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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1836


Senator FEENEY (VictoriaParliamentary Secretary for Defence) (11:06): The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2013 will substantially improve the interactions that Australians have with elections and referendums. The bill implements the government response to several of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, JSCEM, in its report on the 2010 federal election—specifically recommendations 3, 10, 11, 15, 23, 29 and 30. In addition to making a number of technical amendments, the bill also implements the government's response to the recommendations made by JSCEM following its inquiry into the bill.

The bill continues the government's commitment to ensuring that the Commonwealth electoral roll best represents those Australians who are eligible to vote. In the 2010 JSCEM report, the committee made three recommendations relating to maintaining the electoral roll. This bill implements the last of those recommendations by allowing the Australian Taxation Office, the ATO, to provide enrolment-relevant personal information to the Australian Electoral Commission. This is achieved by a small amendment to the Taxation Administration Act. Although it is a small amendment on the face of the bill, it is another important step in assisting the AEC to deliver the most inclusive electoral roll yet. The JSCEM report makes it clear that there were an estimated 15.7 million Australians eligible to be enrolled but only some 14.2 million on the roll. Consequently, the majority of the committee agreed with the recommendation that the AEC should have access to information from credible government sources such as the ATO to update and maintain the electoral roll.

There are also small administrative amendments made in this bill. These amendments deal with when prepolling voting can commence and when postal vote applications can be received and with removing the requirement that a person who is seeking to use prepoll voting for an ordinary vote should complete a certificate before they do so. One of the methods of voting is to vote prepoll. There are currently two times set out in the Electoral Act when applications for a prepoll vote can be made. These amendments clarify and establish one time at which prepoll voting will be available: the fourth day after nominations are declared. For a minimum election timetable, nominations are declared on a Friday, making the fourth day afterwards the succeeding Tuesday. Depending on the type of election—whether it is for the House of Representatives, for the Senate or for both—the act provides different days for the commencement of prepoll voting, and very minimal times are provided for the AEC to print and distribute ballot materials to early voting centres across Australia in time for polling to commence. This is a sensible, small amendment which provides a consistent time frame for when prepoll voting can commence. There is also currently a requirement that a voter complete a written declaration in order to vote by prepoll as an ordinary voter. This requirement is not consistent with other forms of ordinary voting, which require only a verbal declaration. It does not serve a useful purpose and will be omitted by this bill.

One of the matters considered by the JSCEM concerned incidents that occurred in connection with the 2010 election—in particular, where some ballot boxes were opened before they were lawfully authorised to be opened. Since that incident, extra training and support materials have be applied and it is less likely to happen again. However, although this may be an excess of caution, the bill contains provisions which expressly clarify the action to be taken with respect to ballots that are contained in prematurely opened boxes. The Australian Electoral Officer for the state or territory will be responsible for examining the ballots, or envelopes containing ballots, drawn from ballot boxes which have been opened prematurely. Some ballots may be saved and included in the count, and some may be excluded. Ballot papers and envelopes containing ballot papers will not be excluded from scrutiny unless the ballot paper or envelope has been fraudulently altered or otherwise interfered with so as to not reflect the voter's intention. The AEO will notify the Electoral Commissioner and the candidates for the election following his or her assessment of the ballot papers and envelopes.

Postal voting is increasingly popular. At the 2010 election the Electoral Commission processed over one million postal vote applications, which was a 17.8 per cent increase in the number processed at the previous 2007 election. Under the existing provisions, postal vote applications can be received up to 6 pm on the Thursday that is two days before polling day. Voters are required to cast their vote before the close of polling on Saturday. The limited time between the closing time for applications and election day makes it highly unlikely that applicants will receive their postal ballot papers in time to cast their votes before the polls close. This amendment brings the cut-off forward by one day to 6 pm on the Wednesday three days before polling day. This change is made to improve the chance that the Australian Electoral Commission can deliver postal-voting papers to an elector before the close of poll.

Finally, there is a small amendment being made to the rules relating to how-to-vote cards. The rules that set out a specific requirement relating to the minimum font size for the authorisation details are being omitted from the Electoral Act. This implements recommendation 23 of the 2010 JSCEM report. Of course, there are equivalent amendments being made to the Referendum Machinery Provisions Act 1984. The bill also provides for further fixed periods to be provided for the augmented Electoral Commission to allow it to complete its inquiries into objections against proposed redistribution of electoral boundaries. All the measures in the bill are designed to assist in ensuring that Australia can continue to have a robust and up-to-date electoral system and administration. The recommendations made by JSCEM in the majority report are both sensible and politically neutral. The government is committed to ensuring their implementation. I thank all senators who have contributed to this important debate and commend the bill to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: The question is that the bill be now read a second time. A division is required but, under a temporary order of the Senate, divisions cannot be held until 12:30. Therefore, the division will be deferred until that time.