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Monday, 9 December 2013
Page: 1986

Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (18:03): My election to the seat of Melbourne Ports was hard fought. I was proud of the hundreds of local volunteers, party members and even a small international brigade who helped me and the Labor Party to defend the seat of Melbourne Ports, which I can proudly announce to this House we have now held for the past 100 years. An election where one's party goes from government to opposition is obviously not an ideal outcome—I think that qualifies as English understatement. However, I am pleased to report that a closer look at the result in Melbourne Ports reveals a positive picture for the Labor Party. With the fourth smallest swing against the Labor Party of any of the 19 seats we hold out of the 32 in Victoria—the best record in Australia—Melbourne Ports has remained the sixth most marginal Labor seat in the state. It is the same position as we were last time. The swing should be viewed in the context of a 5.1 per cent swing against Labor in Victoria. Overall, the summary is that our result bucked the trend of the wider election. It was a satisfying result for me and a reflection, I believe, of all of the local issues and local work that has been done in the electorate.

In this response to the Governor-General, I wanted to address some of the outcomes, concerns and problems of a wider nature that face Australia following this election. In my view—and I think people on both sides of this House might feel the same—there is now an over-representation of micro-parties in the Australian Senate, which some people say now resembles the bar room scene in Star Wars. Fifty-three official parties contested this year's election. This is more than double the number of 2010 and it includes such curious new parties as Coke in the Bubblers and the Australian Smokers' Rights Party.

Today I wish to highlight a significant development, little noticed by media but more evident in my electorate than anywhere else in the country. That is the rise of early voting. Of all of the people who voted in Melbourne Ports, fully 41 per cent voted before the election on 7 September, either by postal voting or pre-polling. All across Australia, over 20 per cent of people voted before the federal election. A mixture of a single polling booth open for early voting in each electorate and postal voting has pushed this phenomenon to record heights. In Melbourne Ports we had the highest rate in the country. Of eligible voters in the seat, 35,000 either pre-polled or postal voted, barely 50,000 voted on election day and 8,000 did not attend. Because of our high Jewish population, we have traditionally had a number of people who were unable to vote on Saturdays and have postal voted. But we also have a highly educated and mobile population, many of whom travel interstate and overseas for work. This year it was the highest ever. I said 'barely 50,000', but it was actually 49,327 votes that were cast on election day. Another 10 per cent of registered voters did not vote at all. This means that less than 49 per cent actually voted on election day.

The big jump in early voting was reflected across the country. Three million people had already voted before the polls opened on 7 September—up from 2.5 million at the 2010 election, itself a record over 2007. This year 1.3 million applications for postal votes were received. There were also 1.8 million pre-poll votes cast in the specially designated booths we have in each electorate. This means that more than 20 per cent of the roughly 14 million votes at the federal election were cast before election day. Having spent the better part of three rather damp and windblown weeks out the front of the Melbourne Ports early-voting centre braving our famous changeable late winter weather, I can personally attest to how early voting reorientates the focus of election campaigns.

Australia, of course, is not alone in this trend. The United States has seen early voting become a political football. The rules in relation to pre-polling in the United States vary from state to state. That is another reflection of less than ideal democratic practices, even in one of the world's greatest democracies. In 1992 only seven per cent of votes were cast early, but in 2008 that number had risen to 30.6 per cent. Of course, the President voted before election day at this election, as he announced.

For campaign strategists the main issue with early voting is the need to get the message out. Millions of dollars were spent in advertising in the last week of the campaign, but, due to early voting, the return to all political parties was less and less. I think it is also an important indicator of the significant changes in the way our society is operating. Legislative and administrative changes have probably had the largest impact on early voting, but it would be foolish not to recognise that changes to the way society functions are also leading to the disintegration of the Saturday voting ritual. People are less willing to waste leisure time; they are more often interstate or overseas and they want to maximise the amount of time they have. People still want to participate, but postal voting or early voting is becoming a norm.

One of the unsung triumphs of the last parliament was the reversal of the deliberate tactic of allowing hundreds of thousands of Australians to drop off the electoral roll. I used to refer to this, in the last parliament, as the increasing democratic deficit that we faced. Between 2010 and 2013, Special Minister of State Gary Gary was able to pass legislation potentially to re-enfranchise the 1.5 million eligible Australians who by that stage were off our electoral register. In the last few months before the 2013 election, 280,000 Australians had their democratic rights restored.

Compulsory voting—and I strongly adhere to the Australian system—with people being asked to sign their name off on election day, is not a high price for citizens of this country to pay. If we start from this point, then, logically and rationally, we need to ensure that every Australian has the ability to vote by being enrolled. Prior to the passing of last year's Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill, the parliament was not doing enough to ensure this. This amendment corrected one of the great overreaches of the previous Howard government, who, in their hubris, had control of the Senate. Just as they passed Work Choices, they passed amendments that made it difficult for more and more Australians to enrol. But this was not something that was only done during that period. Over a period of years, people had slowly, salami style, been cut off from the electoral roll.

All MPs understand the previous process, where, if people had moved, they had to respond to snail mail from the Electoral Commission to confirm their new address. It was calculated, in my view, that the voters who would be disenfranchised through these restrictive means were more likely to be left of centre than conservative voters. As a result of these restrictions, the amendment was passed that would affect the 1.5 million people who were off the roll. An estimated 15.7 million Australians were eligible to be enrolled but only 14.2 million were actually enrolled. Therefore, the amendment was very important. The main reason fewer and fewer people were enrolled was that the only way that people were able to get back on the roll after a change of address was via the post. There was no electronic means, and the Electoral Commission, even though they knew people had changed address, were not able to place them at their current address on the roll. More and more people fell off through this inefficient process.

