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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 4159

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (19:00): Before question time intervened in my contribution on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012, I was commenting upon the difference between appreciating the right to have a vote and the opportunity to have a vote. The opportunity to have a vote is a human right, but actually being in a position to exercise that is not, in the context of this legislation, because there is also a duty upon someone who is eligible to be a voter. That duty is that they should make sure that they are enrolled and they should make sure that their address is up to date. Senator Rhiannon in her contribution commented that voting is a human right. I agree with that, but there is an obligation on the individual citizen to avail themselves of that right. If they fail to enrol, if they fail to maintain an accurate enrolment, then they are absenting themselves from that opportunity. That is not the fault of government, and I do not think government should feel an obligation to step in and do what is the citizen's duty and the citizen's responsibility. That is one of the fundamental stumbling blocks the opposition has regarding this particular legislation.

The coalition's greatest concern about this legislation is its impact on the integrity of the electoral roll. If the address of an elector is changed without their knowledge, which this legislation would seek to give the Electoral Commission the capacity to do, there is an increased chance of error occurring. This is particularly the case where an elector has more than one residence. The amendment proposed by this legislation and the power that it would give the Electoral Commission would dramatically increase the chance that these electors were incorrectly re-enrolled.

In the coalition members' and senators' dissenting report in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report of July 2011, considerable attention was paid to the risks of using external data sources such as the ATO, Medicare or other government agencies to update electoral details. That report said:

The reliance on external data sources that have been collated and that are utilised for other purposes does not make them fit for use in forming the electoral roll.

As outlined in the previous report into these proposals, a 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration: Numbers on the Run - Review of the ANAO Report No.37 1998-99 on the Management of Tax File Numbers, found that:

There were 3.2 million more Tax File Numbers than people in Australia at the last census;

There were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals; 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match.

Similarly, an ANAO Audit Report (No.24 2004-05 Integrity of Medicare Enrolment Data) stated that ‘ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased’.

I think it is clear that the best and most reliable source of accurate information for the enrolment of an individual is indeed that individual. As I said earlier, I would prefer that we had 90 per cent of people who were eligible for enrolment enrolled with accurate details on a robust electoral roll than that we had 100 per cent of people enrolled but with inaccurate details and an electoral roll that lacked integrity. It is clear, I think, that there are many examples of inconsistency and lack of accuracy in Commonwealth data, and I for one do not have sufficient faith in that data to have it as a source of updating electoral enrolment details.

This legislation also has the difficulty that it does not give a specific definition of what the Electoral Commission might regard as a reliable and current data source. What a 'reliable and current data source' is is open to interpretation, and I think that actually puts the Electoral Commission in a very awkward situation of having to make that judgment. It would open the Electoral Commission to unnecessary questioning and would leave the electoral roll also subject to unnecessary questioning.

A number of colleagues have traversed similar ground and no doubt will do so in this debate, but I just want to use the remaining time to say that I think there should be some higher priorities in relation to voting and electoral law than this particular legislation. I think the effort that is being put into this legislation would be much better focused on trying to ensure that Australians who are blind and vision impaired have the opportunity for a genuinely secret and a genuinely independent vote. There was a trial conducted several elections back with computers and electronic voting at particular trial sites. JSCEM found that that was quite an expensive exercise. At the last election, the Electoral Commission provided an interim solution whereby people would go to a divisional returning office and be marked off in that office as being eligible to vote in a particular electorate. The Electoral Commission would then phone another electoral officer at another location. That officer would not know the identity of the voter, but they would know the electorate the voter was eligible to vote in. That officer would then take down their vote and their preferences over the phone. That did provide a degree of independence and a degree of secrecy. But I think it was seen by many as an interim measure.

I know the Electoral Commission has been working closely with people in the disability sector and with the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Mr Innes, to find a more complete, more elegant solution. I know that there are plans afoot—from what I hear they may be quite similar to what was in place at the last election. I cannot help but keep coming back to a version of that old saying: 'Surely, if we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to provide a more independent and a more secret vote for blind and vision-impaired Australians.' There have been great technological advances since the original trial a few elections back. No doubt there are options for people to key in, with passcodes, on iPads or websites. I do not for one second pretend to be particularly technologically aware or adept at identifying solutions, but I do think that, with goodwill on the part of the government and the Electoral Commission, there should be a way to find a voting solution which is widely accessible and cost-effective. I appreciate that both of those criteria need to be met.

I am just taking this opportunity to urge the Electoral Commission, who are no doubt tuned into these proceedings or in the advisers box, and the government, through Senator McLucas on the other side of the chamber, to work together for a more complete solution. It would be unfortunate if we were to end up in one of those situations where the Electoral Commission says to blind and vision-impaired Australians, 'Look, we would love to help, but you really need to talk to the government,' and then the government says, 'Look, we would love to help, but it is really up to the Electoral Commission to work out a solution.' I would hate to see this fall between the two. I am not saying that I think it will; I am just providing encouragement to the Electoral Commission and the government to be lateral in their thinking and creative in looking at the available options.

As I said, I think the effort which has been put into this legislation could be more fruitfully directed to another venture which would give blind and vision-impaired Australians that opportunity which many of us take for granted: a genuinely independent and secret ballot. As I have indicated already, we do have major misgivings about the piece of legislation before us.