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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 4176

Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (20:30): Today I rise to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. I look across the chamber and I see my new Senate colleague Senator Whish-Wilson up the back there now. I welcome him to the chamber for his first day and congratulate him on signing in and attending. I also welcome another winemaker into this chamber. It is great to have somebody on the other side whom I can now go and talk to about such matters, and I hope that he brings a commercial application to the role that I rarely experience from that end of the chamber. Let us hope that in our work together, Senator, we can get down to getting some good outcomes for all Australians.

Along with my coalition colleagues and, I think, any thinking person from the free world, I strongly oppose these measures. This government legislation introduces an amendment to the Electoral Act which will allow the Australian Electoral Commission to automatically update the details of an elector when they change their residential address, based on information obtained from other sources. Let me be very clear—

Senator Feeney: North Korean!

Senator EDWARDS: these changes are a dramatic change in our enrolment process. I will take that—

Senator Feeney: Oh, you're desperate for material, so you should!

Senator EDWARDS: No, I am not; I have got plenty here, Senator Feeney. I will be very clear. For a government on the ropes, they seem to have all these desperate measures to try to squeeze any advantage they possibly can, thus clearly answering the question—and I will use a Latin phrase for you, Senator Feeney—cui bono, or for whose benefit?

Before exploring that core motivation, I first turn to the myriad of practical problems with the measures proposed in this legislation. The first of these to which I turn is of paramount importance—namely, the integrity of the electoral roll. In a proposed system whereby the state can change the address of an elector without their knowledge, there exist and will no doubt be many errors. For an elector who maintains more than one residence, there is a distinct and all-too-likely possibility that they may be incorrectly re-enrolled under the legislation. I can see it playing out now. Most of my winemaking mates from the Clare Valley have a second residence, of course, and what will happen? Some department will pick up their second residence, and what will happen? They will turn up on election day where they think they are registered and enrolled to vote, only to be told that they are enrolled 150 kilometres away. It is just a recipe for disaster. Who is thinking about the ramifications of this? I myself may fall into this trap because, if I am travelling from my home in Clare to my place in Adelaide, where I launch from to come to Canberra, who knows what department will pick up what address that I might be registered at? And then all of a sudden I will find myself on polling day driving halfway round South Australia.

The heavy reliance on external data sources such as Medicare, the Australian Taxation Office or other government agencies to update elector details exposes the elector to the inherent errors of using information not collected for this express purpose. This essential electoral information will now be downgraded to a mere by-product of the day-to-day implementation and administration of policy—and, God knows, the bureaucracy makes serious mistakes enough in its own work. Such errors should be able to be mitigated or at least under the control of the individual, as participation in the democratic process is inherent and it is a civic responsibility of the individual.

The coalition's dissenting report of July 2011 gave us a taste of the flood of examples of inconsistency in Commonwealth data management. For example, way back 13 years ago, 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 (1) there were '3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia at the last census', (2) there were '185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals', and (3) '62 per cent of deceased clients' were 'not recorded as deceased in a sample match'. In the same vein, the Australian National Audit Office Audit report No. 24 of 2004-05: Performance audit: integrity of Medicare enrolment data, stated:

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

More recently, the Rudd government sent cheques off for $900 each in stimulus payments to 16,000 people who were deceased.

This is an example of the government bungling this simple exercise, so how can we trust them with this proposal?

Why should our citizens have faith in the ability of the Commonwealth bureaucracy to properly handle this electoral data if it is only a by-product of their core work? The potential for error is even greater when using data from state or territory governments, as the Commonwealth cannot determine its accuracy. They cannot reach in and properly audit or otherwise check the integrity of the data.

Should the potential list of errors made by government be lengthened—and with data as necessary to the integrity of our democratic processes as the electoral roll? That is a good question. Our democratic process must have integrity and our faith. It must be above reproach in the midst of our ongoing, yet ultimately constructive, conflict over ideas and subsequent policy implementation. The only way to ensure the integrity of the electoral roll is not to cede the demands of our civic duty to the bureaucratic be-all and end-all of supposedly seamless electronic record keeping and a promise of competency. Instead, we must make sure that the current system is maintained to ensure that electors continue to be responsible for changing their details.

This leads me to, and is reinforced by, my next point. The bill does not give a specific definition of what the Electoral Commission may regard as a 'reliable and current data source' from which to change elector details. What is considered a 'reliable and current data source'? That is open to interpretation and the coalition believes this power is not within the purview of the Australian Electoral Commission, an unelected body. Coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters noted this in July 2011 in their dissenting report:

We are concerned that the power to deem data sources ‘trusted’ in determining the use of such data in compiling the roll as a potential risk to the office. The inclusion of such data, if erroneous, would be extremely damaging to public faith in our electoral process. Furthermore, the inclusion of such data may well be controversial due to lack of faith in its inclusion or utilisation. Placing the Electoral Commissioner at the heart of such a potentially politically charged dispute can only damage the standing of the office and the AEC.

That is a perfectly reasonable statement, compelling in its simplicity and its fairness.

