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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 4172

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (20:10): Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at the annual general meeting of the Australian Blindness Forum in Canberra. It met at the National Disability Services headquarters in Canberra. Unfortunately, the Labor government was not able to provide a spokesman there, but I discussed the coalition's view of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. As I walked into that building, the headquarters of the National Disability Services in Australia, I saw on the front wall, by the front door, a big sticker that says 'Count me in'. The National Disability Services is the peak group for service providers in the disability area. There are over 700 members. 'Count me in' is the slogan that the national disability sector has been using in advocacy to build support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme for almost two years now.

So I was somewhat surprised to receive in the mail the other day a card from the Australian Electoral Commission that said 'Count me in'. I thought, 'Why is the Australian Electoral Commission getting involved in the National Disability Insurance Scheme?' Because I knew, as millions of other Australians know, that 'Count me in' is the slogan of the National Disability Insurance Scheme advocates. But there in my letterbox was a postcard from the Australian Electoral Commission saying 'Count me in'. Unfortunately, as I have since worked out by looking on a website, this was not because the Electoral Commission had decided to support in some way the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It was because the Electoral Commission, their public relations company and their advertising company, who, as far as I understand, had a program that cost about $2.3 million to get people to enrol to vote, had used the same slogan that the National Disability Insurance Scheme people and the disability sector have been using for over two years.

So my first question to the government is: how can the Electoral Commission be so out of touch with reality, so out of touch with what is happening in Australia and so out of touch with the trends in Australia that, firstly, they have such a huge number of people not enrolled—1.6 million people? Having 1.6 million people not enrolled is a serious issue, but secondly there is the fact that they would use and presumably pay for a professional organisation—I should use the word 'professional' in quotes, perhaps—to come up with a campaign using the slogan 'Count me in', despite the fact that the slogan has already been used for almost two years by the national disability sector. How can anyone, particularly the government, have any confidence in this organisation, in the people that it hires to undertake campaigns for it or in the integrity of what it is seeking to achieve? I am appalled that such a slogan would be stolen by the Electoral Commission.

What concerns me even more is that I do not think it was stolen. I think the Electoral Commission, their PR company and whoever else was involved in this did not know that the slogan had been used for at least two years by the disability sector. That is what really concerns me—that they are out of touch with what is happening in Australia let alone within the voting community.

The coalition very much supports the idea that everyone over the age of 18 ought to be enrolled to vote. But we also support the idea that individuals must take responsibility for becoming involved and enrolling to vote. I was worried when I read the views of the minister, Mr Gary Gray, who made the point that, 'Right now only individuals can initiate their enrolment but the bills would give the Electoral Commission the ability to directly enrol eligible people.' The point is that right now only individuals can initiate their enrolment in Australia, where voting is compulsory. The only person who can decide to enrol someone to vote is the individual whose responsibility it is to vote.

It is often very heartening to see many people who become citizens of Australia who have come from countries where they do not have the option to cast a vote in a democratic election lining up to have the opportunity to enrol to vote. Whereas it is some of our teenagers and younger people who have been born here and do not appreciate what a privilege it is to be able to vote who are not on the roll.

So this government have chosen, in my view, not just the easy way but the nanny-state way of trying to do something about improving the number of people on the electoral roll. They have not gone about this by trying to educate young people to enrol to vote; they have gone about it by saying: 'Don't worry. We'll do it for you.' The long-term outcome of this will be very interesting because these people will have been enrolled without them having had to put any effort into it. They will not even have had to initiate their own enrolment. As the minister said, the Electoral Commission can just do it for them. Will the Electoral Commission be voting for them? Will the Electoral Commission be picking them up and taking them down to the booths? Will the Electoral Commission be explaining to them what their options are? Will the Electoral Commission be telling them how the party system in their electorate works and who the candidates in their electorate are? No, they will not. The Electoral Commission will be doing none of that. So what we will simply end up with is a far larger number of people who either do not vote at all, who fail to arrive to vote, or lodge some sort of an informal or donkey vote. That is what we will end up with out of this system. There is an inability to accept that individuals have to take responsibility sooner or later for their own actions. This is surely a core responsibility that individuals must take. If you want democratic government to continue in this country—and we do it very well, in my view—you as an individual must take responsibility for enrolling to vote and for ensuring that you continue to be enrolled to vote by changing your enrolment when you move.

I admire the Electoral Commission's recent moves in the past few years to work in high schools and the like to ensure that 17-year-olds have the opportunity to register to be enrolled when they turn 18. This was not available when my own children turned 18, but within their birthday cards they got their enrol-to-vote forms. I have no idea why any parent who is concerned that their child would not enrol to vote would not do that. It is such an important part of our democracy. That is the sort of work we should be doing. We should be encouraging people at that level to enrol to vote.

The flipside of that is that we must continue to try to make the point that their vote counts. We must try to make the point that the system does have integrity and honesty and is genuinely democratic and that people who involve themselves in it actually do have a chance to have a say. This is something that can be undertaken by the Electoral Commission, by schools, by the community and particularly by parents.

