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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON ELECTORAL MATTERS - 25/11/2008 - Conduct of the 2007 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR (Mr Melham) —I declare open this public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into the conduct of the 2007 federal election and related matters. In today’s hearing we will hear from three members of parliament who have made submissions to the inquiry. Submissions from members of parliament have canvassed a broad range of issues that were raised at the last federal election, including the ability to effectively campaign in some shopping centres, a need for stronger proof of identity requirements, voting practices in some Indigenous communities and the distribution of unauthorised campaign material. I welcome our first witness, the Hon. Gary Gray. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence on oath, I should advise you that these hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and therefore they have the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have received a letter from you covering a range of matters. If you want to present any additional matters or make an opening statement to the committee, feel free to do so.

Mr Gray —Thank you. I would like to address the two matters which I raised specifically in my correspondence of May, namely access to shopping centres, but also pre-polling activity, both of which come together in an important way in election campaign logistics and execution. Chair, years ago, when you were first elected to parliament in 1987, the number of people voting pre-poll was a very small proportion of the total voting population; in those days, something less than two per cent across the nation. The figure is now increasing rapidly and in some electorates, such as my own, increasing at a staggering rate. In my electorate of Brand, in the order of 10 per cent of the votes cast at the 2007 election were pre-polls. In effect, the pre-poll has become for a range of people in our voting population simply an early voting facility—one that should be recognised and understood, but one that is important. By my calculation, over one million people voted early in the 2007 election and fewer and fewer people are choosing to vote on election day. There are a range of reasons for this.

In my electorate, early voting is driven by the presence of HMAS Stirling, and during the last election campaign we had the sail away of the Arunta heading off for service in the Middle East. We also have a very large number of fly-in fly-out workers who principally work in the iron ore mines of the north of Western Australia, but also in other parts of the country, leading to a population demographic that likes and needs access to early voting. In addition, there are the traditional elderly people who prefer to vote without stress and pressure early in an election campaign. My electorate also has an extraordinarily large number of retired people. In my electorate, that older demographic are voting earlier because there is less pressure on them getting to polling booths. This has meant a commensurate reduction in postal votes as older people exercise a right to vote early and comfortably and not to vote using postal votes. So that changed behaviour is something that I believe needs to be understood and formally recognised.

It has a significant implication in a number of electorates in Western Australia where it is not possible for candidates and campaign organisations to get access to Australian Electoral Commission facilities to do something that is common and understood and an accepted part of our election behaviour—indeed, an important cultural part of our election behaviour—and something that both major parties indulge in—that is, the handing out of how-to-vote material. In the electorates of Hasluck and Stirling, where the AEC office is in a privately owned shopping centre, it has repeatedly not been possible for candidates to staff polling booths at this pre-polling time to hand out how-to-votes. Indeed, the owners of the Karrinyup Shopping Centre, which is in the electorate of Stirling, have a corporate policy of not allowing campaign volunteers to handout how-to-vote information. I believe this is important because it relates to a second issue, which is not secondary—that is, in a democratic society, the right and obligation on candidates: the right to be available to voters and to offer their views to the broader population as well as the obligation which they have to quietly and properly pursue their roles as candidates and to speak to as many people as possible.

So you see there is a logistics issue, which is actual physical access to a polling location during the course of an election campaign, which these days can take two weeks. As I say, in my electorate of Brand, 10 per cent of all votes were pre-poll votes—or early votes, as I will characterise them for this discussion—and the number is increasing across the state. We can expect well over 1.2 million votes at the 2010 election to be early votes. That also means that in order for our elections to work as, culturally, we are used to them working, the handing out of a how-to-vote at a polling station or a polling location is an understood part of that practice, but of the 15 federal divisions in Western Australia, in two of them it is not possible to be present to hand out a how-to-vote. It is my belief that when the Australian Electoral Commission writes its leases with shopping centres, it should pay due attention to the need for all sides of politics—this is not a Labor Party thing, it is not Liberal Party thing, it is not Australian Greens thing; it is my contention that, if you have taken the time and the trouble to be a candidate for election, you have a right to turn up at every polling location and hand out your how-to-vote material to advocate for your vote. There are significant electorates where that is not possible and where that is made not possible because of corporate policies of the landlord. I do not think that is fair.

CHAIR —So there are two out of 15 in Western Australia?

Mr Gray —Yes. I do not know the number nationally, but I have paid particular attention to Western Australia. The divisions are Hasluck and Stirling.

Senator RONALDSON —Gary, there is probably no other way of getting some resolution to this without it being written into leases. If you look at the response from the Shopping Centre Council of Australia, which I did not think was unreasonable, there are different dynamics with a number of shopping centres. I remember, from own experience, some were quite happy and thought it attracted shoppers and others thought you were a damn nuisance. I do not think potentially you are going to get any agreement from the actual members of the Shopping Centre Council in relation to this. Actually, I had not thought of the least aspect, but I do not know if there is any other way of doing it, is there?

Mr Gray —It is an interesting point. We had raised the issue in the Labor Party submission to the joint select committee round following the 1998 election. At that time, we had suggested that the AEC should simply seek agreement from the owners of the premises on which pre-polling centres are located to ensure that there are no unreasonable restrictions placed on the right of persons to distribute the customary election material—namely, how-to-vote information. I think it goes without saying, and you would know this from personal and practical experience of winning and holding a marginal seat in difficult circumstances, that no politician who campaigns in a public thoroughfare, such as a public shopping centre, is going to carry out any activity that will make that person unpopular. The object is quite the opposite; the object is to win a vote. I simply do not accept the proposition that politicians’ presence in shopping centres is anything other than an adornment in the election campaign process because people like to see their candidates. Increasingly, popular coffee shops are carrying out coffee bean polls in shopping centres.

