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Monday, 25 February 2013
Page: 659

Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (11:24): I rise to make my contribution to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. This bill will build on the strong record of electoral reform already delivered by the federal Labor government. Since coming to office we have made a number of changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and associated pieces of legislation to improve the transparency and strength of the Australian electoral system. It is also worth putting on record that those opposite have opposed many of these changes every step of the way and that they are still opposing legislation that would reduce the threshold before political donations are required to be declared, as well as other key measures proposed to strengthen and enhance Australia's electoral system. But I understand that those opposite will support this piece of legislation that makes a number of changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.

The bill before us will enact a number of recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, JSCEM, of which I am a member, in its report on the 2012 federal election. The first schedule of the bill will see a modernisation of the postal vote process used in elections. As the Special Minister of State, Mr Gary Gray MP, has pointed out, 110 years ago the Commonwealth Electoral Act provided for postal voting in much the same way that it is conducted today.

Currently, the act provides that applications for postal voting are made to the divisional returning officer who processes the applications before the postal vote packages are sent to the elector. These postal votes are then returned to the divisional returning officer for processing and counting. This process has worked well in the past when there was a limited amount of postal votes, but in today's modern society more and more people are using the postal vote service to cast their votes in elections. The evidence backs this up. At the 2010 federal election the Australian Electoral Commission, the AEC, processed over 800,000 postal votes. This was a significant increase on the number processed at the 2007 federal election.

It is time for a modernisation of the process, and that is exactly what this bill does. It allows for the AEC to send out postal vote applications to electors and for them to return their postal vote applications to the Electoral Commissioner or an assistant returning officer. This will streamline the process to deliver an improved manner for processing postal vote applications and the issuing of postal vote ballot papers. As well as improving the application and processing arrangements for postal votes, the bill will make amendments to the Electoral Act to allow for voters to make an application for a postal vote online.

These amendments are expected to help facilitate a greater number of Australians to use postal votes in future elections, which can only be a good thing as we should be doing everything possible to maintain the franchise and ensure that Australians have the opportunity to have their say in the political process. These amendments have also been written to allow for future technological changes.

The bill will increase the deposit required to nominate for the Senate from $1,000 to $2,000 and from $500 to $1,000 for candidates standing for House of Representatives elections. These changes have been made to address the increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections. They are designed to discourage those candidates who are not serious in their pursuit of public office and thereby reduce the number of candidates on the ballot paper.

I must say the Senate ballot paper has not been a huge problem my home state of Tasmania since we saw off the National Party in Tassie, but at the 2010 federal election in New South Wales there were 84 candidates across 33 columns. I imagine this would have made for an incredibly large ballot paper. Of those 84 candidates, 42 received fewer than 200 first preference votes. That means that the total formal votes polled by those candidates was only 2,697 or 0.006 per cent of the total formal vote. None of these candidates came from a group that had a candidate elected and they all lost their nomination fee. With the increasing number of candidates, we have seen significant complexities with the Senate ballot paper, making it more difficult for electors to cast their votes. The last time the nomination fee was increased was back in 2006. These increases have been recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and are something that this government is supporting through this legislation.

The bill will also make complementary amendments to increase the number of nominators for an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 electors, as well as requiring each candidate to have the nomination form signed by 100 electors. This measure was not a recommendation of the JSCEM report but it is based on additional advice provided by the AEC that an increase in the nomination fee in itself would not necessarily address the issue of the increasing size and complexity of the ballot paper. There is no change to the requirements for endorsed candidates.

These changes strike the right balance between providing the opportunity for electors to run for public office while at the same time putting in place some reasonable threshold to preserve the integrity of the process. Without these amendments we are also faced with a number of practical problems including the size of the Senate ballot papers, particularly in New South Wales, and the process of printing these ballots. There have also been electoral issues with the increased number of candidates and subsequent increased size and complexity of the ballot paper. The informality rate is on the increase in New South Wales.

Finally, the bill will make a number of minor and technical amendments to the act to correct errors, update language and increase the efficiency of the electoral process. The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 builds upon the federal Labor government's strong commitment to electoral reform. This bill is the next step in that process and will deliver a significant modernisation of the postal-voting process, a process that has been largely unchanged for over 100 years. It will also change the nomination fee for candidates and the number of electors unendorsed candidates are required to have to nominate for parliament. These are welcome changes and ones that were recommended in the JSCEM report on the 2010 federal election. I commend the bill to the chamber.