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Wednesday, 11 May 2011
Page: 2246

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (11:34): I will just rise to add some brief remarks on behalf of the Australian Greens on this bill on a day when we have spent quite a bit of time discussing electoral reform. I indicate at the outset that the Australian Greens will be supporting the bill.

The two key issues, obviously, which have been fairly well canvassed in the debate thus far are those around the closing of the rolls. Schedule 1 to the bill addresses the Rowe decision and contains amendments relating to the close of the rolls. This is something on which we have been very strongly on the record since the decision was made by the Howard government.

The first of the High Court decisions that I will address, as other senators have, is Rowe v Electoral Commissioner as decided on 6 August 2010. That case related to the period of time before the close of rolls allowed for voters to either ensure that they were on the electoral roll or to update their details following the formal issue of a writ for an election. While the High Court has not yet handed down the reasons for its decision, there is sufficient information to amend the legislation to reflect the decision that has been made. This obviously will unto the changes that the Howard government made to the law which resulted in two important deadlines for the close of the rolls: at 8 pm on the day that the writ is issued for people enrolling for the first time or re-enrolling after having been removed from the roll, and at 8 pm on the third working day after the writ was issued for those who are (1) eligible who are currently enrolled but needing to update the details, (2) not enrolled but who will turn 18 between the issue of the writ and polling day and (3) eligible who are not enrolled who are to receive Australian citizenship between the issue of the writ and polling day. These changes were deemed necessary by completely unsubstantiated claims by the coalition government of the day of an untenable administrative burden on the AEC or electoral fraud damaging the integrity of the roll and encouraging voters to leave updating the details with the AEC until the very last minute.

I can remember the conduct of that debate quite vividly. It is worth noting that following the 2001 election the AEC conducted an audit in South Australia of address changes in the week from the issuing of the writs to the close of the rolls, and in a roll of one million people no evidence of electoral fraud was uncovered. Elections are not held on fixed dates and they can be called unexpectedly. The Australian Greens would perhaps take a different position on this if you could see a federal election coming three or four years in advance. Then I think perhaps the coalition would have a leg to stand on in this debate. But of course we have not solved that particular issue federally. My colleagues in state parliament in the upper house in WA are looking forward to debating to provide for fixed four-year terms in the Western Australian parliament. At that point you could have a sensible debate about when the rolls should close, either if you were a new voter or if any of the other conditions apply that we are seeking to amend here. ut at the moment in federal politics elections are still called by the Prime Minister of the day for essentially tactical reasons, and it is all about political advantage for the party that has the hand on that particular lever of the issuing of the writs. I think most MPs privately will admit that that is an untenable situation, and that is something I will address in later remarks.

Closing the rolls early effectively disenfranchises voters—and let us be serious, that was the intention of the amendments in the first place—about 80,000 new voters; and particularly it disenfran¬≠chises young people. Senator Fifield's comments very early in the second reading debate—that is, that parliament did not disenfranchise people, people did because they did not respect the law and they did not bother to turn up on time—is extraordinarily disingenuous because this parliament sets the laws and the rules of conduct by which elections are conducted, and then it is up to people to keep track. We may live and breathe politics in this building and the various constituencies that we deal with, but for many other people politics is distant to the point of irrelevance. I think it is partly because of the conduct that is frequently displayed, for example, at question time, where we make a collective mockery of ourselves. The media obviously plays its part as well in the trivialising and politicising of policy debates. That aside, this is one of the reasons why people, particularly first-time voters, might not be sensitively attuned to the way that electoral law changes and the calling of the election is the wake-up call for many, many people, particularly young people—'All right, I'm interested in this debate. This is something I want to participate in. I am entitled to participate and so I'm going to get myself on the electoral roll or make sure that my details are accurate'—at which point they discover that former Prime Minister John Howard has made that impossible on their behalf. Some of the comments that we heard from coalition speakers revealed the gigantic disconnect between the theory and the practice.

The reduction in time for voters on the roll to change their address details created difficulties for about 200,000 people in the instance that I was addressing before. At the last election 62,583 people joined the electoral roll during the seven-day grace period. That was made up of about 16 per cent of the total growth of enrolments since the previous election, and that was partly at the will of the Prime Minister of the day. At the 2004 election 77,231 new electors, many of them young, first-time voters, got on the electoral roll during that seven-day window. Early closure of the rolls impacts disproportionately on younger voters in terms of adequate provision for first-time enrollers and due to the fact that the living arrangements of younger Australians are more likely to change from one election to the next; it is a more mobile population.

Young people are identified as a priority cohort for achieving the AEC target participation rate of 90 per cent of eligible electors being enrolled to vote. That is a good target, it is a healthy target, it is much higher obviously than in jurisdictions where enrolment is not compulsory and it is something that we can be justifiably proud of. It is encouraging participation in the democratic process. I do not believe—Senator Fifield can call me out on this if I am wrong—that any coalition speakers addressed the demographic imbalance of the people who were effectively disenfranchised by the changes that were made by former Prime Minister John Howard, and the fact that young people found themselves disproportionately impacted.

