Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Conduct of the 2004 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR —I welcome Professor Brian Costar and Mr David MacKenzie to today’s hearing. The committee has received your joint submission. As you would be aware, it has been numbered submission 105. Professor Costar, the committee has received your individual submission which has been numbered 106. The submissions have been authorised for publication. Just as a formality, are there any corrections or amendments you would like to make to the submissions in any way?

Prof. Costar —No, Chair, I do not have any amendments.

CHAIR —Given the time constraints, we have your submissions and we have had a look at them. As there are a number of members and senators here, we will move straight to some questions, and I ask you to elaborate as we go through some of the issues.

Senator MASON —Gentlemen, you state in your submission that homeless people’s attitudes and not their homelessness are mainly responsible for non-voting. You also state in paragraph 6.1 that disillusion with the government is a factor in discouraging the homeless from voting. How is that different from the general population?

Mr MacKenzie —I will just make a few comments on the homeless and voting. Our knowledge of this is based on a small-scale study that we did of in-depth interviews with about 39 homeless people. Most workers with homeless people actually did not think that homeless people voted. We found that about half did, and their attitudes were very similar to those of the rest of the population. They did say that homelessness was a barrier, and it may have been in some ways, but it was not a barrier to their actually doing it. The other half were homeless people who did not vote for a range of reasons. Some were dealing with issues like mental health; some were voters alienated from society and from the political system; some were not registered, although they thought they were registered. Perhaps we will call that the Peter Garrett syndrome. So there was a host of reasons. It certainly knocked over the stereotype that we had in mind when we started.

Prof. Costar —That is a very good question because it draws our attention to not treating the homeless as a complete subcategory in a community. We found that, as my colleague David MacKenzie said, homeless people, people experiencing homelessness, have certain specific issues that they have to deal with, but they are also citizens and in a sense reflect a good deal of the diversity of the Australian citizenship. One thing that we were advised was not to make assumptions about, for example, how homeless people vote. We never investigated that, but we had a number of references available to us that we would be very foolish to assume that homeless people had an overwhelming preference for a particular political party. The suggestion we were given was that the homeless population is very diverse and its political preferences are diverse.

Senator MASON —I have a technical question: you have to be enrolled, obviously, to vote, and you have to be enrolled in a particular electorate to vote in that particular electorate. With homeless people who therefore do not have a domicile, are there any technical barriers to casting a vote?

Mr MacKenzie —Homeless people move around a lot, but most people who are homeless are still going to be connected in the city where they were born or have their origins, and many are still connected in their community. They are moving around within that community. A minority of the homeless population—it is about 100,000 men, women and children in Australia, as you know—would be itinerant in the sense of moving from one location to another, from one state to another. There is an unknown number of people that are actually like gypsies, moving from one area of seasonal work to another. But the majority of the population are going to be much closer to home. They are not in one stable address, obviously, but, as one fellow said, ‘I use my mum’s address.’ So there are addresses that they can use, and those who vote use those addresses. They may not be at that address, but it is an address where they receive mail and where they were present in recent times.

Senator MASON —That may be appropriate for some, but do you think that all 100,000 homeless people would be able to tie themselves down to a particular address at election time?

Mr MacKenzie —No. About 20 to 30 per cent are itinerant in the true sense of the meaning, so the itinerant voters form is going to be relevant for them. For the others, their address could be a welfare agency, and they are sometimes there for three or six months. It is the address where they are supported and where they are accommodated, so that address could be used. Others may use an address where they were recently. It is complicated, and I guess for the majority we would be basically wanting to enrol them at the address that they are pretty much connected to. Certain measures would need to be taken to actually reach that group and ensure that they are enrolled in those addresses, and there are issues there that Brian might want to comment on.

Mr MELHAM —How would you establish that connection? What would you say they would require before they can be enrolled at that address?

Prof. Costar —They obviously have to fulfil the requirement in the act, but I guess you are asking a broader question, and that is how—

Mr MELHAM —Would it not be a different requirement than the one in the act?

Prof. Costar —Not necessarily. I think this is the point that Mr MacKenzie is making. I think of the homeless in American constructs. I did a bit of research in the US and it struck me very quickly that we really are dealing with a different population. As you know, the American electoral legislation is very diverse. In some states of the United States, it is virtually impossible for a person to be enrolled if they do not have a driver’s licence but, in other states, homeless people can enrol when their address is a doorway or a park bench.

