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Thursday, 25 September 2008
Page: 91

Mr GRAY (Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Northern Australia) (11:25 AM) —I rise to speak in favour of the motion on the International Day of Democracy. It is a UN day created to put a focus on and create interest internationally in the matter of democracy, how governments are formed and how the behave. In making the announcement in 2007, the UN statement read: ‘Stressing the continuing need to promote democratization development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the General Assembly today agreed to observe 15 September each year as the International Day of Democracy.’

Over the course of the last 35 years, I have worked on over 50 election campaigns at state and federal level, 13 of them being federal election campaigns. For a goodly portion of those, I was either the campaign director or a senior official in those campaigns. In Australia, we are fond of thinking of democracy as being purely the event that we celebrate every three years to elect a national government or, in most states and territories, every four years to elect governments in states, the ACT and the Northern Territory.

But there is more to democracy than simply marking a ballot paper. Democracy is about how the judiciary works. Democracy is about how media reporting agencies report and about how people have the right to vent their views. Democracy is about how people with views that differ are treated. Democracy is about how minorities are able to express their opinions. And democracy is about how majorities are able to have their way. Fundamentally, in our form of democracy, it is important that the majority is able to govern.

In the course of the last decade, I have been fortunate enough to observe, participate in or work in election campaigns in numerous different countries—in the US, in the UK, in New Zealand, in Sweden, in Greece, in East Timor and in Mauritania in Africa. It is fascinating to watch how democracy plays out in wealthy first world countries such as the US, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia and how in poorer countries and poorer economies nations struggle to implement and deal with the rigours of an election day, let alone the protocols, procedures and respects that are granted through a democratically elected parliament.

It is with some amusement that in Timor Leste I observed an election system that looked as if it had been designed by a wealthy European nation. That electoral system, with all of its caveats on respect for electing minorities, respect for electing genders equally and respect for electing configurations of candidates, would have done the Danish, the British or the French parliamentary systems proud. In Timor, perhaps there was a little bit too much engineering put into the perfection of their election system rather than thought being put into how the actual democracy would work in a country that was both distressed from its years of occupation and learning how to work with this new idea of democracy.

In Mauritania I watched as people had their hands inked with indelible ink and voted using coloured pieces of paper as the most obvious way of demonstrating support for one political party or the other. Clearly, there were imperfections in the Mauritania model, but clearly it was both more culturally acceptable and obtained a result that was more representative of the people of Mauritania. The only problem was that that election came at the end of a coup and was put in place by the people who had engineered that coup. Subsequently, just a few weeks ago, the democratically elected government was thrown out in another coup. That takes one to the African Union and the role which the African Union plays in democracy in Africa.

My view of the African Union is that it is a splendid organisation. It is a wonderful idea and it has some great people in it. The work that is done by the African Union to underpin both respect and regard for democratically elected governments is significant. In my personal experience, from a very limited resource base with very limited capabilities the African Union worked very hard to try to make sure that there is respect for democracy in Africa. It took a very strong position in those two coups that I have referred to in Mauritania on behalf of properly and appropriately elected democratic governments.

In Australia, we perhaps become complacent about how our electoral system operates. It is a complacency that is born both of our wealth and of our certainty that our election system is one of the best election systems in the world, and you will often hear people in this place making that statement. In Australia, we have numerous election systems, and I noted down a few of them as I was waiting to speak this morning. We have a state-wide election system for members of the upper house that takes place nationally for the Senate. Victoria and Western Australia have regional multimember systems, New South Wales and South Australia have a state-wide system and Tasmania in its upper house has single member electorates. Nationally we have single-member full preferential election systems at work in our own federal parliament here and in the Northern Territory, Victoria, South Australia and WA. In New South Wales and Queensland we have single-member optional preferential voting systems. In the ACT and Tasmania we have Hare-Clark with Robson rotation.

We have in Australia over half-a-dozen completely different voting systems. We have completely different voting systems in one nation, with electoral terms that run for different lengths of time. Running elections in Australia is a complicated business. We have got quite good at it from time to time; mostly we are not that good at it. Two recent elections have raised some commentary in the media: local government elections in New South Wales, because of how the Electoral Commission in New South Wales managed it; but I am most familiar with the state government election in Western Australia just a few weeks ago.

