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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 5481

Mr FLETCHER (9:49 AM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this package of legislation, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2010 and related bills. This is a debate about several important changes to the rules governing our electoral process, and nothing could be more important to the proper functioning of our democracy. All of us involved in the political process rightly take pride in the operation of the Australian democratic system. The work of the Australian Electoral Commission is absolutely central to that, but obviously it operates under rules laid down—laws laid down—by this parliament.

This is the second time I have risen to speak on some of these measures, in view of the fact that these measures were included in the original bill put forward earlier this year—the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill 2010. At the time, coalition speakers made it clear that we disagreed with—we were opposed to—some of the key provisions in that bill. We note that some of those objectionable provisions have now reappeared in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill (No. 2). There has been a little bit of repackaging, but the repackaging has not changed our position. The measures we were opposed to when the original bill was brought forward we remain opposed to.

There are two measures in particular on which we think the case for change has simply not been made. The first of those measures is to change the current arrangements so that the rolls would not close until seven days after the issue of the writs. The second of those measures is to remove the requirement for declaration voters to produce identification. Our opposition to these measures reflects a degree of suspicion about the motivation of the Labor government in bringing forward these changes to the existing procedures. I am sorry to say that, when you look at the track record of the Labor Party on electoral matters, it is not unblemished.

A gentleman named Mike Kaiser came to the attention of people interested in telecommunications policy, as I am, when he was recently appointed to the role of head of government relations at the NBN Co, putting him in the remarkable position of being responsible for government relations for a company in which the government is the 100 per cent shareholder. Mr Kaiser was recommended for that role, it has become evident, by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. At an earlier stage of his career, Mr Kaiser was the State Secretary of the Labor Party in Queensland. He was then a member of the Queensland parliament, until he abruptly retired from his position following an appearance before the Shepherdson royal commission, which dealt with certain irregularities which had occurred some years before. In particular, it emerged that Mr Kaiser, a Labor member of the Queensland parliament and former state secretary of the party, had enrolled at an address that he later conceded he had never lived at. It is very unfortunate that somebody holding a position of responsibility in one of the major political parties in our nation should engage in such conduct.

It is the proven and regrettable experience that such conduct occurs from time to time, and that informs the degree of caution and intelligent scepticism with which those of us on this side of the House look at measures proposed to change the arrangements under which elections in Australia are conducted. There are, regrettably, examples of people falling prey to the temptation to fiddle the system. Of course, it is not just officials of the Labor Party; people can fall prey to temptation to cast votes in circumstances where they are not entitled to. If that occurs, it undermines confidence in our electoral system. Therefore, it is very important that our electoral system build in appropriate measures to prevent such behaviour. When we have clear evidence on the record that people do, from time to time, fall prey to temptation, it is very important that our electoral system build in appropriate measures to protect against such conduct, to protect the integrity of the system under which votes are cast and tallied.

Unfortunately, people casting votes which they are not entitled to cast is not the only evil we need to guard against. We also need to guard against activities which are designed to confuse voters and to trick them into casting votes which would have a result different from what the voters intended. In the by-election in Bradfield held in December 2009, we saw a troubling instance of this. The Christian Democratic Party put up nine candidates, all under the same party name, all endorsed by that party, and the result was that there were 22 candidates in total on the ballot paper. As a consequence, a significant number of voters had their intentions frustrated and ended up casting informal votes. They were defeated by the complexity of correctly completing a ballot paper with 22 names on it. I am therefore fully supportive of the provision contained in one of the bills in this package which would prevent a party from nominating more than one endorsed candidate for a House of Representatives seat.

As the member for Goldstein said when he spoke earlier in this debate, there are a number of sensible measures in this package of bills which we are happy to support, but there are also measures which we do not support because we think they are ill-conceived. It is unfortunate that the kind of behaviour I have just described in the Bradfield by-election, behaviour calculated to confuse and even to mislead voters, is not restricted to minor parties. Again, it is unfortunate to have to note that the Labor Party has been involved in a very serious example of such behaviour, which we saw in the recent South Australian state election.

If you turned up at a polling booth to vote and a person approached you wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the message ‘Put Your Family First’, what would you expect was the identity of the party supported by that person—particularly having regard to the fact that there was a party in Australia known as Family First which was running candidates in that election? You would expect, quite reasonably, that the person wearing that T-shirt, coming towards you to hand you a how-to-vote card, was from the Family First party.

In fact, the unfortunate reality, the distressing reality, is that the people wearing these T-shirts were participating in an operation designed to mislead and confuse voters—an operation conducted by the Labor Party, an operation explicitly sanctioned by the state secretary of the Labor Party in South Australia. The whole exercise was cynically misleading. It was designed to trick people into casting a vote which would benefit Labor, people who very likely had no such intention and thought they were casting their vote in a very different way. It is a shameful episode in Australian electoral history.