CHAIR —Do you mind just outlining some of the international experience with homeless persons voting?

Prof. Costar —In the two jurisdictions that we have looked at that have some relevance to Australia—and I do not necessarily mean a model—the United States one is interesting. At first glance there is an enormous difference between the two systems, but there are things that we can learn from them and they can learn from us. First, as you know, the interest in homeless people voting is relatively new in Australia. It dates back, I think, to the late 1990s when there was an article in The Big Issue and in the newspapers—and of course, your committee took it up last time. In the United States, because the homeless population is so large, and because much of it is genuinely transient, there has been a long tradition of enrolling homeless people. There are some interesting things that perhaps we can learn from the Americans. I asked people from the homeless coalition if they were able to nominate one factor to assist them in properly registering homeless people who could be voters. They said, ‘Voter education, voter education and more voter education.’ That was the one issue that is of relevance to us.

I learnt that in the United States—and this is, I guess, partly because of the size of the homeless population and its demographic—a quarter of homeless people are veterans of the military. That struck me as an extraordinary statistic, but that is the evidence. In a good deal of the activity that I observed in the United States, there is a lot of what might be called self-help amongst homeless people. They drive a lot of the programs. There is a lot of close interaction between professional workers and actual homeless people who are advocates in their cause.

The other international example that perhaps might come up, if we talk about itinerant voters, is the United Kingdom. We have suggested in our recommendation that the homeless voter registration form under the Representation of the Peoples Act 1983 of the UK is probably a better user-friendly model than the one we currently have. We are not alone in that. That is a theme that has come through in a lot of the research. There are things that we can usefully learn from other jurisdictions. I am more familiar with the situation in the US rather than in the UK, but there are things there that we can adapt to our conditions.

Mr MELHAM —I am not against the thrust of what you are saying. What I am worried about is that, at the moment, we have a situation where there is still some paranoia in the parliament about the integrity of the rolls. We are in the process of looking at suggestions that are not about enfranchising people but that are going to disenfranchise people. Putting the homelessness issue to one side, I am talking about young people and their ability to enrol from the time an election is called and the seven-day period. We have a supplementary submission from the Australian Electoral Commission. I do not know whether you have seen that, particularly tables 6 and 7, but it shows a disenfranchisement—if we go down this path—of about 70,000 new enrolees, not to mention people not being able to correct their existing enrolments which will run into the hundreds of thousands. How does that conform with those to overcome the fear campaign of integrity? That is why I asked you what will be the basis of enrolling homeless people. Do we require a minimum period in a particular area, and that area can stay for so many years, or what?

Prof. Costar —Could I start with the integrity of the roll? The first thing I have put on the notes that I have prepared for this hearing was to stress our commitment to the integrity of the electoral roll, and we all know why. But I think we need to distinguish two things here. Certainly, we would not want to make any recommendations—and I am sure the committee would not want to take any of them up—that in any way put at risk the integrity of what is, in my opinion, a very good electoral roll. That has to be done carefully. But, then again, we do not want to be discriminating against a diverse group of people by requiring additional evidence, in a sense, of connectedness as against what you and I can enrol by way of living at an address.

As to the question of, you might say, partisan manipulation of groups of people to engage in malfeasance to stuff the electoral roll, there are two points about that. A number of allegations have been made over the years—and this committee has heard a lot of them—and many of them do not stack up when they are put to the evidence. On the other hand, the matter must be addressed. Using an out-of-country example, at the 2000 presidential election in the US, the campaigners for Al Gore got caught on television effectively bribing homeless people with cartons of cigarettes to get them to vote and to vote in a particular way. There was the usual litigation about that.

I directly raised that with people in the US and said, ‘How do you counter zealous partisan manipulation or attempts to manipulate a group?’ They said, ‘We build it into the voter education program that we take to homeless people’—in other words, alerting them to the fact that there are or have been a number of what we would call ‘scams’. They are attempts to exploit—let’s be honest—a group for a partisan end, and that they need to be aware of this. If they find evidence of it, they give them steps to deal with it. The allegations that have flown around are too extreme, but the issue is there and should not be ignored. I think it can be addressed.

