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Wednesday, 11 May 2011
Page: 2241


Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (11:15): I rise today to also make a contribution to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Bill 2010. The bill we are debating today makes amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to give effect to two decisions of the High Court of Australia.

The first decision by the High Court, as part of the Rowe v Electoral Commissioner case, relates to the close of rolls period decided on 6 August 2010. The second decision by the High Court was from the Roach v Electoral Commissioner case and relates to prisoner voting, which was decided on 30 August 2007. The High Court determined in both the Rowe and Roach cases that certain amendments made to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act 2006 were invalid.

The decision made by the High Court on the Rowe case relates to a purported attempt to decrease the close of rolls period; that is, the cut-off deadline for enrolment after the issue of a writ for an election. The Roach decision by the High Court concerned a purported disqualification of all persons serving a sentence of imprisonment from voting.

The bill we are debating today will help restore integrity to the roll by updating the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to reflect the current constitutional position declared by the High Court. The High Court decision means that the Electoral Act 1918 will be amended to restore the close of rolls period to seven days after the date of the writ for a federal election. It will also reinstate the previous disqualification for prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer from voting at a federal election.

The bill will also address two matters which were raised as part of an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2007 federal election and matters related thereto. As a member of JSCEM, I am pleased to see that through this piece of legislation and others the govern­ment is implementing a number of the recommendations identified as part of our inquiry into the 2007 federal election.

As part of the legislation we are debating today, we find that recommendation 47 of the JSCEM report is being implemented. Amendments ensure that while prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer will be disqualified from voting they may remain on or be added to the electoral roll, which I believe Senator Fifield has indicated the opposition will be supporting.

The amendments relating to the close of rolls give effect to recommendation 1 of the JSCEM report, which led to the seven-day rule. The JSCEM report said in recom­mendation 1:

The committee can see no valid reason why it should be necessary to continue with close of rolls arrangements that serve to disenfranchise electors and that require unsustainable levels of funding to be expended in order to partly mitigate their effect.

There is no evidence that fraudulent activity was reduced as a result of the amendments to the close of rolls. On the contrary, there is no evidence available that indicates systemic fraudulent activity exists. Those opposite will cry foul over the possibility of potential fraud in the electoral system as part of this change to the Electoral Act, but the JSCEM report rebuffs this suggestion.

The Special Minister for State, the Hon. Gary Gray MP, highlights that a significant number of people were added to the roll before the last election, after the decision by the High Court. He states:

The provision seeks to give effect to the second High Court decision, that of Rowe v Electoral Commissioner, a decision which resulted in 57,732 additional Australians being added to the electoral roll. The bill would update the Electoral Act to reflect the current constitutional position as declared by the High Court in the Rowe decision to restore the close of rolls period to seven days after the date of the writ for a federal election or a referendum.

I think it is worth putting on the record in this chamber today that the joint judgment of Justice Gummow and Justice Bell, in part, said:

... A legislative purpose of preventing ... fraud “before it is able to occur”, where there has not been previous systemic fraud associated with the operation of the seven day period before the changes made by the 2006 Act, does not supply a substantial reason for the practical operation of the 2006 Act in disqualifying large numbers of electors.

This means you cannot merely assert fraud but have to show that substantial fraud is occurring before you go down the path of disenfranchising large numbers of electors. The opposition, for many years, has asserted that fraud is happening and they think that somehow the electorate will believe them.

The bill also includes an interpretative provision to ensure that certain references in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to 'an election for a division' or similar expressions can operate in the event of a half-Senate election held independently from an election of the House of Representatives. This addresses an anomaly in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.

This bill builds upon the Labor government's commitment to bring about electoral reform and create a more transparent and robust electoral system. We have a number of pieces of legislation currently before the parliament which those opposite continue to oppose. Those opposite are not really interested in genuine electoral reform; otherwise, they would have already offered bipartisan support for a number of crucial electoral reform bills.

The Labor government is committed to the passage of legislation which brings transparency and accountability back to the electoral system. Under the watch of those opposite, transparency was thrown out of the window and loopholes were exploited. We have moved to tidy up the funding and disclosure system through the political donations and other measures bill, which introduces six measures across three key areas and will increase the transparency of political donations and disclosure, ensure that there is more frequent and timely reporting of political donations and expen­diture and reform the public funding of elections. Overall, this will deliver a more transparent and accountable electoral system, along with the bill we are debating today, which will change the date for the close of rolls to seven days after the issue of the writ and will rectify the previous disqualification of prisoners serving a sentence of imprison­ment of three years or longer from voting at a federal election.

In conclusion, this is an important bill that is necessary to ensure that the Com­monwealth Electoral Act is reflective of the decisions made by the High Court of Australia. It is also important as it returns the seven-day period of the close of rolls after the issuing of the writs. This is funda­mentally important to the government as it is an essential amendment to ensure that the maximum number of Australians are able to have their say in the democratic process and vote in elections. This includes rectifying the previous disqualification of prisoners serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer from voting at a federal election. I commend the bill to the Senate.