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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 4090

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (13:29): The minister at the table earlier described the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the related bill that we are dealing with today as being all good, but I rise to beg to differ with him. I think there are serious concerns about the two bills that the Senate is currently debating. Notwithstanding the effusive support given by Senator Rhiannon for these bills, I think we ought to look long and hard at what we are doing by passing these bills. The intention of this legislation is that a net be thrown out to the broader population of people who are apparently not enrolled on the present Commonwealth electoral roll. Using certain assumptions, a proportion of these people would be enrolled automatically—without their consent and presumably often without their knowledge—on the Commonwealth electoral roll. It is thought that this will increase the number of people who are enrolled and who are eligible to cast their vote at federal elections. It is a method of improving participation in Commonwealth electoral processes, which the Greens and the Labor Party obviously think is important, but which I think represents a large amount of self-interest. Senator Rhiannon suggested that it is only the coalition that has self-interest in this legislation; I think the support of the two governing parties for this legislation reflects a large measure of their own self-interest.

An important point about this legislation is that it goes to the operation of our electoral system and to the operation of a body like the Senate. To pass the laws of the country with authority and with a sense of reflection of the wishes of the Australian people, we need to have underpinning the work of the parliament the strong foundation of an electoral system that is accurate and fair and that produces results that reliably reflects the views of the Australian people. Underpinning that is the integrity of the Australian Electoral Commission, which, in turn, relies on the integrity of the electoral rolls. If you do not have reliable rolls you have an immediate and fundamental problem with the effectiveness of the entire democratic structure upon which this country depends for good government.

Without any doubt at all, this legislation degrades the quality of the Australian electoral roll. Throwing out this net and enrolling people who have not offered to be enrolled or who may not be eligible to be enrolled because they are already enrolled in a different location or under a different name must necessarily increase the unreliability of the electoral roll. For Senator Rhiannon to rise in this place and say that this is about ensuring the integrity of the electoral roll is farcical; it demonstrably decreases the reliability of the electoral roll. The proponents of this legislation might argue that that is a fair enough trade-off. They might argue that, by getting onto the roll more people who might, through ignorance or perhaps reluctance to be on the roll, not be enrolled already, it is all right to degrade the quality of the roll overall. I beg to differ. I think that maintaining a roll that reflects the wish of Australian citizens to be on the roll—to want to vote and be part of the electoral system of this country—is very important. When we move to a system that does not have that foundation we are inherently working on weaker foundations. That is a great concern.

This bill relies on the Australian Electoral Commission's being able to use other sources of data—what is referred to in the bill as a 'reliable and current data source'—to add names to the electoral roll. The legislation does not tell us what these reliable and current data sources might be; it just says that the information should be garnered from such, unnamed sources. That in itself creates some concern, because essentially it is up to officers of the Electoral Commission to determine what information it is that they might rely upon. It is a phrase that is supremely open to interpretation. Why does the legislation not name the sources that the roll ought to rest upon? Why does it not say that we can rely on Medicare enrolments, Australian Taxation Office records, state electoral rolls or something else? It does not do that; it creates a wide discretion. That in itself is a concern, not because members of the Electoral Commission might deliberately misuse it but because the principles are open to variable application and because it may result in some officers using information which simply is not reliable, in the objective sense of that word.

It is important to make sure that we know why people are enrolled, if they have not made an express decision to enrol themselves on the Australian electoral roll. There are many reasons why a roll constructed in this form might not be an accurate reflection of what people intend doing or what their eligibility for enrolment is. In a 1999 inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration, which was a review of an earlier Australian National Audit Office report on the management of the tax file number system, it was found that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than there were people in Australia at the preceding census—the last census before 1999. But we are saying that names can be added to the Australian electoral roll, presumably, on the strength of a tax file number being attached to a name and address in the ATO's database—that is, 3.2 million presumably inaccurate or partially inaccurate tax file numbers potentially being the basis for enrolment on the electoral roll. The audit found that there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals. An audit of deceased clients of the Australian Taxation Office found that 62 per cent of those deceased clients were in fact not recorded as deceased in a sample batch. So potentially very significant numbers of dead people would under this system be eligible for some kind of enrolment. Maybe there are measures that the government has planned to prevent that from occurring.

Senator Fifield: I think I know how they might vote.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Yes, I think I know how they might vote as well. Hence my comment before, Senator Fifield, about the self-interest of the Labor Party and the Greens alliance government. We know that a system that provides for such things to occur is inherently dangerous. Will there be checks undertaken to make sure that a person who is deceased but who still has a tax file number attached to a name and an address does not get onto the electoral roll? We don't know, because it is not spelt out in the legislation. It is not described anywhere. I would invite the minister in closing this debate to tell us how we make sure that those sorts of things do not happen. I suspect that she will not be able to.

The same audit report from 1998-99 by the Australian National Audit Office found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who were deceased. So the problem of out-of-date records in the tax office is replicated with out-of-date records in the Medicare office. Presumably, if a name is identified on the tax office database as belonging to a certain person and they say, 'We'd better check this. We'll look at the Medicare records and see if that name is confirmed there. Yes, it is, at the same address. That must be a real person,' then suddenly we have a confirmed enrolment. It has been checked and confirmed but in fact it is not an enrolment of a living person at all. That is the foundation on which this government wants to build this brave new world. I have to say I think that is extremely concerning.

There is really only one reliable way of ensuring that eligible people appear on the Australian electoral roll, and that is for them to exercise the initiative of saying, 'I choose to exercise my democratic right to be enrolled—indeed my democratic obligation to be enrolled—and I come forward to put that information into the public arena for the purposes of enrolment.' That is a reasonable system. That is a fair system, but that is not the system to which the government is presently proceeding.

