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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
14/11/2016
Conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto

CAWTHORN, Mr David, Chairman, ParaQuad Association of Tasmania Inc.

PERRY, Mr Gregory, Executive Officer, ParaQuad Association of Tasmania Inc.

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives from the ParaQuad Association of Tasmania. Welcome, gentlemen, and thank you very much for coming at short notice. We greatly appreciate your time. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and, therefore, has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions and discussion with the committee members.

Mr Perry : First of all, thanks for the opportunity to present some views from the ParaQuad Association. I am the executive officer and David is the chair. David is also an access consultant—someone who works in the areas of accessibility, development applications, parks and general accessibility issues beyond his role as chair. The ParaQuad Association is about assisting those with a physical disability to lead as normal a life as possible in the community. Some of our activities consist of promoting improved access to parks, public buildings, aircraft, public transport and any venue where someone with a disability would normally attend. We also assist people to integrate back into the community after a traumatic spinal injury or, really, any physical injury. We promote participation in a range of sports and we also assist people on a one-on-one basis if their desire for a particular sport is outside our remit. We will give them a hand as much as we can. ParaQuad also operates a healthcare supply business for the community where we sell a large range of products, predominantly in the area of continence and wound care. That is the outline of us as an association.

I have a few comments to put forward. After the request we received last week to attend the committee, we emailed our membership, friends et cetera and found that, on the whole, the experience of voting on election day was pretty good for most people. A lot of those people did not respond; it was word-of-mouth. We had a few negative comments and we had a few general comments. One of the responses we had was from a lady who has quite a severe physical disability. For a long time she has had quite a lot of difficulty in getting to a polling booth and moving around inside a polling booth. She has major limitations on her walking and the distance she can travel. Several years ago she registered for postal voting and now the papers are automatically sent to her. She finds this really good. She now votes postal from home. She also made the comment that the person who took the call from her when she requested to postal vote had trouble asking her if she had a disability when establishing her eligibility for postal voting.

The two negative comments we had were from a lady in a relatively small regional area. The lady is in a large electric chair in a fairly quiet area of the Tasman Peninsula. She found that travelling to the venue across gravelly roads and footpaths was very difficult for her in her large electric chair. She said that she had to travel down part of the Tasman Highway in her electric wheelchair as there is no footpath at the polling place. She felt that general wheelchair users would also have similar problems. She also commented that it was not easy with cars coming at her blasting their horns. Another comment she had was that she has spoken to the council who offered to put gravel on the footpaths, but she did not think that would help because there is quite a camber on the footpaths and her electric wheelchair would not have tracked very well.

Another member found that wheelchair-accessible voting places were very well advertised in Launceston, but disabled parking close to the polling booths was very limited. The lady in question is quite athletic and a paraplegic of many decades. She felt that those with a disability may have had to come back a second time in an attempt to park closer or, alternatively, they would have had to park further away and had a longer push to vote. She also commented that there were very few seating or resting spots for those who would have trouble standing in queues waiting to vote or waiting to be recorded to vote. Those are the comments we have received since Wednesday and Thursday last week.

Mr Cawthorn : I have five points and I could probably broaden those a bit further for you, if you like. Disabled parking is one thing, as well as not enough accessible parking at polling booths and people parking in them when they do not have permits, as is typical anywhere else. Maybe someone could patrol the car parks. We probably need more disabled parking and maybe someone could patrol the use of them in some way.

Also, ramp access from car parks needs to be clear, not blocked. Sometimes in the car parks you have to get up kerbs or something like that, so they put temporary ramps in place, but then people just park across them so you cannot access them. Access to polling booths is another issue. How do they decide what is an accessible polling booth? They need to have clear signage to show where an accessible entrance is if it is not at the front entrance.

One question was raised about postal voting. Someone told me that they had to go into Centrelink to register for a postal vote and they had a lot of trouble doing it. I do not know if that is right or wrong. I am not sure if that is the case, that they have to go into Centrelink for the first one or what.

Mr Perry : You mean the AEC?

Mr Cawthorn : I'm not sure.

Senator CAROL BROWN: To complete an application?

Mr Cawthorn : I don't know, but that is what they told me.

Senator CAROL BROWN: They can do it online.

Mr Cawthorn : That is why I put it as a question. I was not sure if that was right, but that is what they said.

Senator CAROL BROWN: They may have been given the wrong information.

