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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 4165

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (19:29): Democracy is a fragile flower. It is the standout form of government where people are able to contest elections, advocate for ideas and candidates and vote for representatives of their choice. Democracy largely relies on an unwritten compact, a culture which sees, among other things, the peaceful handover of government by one party to another in the face of electoral defeat, a culture which allows people to freely exercise their vote. As an aside, such freedom should include, in my respectful opinion, the right not to vote, as allowed in most democracies, but I accept I am in a minority not only in this place but also in my party in relation to that particular proposition, so I will move on.

For a democracy to be fully functional it requires people to have absolute confidence in the electoral results. They might not like the results but they need to know they were achieved robustly and fairly and with absolute integrity. That is why I and other colleagues on the coalition benches have consistently inquired into the issue of multiple voting. In a close election result, as we experienced in 2010, we need to know the result was not manipulated.

Earlier this year, on 16 January, I asked some follow-up questions to ascertain the details and prevalence of the scourge of multiple voting. The answer, in case anyone is interested, is in response to question No. 1511. The answer informed us that 16,210 electors were found to be marked off a certified list more than once. The highest number of multiple votes by one person was 10. One thousand, four hundred and fifty-eight electors admitted to multiple voting, yet not a single person was charged and only three were given cautions. If we are to retain confidence in the outcome of our democratic processes, we need confidence in the robustness of the system. The figures I just referred to do not lend themselves to the encouragement of community confidence in the integrity of our system.

I accept—I am a bit of a lone voice on this—that the presentation of some form of identification at the time of voting may be a measure to reduce the incidence of multiple voting. In short, the integrity of our system of democracy in voting is a vital ingredient in the culture of democracy. That is why the integrity of the electoral roll is so important. That brings us to this bill, which will further undermine the integrity of the electoral roll and thus consequentially undermine confidence in our democracy. And that is why the coalition opposes the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011. It slackens what should be a tight enrolment and re-enrolment process. To retain confidence and integrity in the system, we need safeguards. That is why direct and deliberate enrolment and re-enrolment are so essential. I know we will be told about safeguards. We are told the same thing about multiple voting, yet we know it occurs and the official figures confirm it. It happens not once or twice but literally thousands of times each election.

The use of external data—that is, data not collected or validated by the Australian Electoral Commission itself—is a matter of concern. It is that external data which the Australian Electoral Commission would seek to use to enrol and re-enrol people. It is known from previous audits that the Australian Taxation Office, Medicare and other files are not as robust as we might hope. The Australian National Audit Office, who hopefully know something about this, told us in report No. 37 of 1998-99 that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia at the 1998-99 census. We were also told that 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Similarly, a more recent audit report, No. 24 of 2004-05, said:

ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.

So simply to leave to some bureaucrats and, with respect to be Australian Electoral Commission, highly regarded officials to determine what may be a 'reliable and current data source' simply does not cut it for me or for the coalition. It is appropriate for the AEC to make contact with electors based on information to which they might have access to encourage re-enrolment or to update relevant information or enrolment. That makes sense. But we need the protection to ensure that changes are not made in error. Regrettably, this legislation goes that step too far by allowing the Australian Electoral Commission to directly update an elector's enrolled address. That Labor should seek to pursue measures that allow for roll integrity to be compromised does not surprise and should not surprise. We all recall Labor MP Mike Kaiser in Queensland, who rorted the electoral roll. He was later given a safe landing as chief of staff to a certain Labor Premier in New South Wales and then found his way back into Queensland for employment in the Queensland Labor government. Labor simply does not take these matters seriously and, in fact, anybody caught, such as Mike Kaiser, is always looked after, always given a soft landing. Now Labor is going even further with another bill for automatic enrolment, with the Orwellian name of 'protecting elector participation'. In fact, it is conscription. There is no protection about it. It is putting people on the electoral roll whether they ask for it or not.

Let us turn to the explanatory memorandum in relation to that second bill. I note that the explanatory memorandum tells us:

The Bill contains provisions that will:

allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly enrol a person if satisfied that the person is entitled to enrolment, has lived at an address for at least one month and the person is not enrolled;

I think most of us who are active in politics in this place have always been anxious close to an election to get the final electoral roll for particular electorates, so we then can do our mail-outs and our advocacy to the electors. And bundles and bundles and bundles of those letters are returned as 'not at this address'. I remember observing that as Special Minister of State. I understand that, if there is one thing I can lay claim to, I am the longest-serving Special Minister of State. I remember going around to electoral offices—and by 'electoral offices' I mean 'electoral' as in the Australian Electoral Commission offices around Australia, not individual MPs' electorate offices—where the MPs, Labor and coalition, brought to the Australian Electoral Commission all the returned envelopes, including hundreds of people who had been rushed onto the electoral roll in the last few days that you are allowed to enrol before an election.

Senator McLucas: How do you know that?

