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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26575

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (5:55 PM) —This bill is intended to fix what is basically a glitch that occurred in the legislation that was agreed to by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is as simple as that. An amendment was moved—in fact, it was a longstanding view of the Labor Party; it was first moved over five years ago—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 enrol.

In other words, it was a tightening of the then provision which was that any prisoner who was serving a sentence of over five years should not be entitled to vote. The sense of this was, in both chambers of the Commonwealth parliament, to tie the restriction on prisoner voting to a logical rather than an arbitrary period of time. However, more than five years after it was first moved as a proposal, and some time after it was agreed to by both houses, advice has come from the AGS, the Australian Electoral Commission and others saying that this amendment may be unworkable and may not have the intended effect.

In this case, new legislation has been brought into parliament to ensure that the will of parliament is enacted. Why is it urgent? It is urgent in case an election is called. I find that uncontroversial and unremarkable. Instead of the wording that was intended—the life of an electoral cycle—the clear provision in this bill is to use the words `three years'. With the previous provision, if you served a sentence for over five years, you would not have been entitled to vote. Effectively, now, if you serve a sentence of three years or longer, you are not entitled to vote. That is what this is doing. I really do believe it is housekeeping.

I know Senator Murray has some very important amendments that he has moved. I accept their significance as I often have in this chamber. But I do not believe this is the vehicle to do it and, in many ways, Senator Murray would agree on that. He nods; he does. I accept his point that this is the only opportunity, but it is not a good opportunity. The amendments include very significant issues such as one vote, one value—a long and dearly held principle that is supported by the Australian Labor Party. We have to get these things right. That is the challenge for us, and this is not the mechanism to do it.

This is a corrective bill. It has come forward to ensure that the will of the parliament in relation to a small area of electoral law is adequately and properly reflected in electoral law. I do not think anyone can quibble with that. You really cannot argue that that is the intention. It would be very unfortunate if anyone abused this process. It is to fix a glitch and get the intention of the parliament clear.

The approach of the Labor Party will be to support the bill. It is certainly an improvement on the current provision and it has been a longstanding view of the Labor Party that this ban on prisoner voting is appropriate over the one electoral cycle. Parliament has always tried to draw a distinction between those serving more minor prison sentences and those who are in for more serious crimes. We have had a significant debate previously on this in the chamber, but understand that this is about fixing a problem that has very recently been identified, and it really ought to be an uncontroversial step.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Ferguson)—Senator Murray, did you want to move your amendments together or one by one? They are about to be put together.