Mr Cawthorn : Yes. I suppose, like anything else, when you ring a call centre it depends on who you get at the other end. As Greg mentioned, some polling booths need extra seating to cater for people who need to rest if there are long queues there. Another issue is assistance at polling booths and to what extent staff are able to assist someone at a polling booth, enabling them to get in or helping them get to the actual polling station. Most staff are good, but some are not helpful at all. Some will bend over backwards. In what we got back from our members, people said some were great and helpful and then some said, 'We were standing there trying to figure out where we could get some help from and nothing happened.' Other members commented on how helpful polling staff were.

There is one thing I would add to finish off. You may need to think about having higher tables at some polling booths to cater for people in electric chairs who sit up fairly high, to enable them to get themselves under the table. That is all I have to say.

CHAIR: That is a very good point. Thank you very much.

Mr GILES: It has been really good to hear directly from you. The question of disability access has been of interest to many committee members generally. Before going on to some of the substantive matters, have you raised with the AEC any of the matters that you have set out today?

Mr Cawthorn : No.

Mr Perry : No. This has all happened in the last three days. We are quite happy to send a letter.

Mr GILES: That would be helpful, because the other question I had was whether you had. I appreciate that you have been called to come before us at relatively short notice. I think there are probably two issues that are of concern to me under the wider rubric of ensuring that every Australian has every opportunity to participate in elections. One is obviously the physical or other capacity of people to cast votes, whether it is by understanding how people can apply for postal voting or by ensuring that voting places are physically accessible to all Australians. We have asked for some information on that. But the other issue is making sure that Australians with disabilities have the opportunity to engage with the AEC to ensure it is their experience that is brought to bear rather than the assumptions of decision makers within the commission or otherwise. So perhaps this dialogue is a matter that you might take on notice.

Mr Perry : We will forward all those points on to the commission. We will summarise them and do that formally, I think.

Mr MORTON: Hearing the story of the lady in remote Tasmania with her wheelchair on the gravel roads is concerning, and there is probably a role for the AEC to partner with organisations like yours leading up to elections to make sure that the full breadth of options on how to vote or how to access your ballot papers is known to your members. That is a story that in my view is completely avoidable through options like postal voting. We want to avoid someone being injured or having to go to that extent.

What I am trying to deal with in my mind is what we are trying to achieve. Are we trying to achieve every polling booth being completely accessible or are we trying to achieve a number of options, including, on the day, certain polling booths being nominated as accessible, being advertised as being accessible, having those additional car parks and having the additional staff? From your perspective, do you want us to focus on making sure 100 per cent of booths or 95 per cent of booths are accessible or do you want us to make sure that, out of—I am guessing—the 10 booths in Launceston, one of them there is well known as completely accessible with all those resources? Where is your utopia on this issue?

Mr Perry : In a place like Launceston, I think the issues up there were parking and actually getting to the polling booth. In regional Tasmania it is probably more an issue of there being no accessible polling booth, but realistically the lady should have applied for a postal vote. That is the sensible thing to do. I do not know where you draw the line.

Mr Cawthorn : I suppose a lot of the polling booths are at high schools, schools or something like that. I go in and do a vote the week before the election because I have found I can go and find nowhere to park. I will come back and eventually waste half the day trying to find one. We all know that people use and abuse disabled parks, saying, 'Oh, I'm only going to be there a minute.' People have got the same attitude with polling. Even if they put a couple of extra spots on, you are probably going to get people saying, 'Oh, that's empty; I'll just use it.' I know that not every polling booth can be made accessible, but that is why I made the comment: how do they gauge that is an accessible polling booth? We know that it comes out in the paper as soon as an election is called or not long after that—a couple of weeks in—and they have their list of all the polling booths and what is accessible and what is not. I suppose it is sometimes very hard to try to find one. As I said, not every polling booth can be 100 per cent accessible, but I could probably say at least 90 per cent cannot be that far. If we are going to schools and things like that these days, they have to be accessible.

Mr MORTON: Thank you.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I think we heard in the evidence the AEC gave this morning that 85 per cent were accessible or had partial accessibility. I do not really understand what they mean by 'partial accessibility'.

Mr Cawthorn : I have never even questioned or even investigated and gone around to every polling booth that says 'accessible'.

Senator CAROL BROWN: One of the issues that you have just alluded to is that a polling booth may be deemed accessible but, of course, when you come along and add parking places that are being taken up by other people parking there who are not supposed to be parking there, it obviously makes it more difficult. Even with schools some of the issues that came out of the last election were that the parking outside some of the schools still had quite a way to go to the actual polling booth itself, because they are quite large.

Mr Cawthorn : Yes.

Senator CAROL BROWN: When you have the AEC determine what is accessible or partially accessible, exactly what do they take into account to make that determination?

