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Tuesday, 26 November 1974
Page: 2721


The PRESIDENT -Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted. (The documents read as follows)-

This Bill is designed to introduce several reforms of a fundamental nature to the Commonwealth Electoral Act and also to make a number of fairly minor amendments of a procedural nature. It also proposes consequential amendments of the Senate Elections Act 1903-1948, the Senate Elections Act 1966 and the Representation Act 1903-1973. Taken overall, these various proposals are intended, firstly, to allow for a speedier finalisation of federal election results; secondly; improved voting facilities for electors; thirdly, the introduction of some new or changed procedures; and, fourthly, the correction of some obvious defects in the existing electoral law. Australians can be justly proud of their electoral machinery. We have not suffered the electoral malpractices common in many other countries. However, Australian governments in the past have tended to become unduly complacent, and sometimes shirked the difficulties involved in any attempt to remedy defects in our electoral practices. This Bill amounts to one of the most comprehensive attempts ever made in this direction. The Bill is therefore far more substantial than that allowed to lapse in 1971 by the coalition government.

In this second reading speech, I will be paying particular attention to those provisions which the Government regards as being of major importance. Though reference will also be made to some of the less substantial amendments, such references, of necessity, will be brief. I shall therefore now summarise the matters dealt with in the Bill as a guide to the wide-ranging scope of the proposed amendments. These include: optional preferential marking of ballot papers; printing of party affiliations of candidates on ballot papers; registration of political parties for purposes of indentification and printing of affiliations on ballot papers; introduction of mobile polling booths at hospitals and similar institutions; drawing for positions of candidates on House of Representatives ballot papers; closing of the polls at 6 p.m. rather than 8 p.m.; requiring a candidate changing his name within 12 months prior to nominations to declare the change, and providing for the former name to be included on the ballot paper; prevention of persons enrolling or nominating for election under changed names in certain circumstances; an earlier deadline for the return of postal votes and for the return of postal votes direct to respective Returning Officer; restricting postal vote application forms to be used at an election or referendum to those specified by notice in the Gazette; prohibiting the listing of names of persons who apply for postal votes, except in certain specified circumstances; providing postal voting facilities for prisoners who have retained their franchise entitlements; increasing the amount of deposit required with nomination and varying the conditions under which deposits may be saved; preservation of the voting entitlement of Australian citizens posted overseas in the service of the Crown, and retention on the roll of the name of an elector temporarily absent from his address; precluding nomination for election to the Australian Parliament of a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory; prevention of a person from nominating as a candidate for more than one Federal election held on the same day; protection of candidates against the issue of misleading how-to-vote cards; change in qualifications for enrolment, voting and candidature from 'British Subject' to status of a British Subject'; eliminating the need to state the address of author in the case of broadcasting or telecasting of political matters; the manner of announcing the name of an author of political matter on radio or television; responsibility for publication of matter or comment of a political nature in the Press between issue of the writ and the close of the poll; removal of the restriction on exhibition of electoral posters within a hall or room being used for political party meetings; provision of support staff for Distribution Commissioners; authority for alterations to the roll when a street is renamed or renumbered; lowering the permissible age of Presiding Officers or Assistant Presiding Officers to 18 years; appointment of substitute Assistant Returning Officer at places outside Australia in certain circumstances; increases in penalties for failure to enrol; the provision of fines as an alternative to imprisonment where relevant; amounts of monetary penalties to match imprisonment terms; amendment of questions to be put to voters by Presiding Officers; conversion of distances to metric measurements; use of 'given names' in lieu of 'Christian names': candidates making gifts, donations etc. prior to an election; retitling of the Act.

Several of the more significant proposals contained in this Bill are intended, either in whole or in part, to enable the final result of a federal election to be known more speedily than has been possible hitherto. One such proposal relates to the introduction of optional preferential marking of ballot papers, which will result in a speedier count for Senate elections in particular. However, this intended modification to the existing exhaustive preferential voting system is also aimed at allowing electors the maximum degree of choice in exercising their democratic voting rights.