Senator MURRAY —Just recently I was down in Bunbury, WA, and talking to some homeless people. A number of them could not get accommodation, even though they wanted it, because there was none available, even of the cheapest kind. So they were sleeping rough. It occurred to me that it is more difficult to attach homeless people to an address than to where they eat. They eat at a regular place. They do not necessarily sleep at a regular place, and those eating places, in my view, could be usefully used, before the close of the rolls, to register homeless people who wish to vote. In other words, you send the form to the people who run those eating establishments. What do you think about the idea of perhaps registering homeless people at the place they eat?

Prof. Costar —As a former Queenslander, I have horrendous memories of people registering to vote in trade union elections as to where they once worked, which were hotels, which led to a memorable prosecution in Queensland some years ago—so I think we need to be a bit wary of that. You know what was happening there: people were—

CHAIR —Professor Costar, it is not memorable to me; do you want to just run through it for the benefit of Hansard? I would hate people who subscribe to Hansard to be left wondering.

Prof. Costar —People who were working in hotels often were creative in the use of their names, but they were eligible to vote in whatever union they were enrolled in. As you know, union ballots are postal. The postal ballot would arrive at various hotels and, as the hotelier had forgotten the person, he would simply put the letter up on a noticeboard. Then what we would call ‘enthusiastic persons campaigning for other persons’ would come along and collect them and vote for them. But a couple of sharp-eyed Electoral Commission officers noticed that some of these seemed to be in the same handwriting. We had a memorable case in the Federal Court where a couple of people were very lucky not to go to jail. It was a pre-Karen Ermine outing, if you like.

Mr MELHAM —I gave evidence in one of those cases on character.

Prof. Costar —One thing that might be worth considering—

Mr MELHAM —I just need to explain that—

CHAIR —I am surprised they did not go to jail, actually!

Prof. Costar —The point you are making is that there are areas where homeless people gather. Mr MacKenzie could take us on a tour not very far from here where we would find lots of homeless people gathering. Suggestions have been made—and I am aware that there are technical issues that have to be addressed in this—as to whether or not a better solution where it is known that homeless people gather is mobile polling stations, along the lines of hospitals and prisons. Mr MacKenzie is much more expert in this than I am, but in some places—in capital cities and not in capital cities—as you discovered, the number of people is significant and enough to justify perhaps the expense of a mobile polling place. But that would have to be investigated place to place. You do not want to be squandering resources sending out mobile polling places where there is simply no need.

Senator MURRAY —But you talk about voter education. Most of the places at which these people eat are run by charitable institutions. They do not eat in hotels and congregate in hotels; they cannot afford it, for a start. They are getting a free feed in sometimes very good surroundings. That is where you are likely to get your voter education across because they are captive, they trust the volunteers there, and the volunteers know them. Generally, they would not have a partisan agenda; they are folk with good hearts. It seems to me that it is the same with itinerants. An itinerant does not have an address, but at least the place they eat is an address for a person who otherwise would be an itinerant. I am surprised at your negative reaction.

Prof. Costar —I am sorry; on the question of voter education as a location for that, yes.

Senator MURRAY —But I am not just talking voter education, I am talking registration. Itinerants do not have addresses. The only address a person has is where they eat.

Prof. Costar —I am sorry, Senator, I think I misunderstood you. When you talked about people congregating somewhere to eat, I did not pick up on the fact that you were thinking about an agency. There we are at one with you. We have said that in our report.

Senator MURRAY —Thank you for that. As to your prisoner franchise presentation, it is my view that taking a vote away from a prisoner is a double punishment. You are punishing them twice for what they have done. My feeling for a long time is that if you want to do that, you should leave it up to the judge—in other words, make the withdrawal of votes a category of punishment that the judge can apply, as well as a suspended sentence, a fine, a withdrawal of liberty. How do you react to that as an alternative to the way in which the law is at present?

Prof. Costar —I think you would see from my submission that I would agree with you. I oppose the legislative and blanket withdrawal of the right to enrolment and to vote for certain classes of convicted prisoners. My preferred view is not to withdraw the voting right from any prisoners on the principle that you mentioned. If it were to go into sentencing procedures, given that most, if not all, prisoners or convicted persons in Australia are convicted by state courts, that would then have to be negotiated through the state Attorneys-General.