I was somewhat startled today during the debate on the dental services bill to hear Senator Urquhart say, 'Unfortunately, we cannot monitor teeth brushing by children.' She was talking about children's dental health. Well, I am pleased that as a government we cannot monitor children's teeth brushing. We do not belong in the bathrooms of Australia checking to see who brushes their teeth and whose mummy and daddy watches properly and whose does not. This sort of attitude—regretting not being able to look at that sort of individual behaviour—is what underpins a bill like this, when you have the minister saying, 'Currently only individuals can initiate their enrolment and the Electoral Commission do not have the ability to directly enrol eligible people but it will be wonderful when they do.' The coalition does not think that will be wonderful. The coalition thinks that will be a very backwards step. The coalition thinks that will result in numerous inaccuracies. The coalition thinks it will cause problems with the integrity of the roll and also that it sends completely the wrong message to individuals in Australia, the voters of Australia, who are the people responsible for electing the government of Australia. Surely this is one place where we do need to have respect for individual ability and individual responsibility, if ever we were going to have it.

I might also point out that—like most senators, I imagine—I send out letters to people newly enrolled in Queensland, whose addresses are provided to me by the Electoral Commission. These are people who the Electoral Commission advises me have either moved to Queensland or changed their address within Queensland. In some months we send out up to 10,000 letters and in some months we get back 1,000 or more that say 'address not known; return to sender'. One assumes that the current information provided not only by the Electoral Commission to us but also to the Electoral Commission can go out of date very quickly or be inaccurate. I would like to think that the information I am getting is going out of date very quickly, not that it is completely inaccurate. But, in terms of where this legislation is going, the level of error demonstrated by the number of returns I receive of letters that have been sent out and come back unopened saying 'return to sender; not known at this address', when the addresses are based on information recently sent to my office by the Electoral Commission Queensland, really concerns me.

The minister pointed out that he sees the feature of this bill as its allowing the Electoral Commissioner to directly enrol a person if the commissioner is satisfied that the person is entitled to enrolment, that the person has lived at an address for one month and that the person is not currently enrolled. If the Electoral Commissioner is satisfied that someone meets those criteria, the commissioner can give them written notice that he has enrolled them and they have 28 days to say, 'I'm not at that address' or that they are not entitled to enrolment. I am a bit confused as to how someone who is not at an address will be able to respond to a letter and say, 'I'm not at that address.' If I live in Jones Street, Grange, and someone sends a letter to me in Smith Street, Grange, and I do not answer it, what does that mean? I cannot respond to a letter and say, 'I don't live in Smith Street' if the letter goes to Smith Street and I live in Jones Street. I am constantly amused by a sign at a local shopping centre near where I live, the Stafford shopping centre. There is a large sign that says, 'Unattended dogs must not enter'. I spent some months trying to work out how an unattended dog would read the sign and know not to enter. It would be only dogs that were actually attended that would benefit from the information on the sign; no unattended dog is going to be able to read the sign. It seems to me that this legislation is based on exactly the same theory: I will write to you at Jones Street and if you do not live at Jones Street you can write back to me and tell me you do not live at Jones Street—except of course that you never got the letter, because you do not live at Jones Street.

I have no idea of the philosophy underpinning this bill but or of the practicality of this bill. I was appalled by the suggestion of the minister, Minister Gary Gray, that this legislation gives the Electoral Commissioner:

... the ability to use modern processes to protect the participation of eligible Australian citizens in the electoral process.

This is fundamental to maintaining the strength and resilience of our democratic system of government.

Currently 10 per cent of the potentially eligible citizens of Australia are not enrolled. According to the government and the Greens, inaccurately enrolling large numbers of people and not having a clue about whether the results of that are accurate are not, and enrolling them whether or not they understand the political process or have been encouraged in any way to participate in the political process, is going to strengthen and improve the resilience of our democratic system of government. That is a complete nonsense; it is absolutely complete nonsense. It is not going to do anything of the sort. We firmly believe in the responsibility of the individual elector to maintain their enrolment details when they change addresses. We also firmly believe in the individual responsibility of an elector to enrol to vote. The reason we believe those things is that it is a serious and important thing to enrol to vote. The privilege to vote in a democratic society like Australia is not something that people should be signed up to whether they know about it or not. The way to go about improving the enrolment of people to vote is to point out to them, educate them and teach them about the critical importance of exercising their vote—the immense freedom that Australians have in being able to exercise their vote. I know a number of people have said to me—if I knew their names and addresses, I would pass them on to the Electoral Commission, but I do not know their addresses—that they are not enrolled to vote because what does it matter to them? It is not about signing those people up, because it still does not matter to them. What is relevant there is trying to teach those people why it must matter to them and why it is important that they become involved in our democratic process, not nanny-stating them through, the way this government is intending to.