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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
15/04/2014
Conduct of the 2013 federal election and matters related thereto

GEORGE, Ms Amanda, Research Fellow, Centre for Rural Law and Policy, Faculty of Law, Deakin University

MUTHA, Ms Pasanna, Policy Manager, Women's Legal Service Victoria

[10:24]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as the proceedings in the respective houses. Would you like to make an opening statement before we proceed to questions?

Ms Mutha : Amanda and I are here on behalf of an alliance of peak bodies, community legal centres and research bodies located around Victoria that work in the area of domestic violence and stranger stalking. We want to talk about a gap in the current electoral system that potentially compromises the safety of victims of DV and stranger stalking.

CHAIR: Apologies. You have put in a supplementary submission that I should circulate that will help us. I ask for a motion to accept the submission. So moved by Mr Griffin.

Ms Mutha : It clarifies some of the recommendations we made in our original submission. To give you a very brief background about domestic violence, as you know it is endemic in our community. In Victoria alone in the last financial year there were 60,000 reported incidents of DV recorded by the police. The majority of victims are women and children and studies have shown that victims are most at risk immediately after they leave a violent relationship. In many of your electorates DV is a key policing and justice issue. The electoral system plays a really important role in protecting the privacy of victims of DV. Many of them register as silent electors in order to keep their location private and confidential. According to the commission's last annual report, there were 90,000 people registered as silent electors around Australia, which is a pretty big figure.

CHAIR: That is the equivalent of a whole federal electorate.

Ms Mutha : Pretty much. Perhaps I could take you through what the gap in the system is. According to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, a person may register as a silent elector if they believe that having their address on the roll will place their personal safety or a family member's personal safety at risk. Currently, however, this protection only extends to a person's address and not their electorate. This means that in most states a silent elector's federal, state and local electorates are available publicly. So you go to a commission office and ask to search the electoral roll and you need to cite a reason, so you could cite wanting to check your own electoral details or wanting to lodge an objection against someone else. You can then very easily search the database for someone that you are looking for.

CHAIR: Narrowing it just to the council ward.

Ms Mutha : Exactly, especially if it is a local electorate. The scenario we put in our submission is that someone who has endured years of physical and sexual violence relocates to a regional electorate and she has two children that attend the local school and another child that attends a childcare centre. She is a nurse and she works at the local hospital and there is only one hospital in the electorate. Her ex-partner is released from jail; he has served time for the violence he has perpetrated against her and he is looking for her. He attends an Electoral Commission office and searches the roll and he knows her electorate. It is not hard for him to then narrow down which childcare centres there are in the area, which schools there are, and the fact that she is a nurse and she works in the only hospital in the area. So finding her is not that difficult.

We have included some recommendations and the supplementary submission is try to clarify what those recommendations are. They are quite simple amendments. One is an amendment to section 104 so that a person can request both their address and their electorate be removed from the roll. It is also looking at the state and territory legislation and regulations that would apply.

CHAIR: Yes, I am looking at that now. That is quite concise advice. Dealing with the second point first, you are acknowledging the obvious point, that you would need the states and territories as well. Whilst it would be useful if this was sorted federally, it would be good if you could still find a state electorate. I accept it would be difficult to find the council one just on its own; you would have to search a lot of councils. But I think your point is that, once you find the federal electorate, you can find the state electorate and then you can find the council area.

Ms Mutha : My understanding—and I am not an expert in electoral matters—is that, when you search the database, it actually comes up with the federal, state and local electorates.

CHAIR: It certainly comes up with federal and state. Yes, it certainly does that—

Senator KROGER: It does.

CHAIR: when I check my enrolment, which you would be surprised to learn I do just ahead of every election! Okay.

Senator KROGER: Chair, can I—

CHAIR: Do you have a question on that issue?

Senator KROGER: Just a really quick one, because I think you have raised a very good issue, one of great concern that I think we all share: how difficult is it at the moment for individuals to ascertain that they are a silent elector with the AEC? I would not have thought that was difficult.

Ms Mutha : To register as a silent elector?

Senator KROGER: Yes.

Ms Mutha : It is not. In our practice, with our lawyers, we tell people to register as a silent elector.

CHAIR: It is not, but the fact is—

Senator KROGER: It should be automatic.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: It is sometimes how you do it, the extent of the registration.

CHAIR: Yes. So it is still sensitive.

Ms Mutha : It is what is available on the rolls. So you can register as a silent elector. The commission has to be satisfied that you are at risk—

CHAIR: But, if you live in Mr Griffin's electorate of Bruce, it is known that you live in the electorate of Bruce.

Ms Mutha : Yes, that is right.

