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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29322

Mr NEVILLE (10:00 AM) —I speak today on a matter which is of the utmost importance for the future of our democracy—that is, electoral reform. I wish today to talk about the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2004, which goes to the heart of our system of government. Quite simply, voter enrolment is the most basic transaction between the public and its government. The very foundations of our democracy are built upon the voter enrolment process. This bill goes a long way towards remedying some of the flaws and loopholes which currently exist in this area. But before we examine those flaws, let us look at the current criteria applied to Australians who are enrolled as voters. At present, in order for a person to be enrolled as a voter they must be over 18 years of age, be an Australian citizen, and have, or have had, a place of residence. That person must also have had their enrolment form witnessed by an enrolled voter or a person eligible for enrolment. Unfortunately, some sections of the political world have found these conditions relatively easy to manipulate or sidestep, to the point where the electoral roll is seen merely as a tool for the prostitution of votes.

To safeguard the integrity of our system of government, the coalition has proposed a few simple measures to ensure that the electoral roll is cleaned up and its integrity safeguarded for the future. The new regulations were contained in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Regulations 2001 and would have necessitated the presentation of identification at the time of enrolment—a measure which would have gone a long way towards cleaning up the electoral roll. Unfortunately, and perhaps tellingly, these regulations were disallowed by the ALP and the Democrats in the Senate on 15 May 2002. I find it difficult to believe that any political party would not wholly support the protection of our electoral roll, and I was greatly disappointed that the amendment did not attract bipartisan support in the upper house.

So we come to the second piece of legislation, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Access to Electoral Roll and Other Measures) Bill 2004, which exists solely for the purpose of bolstering the rigour of our voter enrolment process for both elections and referendums. Central to these amendments is the question of voter residence and the tightening of existing legislation which has previously allowed wide scope for manipulating Australia's electoral processes. These amendments will provide that the entitlement to enrolment is based on residence for a period of one month at a particular address in a subdivision and will introduce a requirement to provide proof of identity when changing enrolment details or claiming a provisional vote.

I wholeheartedly endorse these particular aspects of the bill, as I have had personal experience in fighting an election where questionable voters appeared to be residing in vacant dwellings. I have done some research into the trends in Hinkler in elections and referendums stretching back to 1990, and some very interesting events have taken place. To start with, between the 1990 and 2001 federal elections there has been an 80 per cent increase in the number of provisional vote applications made but only a 63 per cent increase in valid provisional votes cast. More to the point, the gap between valid provisional votes and the applications made has doubled from 0.17 per cent to 0.35 per cent over the same period.

Interestingly, the largest single discrepancy occurred at the 1996 federal election—the election following Hinkler's shift to coalition representation—where a full 0.36 per cent of applications for provisional votes were disallowed. That translates into 288 applications being rejected at that election. While there will always be some discrepancy between valid and invalid provisional votes, there is simply no explanation for the sudden leap in this occurrence in Hinkler. At the 1990 election, 123 provisional applications were disallowed. In 1993, it had grown to 190 disallowed provisional votes. In 1996, it was up again to 288 disallowed provisional votes. In 1998, owing to new boundaries, the number of valid votes cast dropped by 5,623 and the disallowed provisional vote applications dropped, correspondingly, to 229. Clearly, it would have been easier if voters had been required to provide identification on election day—in other words, if the measures contained in this bill were enacted we would not have encountered such problems. This measure is consistent with the proposal of identification at the time of enrolment. The opposition have argued that these measures are onerous for the old, the young and—

Mr Danby —No, your own committee has argued that actually, Paul.

