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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 4180

Senator JOHNSTON (Western Australia) (20:50): 'Vote early, vote often' is an expression I have come to know and understand is used by people of a different political persuasion from myself. Vote early, vote often is a catchcry of people who seek to abuse the democratic political process by committing acts to subvert and undermine the integrity of the electoral roll. Vote early, vote often is a blight, is an attack, is a cancer on the way we do our democratic political business in this country. These provisions support and make much easier the subterfuge and the dishonesty described by the expression 'vote early, vote often'. These electoral and referendum amendment bills do nothing to protect the integrity of the roll—they take us in the opposite direction.

In Western Australia we have a Minister for Electoral Affairs, and we believe that enrolling is a right and a duty that is not too onerous and one that should be fulfilled by a deliberate act of each elector or potential elector. People should voluntarily and earnestly undertake the responsibilities of the democratic process. The situation with respect to Western Australia is, as I have said, that they have a separate stand-alone and independent Electoral Affairs portfolio. When the Howard government brought in the Langer amendment to the electoral laws to insist on full, consecutive numbering of House of Representatives ballots, the then Court government in Western Australia deliberately went the other way to allow for errors in numerical sequence. It is a minor point, but it is a significant one because it shows that partisanship is something that must not be able to enter into the fundamental operation of the electoral roll and its underlying philosophy through these bills. In Western Australia, for example, prisoners are disqualified from voting if sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment, whereas in the Commonwealth, by contrast, it is three years.

The joint roll arrangement between state and Commonwealth electoral administrators is very sensible. It is cost-effective. It means that there is a capacity to ensure that the people who elect a state government are close to being the same people who elect a Commonwealth government. In Western Australia, enrolment requires a witness. Under federal law, it is simply a matter of proof of identity. This results in limited numbers of people who are on one roll but not on the other—and this is a negative. This is something that does not advance the democratic process.

The discrepancy created by the automatic federal enrolment provisions contained in these bills will blow out the discrepancy between the legislative base of the roll in Western Australia and that of the Commonwealth roll. We can assume that the majority of apathetic enrollers will not enrol for state elections, so we will have the Commonwealth roll and the state roll heading in different directions. There will be one roll for the state and one roll for the Commonwealth. Furthermore, this situation apparently does not occur in New South Wales or Victoria, so we will have a plethora of electoral rolls state by state, with the Commonwealth assisting that by having a separate basis for enrolment—that is, automatic enrolment.

There will be major headaches in the joint electoral roll in Western Australia, and Western Australians resent having these changes foisted upon them through unilateral federal legislation. A joint but accurate electoral roll incorporating the same basis for federal and state enrolments, on a non-partisan basis, is sensible and efficient.

A joint roll in Western Australia will also have a greater capacity to deal with Indigenous people in particular. This is an important issue between state and federal elections, when different agencies try to analyse who is present in desert communities to work out who is going to be present on polling day and, indeed, present on the arrival of the mobile polling booth. And the basis of their participation—I am talking about the Central Reserve residents in Western Australia—should be the same. This legislation will make it more difficult, and the integrity of the electoral roll will come under greater threat. It assists those who believe in, as I mentioned earlier, the adage 'vote early, vote often'.

I turn briefly to automatic enrolment using databases. Automatic enrolment will occur without people's knowledge or consent. Here we are in the brave new world of government officials putting people and their details on the electoral roll without their consent or knowledge. I think that is a problem. Again, given that people have different names and given that the databases from which these names will be taken may have no integrity—or are not checked by anyone for their integrity—the integrity of the roll is under threat.

The coalition's concern with automatic enrolment is obviously, as I have said, to do with the integrity of the electoral roll. In enrolling people without their knowledge, there is a significant chance of errors occurring. There is the potential for electors who are not Australian citizens to be enrolled, again assisting the adage that I think sums up the threat to the integrity of our whole system: vote early, vote often. To enrol electors who are under 18, or electors who use different names, without their knowledge damages the integrity and the reliability of the roll, and that is the problem here. Having electoral officers acting on their best understanding is not satisfactory for maintaining the integrity of what is a very vital, basic ingredient of our democratic process.

As mentioned, following the inquiry into the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill, coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters noted in their dissenting report in July 2011 the risks of using external data sources such as the Australian Taxation Office, Medicare and other government agencies. They 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 FileNumbers, found that:

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

Goodness only knows that rings a number of alarm bells and let me say fits right into the mischief I have portrayed in the expression 'vote early, vote often'. The quote goes on:

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’.