CHAIR: Your example would perhaps be if you had lived in the electorate of Bruce but you moved to one of the country electorates—Murray, Indi, Wannon. Notwithstanding the fact that you are a silent elector, the address is silent but your name is not silent. You can be seen on that roll—

Ms Mutha : Okay, I see.

CHAIR: then you can be seen on the state roll; and then—surprise, surprise—in your example of a nurse, there is one hospital in whatever regional town. So, if all this happened, when someone turned up to vote in that electorate, how would that work in practice? They would obviously go and vote at a booth where the AEC has a list of all the details of people who are what you would call fully silent on the roll.

Ms Mutha : Yes.

Senator KROGER: So for a silent elector at the moment, just to clarify—sorry; I must be a bit slow this morning—even though their address is not on it, they are still listed under an electorate. Is that what you are saying?

Ms Mutha : Yes, that is right.

Senator KROGER: Okay.

Ms Mutha : And Amanda has had the experience of actually speaking to someone in that situation.

Ms George : Yes. The centre I am working at is looking at the additional barriers that women in rural and regional areas face around family violence issues generally. I do one-on-one chats with women who experience family violence. This was a young woman whose partner had tried to kill her in public, while she was holding her child. This had happened in one electorate. He got a fairly long sentence for attempted murder, and she relocated to a different electorate. I was just chatting with her about things generally, and there was an election around the corner, and I said, 'Are you a silent elector?' She said, 'Actually, I've been off the roll for years because I didn't want to be on the roll.' I said, 'You know that you can be a silent elector?' and she said, 'Yes, I did register and I've got a letter from the Electoral Commission, but can you read it for me?' because she was not a person who was highly literate, particularly not around that sort of literature. I said, 'Yes. Well, you are a silent elector, but the electorate is here.' I thought 'silent' was silent. She is a woman who has five children—

CHAIR: And had she moved?

Ms George : Yes, she had moved to another part of the state. She really wanted to exercise her democratic right, having been off the roll for so long. It was very important to her because life had been pretty awful and she wanted to fully participate as a citizen. I said, 'Look, do you want me to find out if you can have the electorate removed?' So I then wrote to the AEC and explained the circumstances—that she had moved, blah blah, that she was in fear, that there were cameras outside her house—and they said: 'No, it can't be removed. There is no way it can be removed.'

Mr GRIFFIN: So they wrote back that the legislation required that? Is that what it was?

Ms George : They said, 'There's a committee coming up'—

Mr GRIFFIN: Have you got copies of that correspondence?

Ms George : I do.

Mr GRIFFIN: Could we possibly get copies of it?

Senator KROGER: Without her in there.

Ms George : She is not in there. Yes, only I am in there really.

CHAIR: You can provide all that later. That would be most useful.

Ms George : Okay, I can do that, yes. The issue was just basically that there was no way the Electoral Commission itself could do it, that your committee—

Mr GRIFFIN: They were suggesting you come to us?

Ms George : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Which is just worse.

Mr GRIFFIN: Well, yes and no. To be blunt, if a matter which is such a no-brainer is raised with the AEC, the AEC should also be bringing it forth to the committee, frankly. That is something I want to raise with the AEC.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, they need to be proactive on this.

Mr GRIFFIN: Exactly.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Can I ask a question and make a comment. This is probably a bit of a left field thing. Should there be consideration that when a domestic violence order is raised in the courts—and it does not matter by whom against whom, but I think it is raised by the police, is it not, in many cases?

Ms Mutha : In Victoria, probably 70 per cent of applications are police applications.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: So should there be consideration, for the person they are seeking protection for, that the details be automatically referred to the relevant electoral offices and they be automatically treated in a particular way, then notified by the office for them to be able to opt out of that situation if they want to? I imagine that, without folk like you explaining to them and thinking about this, there are a lot of other things on their mind that do not have to do with their registration, so maybe that is an option. Chair, it seems to me, in my mind—I am a retired detective, so I have great sympathy for their position—that this is an extremely urgent matter now that we know about it. With their assistance, would the chair be able to write to each of the respective premiers and ask them to elevate this?

CHAIR: What I want to do is get all of the information and take the deputy chair's point and speak to the AEC so that we can—

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Do it federally?

CHAIR: yes, and make sure that we get all of the detail right. My next question was going to be: how long have you been raising this? I chaired this committee back in 2005, and I do not recall it coming up. That is not at all a criticism. I suspect it is because, with the work you do, this has become a growing problem, and it is the capacity to search online and the ease of doing that, whereas once you had to go and grab the book and go through it. I think you can tell that the view of the committee is all one way on this. But the worst thing would be—going to Senator O'Sullivan's point—if there were a fix federally but there were not at the state and territory levels as well, so us getting all of that detail right is—

Mr GRIFFIN: Just on your example: it is not just country areas. The chair mentioned my electorate. My electorate is in metropolitan Melbourne, heavily urbanised. There are components of my electorate where, if you could identify someone who lived in a particular state electorate in my federal electorate, I could narrow it down to one primary school.