Mr NEVILLE —I am interrupted by my colleague. The opposition have argued—and I do not care whether or not the committee has argued it—that these measures are onerous for the old, the young and the disadvantaged. If the honourable member will let me make my point, he might see where I am coming from. They claim that these people would be disenfranchised. That simply does not follow. I am yet to come across a single young person who, having turned 18 years of age, cannot produce some form of identification to get into a licensed disco or licensed premises, and I see many people present their seniors cards at railway stations, on buses, at theatres and the like. We all know that anyone who wants to be a member of a library has to have a library card and identify themselves. If you want to have video store membership, you have to identify yourself. If you want to open a bank account, you have to have a point score and identify yourself. Every time you go to an airport to pick up an electronic ticket you have to provide identification. Even the most disadvantaged seem to have little trouble in applying for Centrelink benefits. In short, this is not a difficult process—and it is no more difficult to do it at an AEC office when applying for enrolment than to do it if you are applying for a provisional vote on election day. Interestingly, the AEC's Electoral Backgrounder on electoral fraud and multiple voting, published on 24 October 2001, said in part:

It has been concluded by every parliamentary and judicial inquiry into the conduct of federal elections, since the AEC was established as an independent statutory authority in 1984, that ... the level of fraudulent enrolment and voting is not sufficient to have overturned the result in any Division in Australia.

Mr Danby —Exactly.

Mr NEVILLE —Maybe not then—

Mr Danby —Ha!

Mr NEVILLE —But there is the matter of questionable provisional votes. If the honourable member will let me finish, I will point out exactly how it could have happened to me. In the 2001 federal election, less than a month after the release of this document, the disallowed provisional votes in Hinkler had climbed to 280. I won that seat by a margin of 64 votes. In short, if I had not had excellent scrutineering assistance, I might not have won the seat. I wish to make it clear that nothing I am saying is a criticism of the AEC, its integrity or its professionalism. I have found their staff to be courteous and focussed, and the Hinkler divisional returning officer and the state office personnel have always been most helpful. My criticism is purely with the current legislative boundaries and regulations. The AEC cannot be expected to operate beyond it powers, and we as a parliament should make its role clear and easy to interpret. In fact, legislative and regulatory clarity will make the AEC's task much easier. What concerns me most is that, without this procedural clarity and rigorous checking of votes, the Australian public could be landed—in a close seat-for-seat contest—with a government which it did not truly want. The AEC's report concludes with the statement:

Fraudulent enrolment and voting is taken very seriously by the AEC, if only because any concentration of such activity in a single House of Representatives Division, sufficient to affect the result of the election, could well result in that election being voided by the Court of Disputed Returns, and could conceivably result in a change of government.

I have given an instance where disallowed provisional vote applications could have affected a result, and the AEC has clearly acknowledged the outright danger of fraudulent voting activities. On that basis, I urge the opposition to support this legislation. We must tighten our electoral processes so that such an event cannot occur again. Sadly, it seems that the opposition is content to talk the talk on electoral reform but has feet of clay when it comes to walking the walk. It is quite telling that, when some of these new verification measures were put to each of the states, which are currently under the governance of the ALP, all argued that the regulations were onerous and would lead to voter disenfranchisement. According to ALP logic, it is unreasonable to ask enrollers to provide proof of identity to the AEC, when—as I pointed out earlier—it is standard practice for the simplest of tasks, like gaining membership of your local video shop. Dr Carmen Lawrence, a former ALP minister who is a member of this House, once extolled the virtues of tightening our voter and membership enrolment process. In an address to the Sydney Institute on 17 August 2002, Dr Lawrence said:

There are almost daily revelations of people being signed up to parties without their knowledge or wheeled out only when critical votes are taken (usually about selecting candidates) for election.

... ... ...

One vote, one value—the prime condition for a democracy—is not observed in the party's rules.

She was referring to the ALP's rules. Considering that the ALP itself recognises major problems in party membership and enrolment processes, it is not surprising that there has been an avalanche of criticism levelled at the opposition's stance. Apparently such silly mistakes are encouraged by those who sit on the opposition benches. Grant Musgrove, a Queensland Labor MP who was caught up in the Shepherdson inquiry, told the Hon. Tom Shepherdson QC that he had been taught to falsify enrolments during his formative years with the party. He said, `Certainly there was a culture in the party.' In the mid-1990s, an Australian Electoral Commission submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters stated that any measure which complicated the enrolment process in order to discourage fraudulent enrolment may also discourage legitimate enrolment.