There are a number of aspects of this which I think generate real concern. One is that it actually removes the sense of individual responsibility as the basis on which people engage with the electoral system. At the moment I am sure all of us in this place with children tell them, when they reach the age of 18, 'Make sure you're enrolled on the electoral roll.' You pursue that as a matter of responsibility, and it is good for your children to take that active step, maybe pushed a little by their parents, to go and put their name on the electoral roll. It reminds them of their responsibility as citizens in a democratic nation—one of the world's oldest democratic nations, indeed—to take part in the electoral system.

But what this government's legislation is moving towards is a system where that responsibility is removed or at least downplayed. What is to stop people from making an assumption, based on legislation like this, that enrolment is taken care of for you by the government? 'Don't worry about it—a computer somewhere will enrol you. You don't have to worry about that.' It may have the perverse effect of making some people think they do not need to take the step of enrolling, and that would be most unfortunate.

This is obviously an invitation to fraud. We will have an electoral roll which will be clearly less accurate than has been the case in the past, but of course it will remain a public document. Say we have a tight federal election in the offing one day. I don't particularly think the next one is going to be very tight, but let's assume there is a tight federal election coming up and there are a few key marginal seats that are likely to decide the outcome. Some people decide that it is very important that their party win those tight seats to make sure that they win the election. They go to the electoral roll and they discover with a bit of research that there are a number of names on that roll of people who are deceased. The temptation is there to cast votes in the names of those deceased people.

This is not a scare tactic; it is true. We know from audits of the electoral roll in the past that it is true there is some measure of deliberate fraudulent voting and some measure of fraudulent enrolment. When we have very tight election outcomes, the thought that results might be corrupted because of such behaviour is anathema to the effectiveness and reliability of our system. To think that we are passing legislation today to make that more likely is a matter of real concern.

Senator Rhiannon in her remarks raised concerns about privacy. Indeed, where people's names are being plucked from other data sources and placed on the electoral roll, there are real concerns about privacy. She addressed those by saying that records can be corrected. Perhaps they can, but that does not alter the fact that the problem with privacy is there at the beginning. Unless a person happens to know that some details are being used in an inappropriate way—and of course people are not asked to enrol under this new system; they are simply enrolled—the likelihood of that kind of abuse of privacy increases. It goes without saying that many people who are eligible for enrolment have reasons not to be on a publicly available, published version of the electoral roll—and I imagine there are a few such people in this very chamber, for example. They may lose that control because their names might be added to the electoral roll without them being aware of it.

Reference was made by Senator Rhiannon to the experience in New South Wales and Victoria, where once again Labor governments have introduced automatic enrolment provisions. Antony Green, the distinguished psephologist, noted in his blog on 16 July last year that of the 70,000 people automatically enrolled in New South Wales for its most recent election, two-thirds were so-called updated address details. That is the automatic system we are now looking at here. Only 12 per cent had filled out the AEC's form to enrol federally. Further, of the 20,000 people whose address details were changed automatically in New South Wales, only 87.5 per cent turned out to vote, below the overall attendance of 92.3 per cent. For those automatically enrolled for the first time, the turnout was only 64.3 per cent. So clearly the systems in New South Wales and Victoria are not completely effective at accurately reflecting what people want to do and what their intentions are. Taking from them the responsibility of making those decisions to enrol clearly presents a problem.

Acknowledging that there are, for example, problems with people enrolling to vote at the state level but not enrolling at the federal level, there are other ways of fixing those issues. If people demonstrate a desire to be enrolled and they put their name down on an electoral roll at the state level and think that they might therefore be enrolled at the federal level it is perfectly possible for the Australian Electoral Commission to write to these people and ask, 'Are you aware that you are enrolled on the state roll but not on the federal roll?' and deal with the issue in that way and leave the initiative to individual potential electors. But that is not the approach taken in this legislation, and that is very concerning.

I mentioned self-interest before. I cannot help but wonder whether a party or parties facing an adverse outcome at the next election might think it is a good idea to try to rake as many other people as they possibly can onto the roll so that it might perhaps tip the balance in their favour in some seats they are at risk of losing. It is very hard to know what their intentions are in that respect.

To sum up, these bills are a concern because they reduce the integrity of the Australian electoral roll, with electors having their details updated without their knowledge, leading to a higher number of potential irregularities. The bills give the Electoral Commission the discretion to determine what are reliable and current data sources without specifying to the rest of the community what those actually are. I think that places far too great an onus on individual officers within the Electoral Commission.

The coalition believes that the personal responsibility which is part of our electoral system, the initiative to be an active and informed participant in our electoral system, is eroded by a system which puts people on the electoral roll without them knowing or consenting to that happening. It is likely that this is a step towards across-the-board automatic enrolment with all the problems that obviously go with such a concept. I have already indicated to the Senate the various problems with other data sources. There is no highly accurate other data source from which such information can be derived to place a person's name on the electoral roll.

At a time when trust in the political process and in politicians is at a fairly low level relative to other points in our history, as demonstrated by some recent opinion polls, why would we in the Senate want to add to that problem by increasing the unreliability of electoral tools which attempt to reflect the wishes of the Australian people for the make-up of their government? Why would we want to degrade that most important tool—the Australian electoral roll—by degrading the quality of the information on it, as this legislation inevitably will do? That is the question the Senate faces this afternoon. Why we would want to make our system less reliable and to attack the reputation of our system as having fair and accurate outcomes in federal elections is a mystery to me. I think members of this place should reconsider their support for this flawed legislation.