The Western Australian Electoral Commission would normally be regarded as an organisation capable of ensuring that the 1.3 million people of Western Australia all get the right to vote and that all those ballots get counted. On the day before the election, on the Friday, I was driving through my electorate doing work to support the excellent candidates who had put themselves up for election when a news broadcast came on the radio. It took my attention for more than one reason. The news broadcast went as follows:

Residents of Eucla will not be able to vote at this weekend’s State election. The Electoral Commission says it does not have the resources to set up a polling booth in the town and it forgot to tell local people about postal voting.

It remembered to write a press release and get that out on the radio, but it did not have the resources to set up a polling booth in the town and it forgot to let people know that they might be able to postal vote. The deputy electoral commissioner said that the commission would send formal apologies to the town’s 20 electors. She said they will not be fined for not voting. She is reported as saying:

I only became aware of this issue on Tuesday. Had I known Tuesday a week ago we could have organised for the residents to be able to have cast a postal vote. Despite our best efforts this week unfortunately the mail couldn’t get to them in time to have them complete their ballot papers and have them returned in time.

So they did not get to vote. How incredibly pathetic. How bizarre. How we can stand in this place and have regard for our election systems while we are being so let down by electoral commissions baffles me. It appals me, and I know that this view is shared by all sides of politics and of our parliament.

I was fascinated by the idea that the Electoral Commission realised on the Tuesday that it would not be able to get ballot papers for the Saturday to a community where it would have been possible to have (a) driven, (b) flown, (c) caught a bus—even a carrier pigeon would have done. But no, we did not do that. To the 20 electors, say the Electoral Commission, ‘we apologise and you will not have to pay a fine’. It appears that, in some bizarre twist of what the function of an electoral commission is, the Western Australia Electoral Commission views its function as fining people or not fining people for voting or not voting rather than assisting them in being able to vote.

I looked at that number, 20 voters, and thought that I had driven through Eucla many times and that I would be driving through Eucla again on Sunday. I looked at the electoral roll and I was pleased that Western Australian Senator Sterle was able to give me a print of the electoral roll of 20 voters in Eucla. But there are 24 voters in Eucla. The Electoral Commission in Western Australia did not even know how many people it had willingly chosen to disenfranchise. Equally, it probably does not know how many people it might have to send letters to, inviting them to give reasons as to why they could not vote. The confusion went on from there.

We learned, in the middle of counting, that the Electoral Commission in Western Australia had lost 1,100 votes. There were 1.35 million votes cast that Saturday, and one might say that losing 1,000 was careless. There were 1,100 votes lost from one electorate where 19,000 people voted. They had lost five per cent of the ballot box for the ballot in Geraldton. Fortunately, these votes appear to have been found, but what one cannot deny is the great concern that any reasonable person would have about the capability of the Electoral Commission in Western Australia.

I noted last week the editorial in the West Australian newspaper which said this, under the headline ‘WA deserves better from the Electoral Commission’:

The WA Electoral Commission has not exactly covered itself in glory with the State election, coming under fire from all sides for the slow count and bungles such as losing 1100 ballot papers in the seat of Geraldton and disenfranchising the township of Eucla.

Granted, the commission had to cope with the redrawn boundaries on the new one vote, one value electoral map and was obviously caught on the hop by a snap poll. But by any measure its performance was poor, creating the impression that it was not up to the job, difficult as that job may have been. Steps need to be taken to ensure that next time, it gets it right.

I believe that editorial from the West Australian massively understates the reality of the task of getting our state electoral commissions to work effectively, operate in a functional manner and ensure that Australians who are registered to vote, who want to vote, who turn up to vote not to avoid a $50 fine but because they have something to say about how they are governed and how they wish to be represented, are able to do so.

I would like to put on the record a set of data that was provided by the AEC to me and to the federal Parliamentary Library. In 2007 the Australian Electoral Commission was able to establish a ballot place at the Eucla community hall. It was open from 8 am to 6 pm on 24 November. In addition to that, interstate voting was available because Eucla is on a major interstate highway for people travelling into or out of Western Australia.

Again, in 2004, the Australian Electoral Commission was able to arrange voting activity in this region. It covered townships and communities from Eucla and around Eucla way. It covered Cocklebiddy, Madura and Mundrabilla—communities of not many voters. But even a community as small as Madura, with three enrolled voters, has a right to vote, and electoral commissions have a responsibility to ensure those three people have a capacity to vote in the same way as the rest of the 1.3 million in the state of Western Australia had a right to vote. I am not saying that that vote has to be cast at a static polling place. But to have a press release issued when the electoral commission was in knowledge of its shortcomings four days before the polling day in Western Australia is incompetent and a shame.