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Wednesday, 11 May 2011
Page: 2250

Senator FEENEY (VictoriaParliamentary Secretary for Defence) (11:48): I rise to wind up the debate on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Provisional Voting) Bill 2011 and I would like to thank all senators who have contri­buted to this debate. This bill does two things. First, it repeals the amendment made to the Electoral Act by the Howard gov­ernment in 2006 which stipulated that the electoral roll must close at 8 pm on the day on which the writs for a federal election are issued. That amendment abolished the traditional seven-day period of grace in which voters could enrol to vote or change their enrolment details after an election was announced. Second, it repeals the Howard government's 2006 amendment which deprived all prisoners serving sentences of full-time imprisonment of the right to vote and returns the law to where it was before 2006, restricting the deprivation of the franchise to prisoners serving a sentence of longer than three years.

As Minister Gray, the Special Minister of State, noted in his second reading speech, in both cases the provisions of this bill have been prompted by recent decisions of the High Court of Australia. In 2010 the High Court found in Rowe v Electoral Commissioner that the 2006 amendment abolishing the period of grace for enrolment was invalid. The court's reasoning was that such a restriction on the right to vote contradicted sections 7 and 24 of the Constitution, which provide that the Senate and the House of Representatives shall be directly chosen by the people. The court found that the Howard government's amendments operated as a disqualification of citizens from their constitutional entitlement to vote, without sufficient substantive reason. This decision was in part based on a 2007 case—Roach v Electoral Commissioner—in which the court made a similar finding in relation to the 2006 amendment which excluded prisoners from voting. In that case the court found that, although it was legitimate to deprive prisoners serving long sentences of the franchise, it was an unwarranted restriction of the constitutionally guaranteed right to vote to exclude all prisoners serving custodial sentences from the franchise, since this was applying an arbitrary exclusion not based on any consideration of the severity of the offence.

These two High Court judgments require the parliament to amend the Electoral Act to bring it into conformity with the Con­stitution. But I want to make it clear that the first part of the bill, the part relating to the closing of the rolls on the day the writs are issued, is being brought forward not simply because the High Court decision requires it but because it fulfils a commitment which Labor has taken to the last two federal elections to reverse the regressive changes made to the Electoral Act 2006 by the Howard government and thereby restore fairness to our electoral system. The effect of those changes in 2006 was to make it harder for Australians to vote and harder to cast their votes. The changes were based on the calculation that the majority of people who would lose their vote would come from social groups more likely to vote Labor. Professor Brian Costa, of Swinburne University in Melbourne, one of Australia's most respected political scientists, told the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters:

We know that provisional voters are not a mirror image of the electorate as a whole. They tend to be more Labor and Green than they are Liberal, National or anything else.

The coalition claimed that these amendments were necessary to maintain the integrity of the electoral roll. They still maintain this claim today despite the fact that there is no evidence to support the assertion that any such threat exists. The Senate does not have to take my word for it on this point. Let me quote Emeritus Professor Colin Hughes, a former Australian Electoral Commissioner. At the time Senator Abetz introduced his amendments in 2005 Professor Hughes wrote:

The thorough review of the electoral roll conducted in 2002 by the Australian National Audit Office concluded that, overall, the Australian electoral roll is one of high integrity and can be relied upon for electoral purposes. There are adequate safeguards in the current electoral laws and procedures to deal with any future attempts at fraud without stripping the vote from hundreds of thousands of citizens.

This bill reverses the unjustified and undemocratic amendments made by the Howard government to the Electoral Act in 2006. In doing so, the bill restores fairness and equality of treatment for all voters in our federal elections and referendums. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.