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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 13885

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (PerthMinister for Defence and Deputy Leader of the House) (09:49): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

On behalf of the Special Minister of State, I present a bill to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act which will substantially improve the interactions that Australians have with elections and referendums.

The bill implements the government response to several of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report into the 2010 federal election, specifically recommendations 3, 9, 10, 11, 15, 29, 30 and 37, and also makes some small technical amendments.

This bill continues the government's commitment to ensuring that the Commonwealth electoral roll best represents those Australians who are eligible to vote.

In the 2010 joint standing committee report, the committee made three recommendations related to maintaining the electoral roll. This bill includes the last of those three measures: a recommendation to allow the Australian Taxation Office to provide enrolment relevant personal information to the Australian Electoral Commission.

It is achieved by a small amendment to the Taxation Administration Act 1953 which appears in schedule 1 of this bill.

Although it is a small amendment on the face of this bill, it is another important step in assisting the Australian Electoral Commission to deliver the most inclusive electoral roll and the government is proud to be able to deliver this change.

The joint standing committee's report makes it clear that there were an estimated 15.7 million Australians eligible to be enrolled but only 14.2 million on the roll. Consequently, the majority of the committee agreed with the recommendation that the Australian Electoral Commission should have access to information from credible government sources, such as the ATO, to update and maintain the electoral roll.

There are also other small administrative amendments made in the bill. These amendments deal with when prepoll voting can commence, when postal vote applications can be received and removing the requirement that a person who is seeking to use prepoll voting for an ordinary vote should complete a certificate before they do so.

One of the methods of voting is to vote prepoll. There are currently two times set out in the electoral act when applications for a prepoll vote can be made. These amendments clarify and establish one time at which prepoll voting will be available: the fourth day after nominations are declared. For a minimum election timetable nominations are declared on a Friday, making the fourth day afterwards the succeeding Tuesday.

Depending on the type of election, whether it is for the House of Representatives or the Senate or both, the act currently provides different days for the commencement of prepoll voting and very minimal times are provided for the Australian Electoral Commission to print and distribute ballot materials to early voting centres across Australia in time for polling to commence. This is a sensible small amendment which provides a consistent time frame for when prepoll voting can commence.

There is also currently a requirement that a voter complete a written declaration in order to vote by prepoll as an ordinary voter. This requirement is not consistent with other forms of ordinary voting which only require a verbal declaration, does not serve a useful purpose and will be omitted by this bill.

One of the matters considered by the joint standing committee concerned incidents that occurred in connection with the 2010 election, where some ballot boxes were opened before they were lawfully authorised to be opened. Since that incident, extra training and support materials will be applied and it is less likely to happen again.

However, although this may be an excess of caution, the bill contains provisions which expressly clarify the action to be taken with respect to ballots that are contained in prematurely opened boxes. The ballots will be packaged, sent to the divisional returning officer and retained, but not included in the scrutiny.

Postal voting is increasingly popular. At the 2010 election the Electoral Commission processed over a million postal vote applications, which was a 17.8 per cent increase in the number processed at the 2007 election.

Under the existing provisions postal vote applications can be received up to 6 pm on the Thursday that is two days before polling day. Voters are required to cast their vote before the close of polling on Saturday. The limited time between the closing time for applications and election day make it highly unlikely that applicants will receive their postal ballot papers in time to cast their vote before the polls close.

This amendment brings the cut-off forward by one day to 6 pm on the Wednesday three days before polling day. This change is to improve the chance that the Australian Electoral Commission can deliver postal voting papers to an elector before the close of the poll.

There are, of course, equivalent amendments made to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.

The bill also provides for further fixed periods of time to be provided for the augmented Electoral Commission, to allow it to complete its inquiries into objections against proposed redistributions of electoral boundaries.

All of the measures in the bill are designed to assist in ensuring that Australia can continue to have a robust and up-to-date electoral system and administration. The recommendations made by the joint standing committee in the majority report are both sensible and politically neutral. The government is committed to ensuring their implementation.

However, in the interests of accountability, the Special Minister of State will write to the joint standing committee asking that it inquire into and report on the bill.

I commend the bill to the House.