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Monday, 25 February 2013
Page: 677

Senator FEENEY (VictoriaParliamentary Secretary for Defence) (12:41): The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 implements three of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report into the 2010 federal election, specifically recommendations 12, 31 and 32. I note that the opposition members of the committee did not oppose these recommendations in their dissenting report.

Schedule 1 to the bill will modernise the postal-voting provisions to facilitate the use of technology to improve the way in which postal vote applications are made and processed. These amendments implement the government response to recommendation 12 made by JSCEM in its report into the 2010 federal election.

At the 2010 election, the Electoral Commission processed over one million postal votes, some 17.8 per cent increase on the number processed at the previous election, and I am sure that everyone in this place will agree that this is a very significant number indeed. The amendments in schedule 1 to the bill simplify the postal vote arrangements by enabling all applications to be made either to the Electoral Commissioner or to an assistant returning officer. The current requirements of the Electoral Act require that all applications must be made to a divisional returning officer, who is unable to delegate that responsibility.

These changes will facilitate a centralised processing of these postal vote applications. Assistant returning officers who may receive postal vote applications from overseas voters will be located outside of Australia at such places as the Australian high commissions and embassies or certain Australian Defence Force operations. Upon receiving an application, a delegate of the Electoral Commissioner or an assistant returning officer will then send or arrange for the sending of postal vote packages to the applicant. The amendments do not fundamentally change the existing policy underpinning the current arrangements for postal voting.

The amendments made by schedule 2 to the bill seek to address concerns arising from the increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections. They are primarily focused on addressing concerns about large ballot papers leading to an increase in informal voting. The Senate election in New South Wales in 2010 provides some context for these amendments.

In the 2010 federal elections there were 84 candidates distributed across 33 columns on the New South Wales ballot paper. Of the 84 candidates, 42 candidates received fewer than 200 first preference votes—a very significant finding. None of them came from a group which had a candidate elected and all lost their nomination deposits. A total of 2,697 persons voted for these candidates.

The increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections has an impact on formality due to the large and complex ballot paper particularly in a voting system that requires that every single box be numbered below the line if the elector chooses that voting option. At 1,020 millimetres wide, the Senate ballot paper for New South Wales is already the largest that can be printed in Australia using currently available print technologies. If more Senate groups contest the next election than was the case in 2010, the font of the ballot paper will have to be reduced. Reducing the font size further affects the readability and therefore further increases the risk for informal voting.

Schedule 2 to the bill will increase the nomination deposit that must be paid by, or on behalf of, a candidate from $1,000 to $2,000 for all Senate candidates. It will increase the nomination deposit that must be paid by, or on behalf of, all candidates for the House of Representatives from $500 to $1,000. It does occur to me as an aside that we should never cease to remind our colleagues in the House of Representatives that theirs is a cheaper chamber to run for. The last time the deposits were increased was in 2006. The increases were recommended by JSCEM, recommendations 31 and 32, and are supported by the government.

Schedule 2 to the bill will also increase the number of electors required to nominate an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 electors. Unendorsed candidates are those candidates who either are not endorsed by a registered political party or are a sitting Independent candidate. Further, for unendorsed Senate candidates who have made a request to be grouped, each candidate will require 100 unique electors to nominate. For example, if two Senate candidates have made a request to be grouped, the group will need 200 unique electors. There is no change to the number of nominators required for endorsed candidates of registered political parties or sitting Independent candidates as defined in the act. The amendments to increase the required nomination and to increase the number of nominators required for unendorsed candidates seek to strike the right balance between providing the opportunity for all eligible citizens to stand for parliament while at the same time putting in place some reasonable thresholds that candidates are required to meet—thresholds that will contribute to ensuring the effectiveness of the electoral process.

There are also a number of minor and technical amendments to both the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984. I thank all of those senators who have contributed to this debate on this bill and I now commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.