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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1823


Senator RYAN (Victoria) (10:11): In speaking to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2013 I will be drawing upon the coalition members' and senators' comments in the recent report into this bill of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Let me begin by outlining where the coalition agrees with the government. First is the issue of deadlines for postal vote applications. This bill brings forward the deadline for applications by one day, from the Thursday immediately prior to polling day to the Wednesday immediately prior to polling day. The coalition agree with this proposal. We think it is a reasonable and sensible move as it simply reflects the reality of postal timelines. It is highly unlikely that someone who submits an application for a postal vote on the Thursday prior to polling day will have the opportunity to cast that ballot, so it is reasonable to reduce this potential conflict between electoral timelines and the reality of the post—partly so as not to mislead people into thinking such compliance is possible.

Secondly, the coalition supports the proposal to provide for further fixed periods to be provided for the augmented Electoral Commission to complete its inquiries into proposed redistributions of electoral boundaries. By way of an aside, I note that only a small and select number of people would have been pleased with the timelines and clashes with polling and elections that the Victorian redistribution of 2010 involved. This addresses a number of those concerns, but only in relation to timing.

Now I must turn to the areas where the coalition disagrees with the government. These are numerous, so I will take them individually. First is the issue of allowing Australian Taxation Office data to be provided to the Australian Electoral Commission for the purposes of automatic enrolment. I have probably spoken and written about this issue of automatic enrolment more than anyone else in this building, which probably only confirms the views some have of what tickles my interest. But I believe this remains an important issue. I have highlighted the flaws in national databases previously and I will do so again today. Indeed, they have been highlighted in every coalition comment with respect to this issue and in every report issued by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

A 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration entitled Numbers on the run: review of the ANAO audit report No.37 1998-99on the management of tax file numbers 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 the sample match. Similarly, another ANAO audit report, No. 24 2004-05, titled Integrity of Medicare enrolment data, stated that the ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who were deceased. These are statistics that should worry everyone, but flaws in databases for tax and Medicare are one issue; flaws in our electoral roll pose another challenge to electoral legitimacy altogether.

The coalition has long opposed the measures that provide for the Electoral Commission to put people on the electoral roll without their involvement, knowledge or, indeed, consent. This obsession with numbers in terms of enrolment can come only at the cost of integrity as, inevitably, a mistake will be made. The loss of the paper trail in terms of the signature someone would put on a old-style enrolment form can only make prosecuting instances of electoral fraud more difficult. While I note that the Chief Legal Officer of the AEC, Mr Paul Pirani, has questioned the value of a signature, particularly on the grounds of their evolution and change over time, this is still a piece of evidence we seem to be going to extraordinary lengths to prevent the collection of. I will return to the issue of signatures later as they are particularly relevant to other aspects of the bill and amendments to be moved by the coalition.

The coalition is opposed to the extension of the automatic enrolment process by allowing ATO data to be used for the purposes of enrolment. This is data collected for another purpose by people not familiar with AEC protocols and codes of conduct. It also breaches the wall of privacy that should apply to ATO information. I note that only a few weeks ago in this chamber and the other place we had the ludicrous suggestion that privacy provisions around ATO data prevented the public and the Australian parliament being informed about the revenues collected by the mining tax, and not about individual payments by companies or individuals. Now the Labor Party seeks to hand over people's personal information to another agency.

I state again my genuine fear that this process will compromise the electoral roll. The nightmare scenario is that a close election in a single seat or for government itself is determined by a handful of votes and some of these are called into question by errors on an electoral roll. Let no-one say they were not warned when the inevitable mistake is made—and we are only human, so mistakes will be made—and inappropriate amendments are made to an electoral roll by removing people or adding them. The coalition will be calling the proponents of these automatic enrolment measures to account. We have warned parliament and we have warned those proponents time and time again.

The second issue the coalition disagrees with is the proposal to remove the requirement for a voter exercising a prepoll vote to sign a certificate before casting that ballot. Again, we seem to be faced with an inexplicable desire to remove a piece of evidence that may be useful later on. At the last election we changed prepoll votes to effectively ordinary votes to be counted on the night, reflecting the numbers of people that were casting prepoll votes and to allow the Saturday night voting count to be as accurate as possible, so people could get a result as quickly as possible. I note now that the government is using the removal of prepoll votes as declaration votes as an argument to justify the removal of people signing a prepoll certificate. This is a circular argument.

The coalition at no point conceded to the removal of the prepoll certificate. The coalition agreed that the votes should be counted on Saturday night where possible, because it gave people a degree of accuracy about what the result of the election might be as soon as possible. To mount a case that, because we now count them on the night, they are ordinary votes and therefore we should remove the hurdle and the certificate someone signs to access a prepoll vote is nothing but a circular argument and a piece of trickery by this government. The numbers of people exercising prepoll votes are increasing and the Electoral Commission is facilitating this. I have personally always been concerned by the number of prepoll votes. While there is always a case for those who cannot make polling day, it was not that long ago that prepoll voting was open for a week. I note under this bill we are proposing prepoll voting be open for 19 days.

The AEC has said on a number of occasions that we have a polling period now and not a polling day. I challenge this. I think we should still be striving for a polling day: a polling day that gives people the benefit of seeing a five-week election campaign. For those who criticise the idea of three years leading to permanent election campaigning, I suggest that having a polling period only exacerbates that. There is something wonderfully democratic in everyone voting on one day. For the advocates of compulsory voting and compulsory enrolment to undermine the importance of that single voting day undermines their argument.

I turn again to the issue of the signature. Mr Pirani has previously said at hearings of the joint standing committee and the Senate finance committee—I think, although I stand to be corrected on which committee—that a signature is of limited legal value and evidentiary value because people's signatures change over time. I went back and looked at my own signature from some paperwork when I was at university, some 15 years ago, and it has changed a bit. I suggest though that in 15 years it has not changed enormously. You can look at your signature on old drivers licence as there are 10-year drivers licences these days. That argument is not relevant in the case of a prepoll-voting certificate, because for a prepoll-voting certificate we are looking at a matter of weeks. We are looking at someone signing a form to exercise a prepoll vote and then whether or not there is an issue around someone voting in someone's name twice or someone inadvertently voting twice. It is only a matter of weeks when I consider the signature on a prepoll certificate and potentially a duplicate vote. The point I make is that in this case there is some evidentiary value.

We are also aware that quite a number of those who will vote on more than one occasion may be elderly Australians—senior Australians. They might be at a hospital where there might be a prepoll facility coming around, and I note that they will still be required to exercise a vote the declaration way. But the point I make is that sometimes their family might come and pick them up and they inadvertently cast two ballots. What this provision proposed by the government would do is that if someone cast a prepoll vote or if someone turns up to vote and there had already been an allegation of someone casting a vote in their name—for example, if someone voted in my name before polling day, because I would vote on polling day, to a certain extent I could prove my innocence if a signature did not match—it will remove the facility of someone to actually free themselves from suspicion if there were an allegation of multiple voting. I do not know the mischief that this amendment is trying to address. Signing a prepoll certificate is not a particularly burdensome approach for someone voting before polling day. In fact, one of the reasons why people vote before polling day at the moment is to avoid the delays of time. My issue is that I do not see—and the coalition does not see—the need to remove that.

The third issue is the number of days of prepoll voting. The coalition have outlined in our dissenting comments in the most recent Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report into this bill that we do not believe that it should be open for 19 days. The coalition's view is that it should be available for 12. The coalition will be moving amendments to reflect those three differences in the committee stage of this bill, and I look forward to further explanation and debate around those then.