Senator ABETZ: Senator McLucas just shows her ignorance, embarrassing ignorance, by interjecting: 'How do you know that?' Because, you see, we are given electoral roll updates, aren't we? And we then send letters to those people, welcoming them for being on the electoral roll for the first occasion for this election. When those letters come back, you scratch your head and ask the question: 'Is it because they don't like, for example'—and I will pick on myself—'Senator Abetz?' But you then find out that Labor mail has also been returned from that address. Then you have got to ask the question; 'Why is this so?' A lot of the Australian Electoral Commission staff did assist me when I went around and indicated that, in the lead-up to an election, putting people on the electoral roll is not as robust as it is under normal circumstances. I know the Australian Electoral Commission at Senate estimates always claims that it is exactly the same. You talk to the people at the coalface face-to-face who are tasked with that and they will tell you a different story.

Accidents occur. I am not going to go into any conspiracy theories here, but accidents and mistakes occur. I am sure the fact that Medicare has 62 per cent of the deceased people still on their files is not because of any conspiracy but because they are too slow; they do not update their files appropriately. It is the same with the Australian Taxation Office. We do not want that to occur. If Centrelink does it, for example, what you get is money being paid to dead people. It is an absolute waste of taxpayers' money that Labor specialises in, but at the end of the day it is only money. But when we are dealing with the Australian electoral roll, the Commonwealth electoral roll, we need to know that every single name on that roll is actually that of a living person who is entitled to vote. We want integrity. We want robustness.

Simply purporting that somebody should be put on the electoral roll because of a certain degree of information being provided to the Australian Electoral Commission does not cut it with us in the opposition. We believe people should have to proactively show some identification and sign the request for the electoral roll so that there is actually a document that can be called upon, and of course that is what caught out certain individuals in Queensland with the Shepherdson inquiry. Absent those sorts of documents, people might appear on the electoral roll without anybody's fingerprints on that particular enrolment.

Realistically, how often is this going to affect an election in Australia? Not often, if at all. But we need to have robustness. We need to have integrity. We saw the election for the former member for McEwen, Mrs Bailey. It was contested to the High Court and back. I forget the final margin—possibly Senator Ronaldson can assist me—after the 2007 election.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: Twenty-seven.

Senator ABETZ: Senator Fierravanti-Wells suggests that it was about 27 votes. What that means is that if 13 people changed their vote, that seat could have fallen a different way. The extent of multiple voting, which I pointed out earlier in my speech, makes the case that we have to be very careful because individual seats can be decided on literally a dozen votes. As we know, after the 2010 election, if that one seat falls one way or the other—because of multiple voting, because of people being enrolled when they should not be—it can change the government. That is why it is such a serious matter that the electoral roll at all times be absolutely robust, be beyond question and have the confidence of the Australian people.

In the remaining minutes I simply ask the question: what is so urgent about this legislation that it needs to be guillotined? I was written to by the Leader of the Government in this place, indicating a whole raft of bills that needed to be guillotined through this place because they were key bills—they needed to be passed before 1 July since they were budget measures. I am sorry, but this bill does not fit that category, does it? So, what is the real reason? Why are we seeking to rush this through and curtail discussion which goes to the very core of our democracy? I will tell you why. It is like the bills we discussed the other night, which were so important because they put a union representative on a particular training board. And guess who the union appointee was? One Mr Paul Howes of the Australian Workers Union. In case my colleagues opposite have forgotten, he was the one who appeared on Lateline to tell the Australian people that the next day they were going to be getting a new Prime Minister, Ms Gillard. We then had to rush through the legislation relating to the ABC. What was the rush with that? Oh, that's right: getting an employee—read union official—onto the board of the ABC. Where is the time-sensitive nature of that one? Why did that one have to be guillotined? How is that related to the budget?

I am starting to get a whiff here of a Greens-Labor alliance government in its death throes thinking that they cannot guarantee their longevity for much longer, that they may lose the next election and therefore that they will ram everything they possibly can through this parliament without fear or favour or without any concern for the democratic processes of the parliament. Let me remind this place that in this sitting fortnight we will be guillotining 36 bills through this place—in one fortnight. When the Howard government had control of the Senate between 2004 and 2007, a full three years, guess how many bills were guillotined? Thirty-six. That is a bit of serendipity for me and the coalition to be able to point out that in a full three years we as a coalition respected the Senate so much we only guillotined 36 bills.

But here is the Greens-Labor alliance this sitting fortnight guillotining the same number through the place. And if that is not bad enough, we have the Leader of the Australian Greens misleading this place on 19 June, suggesting that we had guillotined the Northern Territory Intervention through this place in 2007. She said it not once but twice, to try to make the point that we continually guillotined matters through this place. I happen to remember that I was in fact Manager of Government Business in the Senate in 2007, and—because of my charm, no doubt!—I was never required to move a guillotine motion. So I knew Senator Milne was wrong—and sure enough, she was. No guillotine, yet she goes out to the media, she makes statements and repeats the falsehood. I must say, the Greens are falling apart with the departure of Senator Bob Brown. I am sure Senator Bob Brown would not have such basic errors. But it is for Senator Milne to correct the record, hopefully some time in the future.

There is no urgency with this bill. There is no reason or rationale for it being guillotined other than a government trying to stack the deck in its own favour.