Vote early, vote often is given a much better opportunity here with this sort of nonsense going on referring to databases—tax databases, Medicare databases—which are completely inaccurate and have been an administrative nightmare for the Commonwealth for many years:

It is clear that where there are such examples of inconsistencies in Commonwealth data, there cannot be sufficient faith in this data being used to automatically update the people on the electoral roll.

One should not need to have to say that:

The potential for error is even greater when using data from state or territory governments, as the Commonwealth cannot—

roll its sleeves up, wade into state offices and determine the integrity and accuracy of that data. No access is available to Commonwealth officials to state offices :

The only way to ensure that the integrity of the Electoral Roll is maintained is to ensure electors continue to be responsible for changing their individual details.

That is the Australian way. That is the way we have done things in this country since 1901. It has served us well. Turning to the minister's second reading speech, he said on 23 November 2011:

This bill will allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly update an elector's enrolled address following receipt and analysis of reliable and current data sources from outside the Electoral Commission.

It might surprise you to know that the bill says nothing of the sort. Those words, 'reliable and current data sources', are not mentioned in the bill. Clause103A(1)(b) says that the Electoral Commissioner are simply needs to be:

satisfied, for reasons other than a claim under section 98 and a notice under subsection 101(5), that the person lives at another address—

in order to change a person's address. What on earth was the minister up to? Why would he say:

This bill will allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly update an elector's enrolled address following receipt ... of reliable and current data.

The Electoral Commissioner is not empowered to go exclusively to reliable and current data. He simply has to be satisfied. The minister is saying something here that is patently not true. I go on. In the same speech, the minister says:

This bill will enable the Electoral Commission to deliver a more accurate electoral roll. The Electoral Commissioner will be permitted to use accurate and timely information from reliable sources to maintain the current address of already enrolled electors.

The bill says nothing of the sort. We are being sold a pup here. The minister has dressed this up as something that is going to create greater integrity in the electoral role of the Commonwealth. It is not true. The Electoral Commissioner only has to be satisfied that there has been a change of some elector's address, on any basis. I could go to the Electoral Commissioner in say, 'Do you know Fred's moved two doors down?', and if the Electoral Commissioner believes me, he can change the address of that elector. Why would the minister not mandate, as he seems to imply he has, that the Electoral Commissioner must rely upon reliable and current data sources? He is, wittingly or unwittingly—and I will give him the benefit of the doubt—giving succour to the expression 'vote early, vote often'. He is undermining the integrity of our electoral system. Why would he say that? We all know you have to be able to find words in the bill. This bill does not only allow the Electoral Commissioner to use 'reliable and current data'. It just allows the Electoral Commissioner to do whatever he wants to do as long as he can say, 'I am satisfied.' There is no integrity whatsoever in this.

As with the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Amendment (Automatic Enrolment) Bill does not give a specific definition, as I have said, with respect to 'reliable and current data source'. There is no such definition; there is no reference. It is open to interpretation and we believe this power should not be within the purview of the commission; it should be laid out specifically on the bill. The coalition members of the joint standing committee noted this in July 2011 in their dissenting report. When they said:

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 the public faith in our electoral process.

That is obvious. It continues:

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 charged dispute can only damage the standing of the office and the AEC.

And may I add: and its independence and its reputation. The problem with all of this is that none of these amendments deal with the impact on special category electors. Special category electors are people who have decided to be silent electors, who are prisoners, general postal voters, Norfolk Island and Antarctic electors and itinerant electors, including homeless electors. These electors are absolutely problematic for the terms of these two bills.

Let us just take silent electors. The risk we have here, with this proposition, is that the Electoral Commissioner will change or publicise the electoral details of a silent elector through administrative oversight or will not record or will record a change of address for one of those other categories of elector. In the case of silent electors, an application for enrolment requires that the applicant sign a statutory declaration that they meet specific requirements. The bill does not provide separate provisions relating to special category electors. One possible consequence of automatic enrolment, as anticipated in these bills, is that an elector who is enrolled under one of the special categories can potentially have their enrolment updated and lose their status, as I have said, as a special category elector.

The AEC has indicated that special category electors would be administratively excluded from the process of matching data from external agencies. I would not want to leave it to chance. I would want to put it in the bill. How difficult is it to mandate the fact that special category electors shall have their special category preserved, notwithstanding the provisions of this legislation? There is the wording of the act; it is that simple. In New South Wales there is no specific provision in the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act that excludes special category electors from being part of the automatic enrolment process. They have problems with that. The legislation states:

While special category electors are proposed to be excluded by administrative rules from the automatic enrolment process, it may be appropriate—

(Time expired)