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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1576


Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:10): I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave not granted.

Senator BRANDIS: I am pleased to present the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016, to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.

The bill proposes to:

simplify and improve the Senate voting system;

improve the ability of voters to express their voting intention;

require unique registered officers and deputy registered officers of political parties; and

reduce voter confusion, by allowing political party logos to be printed on ballot papers.

A strong electoral system is one that is open and transparent, and allows for the clear expression of voter intent.

The parliament has been well served by the work of its Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, or JSCEM, which regularly examines aspects of our electoral system, and issues that arise from the conduct of national elections.

This bill responds to key elements of the interim and final reports of the JSCEM inquiry into the 2013 federal election, which were tabled on 9 May 2014 and 15 April 2015 respectively.

To support the changes proposed in the bill, the Australian Electoral Commission will be provided with additional resources, including some minor new funding, to ensure their systems can address these reforms, and voters are made aware of, and understand, the changes. Let me deal with the provisions of the bill.

Part 1—Senate voting

Voters' dissatisfaction with the complexities of the current Senate voting system is well described in the JSCEM's report on the 2013 federal election. The committee concluded that the current Senate voting system lacks transparency, is overly complex, and is in need of simplification.

At the 2013 election, over 96 per cent of formal votes for Senate candidates were made above the line. The current Senate ballot paper encourages above-the-line voting, with voters relying on a complex, and often opaque, system of individual and group voting tickets to allocate their preferences according to a pattern determined by parties or grouped candidates. Individual candidates and political parties can register up to three voting tickets that determine preference allocation. While voting tickets are required to be displayed at polling places and on the AEC website, the JSCEM inquiry concluded that most voters are unlikely to understand where their preferences flow. This has led to some Senate candidates being elected on a very small first preference vote.

The bill will introduce optional preferential voting above the line, with voters to number at least six squares in sequence (except where there are fewer than six squares above the line). Advice will be printed on the Senate ballot paper to guide voters on this.

Consistently with the recommendations of the JSCEM inquiry into this bill, the government will also be moving an amendment to allow for optional preferential voting below the line. The amendment will provide for instructions to voters to number at least 12 boxes from one to 12 in order of their preference when voting below the line, together with a related savings provision that any vote with at least six boxes numbered from one to six below the line will still be considered formal.

The bill proposes the abolition of individual and group voting tickets. This will return the control of preferences back to voters themselves. The abolition of group voting tickets will not impact on the ability of candidates to group their names for the inclusion of a square above the line on the Senate ballot paper.

To reduce the risk of increased informal votes, as the proposed changes amend voting rules that have now been in place for some 30 years, the bill includes changes to vote savings provisions. These allow for a vote to remain formal even where voters have numbered fewer than six squares above the line. The objective is to capture voter intention by enabling voters to allocate their own preferences on the Senate ballot paper. This will improve the franchise and support the democratic process.

Taken together, the introduction of optional preferential voting above and below the line, the abolition of the voting ticket system and the enhanced savings provisions for voters will improve voter control over preference flows, support transparency and simplify the Senate voting system.

Part 2— Registered officers and deputy registered officers

Consistent with the JSCEM's recommendations, the bill proposes changes to remove ambiguity around the accountabilities, affiliations and alliances of political parties by removing the capacity for an individual to be a registered officer or deputy registered officer of multiple political parties. This does not prevent a person from being the registered officer of a federal political party and the registered officer of a state branch or division of that party.

Part 3— Party logos

In its final report on the conduct of the 2013 election, the JSCEM considered the confusion that arises when political parties with similar names appear on ballot papers. The JSCEM suggested that the printing of party logos could help to overcome this confusion.

Therefore the bill proposes to allow for political party logos to appear, in black and white, on the ballot papers for both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Australian Electoral Commission will determine the most effective method for registering, authenticating, reproducing and printing party logos on ballot papers. The bill also proposes a new provision in the Electoral Act to protect the AEC against any action in relation to the reproduction of party logos.

Conclusion

This government is committed to an open and transparent voting system that has integrity, is simple and clear, and provides voters with the ability to express their will to the greatest extent possible and to have their voting intention upheld. The JSCEM is to be commended for its work in identifying the changes that need to be made in our current voting arrangements to achieve this objective in relation, in particular, to Senate elections.

The bill addresses the JSCEM's concerns and further improves Australia's democratic processes by placing more power in the hands of voters.

I commend the bill to the Senate.