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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 4095

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (13:49): At one level these bills are pretty straightforward. They have a pretty direct objective, and that is to seek to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to automatically update the details of an elector when they change residential address based on information from other sources. At first blush, people might think: 'It sounds like a good idea. It sounds pretty reasonable. What is wrong with that?' According to the explanatory memorandum itself, the bills 'will allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly update an elector's enrolled address following the receipt and analysis of reliable and current data sources from outside the Electoral Commission' that indicate an elector has changed residential address. Again, that sounds pretty reasonable. The average person in the street would hear the words 'analysis of reliable and current data sources' and think: 'That sounds like a process of integrity. It does not sound like we have anything to worry about.' It would not immediately shriek out to someone listening to those words that there is the prospect of degrading the integrity of the electoral roll.

But I think the first indicator that this legislation might do just that is who is supporting this legislation. You have the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens supporting a change to the Electoral Act. Those of us on this side of the chamber note that when Labor and the Greens agree on a change to the Electoral Act there is more than what might appear at first blush. I know that will shock you, Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, but it is a rule of thumb that we go by on this side of the chamber. So this legislation does bear further and closer examination. However, as a little bit of background, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which we in this place know as JSCEM, conducted an inquiry into the 2010 federal election and reported in July last year. One of the recommendations of that report by Labor and the Greens was to introduce automatic enrolment, whereby without ever having to fill out an enrolment form an individual elector is put on the electoral roll based on information from other government sources. In that report the coalition opposed that recommendation because we had genuine concerns that it would greatly reduce the integrity of the electoral roll and that it would put people on the electoral roll without their knowledge. A fundamental stumbling block for those of us on this side of the chamber is that electors would be put on the roll without their knowledge. They are entitled to know of, be aware of and be in control of their own enrolment. It is the hand of government reaching just a little bit too far into the personal business of individuals. What could be more personal than casting a ballot? What could be more personal than making sure you are indeed enrolled and eligible to vote?

The legislation before us does go a significant way towards that goal of Labor and the Greens of automatic enrolment. It seeks to allow the AEC to directly update electors' details when they change address. Not only are we concerned about the impact of this on the electoral roll; we also have a very strong belief in the responsibility of the individual to ensure that they are enrolled and to ensure that they change their details when those details alter subsequent to enrolment. In the coalition's dissenting report to the JSCEM report on the 2010 election, it was noted by coalition senators that it is the duty of each Australian citizen to enrol to vote; it is their duty to accurately maintain that enrolment at their permanent place of residence; it is their duty to cast a vote when an election is called; and it is their duty to fully extend preferences to all candidates contesting the election for the House of Representatives in their local electorate.

In her contribution, Senator Rhiannon noted that the ability to vote is a fundamental human right, and I would agree with her; I think that is a fundamental human right. But the human right there is to have the opportunity to cast a ballot. We should not ignore the other side of the equation, which is the duty to avail yourself of that opportunity. If you want to avail yourself of that opportunity there is an onus on you to ensure that you are enrolled and to ensure that your enrolment is accurate. It is not a fundamental human right to be enrolled. It is a fundamental human right to have the opportunity to vote and if you do not enrol and do not change your address you are excluding yourself from that opportunity. You are not being denied by government the right to vote; you are excluding yourself. It is important to observe that distinction. The failure of government to compulsorily change someone's enrolment address without their knowledge is not denying someone the right to vote. It is very important that we come back to the responsibility of an individual to take advantage of that opportunity, which is their right.

Senator Rhiannon also noted that since about 1990 the number of eligible enrollees has gone down from 95 per cent to 90 per cent. Yes, we would all like to see as many eligible people as possible enrolled, but I would rather have a slightly smaller electoral roll that was robust, that was accurate and that had integrity than have 100 per cent of Australians enrolled and for that roll not to be robust, not to be accurate and to lack integrity. There are two separate objectives: we want to maximise the number of people who are enrolled but we also want to make sure that the enrolments are accurate. If we have only 90 per cent of people availing themselves of the opportunity to enrol, we need to look at why that is the case. There may be an issue of fundamental electoral integrity at the heart of the falling rate of electoral enrolments. Let me pick one example: the Prime Minister's pledge that there would be no carbon tax under a government she leads. I can understand why the Australian people in significant numbers might be a little disillusioned about the political process, about parliamentary democracy and about the accountability of the government of the day. That is a pattern that we have seen time and again over the last five years from this government. There is something very practical that the Australian Labor Party and the current federal government can do today to lift the number of people who seek to take advantage of the opportunity and obligation to enrol to vote—that is, start living up to their word, start honouring their commitments and stop fibbing to the Australian people.

Mr President, time is almost up. I will continue these remarks later because there is much more to be said.

Debate interrupted.