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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5608

Senator RYAN (Victoria) (15:55): by leave—I move :

That the Senate take note of the report.

Apart from one particular change, the bill proposed by the government has the support of the opposition. There are a couple of issues I would like to highlight, because the committee report proposes a change to the legislation introduced by the minister in the other place. That change is to the terminology that is used to exclude people from voting. The current terminology excludes people who are of 'unsound mind'—as defined by a medical practitioner—from voting. The proposal is to change that to what one might call more modern terminology. The committee received some evidence from community groups, essentially complaining that the term has a pejorative meaning. But the committee—and this is a very important point—rejected those particular concerns, for several reasons.

Firstly, it is proposed in the bill that the wording be changed to use the definition of a 'qualified person' that is in the Freedom of Information Act. I believe that would inadvertently result in a wider exclusion of people from voting. The legal terminology around the term 'unsound mind' and a certificate being provided only by a qualified medical practitioner is about as narrow as we can get. It has an established legal meaning, there is an established process and, while there are some concerns about some doctors signing such a certificate—and there were complaints about that—changing the wording as proposed in the legislation would widen the definition and potentially exclude many more people from voting.

Secondly, it was also a concern of the opposition that the definition of a 'qualified person' as contained in the bill was too wide. I do not mean this in a pejorative way, but I would not want someone who is not qualified in medicine—someone who might be a social worker of some variety as opposed to a medical practitioner—to determine whether or not someone had the right to vote. Generally in Australia we like to expand the franchise and encourage as many people as possible to vote; in fact, we make it compulsory. We make enrolment as easy as possible. I believe that the wording proposed by the government could have inadvertently excluded more people.

The other contentious issue in this bill was the substantial increase in nomination requirements, particularly for this chamber, in terms of the number of nominators required, the number of nominators required for people who want to run on a group ticket and avail voters of above-the-line voting, and also nomination fees. There were some concerns that this would restrict the right of people to be candidates. It is important to put this in historical context. A couple of thousand dollars as a nomination fee may seem steep, but the nomination fee for the first federal election in one of our states was £25—which was a hell of a lot more money in 1900 than $2,000 is today. It still represents a substantial reduction in the nomination fee in real terms from our first federal election.

There is also a problem in access to the ballot paper. The New South Wales Senate ballot paper is now as big as can possibly be printed in the time allowed under the Electoral Act, and it is as big as can be printed on a flat-sheet printer. There is no bigger ballot paper available to be printed in the time the Electoral Act allows for ballot papers to be available for postal votes and pre-poll voting. The font size on the New South Wales Senate ballot paper is now down to 9 point. I do not mean to be too technical here but this is going to start impacting, particularly for senior Australians and those with eyesight problems, on the right to vote. We cannot make the ballot paper bigger. I believe the person who sits in front of me, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, whose name has a hyphen, has her name carried over to two lines on the ballot paper because the width cannot be fitted on the ballot paper with the sheer number of other candidates.

It is an important issue to restrict those candidates who some might say are not serious in running in order to maintain the ballot paper at a feasible size and not reach the tablecloth proportions that we did in the 1999 New South Wales Legislative Council election. We do not want to have multiple lines on the ballot paper because that could potentially impact on the fairness of the ballot. I put to the chamber and the people that a $2,000 nomination fee is not extraordinary in this modern era, especially given the historical context. Saying that, I seek leave to continue my remarks.