Accordingly, on this side of the House we look with a certain scepticism at Labor’s proposed measures in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (How-to-Vote Cards and Other Measures) Bill 2010. These measures are put forward supposedly to demonstrate that the Labor Party has now seen the error of its ways. We are, frankly, sceptical and, as other speakers have indicated, we believe these measures need further scrutiny. We do not think that this was an episode which reflects any distinction at all on the Labor Party and we think that further work is required on this front.

We also look with scepticism at the measures contained in the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill (No. 2). These two measures, which I have already referred to, are designed to reverse important safeguards introduced under the Howard government—safeguards designed to ensure and protect the integrity of our electoral system. The first of these measures concerns the closing of the rolls seven days after the writs are issued. This would be a change from the current law, which says that the rolls close when the writs are issued. This typically occurs three to four days after an election is called. The consequence of the current procedure is that the Australian Electoral Commission has at least seven days in which to verify new enrolments and four days in which to verify changes of address. This period is of considerable value, we believe, in allowing the Electoral Commission to identify and discount fraudulent enrolments. The change which is proposed—extending the enrolment deadline by another seven days—will remove the capacity for the Electoral Commission to conduct this verification process because the time lines will have become so compressed.

We acknowledge that this factor—that is, having adequate time to conduct verification—must be weighed up against the down side, which is that some people will miss the enrolment deadline. We note, however, that in the 2007 election, when the current deadline provisions were in place, the number who missed the close of rolls was 100,370, a 40 per cent reduction on the number who missed the deadline in 2004, when the law said that the deadline was seven days after the issue of the writs—that is to say, when the law was what the current bill proposes it again become.

We believe that certain responsibilities attach to the privilege of being an Australian citizen. One of those responsibilities is to get onto and maintain one’s enrolment on the electoral roll. There are regular public information campaigns conducted to encourage Australians to enrol. For example, the Australian Electoral Commission mount a campaign directed at those who are approaching the age of 18, encouraging them to enrol for the first time. Recently I attended a forum at Killara High School with 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds which was conducted under the auspices of the AEC’s campaign and which was designed to encourage those young people in attendance to get on the roll and to inform them about the responsibility of voting which they would shortly exercise.

So we do not accept the argument that the rolls should be kept open for a further seven days after the writs are issued in view of the fact that claims about the numbers of Australians who are disenfranchised as a result are overblown and that the clear consequence of this change would be to reduce the AEC’s capacity to check for fraudulent enrolments. On this side of the House we attach a high priority to being able to take measures to prevent fraudulent enrolment. We think it is prudent to attach such a priority to it in view of the clear experience of fraudulent conduct in the Australian electoral system. Sadly, as I have noted, the Labor Party and people acting on its behalf have, from time to time, been involved in such conduct—and I have given some examples.

The second measure in the bill which we do not support is the measure which will change the act so as to remove the requirement that identification be provided by persons wishing to cast a provisional vote. We are wholly opposed to any measure which would weaken the proof of identity requirements. These provisions are an important deterrent, acting to prevent citizens from failing to maintain their enrolment and from seeking to engage in multiple voting. We also note that the persons to whom the identity requirements apply are persons who have failed to meet the requirement to maintain their enrolment at their current address. We are deeply sceptical of the method which has been proposed to confirm the identity of individuals in these circumstances. That proposed method is for the returning officer to compare the signature on the envelope collected when the vote was cast with the signature of the elector held in the Australian Electoral Commission’s records. We think this is an unreliable measure and an ill thought through measure, and we do not support a change to the law in this fashion.

On this side of the House we attach the highest importance to maintaining the integrity of the electoral roll, and we view with prudent scepticism measures which in our view would compromise that important objective. Another measure in this package of bills which we are opposed to is the measure which would change the existing postal vote process, which works well. We are concerned that this has been slipped in by the government, by the Labor Party, with a view to accruing electoral advantage. This was not a matter that was considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and the proposed requirement that postal vote applications be sent directly to the Australian Electoral Commission is a change to the current procedures. We do not believe the case for the change has been effectively made. We believe that the current postal vote procedures work well. Certainly, the coalition parties have been able to work effectively to encourage Australians to cast a postal vote and to exercise their democratic right. We are suspicious that the motives of the Labor Party in proposing a change to these arrangements have nothing to do with the integrity of the roll, nothing to do with the efficacy of our voting system and everything to do with an attempt to change the current calculus in terms of which side of politics has been more effective in using the existing postal vote provisions to give Australians an opportunity to vote and to cast a postal vote.

We are opposed to that measure as well as to the other measures that I have spoken about in my remarks today. We think the measures to which we are opposed go in the wrong direction. We think they will reduce the integrity of the electoral roll rather than increase it. We think they will undermine the effectiveness of the Australian voting system and the record of integrity in that system, in which all of us take pride. We consider therefore that these measures should be opposed. (Time expired)