exclusionary measures. In doing so the government is seeking to marginalise and exclude some of Australia’s poorest and most disadvantaged citizens, the people who actually need government the most—the homeless, the poor, Indigenous Australians, migrant Australians, people who have trouble with English. These are the people who need the services of government. These are the people who benefit most from good governance. But these measures are aimed at excluding those people from participating in the political system.

After a century of political development, which has produced what I call the ‘Australian ballot’—one of the best in the world—measures are being introduced by this government to fundamentally undermine those principles. We have seen those principles open the doors to government by encouraging people to participate in the system and not trying to put barriers in their way. The fundamental principles of our electoral system are now being placed in jeopardy.

Through this legislation we see proposals aimed at closing the rolls early, making it more difficult to enrol, making it more difficult to cast a valid vote and changing the way you can contribute financially to the political system. You can now donate secretly, in such a manner as to avoid public scrutiny and public accountability. We see through these arrangements a smokescreen being established to claim that there is some form of widespread electoral fraud. And what is the evidence the government produces for this? The former minister, Senator Abetz, said that there have been 71 occasions since 1990 of people being identified as having tried to vote more than once—71 occasions since 1990. Think about all the people who have voted since 1990. Think how many times people in this chamber have voted since 1990. You will find that that is a rate of one example for every million votes cast. It is hardly what I would call widespread evidence of electoral fraud. There is simply no case to defend the government’s position on these issues.

We are seeing proposals that are aimed fair and square at narrow political advantage for what the government perceives to be its short-term benefit in these matters. The government proposals with regard to the electoral roll mean that the existing arrangements around the closure of the electoral roll after the election writs have been issued will be fundamentally changed. Currently, the legislation allows for a seven-day period after the electoral writs have been issued for people to get their affairs in order and update their electoral details. The government proposes to change the electoral rolls so that at 8 pm on the same day that the writs are issued people will not be able to enrol. The justification that the government claims is the need to maintain the integrity of the electoral roll. This is about electoral manipulation by the government, pure and simple, because the very people who do not keep their records up to date, who do not enrol judiciously, tend to be the people less engaged in the day-to-day political world. I have a concern that they are essentially the people who need the services of government the most.

Following the 2001 federal election the AEC argued that an early closure of the rolls might mean that the rolls are in fact less accurate. That has been the traditional view of the Australian Electoral Commission. It said that electoral fraud was actually very rare. The statistics speak for themselves on that matter. The question of the electoral roll closure is really another one of those cynical red herrings being thrown across the trail in such a way as to divert public attention from what the government is intending to do. The number of submissions to the joint standing committee on the question of early closure of the rolls was very low. From my recollection, there were two submissions in favour of this proposal—one of course from the Liberal Party and one from the Festival of Light. These submissions were hardly what I would call compelling.

The figures produced by the AEC demonstrate that at the 2004 federal election there were 400,000 persons who enrolled, re-enrolled or changed their details in the seven days after the writs were issued. I think many of the people who do change their electoral details tend to be people who move regularly, renters, people who do not necessarily enjoy the same sorts of conditions that would encourage them to participate without these sorts of impediments being placed in their way. This will in fact reduce their level of involvement.

With regard to proof of identity there is, once again, no evidence or any suggestion that the identity question has led to any significant fraud being perpetrated on our electoral system. This is a regressive decision to discourage people from fronting up to an electoral polling station. It is another device to disenfranchise groups such as young Australians, the homeless and Indigenous Australians—people that the coalition believe are more likely to vote Labor.

When you look at the question of thresholds for political donations, you see the most dangerous aspect of this legislation. The government wants to increase the level of political donations that do not have to be revealed from $1,500 to $10,000. This government is trying to claim that it is a simple matter—that it is just a measure designed to deal with the effects of inflation. This far exceeds the inflation rate in this country. Going from $1,500 to $10,000 is way in excess of any inflation index you will find anywhere in this country. The amount of money that can actually be contributed under these measures without public declaration is not in fact $10,000, because individuals can contribute across the country at every state and territory level; the real figure is $80,000. That is what this government is seeking to allow as the minimum level at which one does not have to declare a contribution to a political party. What does that do to the transparency of the electoral system? It means that people with money can contribute in secret and in return can get all the political favours that come with secret political donations.

We see similar arrangements with regard to the receipt and disclosure of anonymous donations. The AEC has recognised that there is a need to tighten up on the question of financial disclosure, particularly when it comes to the question of associated entities. But again we see the example here of the Electoral Commission being ignored. I think it would be pretty much unchallenged that it is an organisation that enjoys a very high reputation for running a straight ballot. The same cannot be said of electoral officials around the world. You do not get the sorts of charges against our electoral officials that you get in other countries. But what do we have in these circumstances? The Electoral Commission’s recommendations on so many of these matters are simply ignored by this government. And the reason? They do not suit the partisan objectives of this government.

The legislation we have before us does nothing to address the concerns of the AEC. In fact, it will make the situation so much worse when it comes to the question of financial accountability for political donations. The government does not share the view, obviously, of so many in this country that there needs to be a tightening up on the question of political accountability for financial contributions, especially when we look at the issue of so-called associated entities, devices by which you can launder political donations through the system. There needs to be a much firmer commitment to ensure that political parties come clean as to the sources of their donations. The argument is pretty straightforward: given the fact that we now contribute so much to political parties, public funding of elections being the main source of that financial support, the requirements on political parties should be all the greater—they should not be less—to explain where they get additional sources of money, how they run their affairs and how they participate in the political system. It imposes greater responsibility on political parties to come clean. But this government is providing a legislative framework where dirty, big-money politics can dominate the system in such a way as to provide services in secret for those donors. The questions that we are raising here point to the fact that this is a corrosion of the Australian ballot to such a point that this bill ought to be rejected outright.

Labor takes the view that the removal of prisoner voting rights is a further example of the way in which this government is seeking to reduce the right to participate. Currently only prisoners serving a custodial sentence of more than three years have their right to vote removed. Under this proposal there would be a further restriction on the rights of prisoners to vote. It was left to the Festival of Light—the other great supporter of the Liberal Party on these matters—to suggest that allowing prisoners serving sentences of less than three years to vote would encourage criminals to participate in the system. It is an amazing proposition—naive, offensive and ignorant. (Time expired)