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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1834

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (10:55): While I am broadly supportive of the reforms included in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2013, I have a number of specific concerns about the provisions that would allow the ATO, the Australian Taxation Office, to provide voter information to the AEC for the purpose of the maintenance of electoral rolls. I understand the need for accurate and up-to-date information to be included on the rolls, but I cannot support a system that seeks to bypass a voter's authority altogether.

I have some concerns about automatic enrolment. I believe that having a paper trail and a signature is by no means perfect, but you would have a process where you would have a paper trail and that is important and it ought to be maintained. I understand the public policy considerations of the government and the views of the Australian Electoral Commission in the sense that there is a concern that you ought to get as many people to enrol as possible. That is a valid concern, but the primary public policy concern ought to be to ensure the absolute integrity of the process, and to me having a paper trail is important.

I support compulsory voting, but I note that if a person decides not to attend the polling booth they can be hit with a penalty, albeit not a large one. I also note that there are penalties if a person does not provide information to the AEC. Again, these are not severe penalties by any means, but there are penalties. My concern is that allowing the ATO to cut out the middle man removes a person's right to object, in a sense. I am also concerned about how the information from electoral rolls is used. The provisions in the Commonwealth Electoral Act are fairly broad. The rolls, which include at the very least names and addresses of individual voters, can be handed out to pretty much any organisation that pays the fees. Of course, political parties, candidates and sitting members are exempt from these fees.

In late July and early August 2011, this issue of political exemption from privacy rules, coupled with access to the AEC rolls, flared up. Under the act, the AEC is required to provide monthly updates on the rolls to political parties. This information includes voters' names, dates of birth, gender, addresses and possibly their occupations. None of this information is provided with the voters' consent. In the Australian on 26 July 2011 Peter van Onselen wrote:

Compiling, storing and using this information would be illegal if politicians had not exempted themselves from privacy laws in 2000, against the advice of the then federal privacy commissioner, Malcolm Crompton.

The following day in a further article on the subject van Onselen expanded:

When the law was introduced in 2000, then federal privacy commissioner Malcolm Crompton opposed the exemption applying to political parties.

He said he did "not think that the proposed exemption for political organisations is appropriate … if we are to have a community that fully respects the principles of privacy and the political institutions that support them, then these institutions themselves must adopt the principles and practices they seek to require of others".

Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, it is interesting to note that a well-known political commentator from our home state of South Australia, Dr Dean Jaensch, a stalwart who has been lecturing and speaking out on political issues for many year, in an opinion piece in the Adelaide Advertiser on 4 August 2011 echoed these concerns. He said:

The Electoral Act provides that the Electoral Commission must provide every registered political party with a copy of the roll which includes sex, postal address, date of birth, salutation, most recent enrolment date, state or territory electoral district, local government area and whether recently enrolled.

Invasion of privacy? Absolutely. Are citizens asked for permission to have their information released to parties? Absolutely not. So, how can the parties get away with it?

Very simple answer—when the Privacy Bill was debated in the Parliament, Labor and Liberal voted to have it not apply to their access to the rolls

And he was quite scathing of the major parties in relation to that. He went on to say that, if you want to complain about it, 'complain to your member of parliament, but remember that your letter or call will be entered on your file in their database'.

So I cannot support these provisions in the bill, because I believe they remove yet another layer of voter consent, and I agree with the concerns raised by Senator Ryan in relation to this. Having a process, a paper trail, is important. I will be moving an amendment to this bill to remove these provisions. I think the opposition will be moving a similar amendment, which I will be supporting. I look forward to having this discussed further during the committee stage.

I would also like to indicate that I intend to support the opposition's amendments in relation to prepoll voting. I believe that prepoll voting should only occur in circumstances where there is no alternative, not because people do not want to line up on Saturday morning when the election is on. The fact that you are extending that to 19 days, or almost three weeks, concerns me. My view is that extending the prepoll vote mitigates the importance of election day. So many things can come up in those 19 days before polling day—in terms of issues, in terms of the accountability of the candidates—I think there is something sacrosanct about election day itself. There should be a compelling reason not to vote on election day. I understand that there are a whole range of reasons—for example, if you are an emergency services worker, if you are going to be out of the country—but let's keep the same requirements that we have now, where there ought to be a signature involved, making it clear that prepoll voting is effectively for those who genuinely cannot be there on election day. I think there is something quite important in our democracy about ensuring that people vote unless there is good reason not to and they are unable to on the actual election day.

I can indicate also that I will move again a number of amendments in relation to transparency of political donations, and I think it is important that those amendments are put up again, in terms of having very rapid access to election donations. At the moment I note that the government is moving some amendments in respect of this which will shorten the period from about 19 months in a worst-case scenario to about six months or so. That is obviously an improvement but there is no reason why we could not do a lot better, particularly in the course of an election campaign, where donations beyond the threshold can be put up pretty much instantaneously. I think that is something we ought to be aiming for.

Can I say that I do not have an issue with the current thresholds. I think that the administrative burden of the lower thresholds being proposed by the government are quite problematic. I do not think it is reasonable, when you assume what a campaign would cost, that a donation of $11,900 is going to swing an election; but I do think that having much more timely disclosure is a preferred course in terms of transparency and the integrity of the process.

So, with those words, I look forward to the committee stage of this bill and I would like to hear from the government about whether they have experienced any difficulties, or whether the AEC has experienced any difficulties with respect to automatic enrolment in Tasmania—I understand it is being rolled out there first—and what the potential problems might be.

Finally, I would like to express my confidence in the Australian Electoral Commission. I think we can be very proud of the way the Australian Electoral Commission conducts itself and the way that it is held in very high regard throughout the world. Having looked at election systems in one particular other country in our region, I think it is fair to say that we can be—

Senator Ryan: It was more customs procedures, wasn't it?

Senator XENOPHON: Senator Ryan unfairly made reference to customs procedures, but I can tell Senator Ryan that I have never managed to get through passport control so quickly as on the day when I was deported from Malaysia. It happened very, very quickly. There is nothing like a deportation order to get you out of a country in double-quick time! Unfortunately, Senator Williams was not there with me. The other issue is that, when we look at the Election Commission of Malaysia and their independence, or lack of independence, and compare them to the robustness of our system, they are worlds apart. That is why I think I need to acknowledge the good work and the integrity of the Australian Electoral Commission, something that I think is looked up to around the world in terms of the way they conduct themselves. I am looking forward to the committee stage of this bill.