Now there are two databases that are recognised by the Commonwealth government which can match addresses and they are able to enrol people at their new address. Of course, it is up to people to say if the information is incorrect, but the cross-referencing of information now gives the Electoral Commission people's current address. This is part of the normal system in both New South Wales and Victoria. The New South Wales and Victorian Liberal governments support this. It is hardly a conspiracy, as some of the members of the Liberal-National Party opposition, during the time of the previous government, used to rail about.

People, as I said, travel and are sometimes not available on election day. Young people, especially, respond less and less to post. People change addresses. Few people make a deliberate decision not to enrol. Most of those who are not enrolled have failed to enrol out of ignorance or forgetfulness, as we can see from the last-minute rush of enrolments whenever an election is announced.

From the 2013 election we have statistics which demonstrate that our changes have started to work. Whereas 1.5 million eligible people were not enrolled at the 2010 election, despite an increasing population, at the 2013 election only 1.22 million people were un-enrolled. In other words, an extra 280,000 voters had been added to the electoral roll.

Leaving aside the missing vote drama in Western Australia, one of the factors in this election that we need to focus on is the gaming of the system by people who are using the practice that was developed after 1983-84 to allow people to vote '1' in the Senate according to a party ticket. This has resulted in the rise of micro-parties, and is an issue that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters needs to examine. It is hardly a sign of a vibrant democracy, in my view, that parties which are created three or four months prior to an election, and have received less than half of a per cent of the vote, get seats in parliament. It was certainly not the idea behind the 1983-84 changes which allowed voters just to vote '1' in the Senate. That was designed to reduce informality by allowing people to vote according, say, to what the National Party had set as their party ticket—or as what the Liberal Party or Labor Party had set.

We then had people getting together a group of micro-parties which then cross-preferenced each other, to make sure that the major parties were excluded. They used popular names—say, the Motoring Enthusiast Party—and then swapped preferences between micro-parties. In my view—this is a rather controversial thing for a member of the Labor Party to say—it would have been better for Australian democracy if the Liberal Party No. 3 candidate in the Senate, Helen Kroger, had been elected to the Senate spot rather than some extravagant character from Victoria, whose only notoriety so far has been his relationship with the throwing of kangaroo poo.

These changes need to be examined by this House. Some have suggested optional preferential above-the-line voting as a way to go. I am not sure that that would address the issue of informality. I think you would start to get informal voting because of the large numbers of political groups that are above the line. Perhaps we could address the issue of informality by saying that you only have to vote for your first six preferences. Seats won by the Motoring Enthusiast Party and the Australian Sports Party respectively would have gone to Liberal Party and Labor Party candidates and would have been, in my view, a better reflection of the Australian people's first preference votes.

In having an optional preferential voting system we would be fundamentally changing the method of voting in our democracy. With optional preferential voting we would see a fundamental shift towards a first-past-the-post result—that is why I am very cautious about it—where the voices of any parties rather than the two dominant parties would be drowned out. Would this benefit my party, as one of the two dominant parties in the system? Absolutely—yet, I cannot look at selfish political gain when the cost would be silencing the voices of minor parties and the plurality of political opinion that makes this country great.

Is it worth making these significant changes when there are alternative ways to prevent the gaming of the system without such electoral cost? At this stage I believe more modest changes should be enough to prevent gaming of the system by micro-parties. Some changes have been suggested by people such as Professor Brian Costar, the well-known professor of political science. He has suggested raising the amount of money that a political party needs to register before the election, and insisting that there is a constitution and a list of 500 or 1,000 members. All of these things need to be addressed. Perhaps the requirement for membership could be increased to having 2,000 voters, and a $20,000 nomination fee, which would be returned if the party scored above a certain percentage of the vote.

Proper proof of membership of political parties should be made available at the request of the Australian Electoral Commission. It is not good enough that someone turning up in a shopping mall four months before an election and signing a petition should be recognised as having joined a political party. As I said, I endorse the proposals of Professor Brian Costar to deal with this undemocratic over-representation of micro-parties at forthcoming elections. The 1984 changes were brought in to address the issue of informal voting. The changes allowed voters to follow party tickets by simply voting '1' above the line. These reforms were not intended to be devices for micro-party operatives to game the Senate voting system. I am afraid that that is precisely what is happening.

I am convinced this House will seriously examine these issues. We have a great deal of experience in the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters. Despite the reputation of politicians in the media, a great deal of work is done together for the sensible advancement of Australian democracy. We have one of the best political systems here in the world. We do not have hanging chads. We do not have different ways of voting, by state, as they do in the United States. We do not have different times for voting, as they do in the United States, where you can vote before elections. We need seriously to look at how these micro-parties have been able to advance their interests—against the views, I believe, of the vast bulk of people who are voting in the Senate system. That is not to exclude minor parties. Obviously they have their part, but forming a political party a few months before the election, getting people to sign up in a shopping mall, and then having various people, operating under various front names, sitting down with each other and negotiating how they might get one of them elected is not really what Australian democracy is all about.

We can always work together to refine the system. We have a good system here in Australia. We have improved the number of people who are able to participate. As the Electoral Commission's work proceeds, more and more of the missing 1.5 million Australians will come on line and get re-enrolled. Great progress will be made by matching all of the various databases and having people say that, no, that is not their address, rather than having to respond to snail mail from the Electoral Commission.

We are making progress at enrolling as many Australians as possible—our democratic duty under a compulsory voting system. But we must address this issue of microparties gaming the political system, as we did with the issue of Pauline Hanson getting four per cent of the vote, not spending money on her electoral costs and getting $2.60 per voter. It is a bit like the film TheProducers. The accountant and the playwright sold 10,000 per cent of the play, but the play had to close on the first night. We have to recognise all of these kinds of permutations that take place in our great electoral system and, as democrats, together address them.