CHAIR: Correct. Yes, that is absolutely right. To answer your question, Senator O'Sullivan: the only thing that matters from this committee is recommendations. That is the only thing that matters. We cannot write ahead of recommendations.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: No, I understand that. But, additionally, we are here from all states. I would be happy right now to place on the record that I will carry your letter to my Attorney-General in Queensland and I will stand there until he fixes it.

Mr GRIFFIN: What would be good for us to do first is to establish from the AEC exactly what the situation is with state jurisdictions at the moment, and also because one of the main ways that we would get changes which go across the various electoral systems is through the joint meeting of the various electoral offices. I would recommend that as being the best way to go forward to move it quickly, frankly.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Just to close: my thrust is time. Things take longer to do than to talk about when you get into the federal scene, and I just would urge us to—

CHAIR: Senator, let me be perhaps more blunt. I think the view of this committee, everyone here, is all of one and in furious agreement. All that matters is recommendations of this committee. That is all that matters. Until we have made a recommendation, nothing else really matters. Today we have heard the evidence. Thank you for coming along. I do want to discuss it a bit further because it is very important. Being strongly persuaded is one thing, but doing the professional follow-through is the next thing.

Ms George : In answer to your question about when it was raised: it only came up as a result of this research, which was in October, so really it was very fortuitous that this committee was sitting now. On your question about it, the left-field question: it would be very useful for that to happen as a practice because, as you well know and as you said, women have a lot on their mind, not necessarily their voting responsibilities and rights, at times. And it is particularly important for rural women because we have much higher reports of family violence in rural areas. In, for example, the city of Yarra these are police statistics—there were 193 incidents per 100,000, whereas in Wodonga there were 445 per 100,000; in Horsham, 666 incidents per 100,000; and, in Mildura, 702 incidents. This is why our centre, which is around rural issues, is so important to rural women.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: What is the explanation for that?

Mr GRIFFIN: The increased incidence in rural areas.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Yes, overall, per 100,000.

Mr GRIFFIN: Is it behaviour or is it reporting?

Ms George : It would be a combination of both. It would be a combination. There has been a lot of work in the area around facilitating women reporting. There has been a lot of work around the area of police actually acknowledging that it is family violence and it being reporting. In my view, it is about the fact that we still live in a world where there is very gendered violence. It is becoming much more obvious to people. It was always there. It is just that people feel like, if you talk about it, more notice will be taken of it and there will be less blame on you as the woman and more blame on the perpetrator, who ought to be stopping the violence. So I think that there has been a significant amount of social change.

In rural areas, you have the whole difficult issue around guns and the fear that guns create for women, and you have issues around the isolation of women in rural areas who, on the farm, are under a lot of surveillance. If you are experiencing family violence when you are on the farm, every time you leave the farm you are seen and it is known that you are leaving the farm, whether it is to go shopping or to go to the doctor or whatever. In the city, if you are experiencing family violence, you can go in and out of the house, so you might be going to see a family violence worker; you might be doing the shopping; you might be going down to the kindergarten. It is about recognising that family violence in rural areas can actually be much more difficult to talk about, and the level of risk can be much higher because of isolation and the culture—gun culture, masculinist culture.

CHAIR: Taking Mr Griffin's point: I represent an area that is 2½ thousand square kilometres—he will see it today—out to Yarra Valley and beyond, but in a suburban electorate like his I can see exactly what he is saying, because if you narrowed down a council area you would get down to a couple of primary schools. Certainly, if you got to a high school level, that would—

Mr GRIFFIN: I think there are two points out of what you have said. One is that I think the committee is of the view that we should be doing whatever we can to ensure that electoral rolls, state and federal, cannot be used by those who might seek to use them in the manner which you have outlined. And I think it is a very good point that Senator O'Sullivan has raised, which is that we should be ensuring that, if there are any processes that can be put in place that actually ensure that those who would be at risk are protected via the normal operation of the system, we should do it.

Ms Mutha : I think that would be enormously beneficial. I think one of the other things that is useful to take into account is that there are a range of victims of violence. Some are illiterate. Some experience different types of disadvantage. Registering as a silent elector is a difficult process. I have been wanting to register as a silent elector for a while. I just have not had a chance to get around to it; it looks too complicated. If you also then experience different forms of disadvantage, it makes it even more difficult.