This bill brings Australia back into line with international standards: Australia, 8 pm on the day that the writs are issued, a minimum of 33 days before polling day; Canada, it is polling day; New Zealand, it is the day before polling day; the UK, 11 days before polling day. This bill does promote a valuable amendment to the way that elections are run and the way that people can find themselves able to participate or not when the polling day finally comes around. It was a recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in the Report on the conduct of the 2007 federal election and matters related thereto. The Australian Greens had planned to move amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2009 in the Senate to repeal the 2006 amendments, and we are therefore happy to support the government in finally taking action on this issue.

On the issue of prisoner voting, which I will address briefly, schedule 2 to the bill addresses the Roach decision and contains amendments relating to prisoner voting. The second High Court decision that this bill touches on is Roach v Electoral Commissioner, as decided on 30 August 2007, with reasons published on 26 September 2007. This decision relates to the franchise for people who may be serving a sentence of imprisonment. The amendments would ensure that while prisoners who are serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or longer will be disqualified from voting, they may during this period of disqualification remain on or be added to the electoral roll. Remaining on the roll will ensure that a prisoner who has served his or her sentence does not have to enrol for a second time and will in part assist the prisoner's transition back into Australian society. I understand there are opposition amendments foreshadowed by Senator Fifield to change the three-year term to one year, which the Australian Greens do not support.

I will turn to other reforms that are not included in this bill, which we can perhaps address during the committee stage, which the Greens also support. Again, as I did during the debate on the earlier electoral reform bill, I would like to provide some context for why the Australian Greens are voting the way that we are on this particular package of legislation and to foreshadow some of the things that we believe still need to change. For example, lowering the voting age to 16 years and making that optional for younger people to be able to vote. You will notice a certain pattern here: that all of the proposals that we put on the table, and these are things that Senator Bob Brown has been championing for many years, encourage democratic participation, encourage political debate by the widest possible diversity of views.

Restricting the use of postal voting applications for party political purposes. We have probably all seen examples of this, where the boundary is completely blurred between the kind of independent material that you expect to get from the Electoral Commission and party political material which provides you with the ballot at the same time as telling you how to vote. That would be an extremely valuable reform which is not often spoken of.

Allowing public citizens and dual citizens to stand as candidates in federal elections. Again, widen the franchise for candidates and for voters and broaden participation in our democratic process as much as possible. Adopting fixed terms for federal parliament. It is a long time since this has been seriously looked at. There are vague whiffs of this one that float in and out of the public debate, but it has never been seriously taken on. If any senator in this place would like to provide a rational justification for why the Prime Minister of the day gets to call an election I would be delighted to hear it, because I have not heard a convincing case made for that in the past. ublic funding for elections is an issue that Senator Brown has been championing for many years, as many of us have, as a way of pulling the corrosive influence of corporate funding out of our election process. Public funding for elections provides a platform for the entire diversity and the whole spectrum of political opinion in Australia to take its place at the table and potentially in these debating chambers here in Canberra.

As senators will obviously be aware, the proportion of the vote in the Australian public is not at all reflected by the proportion of representation in the House. That is one example where the Senate at least shows the way. The proportion of the vote—and I am not saying this because I am on the crossbenches; I think this is something that would be of interest to us all—should as accurately as possible reflect the balance of voting intentions and reflect the will of the popular view. Despite the malapportionment between the states and territories, the Senate still manages to reflect the popular view far more accurately than does the House of Representatives. Proportional representation in the House of Reps is, I think, a serious piece of unfinished business that needs to be addressed.

Another issue that Senator Brown has spent many years campaigning on is optional preferential above the line voting in the Senate to do away once and for all with the backroom preference negotiations and deals that are done by all parties and anybody contesting a political contest in Australia. The kinks and the quirks in the system on many occasions go some way away from reflecting the balance of popular opinion and the balance of political views in the community when preferences are channelled in various directions which people who vote '1' on the ballot paper may not necessarily be aware of unless they are paying very close attention to the Senate ticket. Optional preferential above the line voting in the Senate would go some way towards addressing some of those issues which I think are quite poorly understood in the community and tend to distort the political debate and the tone of debate during election campaigns and become the focus of excessive coverage by media organisations. I am not sure whether that is justified or not, but the fact is that we should take a serious look at anything that distorts the popular will and the will of the voter.

I will not dwell on truth in political advertising because we did canvass that in the early debate. And why not ban how-to-vote cards while we are at it? I have participated on polling day in election after election, and people are simply fatigued by the kind of behaviour that they are subjected to on polling day. Why not take a look at some examples from around the Australian states and, indeed, international experience where everybody is given access to voting material and advice on how to vote but we are not simply dumping thousands of tonnes of paper on people to be used so ephemerally and then discarded. And potentially there is the introduction of electronic voting as well. What can we do to bring our electoral system into the 21st century as a way of broadening the franchise and enabling participation as broadly as possible?

These are things which this bill does not touch, but I do not intend to detract from the fact that this is an important reform. It is a reform that is contested by the coalition, which put these distortions into the system in the first place. The government should be congratulated for bringing these measures forward.