Unlike the homeless, we are talking about a relatively small group of people, simply because our rates of imprisonment are relatively low worldwide. We are not looking at the American situation where it is estimated now that there are two million otherwise eligible citizens who are unable to vote because they have committed a felony. We are not talking that order at all. But it is an important democratic symbol in your point—that people who are convicted of crimes are sentenced to a loss of liberty in many cases. I would want to hear a very strong argument as to why, as you said, they should face a double jeopardy.

A lot of the jurisprudence is running in the opposite direction. The British Representation of the Peoples Act 1983 has fallen foul of the European Court of Human Rights, although the government in Britain is not doing anything about it. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled against disenfranchising prisoners, and the push in the US is very much to try to wind back the peculiar American action that in most states people who commit a felony lose their civil rights, which includes the right to vote. In many states, it disbars them from voting for all time. They really do believe in civil death but not in civil resurrection, unfortunately.

CHAIR —Could I just seek a point of clarification—I am sorry to interrupt, Senator Murray—so that we are all clear? Are the prisoners who are eligible to vote currently registered at their continuing electoral roll registration at their home, or are they all registered in—

Prof. Costar —As I understand it, yes, they are registered.

Senator MURRAY —You must wonder what sort of life I lead, because last week I was also talking to some prisoners down in Harvey in WA who were typical of many prisoners—namely, they have lost their way. They are not basically bad people; they have just been foolish and need a second chance. It struck me that these are the sorts of people from whom you would not take away the vote. I can see that it should not apply to somebody who has committed treason or somebody who is mentally incapacitated. But I do not see why these people should have the punishment of removal of their right to vote as well as their loss of liberty. It is true, is it not, that in Australia there is some similarity to America in that the regimes vary per state?

Prof. Costar —Yes, they do.

Senator MURRAY —At least we should attempt to get some commonality, some common principles, between the Commonwealth and the Attorneys-General of the states. If the committee were to consider nothing else, it should at least ask for that.

Prof. Costar —I think the strictest regime is that of people who are convicted and serving a sentence of one year. Until late last year, the least strict regime was that of the Commonwealth, where it was five years. As you know, it is now three years.

Senator MURRAY —There is an attempt to withdraw it all together. My difficulty with that is that in some states the penalty is jail, for instance, for not paying a fine, and in other states there is no penalty of jail for not paying a fine, so you would have people with the same crime having a different outcome.

Mr MELHAM —Is that not why the best way is to look at the threshold of a jail sentence as against the penalty, given what Senator Murray is saying?

Prof. Costar —That is to be preferred, but I would say that another reason why I am being very liberal on this is that, as Senator Murray points out, there are a number of layers of discrimination possible. One is different state laws and different state penalties. The other one, as we all know—and Senator Murray has alluded to it—is that the prison population of Australia, albeit small, is not a microcosm of society. It is predominantly male, it is predominantly young, and Indigenous people have 15 times the rate of imprisonment. If you went into it, I am sure you would find a socio-economic—

Mr MELHAM —How would you frame it? What would your disqualification be?

Prof. Costar —None.

Mr MELHAM —So you would say that all prisoners should be entitled?

Prof. Costar —That is my view.

Mr MELHAM —Even if they were guilty of treason?

Prof. Costar —Given that we have never convicted anybody of treason—

Mr MELHAM —That is why I am trying to define the barrier, because one minute we are told it is none, and I mention the offence of treason and am told it is different. That is why I am trying to work out what Senator Murray—

Prof. Costar —I think I mentioned briefly in my submission—

Mr MELHAM —Will we bar treason?

CHAIR —I think it is important that Mr Melham pursues this, because I am sure Mr Melham would not want us to confuse your position with Senator Murray’s.

Mr MELHAM —No, I agree, and that is why I am interested in it. What are you suggesting—that treason be the only disbarment? If you are convicted of treason, that is the only disbarment for your right to vote to continue? I am just looking at what the threshold should be, Professor, given that you have raised it.

Prof. Costar —I have said that we would need to put forward a good argument. Probably the best argument you could put forward for removing the right of a person to vote is if they were convicted of treason but, given that no-one has ever been convicted of treason in Australia, are we really looking at a practical issue?