Mr Cawthorn : That is one of the things is signage. They may have steps to get in, but the ramp is around the back. How do you get a polling staff member to open up the back door?

CHAIR: That is a very good point. I saw that myself in Perth. Parking was terrible. The main entrance had about an hour's queue outside the building. There was no signage about where the disability access was so, if the scrutineers saw somebody who would not be able to walk up the stairs, they would actually take them around to the backdoor. Access was through the backdoor, but you needed someone from inside the booth—the AEC staff—to go and open the backdoor—

Mr Perry : We call that dignified access. People are entitled to dignified access.

CHAIR: The problem was that I think it slowed things down internally, because they were taking somebody away from whatever else they were assigned to. It was not a very smooth process in a couple of the booths that I saw. Is that consistent with what you are—

Mr Perry : I think so, yes.

Mr MORTON: This is an important issue: if we were to rerun the entire election and use every booth that we had in the last election, would you prefer them to have a higher standard of what they label accessible and have fewer of them? At least you would know that they are genuinely accessible when you got there.

Mr Cawthorn : That would be better. We always talk about different grades of disability and things like that. You could have one that is fully accessible with a ramp and everything. You may have one that has a few steps for someone who has limited mobility but can still walk. You could probably set up something with two different grades: one could be 100 per cent accessible; the other could be almost there but not quite.

Mr Perry : I guess it also depends on the Commonwealth's view of: do they want people to attend a polling booth on polling day; or don't they care whether they vote beforehand? Is there a desire for everyone to be there on that day and vote? If that is the preferred option, you have really got to improve accessibility.

Mr MORTON: There are a variety of options: postal, pre-poll—

CHAIR: One of the things that we are looking at is the balance between the different forms of voting: whether it is early, absentee; or—

Senator CAROL BROWN: And it does come down to what the voter wants. They are the most important part of this.

CHAIR: One of the things I observed at different polling booths was that, while there technically might be a ramp or access to the polling place, there were very long queues. So it is not just people in wheelchairs but the elderly on walking frames who might be in a queue for up to an hour or an hour and a half. So the question is: if they have very narrow access—and I have seen some hallways that are congested-physically, apart from the access issue, waiting a long time in queues or working out whether there is a faster lane for people—

Mr Cawthorn : That was one thing I thought of: is there a jump-the-queue line for elderly people or—

CHAIR: A VIP line.

Mr Cawthorn : If a polling staff member sees an elderly person on a walking frame, someone on crutches or someone who really cannot stand for long periods, they could say, 'Hang on! We'll just get you there.' That is probably why there is a need for extra seating or something like that. Talking about accessibility—I do not know whether they have them at schools—do they have appropriate toilet facilities available? It is something I thought of just then. If they do, are accessible toilets going to be available, if needed?

CHAIR: That is a very good point. What is your observation? From the feedback in your own experience—

Mr Cawthorn : I suppose it is like anybody: if you are sitting for ages, you might need to go to the toilet.. You would need accessible toilet facilities or ones that can be used. It comes back to: yes, they are 100 per cent accessible and they do have accessible bathroom facilities, if needed. Someone might be trying to vote on the way home after a day out shopping.

CHAIR: It is a good point.

Mr DICK: In the lead-up to the election there is an advertisement in the paper which indicates disability or partial disability accessible polling booths. In general terms, do you think there is a role for the Australian Electoral Commission, not just here in Tasmania but across Australia, in the lead-up to an election to engage more directly with some of the advocacy groups and to put a greater emphasis on all the options that are available for sectional type voting if people cannot get to a polling booth? We have had up to 40 polling booths closed in Tasmania. So there are fewer polling booths to get to or options.

Mr Perry : Are you talking about a summary document?

Mr DICK: Yes; particularly for those people who are unaware of the options available. I have an issue with pre-poll voting and accessibility, because they are not standard locations; they change from election to election. I know of a number of examples in Queensland where they are sometimes in shopping centres and in different locations which people have difficulty getting into. Schools and standardised buildings normally have disability access available.

We talked about training for staff in earlier evidence today, and I was just interested to know whether you thought there should be greater emphasis on people with mobility issues having all the options laid out for them earlier so that closer to an election they do not have to try to work out what they are going to do and thinking, 'We're not going to make it to that polling booth and we've run out of time for a postal vote and the pre-poll location is not available.' We are moving to electronic and online voting trials in other parts of Australia. Do you think that is something the Electoral Commission should do?