What is being proposed in this bill is not complicated. We might reflect on the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said, `The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government.' Safeguarding the will of the people can happen only if we eliminate fraudulent and factional activities from our voting system. Australia's voting processes are held up to other countries. We are involved in UN scrutiny and observer processes. Accordingly, our own processes should be above reproach. This simple notion is backed up by a wide cross-section of Australia's legal and political fraternities, who have demanded electoral reform by way of voter identification at the point of enrolment. These include a 1975 report on electoral matters by Judge Kay of Western Australia; a 1989 report by past and current New South Wales electoral commissioners Messrs Cundy and Dickson, whose report concluded that voter identification upon enrolment was essential; and, of course, current and previous coalition MPs. For the opposition to stymie and stall the reforms put by the coalition begs the question: is the ALP fair dinkum about cleaning up and supporting electoral reform?

Another aspect of this legislation which I find particularly pertinent is the prohibition of scrutineers actively participating in assisting voters during polling hours. Of course, I am aware of the situation which arises in many isolated polling booths, where there are a limited number of people available on election day to carry out the official duties of scrutineering, handing out how-to-vote cards, assisting poll clerks and so on. However, I am appalled by some of the anecdotes I have heard, and some the events I have witnessed myself, where those who have handed out how-to-vote cards during the day have been on hand as scrutineers and have entered the polling booth with a voter to help them fill in their ballot papers. One staff member of mine has relayed to me an incident where she witnessed, during a previous election, a person assisting voters in a polling booth. This particular person would indicate a certain point on the ballot paper and ask, `Do you want to vote No. 1 for this person?' It appeared that the box they pointed to was the box that got the No. 1. The scenario was played out at least half a dozen times that day. My staffer complained to the returning officer. When this person was subsequently challenged on their actions—practically directing votes towards one candidate—the activity ceased.

If not for the vigilance of such representatives on election day, and scrutineers later in proceedings, any number of illegal activities could take place. It is a sad fact that these things take place at all, as underlined by Alan Jones's comments on Channel 9 earlier this month. In his 19 May broadcast, Mr Jones spoke of several issues surrounding the seat of Richmond in the 1990 federal election. It is an infamously marginal seat—and no wonder, when you hear of some of the shenanigans which went on during the 1990 election. The specific instances were that 1,028 names on the roll were untraceable; 432 voters enrolled in Richmond were also enrolled in other electorates; 42 dead people were still on the roll; 548 of a sample of 3,255 apparent nonvoters checked by AEC officials did not exist; 472 of 2,700 letters sent out by the AEC to nonvoters were returned to sender; hundreds of names were entered in the 1987 roll at the last minute at fictitious addresses, in the beds of creeks and along rural roads identified by roadside signs, purporting to be properties; 138 dual voters were confirmed by the AEC report into the election; and 222 votes which were cast could not be reconciled with the ballot papers.

I ask you: is this not cause for concern? Do instances such as this not warrant bipartisan support for reform of the enrolment process? The incidents which occurred in Richmond have no doubt occurred in some other form in other electorates over the years. The rush of enrolments must surely be justification for closing the rolls at 6 p.m. on the day the writ is issued and allowing people until 8 p.m. on the third working day to alter any necessary things on their enrolment papers. We all have a responsibility to be on the roll. We know roughly when elections are going to be held, as there is generally three to six months speculation in the media as a lead-up. There are hardly any grounds for complaint if someone misses out by not making the effort to be on, or to update their details on, the roll. We all know politics can be a dirty game, but the least we can expect from those who want to partake in democracy is honesty and legitimacy when they enrol to vote. I demand it, the electorate demands it and for the sake of our nation the opposition should also demand it.