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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5610

Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (16:00): The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 amends postal voting arrangements, increases nomination deposits for Senate and House of Representatives candidates, increases the nominators required for unendorsed candidates in Senate groups, changes the unsound mind exemption from enrolment to voting, and covers minor and technical amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

The committee supports the changes to schedules 1 and 2 of the bill. However, it has some concerns about schedule 3's changes to the unsound mind provision and has recommended certain amendments. Schedule 3 proposes to change the unsound mind provision in subsection 93(8) of the electoral act. That section exempts a person from enrolling and voting if they are incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting. Thousands of people are using this provision every year. They may be facing temporary or ongoing mental health challenges that compromise their capacity to cast a vote. It is generally someone close to the affected person who will seek to have that person exempted under subsection 93(8). The Australian Electoral Commission cannot initiate a removal from the roll on these grounds.

The committee is sensitive to community concerns that the phrase 'unsound mind' is offensive and that the provision prevents people from voting. Given Australia's system of compulsory enrolment and voting, it is useful to have a mechanism to address this to protect the integrity of elections and to assist those who are unable to meet the enrolment and voting obligations. Based on the evidence received, the committee is not satisfied that there is any pressing need to remove or substitute the phrase 'unsound mind'. It is an established phrase with meaning in the law. The committee has recommended retaining the phrase 'unsound mind' in subsection 93(8). To remove it risks broadening the exemption and potentially disenfranchising electors.

The committee also supports keeping the current requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner. With other professions such as psychiatrists and social workers making these determinations, it could fairly disenfranchise people if these additional qualified people are less stringent in judging a person's capacity to understand the significance of enrolment and voting.

I now turn to schedules 1 and 2 of the bill, relating to postal voting and nomination requirements. In referring the bill, the selection committee noted that the bill was ambiguous in relation to specific changes being made to processing postal vote applications. In its review of the bill, the committee found that a number of the changes relating to postal votes largely reflected existing AEC practices. These changes will simply ensure that the electoral act correctly outlines the processes that have evolved to help ensure efficient processing of postal vote applications (PVAs) and the distribution of postal vote packages (PVPs). Most PVAs are already processed centrally and PVPs distributed through the AEC central prints system—93 per cent for the 2010 federal election. At the next election there will also be the option to apply online. These online applications will be centrally processed.

The divisional returning office is no longer the main conduit for postal voting activities; however, the electoral commissioner will continue to delegate his power in relation to postal votes to the divisional returning officers (DROs) and other AEC officers. This change will not affect the way in which individuals and political parties interact with their DROs on postal voting matters. As is the current practice, political parties will still be able to distribute PVAs with campaigning material, receive completed PVAs and forward them to the relevant DRO.

In the case of issuing PVPs to a person rather than specifically to an elector, the AEC indicated that it already uses PVPs to unmatched applicants who are not found on the electoral roll. The returned ballot papers are then subject to further scrutiny and then admitted to the count only if the person is verified to be an elector. This is in keeping with the approach taken with declaration voters.

While having a variety of candidates is a feature of Australia's democracy, a large number of candidates means an expanded ballot paper and increases the complexity of the voting task for electors. Setting appropriate nomination requirements is one way to help ensure that prospective candidates appreciate the seriousness of their participation in the electoral process and that they can demonstrate some community support for their candidacy. Increasing the nomination deposit from $1,000 to $2,000 for Senate candidates and from $500 to $1,000 for House of Representatives candidates is reasonable and appropriate.

The increase from 50 to 100 nominators required for candidates not endorsed by a political party is reasonable. It is important that unendorsed candidates be able to demonstrate community support for their candidacy. Similarly, if unendorsed candidates wish to be grouped on a Senate ballot paper, it is appropriate that each member of a Senate group be able to demonstrate community support for the grouping. The bill will increase the nominators from 50 for the whole group to 100 per candidate, as the proposed new requirement is for unendorsed candidates to have 100 nominators. They should be able to draw on this support base to secure their Senate group box.

On behalf of the committee I thank the organisations and individuals who assisted the committee during the inquiry through submissions or participating at the roundtable discussion in Canberra. I also thank my colleagues on the committee for their work and contribution to this report and the secretariat for their work on this inquiry. I commend the report to the Senate and seek leave to continue my remarks.