CHAIR —Would you say the issue of the writs is the relevant period?

Mr Gray —Absolutely.

Senator HUTCHINS —Is this something that has crept back in since you left as the national secretary? I am sure you would have dealt with this when you were the national secretary of the ALP. Is this something that has just started to come up again and which needs to be emphasised to the Electoral Commission that they need to be conscious of this? Or is it something that, in your experience, is a state-by-state phenomena rather than a national one?

Mr Gray —That is a great question. I have spoken with past federal directors of the Liberal Party and national secretaries of the Labor Party, and I am assured that for the 2001 election one of the national directors was detailed to speak to the Shopping Centre Council about the issue of access. The campaign overtook the dynamic; the conversation did not take place. My belief is that from that point on the issue became secondary until I guess I was particularly focused on it.

Senator HUTCHINS —So you could not hand out?

Mr Gray —No. My pre-polling facility is in a public area widely accessible and widely accessed by the Labor, Liberal and Green candidates. All three were welcome and worked very well together providing that service for voting populations in two locations in the electorate of Brand.

CHAIR —Isn’t that the way to overcome it, then? If it is not a lease arrangement which guarantees access from the time the writs are issued for all candidates, a pre-poll facility could be located outside the shopping centre.

Mr Gray —That may well be an excellent way of dealing with it. Indeed, as I have looked through a number of the arrangements, there is a pre-polling voting centre which often is set up outside the major shopping centre. This can be an ideal solution.

Senator HUTCHINS —In your experience, is it a state-by-state issue or is it a national one?

Mr Gray —It is a corporate policy of some shopping centre owners, some of which have assets in different states.

Mr SULLIVAN —What if there were no how to vote cards? I am sorry I was late so I missed probably the bulk of your presentation. It appears to have been on the basis that shopping centres are denying the right to hand them out. There is a school of thought that says we should dispense with them altogether. I would like your view on that.

Mr Gray —I do not agree with that. I think it is part of the culture and practice. I do think that parties should be more rational in how they print and provide the information. We have in the past in this forum discussed attaching to polling booth facilities a how to vote card for all political parties so that voters can have a look at which parties are offering what voting list. Over the years the joint committee has rejected that option for a lot of reasons, most of which are good. Political parties do recycle their how to votes and political parties also hand out more than how to vote material on election day. They hand out material about the candidates, about policies, and make a person available for discussion, debate or guidance and absent voting information. It is a presence for substantial political organisations such as the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, the National Party and the Greens to make themselves known in communities. That is a useful thing to be doing.

Senator BOB BROWN —I think you said two booths—

Mr Gray —Two federal divisions.

Senator BOB BROWN —Two divisions have problems with shopping centres which have polling places which prohibit the handing out of how to votes. It would seem that either we do not have how to votes, as is the case in Tasmania, which makes for a very restful polling day, or if we do, that cuts right across the democratic right of everybody both to hand out the cards and to receive them. There are two options here, aren’t there. One is to avoid having polling booths in places which prohibit the handing out of how to votes. The other is to make it a legal requirement that how to votes be permitted in such places. Otherwise you put into the hands of discerning private enterprise the most important function in the public arena, which is the election of representatives in a democratic system to the parliament.

Mr Gray —There is a third solution which we have noticed increasing, which is that the location of an Australian Electoral Commission office may well be in a shopping centre which does not allow political party access. However, the pre-polling voting centre may well be located elsewhere which does have access.

CHAIR —But the AEC office still has to issue pre-poll votes during an election period. I know there is one outside the shopping centre but the current requirement requires it. It is minimised if you have got one outside.

Mr DANBY —I am sorry I was late. Had you got examples outside Western Australia of this problem with shopping centres?

Mr Gray —Yes. I thought I would go particularly to the ones that I knew and that I had visited and where I had myself asked if I could hand out how out votes, to be told it was not the corporate policy to do so.

Mr DANBY —That was not just in the pre-poll period, it was on election day.

Mr Gray —My contention is that increasing numbers of people are voting pre-poll, around 10 per cent in my electorate, over a million people at the 2007 election. It is no longer characterised as a pre-poll; in fact, it is an early poll.

CHAIR —But on election day they would be interstate votes.

Mr Gray —Yes, they would be interstate votes, so people could go in to vote but you would not be able to hand out the how to vote to them on election day in those shopping centres.

CHAIR —We will get some information from the Electoral Commission to see how widespread this problem is throughout Australia. Frankly, there should be a national solution to this.

Senator RONALDSON —To clarify, do you have concerns about the level of current pre-poll voting or is it just isolated to the matters you have raised?

Mr Gray —I am not concerned by it, more that the act should acknowledge it and recognise it. We will see at the next election, if the current trend continues, I would estimate over 1.2 million people vote pre-poll. That being the case, it is a significant change to election dynamics and election logistics. In the context of my own electorate, it means that the voting population has increased from some 2,000 people turning up at the polling booths in the 2001 election to 10,000 people turning up to vote in the current election. This has a range of implications.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your evidence today. You will get a transcript sent to you in due course which you can have a look at. If there is anything else that you want to comment on in terms of the inquiry, please feel free to do so by way of written submission.

Mr Gray —Thank you, Mr Chair.

[12.57 pm]