Under the existing preferential system, each voter, irrespective of his individual wishes in the matter, is compelled to rank in order of preference all the candidates on the ballot paper, whether this requires the marking of only two squares or, as was the case in the most recent Senate election in New South Wales, no less than 73. This often means that an elector, in order to record a valid vote, is compelled to express a preference for candidates whom he may not know or for whom he has an extreme dislike. Faced with this meaningless, undemocratic requirement, many electors either intentionally or unintentionally disfranchise themselves by failing to correctly mark all necessary squares on the ballot paper. Furthermore, during the scrutiny process, the time needed to check the validity of Senate ballot papers in particular causes excessive delays in finalising the result.

The existing system of preferential voting has resulted in an average informal vote of about 10 per cent at normal Senate elections. Any voting system which leads to the disfranchisement of such a large number of electors should not be tolerated. It is therefore proposed to require an elector to mark his order of preference on the ballot paper only up to the number of candidates to be elected. However, and I cannot stress this point too strongly, an elector will retain the freedom to express a preference for as many additional candidates as he pleases. Supporters of one political party who wish to exchange preferences with the supporters of another will of course still be able to do so.

As senators will appreciate, the present system involves intolerable delays in finalising the election results. To abate this situation, the Bill contains several amendments affecting postal voting, two of which merit some comment here. Firstly, it is proposed that an earlier deadline be fixed for the return of postal votes. Secondly, it is proposed that postal votes be returned direct to the relevant Returning Officer, by the elector or his agent, rather than through an Assistant Returning Officer, some other Returning Officer or a Presiding Officer as allowed under the existing law. At present, a period of 10 days' grace after polling day is allowed for the receipt of postal votes by the relevant Returning Officer, of votes posted direct to him. This practice presents many obstacles to any attempt to speed the count, especially for Senate elections. For instance, under the proportional representation system used for the Senate, the quota for an election cannot be determined, nor can the count commence, until the exact number of formal votes cast is known. At the recent Senate elections, the precise number of formal votes was unknown until over 2 weeks after polling day. Therefore, not a single senator could be elected until about 3 weeks. after polling day. While the proposed introduction of optional preferential marking of ballot papers will speed up the counting process, especially for the Senate, this advantage would be largely lost if it remains necessary to wait for postal votes for up to 10 days after polling day. It is therefore proposed that postal votes be returned so as to reach the appropriate Returning Officer not later than the close of the poll. As far as can be ascertained, no other country allows the admission of votes returned after polling day.

This proposed legislation also takes a significant step forward in making it easier for aged and ill persons to exercise their franchise by the introduction of mobile polling booths at hospitals, rest homes and similar institutions. This reform will, at the same time, serve to minimise the possibility of the aged and infirm being subjected to unscrupulous practices on the part of over-zealous campaign workers. Current practice provides for the establishment of a polling booth at each hospital or similar institution containing 50 or more beds, where suitable arrangements can be made with the appropriate authorities. However, these booths are confined to fixed locations and, in practice, serve only staff and ambulant patients. Thus, in order to vote, patients confined to bed must at present make an application for a postal vote prior to polling day. Under the proposed reform the Presiding Officer, by arrangement with the appropriate authority at a hospital, institution or rest home, will take the ballot box from bed to bed and ward to ward. Of course, scrutineers will still be permitted to accompany polling officials.

This Bill also makes provision for votes to be recorded at specially designated hospitals and institutions before polling day itself. Thus, the past practice of party workers invading such institutions for the apparent purpose of assisting postal voters should be largely eliminated. As the Government is particularly anxious to prevent unscrupulous persons taking advantage of aged or infirm electors, it is also proposed to prohibit the inspection of postal vote applications for the purpose of listing of names of persons who applied for postal votes at an election, except where such listing is genuinely required in connection with an inquiry into possible malpractices. The Bill contains a further provision designed to eliminate the possibility of postal voting malpractices. Under a proposed provision, the only postal vote application forms which may be used at an election will be those specified or declared to be applicable by the Chief Australian Electoral Officer. This proposal is designed to curb the current dubious practice of having thousands of postal vote applications completed months in advance of the next ensuing election, then forwarding these to electors at or about the time of the issue of writs, without any precise knowledge as to whether the persons concerned are, in fact, entitled to vote by post.

