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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 498


Senator RYAN (Victoria) (13:46): The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 is the result of the recommendations and work of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It deals with a number of issues upon which I can say there is agreement between the opposition and the government arising from that committee and I believe there are issues which are agreed across the parliament.

Firstly, the bill deals with postal vote applications. The bill codifies the current practice in the Australian Electoral Commission by centralising the authority to deal with postal vote applications with the Electoral Commissioner. It makes the Electoral Commissioner responsible rather than the DROs. This, as we understand it, codifies current practice which is based on some legal advice that the commission received in the late 1990s. This did cause some concern for members of the coalition because, although the bill does give the commissioner the power to delegate, there is no obligation in the legislation for that delegation to be given to the DROs, which is what happens at the moment. The coalition firmly believes that the DROs should retain this particular role. The involvement of the DROs at the moment allows people to deal with postal vote applications in the way that we have become accustomed to. I should say that, while the bill does change the legal authority to the Australian Electoral Commissioner, he did give an undertaking, while appearing before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, that he would delegate his authority to the DROs so that at the coming election postal vote applications would be dealt with in precisely the same manner as they are now. So the coalition is accepting that undertaking of the Electoral Commissioner.

This bill also deals with increasing the amount of money to be paid as a deposit for nomination to the House of Representatives and the Senate. I understand that there will be some amendments to this particular proposal so I would like to explain the coalition's position. This is the first change in that amount in six years and it raises the amount for the House of Representatives from $500 to $1,000 and the amount for the Senate from $1,000 to $2,000. Of course any nomination fees from someone who receives more than four per cent of first-preference votes are returned, so that does actually protect the franchise and the ability of people to nominate.

One of the issues that has caused some concern for many members is the size of the Senate ballot paper. Under our law we cannot have multiple above-the-lines on a ballot paper. There must be a single black line with ticket votes above it and the candidates listed below it. This may sound a little bit odd but we have been informed that the New South Wales Senate ballot paper is now at the largest size that it is possible to print for the election and there is no capacity to print a larger ballot paper. That on its own is no reason to play with the rules about who can be candidates but it does indicate, when we look at the increasing number of groups that get a very, very small percentage of the vote, that there is an impact if we are running into a limit on how large the ballot paper can be. This in particular applies in New South Wales, the largest of the states, and their ballot paper because the size of the font on the ballot paper is now decreasing to the point where with any more candidates it could fall below eight point. To those listening, that would be smaller than newsprint in some cases. So there is in my view a legitimate interest in protecting the right of those who wish to nominate to nominate while gradually, and not by a significant amount, increasing the fee for the Senate to $2,000—given the importance of our elections for the Senate—and for the House of Representatives to $1,000 because of the much smaller electorate and the smaller costs involved. We do not believe that is unreasonable.

Similarly, the bill also deals with an increase in the number of people required for someone to be nominated who is not a grouped candidate individual. This number has increased from 50 to 100. There was agreement across the joint standing committee on this particular matter.

One issue that did take up some time of the joint standing committee was a proposal by the government in the draft bill to remove the term 'of unsound mind' as a form of disqualification for a voter. The committee—I believe unanimously at the time—agreed that, while there was some concern from some stakeholders about the term 'unsound mind' maybe not being as politically correct as it might have seemed 20 years ago, it did have a very firm foundation in legal meaning and there was no alternative that could be put in the act that would not potentially expand those disenfranchised from voting. So the coalition has strongly taken the view that the term 'of unsound mind' should stay because it has a definite meaning, it is a very narrow one and by keeping it there we would not inadvertently expose senior citizens, particularly those in care, to being removed from the electoral roll when perhaps they should not, particularly considering the law as it has stood. I am pleased to say that the government accepted that recommendation and the bill has been amended to reflect that, so the term 'of unsound mind' and the requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner are retained and it makes that definition stay as narrow as I think we would all like it.

So that particular amendment has been incorporated and the coalition is pleased to support the other aspects of this bill as relatively noncontroversial, reflecting several years of work of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, so we strike a legitimate balance between participation, nomination, the burden placed on those who wish to nominate and also the practicalities of an election. I know there is some concern in the chamber over the increase in nomination fees and I know discussions have been had as to that. I am sure we will have more discussions on that when we move to the committee stage of this bill.