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Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Page: 1158

Senator RYAN (Victoria) (17:25): I rise today to address the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which was just tabled by Senator Brown: Advisory report on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2012. It is easy to lose track of the various electoral bills before the chamber at the moment given the similarity in names.

The coalition's dissenting report outlines our response to the government's recommendations following the referral of this bill to the joint standing committee. Recommendations 9, 15, 29 and 30 of the inquiry, following the 2010 election, are supported by both government and opposition members. Recommendations 3, 10 and 11 from the original inquiry, which are reflected in this bill, are opposed by opposition members because this bill moves to implement them. The opposition was opposed to these measures initially and remains so. I would like to briefly explain why.

The first recommendation is in respect of the sharing of data from the Australian Taxation Office. This measure is in response to recommendation 3 of the Labor government members' majority report into the conduct of the 2010 federal election and other related matters. Essentially, this proposal will enact legislative changes to the Taxation Administration Act, which currently governs the protection of personal data collected by the Australian Taxation Office. Such a change would allow the ATO to provide personal information to the Australian Electoral Commissioner for the purposes of automatic enrolment. The coalition remains opposed to the automatic enrolment provisions implemented by the ALP and the Greens and, as I have stated previously, with the support of the AEC.

In this sense, ATO data is rightly treated in a particular manner. Indeed, it was not long ago that Labor members of this chamber and the other place were making ridiculous claims that the limitations on the use of ATO data prevented the revelation of the revenues collected by the MRRT. Yet we now have the proposal that we should loosen controls on the use of ATO data for the purposes of automatic enrolment. Again, I restate the coalition's major reason for opposing this proposal is that we believe this process puts the integrity of the roll at risk. By furthering the use of electronic data for automatic enrolment we are, again, further removing the possibility of a paper trail to uncover or prove misconduct by someone attempting to manipulate the roll. I cannot help but wonder whether the results of the infamous Shepherdson inquiry, with the revelation of false enrolments by Labor members in Queensland, would have been the same if we did not have this evidence. After all, we would have less of a paper trail to follow.

I also add that requirements on ATO employees are different to those of AEC employees. I do not disparage ATO employees at all but there are unique requirements on AEC employees. The more we utilise employees and processes outside the Electoral Commission, the greater the risk of an incident reducing public faith in the impartiality of our electoral process, which is guarded so well by the Australian Electoral Commission. The coalition has previously stated that automatic enrolment will damage and question the integrity of the electoral roll. The reliance on external data sources that have been collated and that are utilised for purposes other than the electoral roll does not necessarily make them fit for that use. I will, again, quote a number of examples I have previously referred to in Hansard.

For example, in Numbers on the run: Review of the ANAO audit report No.37 1998-99 on the management of tax file numbers we found that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia at the relevant census. There were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals and 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Similarly, an ANAO audit report No. 24 of 2004-05: 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.

Government departments and data sources can get it wrong occasionally.

I would now like to turn to the other recommendation, with respect to pre-poll voting and the requirement currently in the act to sign a certificate to access a pre-poll vote. This measure seeks to implement recommendation 10 of the JSCEM report of the 2010 election and remove this requirement for a certificate from the Electoral Act and the referendum act. The opposition believes that electors should continue to be required to sign a declaration when casting a pre-poll vote. This simple task is another helpful measure that combats fraudulent and potentially multiple voting in elections, which, I would note, has the potential to increase as more and more people access the pre-poll voting period.

The coalition strongly believes that it is far from an onerous task to provide a signature for a pre-poll vote and that the benefits of doing so far outweigh any perceived difficulties or regulatory requirements. I must also add that I believe there is only one election day and that the increasing focus on a polling period undermines an election campaign. Pre-poll exists to assist those who are unable to vote on polling day due to work or travel commitments or health concerns. For that reason, pre-poll voters should still sign a certificate, as is presently provided for.

The third measure in this bill with which the coalition disagrees is that regarding the commencement of pre-poll voting. The coalition is opposed to recommendation 11 of the government majority report into the 2010 election, which provides that pre-poll voting cannot commence earlier than four days after the date fixed for declaration of nominations for any type of election or by-election. The opposition continues to believe that pre-poll voting should be opened 12 days before the election, rather than the 19 days that this measure may effectively mean. We made this position clear in our response to the 2010 election review by JSCEM. This period of pre-poll voting would ensure that electors are still given ample time to cast a pre-poll vote prior to election day, should they need to. I would add that voters also have relative ease of access to postal vote applications if they wish to vote earlier than that.

Our dissenting report details our concerns that allowing pre-poll voting for 19 days prior to election day takes the focus of polling day away from the day itself, which is when the overwhelming majority of votes are cast and, I believe, should still be cast. Having pre-poll voting open 12 days before polling day will also provide the AEC with sufficient time to accept nominations and, indeed, print some of the larger ballot papers that we have spoken about in this chamber in recent days.

The final issue, which was of some significant concern during the inquiry, was regarding votes contained within a prematurely opened ballot box, which happened a couple of times at the last federal poll. In its current form, this bill requires that, when ballot boxes are opened prematurely, the box in question is removed from the scrutiny. The coalition are opposed to this measure as it stands, but we note that the Labor majority of this committee has recommended that it be changed.

The coalition does not believe that, because a ballot box has been opened, it should be automatically assumed that the ballots have been tampered with and, therefore, should be excluded from the scrutiny. Instead, the opposition recommends the proposal of Electoral Reform Australia, the New South Wales Branch of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, who provided a written submission and participated in the public hearing roundtable on 4 February this year. Their submission states that, instead of removing the votes from the scrutiny, there should be room for discretion. This was a matter of questioning with the Electoral Commissioner and it is something that I strongly agree with.

I do not support a provision that would disenfranchise people from the vote due to no misconduct of their own and may inadvertently, to an extremist or someone who did not have faith in our democratic process, provide an incentive to sabotage a ballot. If there was no discretion for the Electoral Commissioner, simply breaking open the tags on the ballot box—and I note they will be made stronger for the coming election—could knock out all the votes in that box. I do not necessarily assume there are many people with this degree of malevolence, but it is always possible and electoral law should be drafted on the precept: what if someone really intended to cause a problem? In this sense, someone could choose a polling booth in a marginal seat of a particular party they were not in favour of and try to change the result by removing a ballot box from the scrutiny by simply clipping the tags to ensure it was opened prematurely. This is why I strongly believe—and I accept that government members have also made this recommendation—that we need to give the AEC discretion. They have a lot of discretion in other areas and, in this area, discretion can allow people's votes to be counted.

It would be inappropriate to disregard these votes, to not count them and to leave it entirely up to the court. People need a degree of transparency around votes that are excluded, and that transparency should include a count of those votes even if they are not admitted to the scrutiny. That way we can actually determine whether or not there was a malevolent purpose.

The opposition believe the government should adopt our positions. That would ensure a consensus on this particular electoral bill before parliament, particularly with respect to the ATO data being used by the AEC. We do not believe that it is necessarily fit for purpose. We do not believe that it necessarily has the same integrity as data held by the AEC. We accept that we have lost the argument in this place around automatic enrolment. The AEC is doing it, using best endeavours to ensure that data is correct. But I do not think that we should, at this early stage, expose the electoral roll to even greater risk by adding yet more data sources collected for very, very different purposes.

Question agreed to.