CHAIR: What Senator O'Sullivan was getting at is obviously the follow-through at the state level and in the local council area. What you are hearing from us is that we are in heated agreement. We are very persuaded. We need to get as much material as we can with respect to your correspondence with the AEC and any other correspondence with state electoral commissions. We do want to talk to the AEC with a view to being able to rectify this. Going to Senator O'Sullivan's question beforehand: clearly, to the extent that the AEC or the committee can take a leadership role with other jurisdictions, that is going to save you having to go through this however many times at the state level. Have you had any opposition at a state level, or have you mainly just decided to raise this with us?

Ms George : I have not raised it at a state level.

CHAIR: For obvious reasons, until you fix the federal—

Ms George : To her, it was a federal issue.

CHAIR: Okay.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: This is a technical question. If a male is charged with assaulting a female or some other offence of violence or intimidation, is a DVO automatically raised? In some instances, from the bench, they might order that you have no contact with the complainant or the witness?

Ms Mutha : In a process of an intervention order application, there are different conditions in an intervention order. One of the conditions is no contact, no communication.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: My question is: if a male is charged with assault—we will use assault; it could be any number of offences—and there is a first appearance before the Magistrates' Court—and I do not know whether you have that summary presentation here—does the magistrate or whoever is on the bench automatically order that they stay away from the victim?

Ms Mutha : It is not an automatic order.

Ms George : It should be a condition. It is a presumed condition of bail, really, not to interfere with a witness.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: So, if we talk about this notification and registration, it might have to be broader than just domestic violence orders, depending on what happens with each state.

CHAIR: I think that is an important point. To take your example, you can have all of the examples that are obvious to us about domestic violence: there has been an incident or a series of incidents that has culminated six months ago; a separation has occurred; there has been travel interstate; et cetera. But you can equally have a situation where I would very much argue for the rights of the victim, where someone has gone to jail for a lengthy period of time and still that person wants to remain silent. I think that is valid as well. There have been incidents in my electorate where there have been horrific crimes committed and a significant jail term has been served, and there are some conditions that follow that. But, notwithstanding that, I think there is an overriding right to privacy.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Chair, that is where my mind is starting to think laterally here. As a parent, for example, could I go to the department of education here in Victoria and properly request to know where my children were registered at school, in an event, say, where my wife has left, has taken the children and has not notified me where they have gone to? Would I be entitled to that information as a parent in the absence of a domestic violence order?

Ms Mutha : I do not know.

Senator KROGER: I do not think you are, actually. I actually do not think you are.

Ms George : When you register your child with the school, they ask: who are the people who can get information about the child?

Senator KROGER: No, I actually do not think you can. I think there are ways. I think the answer to that is no.

CHAIR: Are there any further questions?

Senator O'SULLIVAN: This is one of these things where you will never know what the impact of your submission is, really.

Senator KROGER: I hope you will.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: No, I meant in the sense that, if it is implemented, you will really never know who you save.

Senator KROGER: Sorry. Yes, you are right.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: But I think it is a fair comment to say you will have saved a lot of people.

CHAIR: Thanks for appearing. Are you based here in the centre of Melbourne?

Ms Mutha : I am, yes.

CHAIR: And you are at Deakin?

Ms George : Geelong.

CHAIR: That is good. The secretariat will be in touch with you. If there is any additional information over and above what we have discussed today that you would like to provide, please do so. We will need to speak with the AEC. With the agreement of the committee, as well as speaking to the AEC we might seek to get an AEC representative to at least have a chat with you about your quite specific recommendations, because the Electoral Act is a very technical act, so we want to make sure we get everything right and there is not a loophole in there as well. So we might arrange a point of contact through the secretariat for that.

Ms Mutha : If the committee has any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Senator TILLEM: And to also assess unintended consequences.

CHAIR: Absolutely. That is my thinking.

Ms Mutha : Thanks very much for your time.

Ms George : Thanks for the opportunity to have an actual chat with you, because it clearly is important to us. It is great that you have taken an interest in the issue, because it is a very simple issue that we think is easily resolved.

Senator KROGER: These sorts of things are issues that we clearly were not aware of, so that is why it is great.

CHAIR: When people say, 'Why does the committee travel everywhere?' this is why.

Senator KROGER: Yes, it is fantastic.

CHAIR: This is absolutely why.

Senator TILLEM: One point that it might be worthwhile to investigate is minority ethnic groups within the female population and whether you have any data on that. I have personal experience of where the issue you have raised has become an issue in ethnic communities. I am not sure if you can access that data, but that might also be useful in making your case.

Ms Mutha : Yes, for sure. Thank you.

CHAIR: Our next witnesses are due in about 15 minutes, so we might just take a short break.

Proceedings suspended from 10:52 to 11:06