Another reform contained in this Bill which I believe will be welcomed by all electors, relates to the printing of party affiliations of candidates on ballot-papers. This measure will greatly simplify the voting process for electors, especially for the recent arrivals to this country who do not know the party affiliations of many of the candidates. The Government anticipates that one of the beneficial results of the printing of such affiliations on ballot papers will be a reduction in the level of informal voting, particularly when added to the introduction of optional preferential voting. This reform will necessitate the registration of political parties and provision is made accordingly in the Bill. For the purpose of recognition as a political party under these amendments, it is proposed that a party must have candidates officially nominated for not less than one-fourth of the vacancies to be filled at the relevant election, except in the case of an election to fill a casual Senate vacancy or a by-election for the House of Representatives. In these cases, a party must have had candidates officially nominated at the immediately preceding Senate or House of Representatives election, in accordance with the formula specified.

Another long overdue reform contained in this Bill provides for the drawing for positions of candidates on the House of Representatives ballot paper. This will remove the advantage taken by certain candidates in the past of changing their names in order to get top position on the House of Representatives ballot papers. It is also proposed that persons be prevented from enrolling or nominating under changed names in certain specified circumstances. Cases occurred recently where persons have sought enrolment as A' (without any christian name), 'XXX' (without any christian name) and 'White Australia'. In one case, a person successfully enrolled as 'HBerrill (Surname) Stop Asian Immigration Now' (other names) and was a candidate in that name at the recent South Australian Senate election. In order to avoid further incidents of this kind, it is proposed to incorporate in the Act a provision which makes it clear that the adoption of such names, even though they may be adopted by taking formal steps under State law, will not necessarily be valid for electoral purposes. Under the provisions of the Bill a person may be nominated for election only in the name under which he is enrolled or, if he is not enrolled, in the name under which he is entitled to enrol.

I now turn to another important area awaiting reform, one which has been highlighted by the most recent elections. I refer to the amounts of deposit required to be lodged with nominations. It is proposed to increase these amounts to a level consistent with present monetary values, namely $250 for the House of Representatives and $1,000 for the Senate. Obviously, the fixing of fairly substantial deposits is required in order to keep at reasonable level the increasing proliferation of candidates which has occurred over the past decade and which reached absurd levels in May 1974, particularly for the Senate. It is hoped that the new deposit requirements will keep this proliferation of candidates within reasonable proportions, without going so far as to deprive serious intending candidates of their legitimate democratic right to present themselves for election to public office.

Let me now refer to one further proposal of some significance. It is the proposal to close the polls at 6 p.m. rather than 8 p.m. The earlier closing of the poll will permit an earlier indication on polling night of the possible result of an election and it will also ease the burden a little on the thousands of poll workers without, I believe, inconveniencing the electors. It is already the practice in Queensland to close the polls at 6 p.m. In order to prevent any possible misunderstanding, I must stress that people who, because of their religious beliefs, are precluded from voting during certain hours will retain the right to apply for postal votes.

This Bill also clarifies the circumstances under which an Australian citizen in the service of the Crown posted overseas may retain his right to vote at Federal elections. Under the existing Act, a person loses his enrolment entitlement if he ceases to live in the subdivision for which he is enrolled. This Bill now proposes that where a person, who is qualified for enrolment, is living outside Australia as a result of a posting in the service of Australia, a State or other prescribed authority, he shall, if he has a fixed intention of living in a particular subdivision when he returns to Australia, be entitled to enrol on the roll for that subdivision, and will be enrolled in respect of his overseas address.