The logical question to ask is: how have these measures that have played out in the states held up as the exemplars of their success? Both New South Wales and Victoria introduced automatic enrolment at their recent state elections, which means a number of electors in these states are enrolled for state but not federal elections as a result of the differences in state and federal legislation. Let us be clear on that: in both New South Wales and Victoria, automatic enrolment applies only to a voter's state enrolment. It does not apply to their federal enrolment. As such, when electors have their details changed or are added to the state electoral roll in New South Wales or Victoria, they are then sent an enrolment form by the AEC.

Arguably one of the country's most prominent and trusted political commentators on electoral matters, the ABC's Antony Green, has reported that, for the 70,000 enrolment transactions included in the electoral roll since the introduction of the new system, two-thirds of which were updated address details, only 12 per cent of the people affected filled out the AEC form to ensure their federal enrolment was correct. Furthermore, of the 20,000 people in New South Wales whose address details were changed automatically, 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. Can you imagine their faces when the fine for not turning up at the voting station comes? They did not even know they were enrolled.

The fact that only 12 per cent of the people who had their details changed by the New South Wales Electoral Commission at a state level had taken steps to ensure that their federal enrolment was correct demonstrates that electoral commissions at both state and federal levels are having difficulty contacting electors whose details have been automatically changed. As such, many would be unaware that they have been re-enrolled or that their enrolment details have been changed. Given that information from government agencies can be unreliable, there is no way of knowing whether the individual has been re-enrolled correctly. It is thus imperative that the responsibility to maintain one's electoral address remains with the individual voter.

This brings me to my next point—namely, the serious concerns raised about privacy. The inquiry into the maintaining address bill heard some evidence from Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation regarding the extensive concerns about individual privacy which accompany this legislation. There are a number of risks for people who do not want their details published on the electoral roll. They may be involved in domestic violence disputes or have stalking fears. They may be under police protection. There is the very real possibility that, because of this legislation, the elector's details could be placed on the electoral roll without their knowledge.

Dr Clarke outlined a number of these concerns, many of which could be exacerbated by this legislation, to the JSCEM hearing on 15 February 2012:

Stalking and, in recent times, cyberstalking, is quite common. Stalking is not only of celebrities. Victims of domestic violence are of course the extreme end of that problem. We are not suggesting that these are things that the AEC is unaware of and does not deal with, but there are a great many of these circumstances and very few of them are directly supported by government. Protected witnesses and undercover operatives, which is a subset of the very last category, are the only forms which are directly supported by governments in Australia.

Dr Clarke went on to say:

The rest of those people have to fend as they can, and in this case the point that we make in this section is that, where people suffer from these difficulties, they have to fight with the electoral commissioner, they have to apply, they have to disclose a considerable amount of distressing information—which is a further source of vulnerability for them—and they then have to fit into the very narrow constraint of 'because it places the personal safety of the elector or members of their immediate family at risk'. That is the only head that they are allowed to argue from. Then they depend on the grant of the discretion by the Electoral Commissioner. This is not something that represents care being taken by the federal parliament or by the Electoral Commissioner of the many people in Australia who are at risk.

This was compelling evidence given to the inquiry and at the end it is laid squarely in this chamber. I reiterate:

This is not something that represents care being taken by the federal parliament or by the Electoral Commissioner ...

We can hardly bring the Electoral Commissioner into it, can we? But this is what this bill is all about—this is what Dr Clark was talking about when he talked about the safety of these people. This is yet another unintended consequence resulting from Labor's gross oversight.

My short foray into the myriad practical problems with this legislation must be complemented by some comments on the broader ideas at play. The coalition not only are concerned about the impact that this will have on the integrity of the roll but also firmly believe in the responsibility of individual electors to maintain their enrolment details when they change addresses. As outlined in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters dissenting report on the 2010 election, the coalition note that it is the duty of each Australian citizen to: enrol to vote, accurately maintain their enrolment at their permanent place of residence, cast a vote when an election is called and fully extend preferences to all candidates contesting election for the House of Representatives in their local electorate. It is not an impost to vote—in many countries around the world people are dying to vote. Here we are, in this nanny situation we seem to be in, trying to take away people's responsibility to take part in the democracy they enjoy. How much we want to reach into people's lives is beyond comprehension.

The coalition does not believe this responsibility is too onerous for individual electors and opposes moves to water down this requirement. This Labor bill assumes that individual electors are unable to update their enrolment details when they change address and it is thus up to the government to do it for them. Senator Boyce made it very clear she did not want the government in the bathrooms watching the kids clean their teeth, and I thoroughly concur with her sentiments. Let us get governments out of the households, out of the businesses, out of people's lives and facilitate the taking up of responsibilities rather than, in this case, carrying out a thorough invasion of something that should be an aspiration of every 18-year-old—enrolling to vote.

Labor's changes undermine the very sense of civic duty that we should be encouraging; they encourage a timid deference to Labor's all-wise nanny state. These dramatic changes to these electoral procedures should not be enacted lightly. Why then do Labor and the Greens insist on doing away with due consideration and deliberation? This bill proposes myopic change for change's sake. In doing so, it risks undermining our democratic traditions for what is, at best, a way for so called progressives to feel better about the all too often elusive chimera of e-governance and, at worst, a shrewd electoral tactic for the Labor and Greens parties to exploit. While there are obviously some problems with the current system, such a radical and ill thought out series of changes to such fundamentals is unwarranted, and thus I cannot support this legislation. I urge all those in the chamber not to support it, either.