Mr Cawthorn : I think so. You can never predict when an election will be, but they could probably say, 'We're going to be looking at an election in the next 12 months. Why don't we talk to advocacy groups and disability organisations about the forthcoming election?' I think you said that there were 40 electoral polling stations in Tasmania. They could probably go through them and check which ones are fully accessible and which ones are partially accessible. They could even start working on it now. You are right: they probably need to talk to disability organisations and advocacy groups about what—

Mr DICK: It could be as simple as getting people to register as permanent postal voters and making that a little easier for people. One in 10 polling booths have been closed since the 2013 election, because people are moving towards sectional voting. There is a need to make it as easy as possible for people and their carers to be able to cast their ballots, particularly as we are moving towards pre-poll and postal voters. We need to think about we do that.

Mr Cawthorn : As we say, we have an ageing population and a lot of elderly people are not computer savvy. I probably should not do this, but I will single my mother out. She is not computer savvy.

Mr DICK: She does not want to be computer savvy.

Mr Cawthorn : That is right. She has a simple, basic mobile phone and she has never really wanted to understand computers—and I think she is one of many. So she would probably have to do a postal vote. At the moment, she just votes at the polling booth on election day. One option is probably to move the elderly to start doing postal votes rather than voting on the day.

Mr DICK: I still think there are a number of Australians who like to have their vote counted on the day. They like to turn up and have the feeling of participatory democracy and like putting their ballot paper in the box, for security reasons and all sorts of different reasons. We have to find the balance of making it as easy as possible if they want to cast a ballot before, but certainly on the day having that dignified access.

CHAIR: I think everyone should have the same opportunity as anybody else to cast a ballot on that day or beforehand. You have got the same range of options, but, for some people, registering as postal voters is actually the easiest, preferred option.

Mr Perry : The feedback we had from our lady in Launceston was that it was advertised pretty well. I do not know the extent of the degrees of accessibility of each of those polling booths, but she found the general advertising quite good.

Senator CAROL BROWN: That was in Launceston.

Mr Perry : Yes, that was in Launceston.

Senator CAROL BROWN: In the outer areas it probably would be a bit different. Thank you for coming along. We really appreciate it. Are you able to provide to the committee—perhaps go away and talk to your members—some recommendations as to how you think accessibility could be improved? You have put some good ideas up here now but I thought you might want to have an opportunity to go away and talk to your members.

We had Mr Kitson from the AEC here this morning, who advised the committee that he actually chairs the disability access committee for the AEC and that they meet, I think he said, once a year. You do not have direct input into that committee? Are you aware of that committee?

Mr Cawthorn : No.

Mr Perry : We are involved in access committees on councils, but not within the AEC.

Senator CAROL BROWN: We might get some more information from the AEC. They meet with stakeholders—and I imagine they may be national stakeholders—so we will get some more information and let you know.

CHAIR: There are so many different categories. It is easy to say 'disability', but in terms of unpacking what that actually means for different people—

Mr Cawthorn : For some people, that is an extra day outing for them so that is why they probably like to go out on that day.

CHAIR: And also to participate with everybody else—getting out and doing your thing.

Mr Perry : They are entitled to have access.

Mr Cawthorn : I know it has always been an ongoing thing about the visually impaired and how they can vote and everything.

CHAIR: One of the many issues that we are going to be looking at over the course of this inquiry over quite a few months is the issue of electronic voting in terms of electronic machines at polling places, but also the possibility of doing some trials of online voting from home. Do you think the paraquads, some of your clients and members, would be interested if we looked at recommending a trial? I think it is unlikely that we would have a trial with the whole country, the whole election at once, especially when you have a look at what has happened recently in some departments. But do you think that might be something that we could look at—having trials for specific categories of people?

Mr Perry : It would suit a lot of our members, because they have had to become quite computer literate, a lot of them, and they will do all their shopping online. They are quite savvy like that. There is no harm.

Mr Cawthorn : I think it is probably good—a trial like that spread around the country, I suppose. If you do a trial, that enables you to see what is going to work and what is not going to work. I am pretty independent, I am pretty active, but I find it is too hard to go out there on polling day. I am just going to in the week before or 10 days before and just do it there and then, so I know it is done.

CHAIR: That actually leads onto another issue. As someone who has worked on polling booths—like all of us here, I am sure—for so many years over many elections, one of the things I have noticed is that there seem to be more people working on polling booths now, and on a number of booths it is sometimes a little more 'in your face' for voters. I am wondering whether, if people already have accessibility issues, they find that a little intimidating.

Mr Cawthorn : Being suddenly swamped as they—

CHAIR: Being swamped, yes. You see people looking at how they can avoid us all and moving around and being a bit intimidated by it. Is that a particular issue? Have you had any feedback on how people feel walking into that wall of people at polling booths?