I now refer to another aspect of the Bill which requires some clarification. At present there is doubt as to whether or not a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory could, without resigning his position on that body, also stand for a seat in the Australian Parliament. The Government believes that there should be no uncertainty in this matter. Therefore, just as it has been considered appropriate in the past for a member of a State legislature to be ineligible to stand for election to the Australian Parliament, so the Government considers that it should be made quite clear that a member of the legislature of an internal Territory is likewise ineligible to nominate. Accordingly, this Bill provides that no person who is at the date of nomination, or was at any time within 1 4 days prior to the date of nomination, a member of the Legislative Assembly for the Northern Territory, or for the Australian Capital Territory, shall be eligible for nomination to the Australian Parliament.

Provision is also made in this Bill to prevent a person from becoming a candidate for two or more federal elections held on the same day. At the 1 969 elections, a person stood as a candidate for the Senate election in South Australia, as well as for the House of Representatives in the Division of Hindmarsh. Although no specific debarment is included in the existing law, it was surely never intended that a person should have the right to dual nomination and an appropriate provision is embodied in this Bill.

Some concern has been expressed in the past at the possibility of a candidate assuming the name of, say, a sitting member, primarily for the purpose of gaining some political advantage at an election and thereby causing confusion in the minds of electors. This Bill therefore makes provision so that any former name of a candidate specified in the nomination paper shall be printed on the ballot-paper, in addition to the name under which the candidate is actually nominated. This will not relate to a change of name by marriage.

Another provision in this Bill deals with gifts, donations and prizes by candidates to clubs or organisations with a specified period prior to polling day. Under the existing provisions it is an offence for a candidate to make a gift or donation to, say, a club within 3 months of polling day but he could be unwittingly in breach of the law by making a gift or donation at a time which subsequently turns out to be within 3 months of polling day. To meet this situation, it is proposed to give a candidate a defence against a prosecution if he proves that, at the time when he made the gift, donation, prize etc. he believed on reasonable grounds that the polling would not be within 3 months.

Two proposals concerning the appointment of Distribution Commissioners merit a brief reference. Firstly, given that it has not always been possible to obtain the services of the SurveyorGeneral of a State or an officer having similar qualifications for the purpose of redistributing a State, it is proposed to provide that one of the Commissioners shall be a registered surveyor, which will enable greater flexibility in the selection of a surveyor. Secondly, it is proposed that provision be made for the engagement of adequate staff to assist in the work of a distribution and that the fees and allowances paid to Distribution Commissioners and other such assisting staff be determined by the Minister.

It is also proposed that the provisions relating to enrolment and nomination be amended so that the wording 'status of a British subject' is substituted for the term 'British subject'. The term 'British subject' is not defined in the existing Act, being governed by the provisions of the Australian Citizenship Act. Following amendments to that Act in 1969, the term 'British subject' is obsolete for these purposes, having been replaced by the wording 'the status of a British subject'. While a section of the Australian Citizenship Act makes it clear that that Act applies to the Electoral Act, the continued use of the term British subject' in the Commonwealth Electoral

Act would be inappropriate and potentially confusing.

The provisions in this Bill also revise and update many of the penalties, some of which have remained unchanged since Federation. There are a number of other provisions in this Bill which are mainly procedural in nature. Taken as a whole, these measures constitute a significant updating of the Electoral Act, and will ensure that the Act becomes an even more effective instrument of electoral administration. I seek leave of the Senate to incorporate in Hansard six Tables which are relevant to the proposed amendments to the Electoral Act. These are:

Table I- Percentage of Informal Votes recorded at Senate Elections 1 949- 1 974.

Table II- Number of Candidates in each State at Senate Elections 1949-1974.

Table III- Number of Deposits forfeited by Candidates at Senate and House of Representatives Elections 1 966- 1 974.

Table IV- Number of Postal Votes admitted to the Scrutiny at the 1972 and 1974 House of Representatives Elections.

Table V- Summary of Votes for Political Parties showing the Votes recorded, Seats won and Percentages in respect of the Senate Elections held on 18 May 1974.

Table VI- Summary of Votes for Political Parties showing the Votes recorded, Seats won and Percentages in respect of the House of Representatives Elections held on 1 8 May 1 974.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debate (on motion by Senator Withers) adjourned.







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