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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2149

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (6:44 PM) —I rise to make a brief contribution to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill 2010. The bill before us today is an essential measure to restore integrity to Australia’s electoral system. Schedule 1 is particularly important in allowing Australians to enrol to vote or to change their enrolment details seven days after the election writs are issued, rather than by 8 pm on that day. When the Howard government amended the Electoral Act to close the electoral roll on the day the election was called, it was very clear that their motivation was one of political interest rather than sound public policy. In taking action, they disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of first-time voters and did democracy in this country a great disservice.

The Greens have been concerned about this issue from the day these changes were made. We moved an amendment to that original bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Act (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill, and today we welcome the government finally taking action. I understand that back then the government and the coalition argued here in this place that the changes to the act were necessary to reduce the administrative burden on the AEC and the potential for electoral fraud. Strangely enough, however, an audit conducted by the AEC of South Australians who changed their address from the week in issuing the writs in 2001 found no evidence of electoral fraud in a roll of one million people.

Could it be, however, that perhaps the coalition tried to amend the Electoral Act to disenfranchise a demographic that polls showed were not necessarily sympathetic to their government? Could it be? Let me serve as a reminder to this place that no party should be able to change the goalposts of our electoral system to achieve what is politically best for it. I hope that this kind of cynicism is something of the past.

The AEC tells us that in 2007 only 17,208 Australians enrolled or updated their details by the 8 pm deadline on the day the election writs were issued. In the previous election in 2004 under the old seven-day rule, the number of people who updated or changed their enrolment or enrolled was 423,975 individual voters. There is clearly a stark difference between the 17,000-odd and the close to 424,000 people who updated their details. This, of course, is not surprising given the fact that young people in particular are a demographic likely to move around more frequently, and the Prime Ministers of both persuasions seem to always keep their cards close to their chest around election times, not wanting anyone to know when that election date will be set. If we here as senators do not know when the next election is, and we are unable to look into that crystal ball, I am staggered as to how we believe that young people who are changing their addresses all of the time would be able to predict an election any better than we can.

Unfortunately, young people and first-time voters are often the demographic that is overlooked politically, often in this place as well as the other. We only have to turn to the game playing that has characterised the debate over youth allowance and student services here in this place to see exactly what I am talking about. It is hard to conceive of the coalition taking this kind of approach to other demographics within the community and clearly, obviously, their key voter groups. But, sadly, when it comes to young people, our political culture all too often says, ‘That’s okay; they’re just young.’

However, young people have a vital role to play in our democratic system. After all, it is the young people who are the leaders of tomorrow and it is they who will have to deal with the consequences of some if not all of the decisions that are made here and into the future. For instance, on climate change it is young people who have a real and genuine concern for the issues and what this means to them for their future and the future of our planet. Unfortunately, we have a Leader of the Opposition who does not seem to understand these issues and dismisses their concern and we have a Prime Minister who, while talking about action, does very little to deliver it.

We have a responsibility as political leaders to ensure that young people are empowered politically and encouraged to participate in our electoral process.

Debate interrupted.