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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26325


Senator BUCKLAND (1:10 PM) —I seek leave to incorporate a speech by Senator Faulkner in relation to this matter.

Leave granted.

Senator Faulkner's speech read as follows—

The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Prisoner Voting and Other Measures) Bill 2004 is not a controversial Bill. It contains measures designed to sort out a number of unintended consequences following the passage of recent electoral legislation.

Before the recent amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, a prisoner serving a sentence of five years or longer could not enrol, stay enrolled or vote in Federal elections.

In the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment Integrity and other measures) Bill 2004 the Government proposed to stop all prisoners from voting, irrespective of their sentence. Labor opposed that measure because it was not only unjust, it was also unworkable.

During debate of the Enrolment Integrity Bill in the Senate on Friday, 25 June 2004, Labor's long-standing amendments relating to prisoner voting were carried.

And when I say Labor's amendment was “long-standing”, I am of course referring to the fact it has been on the table for more than five years.

As some Senators may remember, the Opposition moved the amendment in 1999 when a similar proposal was put forward by the Government. The amendment was circulated and no issues were raised about it.

I'm not 100% sure, but I think Labor's amendment was also discussed in the media.

Labor's long-standing amendments provided that a prisoner whose sentence commenced on, or before, the return of the writs for an election and whose sentence continued until after the issue of the writs for any succeeding election would not be entitled to be enrolled. In essence, we were trying to tie the restriction on prisoner voting to a logical rather than an arbitrary period of time.

The amendments were supported by the Government and were passed unanimously by the House of Representatives in late June 2004.

However, according to the AEC—somewhat belatedly—this approach may not achieve the intended outcome.

This was a surprise to me and to the Opposition, as the amendments had been around for more than five years and no-one had raised any concerns about them. Nevertheless, the AEC has now flagged a problem and we are duty bound to address the problem they have raised.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act, as amended in late June 2004, only allows for the removal of prisoners from the roll by objection action.

As a prisoner would only be ineligible for enrolment on the issue of the writs, objection action could not commence until that time. We are advised objection action takes at least 20 days, which would be after the close of the Roll—possibly having the unintended effect of all prisoners remaining enrolled to vote.

Given this was not Parliament's intention, we now have the Prisoner Voting Bill before the Senate.

The Prisoner Voting Bill requires the States and Territories to provide the AEC information on prisoners who are serving a sentence of imprisonment of three years or more. The AEC will then undertake objection action to remove these prisoners from the Roll.

Of course, we would also like to see the AEC following up people once they are released to get them back on the Roll as part of their reintegration into society.

In the Prisoner Voting Bill the Government has, in effect, adopted Labor's approach and proposes a model for excluding prisoners from enrolling and voting based on Labor's three year time frame.

Labor supports this measure and also supports the other tidying-up amendments relating to the closure of the Roll and the review of new voter identification procedures.