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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1827

Senator POLLEY (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (10:26): I rise to make a contribution on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2013. The bill implements the government's response to seven recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report into the 2010 federal election, as well as making a number of technical and minor amendments.

The Rudd and Gillard governments have implemented various election related reforms and the government continues to look to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for advice. We are committed to ensuring that as many people as possible can take part in the election process and that our elections are as straightforward and convenient as possible. As part of this ongoing commitment, the bill introduces a number of key reforms designed to improve the process that governs how Australians vote in elections and referendums. Changes include new procedures to be adhered to when a ballot box is opened prematurely as well as new fixed periods of time for inquiries to be completed into objections against proposed electoral boundary redistributions.

One of the most significant aspects of this bill is that it allows the sharing of information between the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Electoral Commission. The joint standing committee report made three recommendations related to maintaining the electoral roll. The first two of these measures have already been implemented by the government. The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Act and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Act both enable the commissioner to directly update address details using reliable outside information.

This bill includes the last of those three measures. It allows the Commissioner of Taxation and other taxation officers to provide some forms of taxpayer information to the Electoral Commission so that it can better maintain the accuracy of Australia's roll of electors. It achieves this by altering the relevant legislation governing the protection of personal data collected by the ATO, which would otherwise prevent the office from disclosing such information to the Electoral Commission.

Enhancing the veracity of the electoral roll is an ongoing battle. Even though there are an estimated 15.7 million Australians eligible to vote, only 14.2 million are on the electoral roll. Prior to the recent Western Australian election, it was discovered that one in two eligible 18- to 25-year-olds were not on the electoral roll. What is even more alarming is that according to the state's Electoral Commissioner, Mr Warwick Gately, if an elector does not vote at their first three occasions they are unlikely to vote thereafter in their lifetime. That is a real concern.

The Electoral Commission has worked extremely hard to lift enrolment rates here in Australia. As part of its continuous roll updates program, the commission has engaged in large-scale mail-outs to specific addresses where it believes unenrolled persons live. This mail-out is supplemented by fieldwork activity aimed primarily at those who have not responded to initial efforts.

In addition to this, the AEC's Indigenous Electoral Participation Program features commission staff travelling widely throughout the Northern Territory encouraging Indigenous people to participate in elections. There have also been rolling enroller programs run jointly with the Victorian Electoral Commission which target young people, not to mention AEC attendance at music festivals and regular meetings with homeless agencies to provide information on enrolment and voting. And the list goes on. But, despite all of this perseverance and ingenuity, the Electoral Commission's enrolment activities have not been sufficiently effective in arresting the trend of declining enrolment participation.

Put simply, this is not good enough, and every possible endeavour needs to be pursued to correct this imbalance. Australia quite rightfully applauds itself for the decision to make voting compulsory, even though that very process can prove inconvenient or unfamiliar to some. In countries around the world, such as the United States, where voting is not compulsory, political parties go to extraordinary efforts to encourage potential voters to register. Even then, voting participation still hovers below 60 per cent. Prior to adopting compulsory voting in 1924 Australia had turnout rates similar to the United States.

After the change to compulsory voting was made, participation leapt from 59 per cent in the election of 1922 to 91 per cent in the election of 1925. At the last election voter participation was over 93 per cent, and this is a result that we should be proud of. So why is more work required? Because every voice counts and right now some 1.5 million Australians are not even enrolled let alone exercising their democratic right to vote. We should, therefore, never let our focus on voter participation detract from the equally serious mission of improving enrolment rates.

The opposition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, of which I am a member, have noted that it is an individual elector's responsibility to join the electoral roll and to update their details. Whilst it is true that Australians need to take responsibility for their own enrolment, all efforts should be undertaken to ensure that our elections are as inclusive and representative as possible. It is also worth remembering that those Australians who are not enrolled often feel alienated from the democratic process. Particular demographics of concern include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the homeless or those without a fixed address, young people and new arrivals to Australia—some of whom may have limited English skills.

The problem is that traditionally the process has tended to automate the process of removing people from the roll when they change address, but then individuals have to manually lodge an application to get back onto the electoral roll. The Democratic Audit of Australia told the joint standing committee:

The problem ... lies in the current legislative restrictions placed on the capacity of the Electoral Commission to utilise data from trusted agencies to enrol or reinstate eligible electors.

This is why the government has moved to allow the tax office to provide otherwise protected information, such as the names and addresses of taxpayers, to the Electoral Commission to maintain the veracity of the electoral roll. As the minister noted during his second reading speech, 'although it is a small amendment on the face of this bill, it is another important step in assisting the Electoral Commission to deliver the most inclusive electoral roll possible'.

The bill reflects this government's strong commitment to a host of election-related reforms to boost enrolment and enhance the management of the election process. Labor, unlike the coalition, believe that every effort should be made so that enrolment and voting are as uncomplicated and as accessible as possible. We are not interested in disenfranchising those we believe will harm our electoral prospects. We are not interested in making it difficult for the young and potentially marginalised segments of the community to exercise their democratic right. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those opposite me in the chamber.

When the Howard government were in power they took every cynical advantage they could when it came to electoral reforms. We should never forget that once they had control of the Senate they passed the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act. This act completely disenfranchised every Australian serving a prison sentence—meaning that some 20,000 people were suddenly unable to vote. This radical move particularly discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who, it is sad to say, are disproportionately represented in prison populations. Their entrance back into society was made that much more difficult by the coalition. This act also contained one of the most cynical amendments in living memory; it actively sought to disenfranchise those who would otherwise have been able to enrol themselves before an election. It was outrageous.

Prior to the Howard government's amendment, the electoral rolls were not closed for a period of seven days following the issuing of the writs. This week-long period provided a vital window for citizens to enrol for the first time or update their existing enrolment. However, as a result of the 2006 legislation, the electoral rolls closed for new enrolments on the night the writs were issued. And we should never forget that; it was just another attack on ordinary Australians. This change disproportionately affected young people and new arrivals to Australia, many of whom may not have enrolled previously nor had a strong understanding of the electoral process. Let's be clear about this; the coalition were targeting segments of the community they knew would never vote for them. Fortunately, a series of High Court judgements struck down these reforms.

This demonstrates how far the coalition are willing to go to pass legislation aimed at improving their own electoral prospects regardless of the reasonableness or constitutionality of the changes. It took the nation's highest court to impede their egotistical drive to disenfranchise those hostile to their electoral prospects. They should be ashamed of themselves.

It is also important to point out that this same 2006 act increased the disclosure threshold from $1,500 to $10,000. It is in this aspect of campaign finance reform that the coalition appears to be increasingly out of step with modern practices that are occurring in democracies around the world. Most countries, realising the importance of a transparent political system that operates in the public interest, have actually sought to increase the transparency of donations, in contrast to those opposite. In contrast, we have the coalition, who raised the threshold that dictates when, for example, a tobacco giant has to declare a donation to the coalition. In addition to this, the act increased the threshold for the tax deductibility of donations to political parties and Independents from $100 to $1,500, and extended deductibility from individuals to corporations. Efforts by Labor to reverse these harmful reforms to Australian disclosure thresholds have, predictably, been opposed by the coalition.

It truly is reprehensible how far they will go to corrupt the electoral process. We should never forget that. For them, when it comes to a choice between transparency and political expediency, expediency wins out every time. Not so the Labor Party, which strongly believes in continually improving our democracy and ensuring that the nation's elections operate with minimal inconvenience or misunderstanding. We want every voice in every corner of this diverse country to be heard. I commend the bill to the Senate.