Mr Cawthorn : No, but that is probably something that we can investigate a bit further—do people feel that they get intimidated if suddenly eight people swamp them with how-to-vote cards and everything and they go, 'Aargh'?

CHAIR: It might not be restricted to people with disabilities! I just wondered if you have any comments about how it is a little more challenging.

Mr Cawthorn : We will make a note of that. We can probably ask if that is something they have a view on. With the number of people who are there, as well as trying to queue they suddenly get singled out and swamped by how-to-vote cards

Senator CAROL BROWN: I think that might be an issue for everybody!

CHAIR: And I suspect that will be something that this committee will look at in due course.

Senator CAROL BROWN: When you go away and look at what you might recommend, perhaps you could look at whether there are any issues inside the booth itself.

Mr Cawthorn : That was probably one of the things I thought about where you could have a table. Normally you just have the cardboard booth. I know the disabled ones are a bit wider. When I have gone into the commission to do pre-voting, I think they have had a couple that were on a table. Some people may, as you said, want to go out that day and do it instead of having to do the pre-polling.

CHAIR: In light of some of the questions we have had, if you are in a position to go back to your members and ask for more information around some of the practicalities, we would be very grateful. In line with Mr Morton's questioning, do we need to have all of the booths at the same standard? Could the option of postal voting be more accessible, for example? There could be a focus on making it reasonably accessible, but there also could be some booths that were fully accessible for people with different disabilities and had trained staff, priority lanes et cetera for people with infirmities or disabilities.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I think the standard should be full accessibility. That should be the standard, and obviously there may be booths where we will not be able to meet that, but in my view it should be the standard.

CHAIR: Perhaps we could get your further thoughts on that. I do not want to speak for everybody on the committee, but we would agree that what Senator Brown has said is the ideal. But, where there are polling booths that are just not fully accessible, perhaps we could advertise the booths where there are people who understand the requirements of people in wheelchairs, vision impaired people, autistic people or whatever else, and people would know that they can go there and get a disability appropriate experience.

Mr Cawthorn : Yes, we can do that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thanks very much for coming along and for your evidence. Do you get together with the Tasmanian AEC people before an election? It is a question, but it is in the line of a suggestion. Is there any merit in you getting together with the AEC, finding out what the options are and then communicating with your members about options? Perhaps the AEC might, dare I say it, have to assist you with some resources to do that. Is there merit in that?

Mr Cawthorn : Yes, very much so. I do not think any real disabled organisation has ever been approached or tried to get information from the Electoral Commission, but I think it would be a very good thing to communicate regularly.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Do you have many members? If not, are there other organisations in Tassie that—

Mr Cawthorn : Yes, there are other organisations. We have a broad membership base, but we still work with other organisations and other bodies out there. We will speak or pick the phone up or something like that and say, 'Hey, have you come across this before?' or, 'Do you know about this?'

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It might be worthwhile, and you could perhaps do it at your level—say to people, 'Don't go to this booth; go to this booth,' or, preferably, suggest postal voting or perhaps some pre-poll voting, depending on the circumstances.

Mr Cawthorn : Yes. I suppose it comes back to that initial thing about polling—how do they gauge what is an accessible polling station?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You may have already given this evidence and I have missed it, but do you have a feel for how many disabled people, in the broader sense, might have been unable to vote because of practical or physical difficulties?

Mr Cawthorn : You would probably only hear it from word of mouth, from someone saying, 'I ran into' so and so' and they had a problem at the last election. They tried to go to a polling booth and this happened,' or that happened.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Mind you, in a democracy, if one person misses out we have failed.

Mr Cawthorn : Yes.

Mr Perry : ParaQuad Tasmania is part of a national alliance of other ParaQuad type organisations and we meet quarterly. I will raise that at our next meeting.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It might be worth approaching the AEC. They are a bit tight for money but they may be able to assist you with some of the resources.

Mr Perry : If we flag it as a national issue, not just from Tasmania, it might carry a bit more weight.

CHAIR: The committee can also write to the peak body as well to say—

Senator CAROL BROWN: The alliance may well be a part of the AEC's access committee that they were talking about. That might be something to check.

CHAIR: We will follow that up formally with the AEC to have a look at who their membership are. Unfortunately, time has expired. I thank you both very much for your attendance here today. We do appreciate it. We look forward to some ongoing engagement with you and some further advice. Given we have asked you to come back with some further information, if possible, please forward the initial advice back on 25 November—we do understand that some of the other issues will be a bit longer in duration. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you very much.

Mr Cawthorn : Thank you for the opportunity.