Mr MELHAM —What about terrorist offences? We are about to maybe envisage legislation that would take away citizenship. What about an offence of terrorism? Do we take away their right to vote if they are convicted of an offence of terrorism?

Prof. Costar —No, I would not categorise that differently. I would leave that to the current legal system.

Mr MELHAM —What about Senator Murray’s suggestion that we should leave this to the courts, for instance? In other words, that could form part of the penalty that a judge imposes—disbarment from voting.

Prof. Costar —I think I said to Senator Murray that I am a bit worried about uniformity of application.

Mr DANBY —Thank you both for coming along and for your very comprehensive submission. Before I turn to Professor Costar, I have a number of questions for you, Mr MacKenzie, about the early closure of the roll which is specified in the supplementary submission of the Australian Electoral Commission. First, I want to stay with this topic that you have been talking about with respect to homelessness and the vote and to try to quantify it. Do you know the number of Australians over 18 and the number of people who actually vote in federal elections? Have there been any studies of that?

Mr MacKenzie —The number of homeless people over 18?

Mr DANBY —No, the number of Australians over 18 who are eligible to vote, and the number of people who actually vote in federal elections?

Mr MacKenzie —I am going to defer to Brian on that one.

Prof. Costar —The answer is we do not know. How can we know? We are trying to prove, in a sense, a negative here. We know that enrolment is compulsory for people who have turned 18, and that they can provisionally enrol at 17. What we do know from the statistics is that the young are slow enrollers. Setting aside any other category about ethnicity or class or gender or anything; if you wanted to see who are the non-enrollers, it is the 17, 18 to 24-year-olds.

Mr DANBY —I will come to that, because I am going to be asking you some questions about age, but I want to stick with this. We must know from the Australian Bureau of Statistics how many Australians who are over 18 are eligible to vote.

Mr MacKenzie —We do know that, but I just do not have the figure here.

Mr DANBY —It is probably worthwhile this committee and even yourselves having a look at that. The Australian Electoral Commission regularly gives us reports after the elections that 95 per cent of eligible voters voted, or 94 per cent or 92 per cent. It would be interesting to quantify the differences in absolute numbers as well as percentages.

Mr MacKenzie —It is a bit tricky to get that number, but we could get a pretty good estimate.

Mr DANBY —It is worthwhile refining that because an element of it, according to paragraph 1.7 of the summary of your report, is that 46 per cent of homeless voters are classified as non-active voters. I presume they are a percentage of the number that do not vote. It is 46 per cent of people you classify as homeless—these are itinerate people—who think they are registered at their mum’s address but they have not bothered. Is that figure of 46 per cent correct?

Mr MacKenzie —There were three studies. I think ours showed about 54 per cent were non-voters. They were very small-scale studies. The homeless population is about 100,000 men, women and children. That is pretty well established from our work with the Australian Bureau of Statistics. About two-thirds are aged 18 and over. I will not go into the tricky, technical things about exactly how we get that.

Mr DANBY —But they are included in the homeless category?

Mr MacKenzie —In the homeless category. With these three small-scale studies, we have estimates that about half of the homeless people who are eligible to vote are voting, and about half are not. These are small-scale studies, and we are inferring from those studies to the whole population, so let us be clear that that is a bit of a jump.

CHAIR —You say they are small-scale studies. In your findings you do not claim that those percentages would replicate across?

Mr MacKenzie —No, we do not. You cannot infer from 39 interviews to a population of 100,000. There was a survey of 100 in the Public Interest Law Clearing House study—and that was quite a small survey as well—but the three studies do roughly corroborate. One can have a bit of confidence that maybe that is close to what is going on out there, but you cannot technically infer from such small samples to a population of 100,000.

Mr DANBY —My point to you both is that—apart from this committee and the Australian Electoral Commission classifying and quantifying and making recommendations about the homeless vote—it is probably worthwhile quantifying exactly how many people do not vote all together, and why. I think homelessness is probably a very large reason. All of us need to know more about that. With respect to the 100,000 potential electors who are referred to in your submission, what expenditure of public moneys would get them on the roll? What are we looking at? Is it cost efficient and all of these kinds of things?

Mr MacKenzie —It is actually quite complex. We are looking at a range of different things. It is not just one group and therefore one strategy and one set of actions that could be costed in a simple way. Some homeless people are not in contact with agencies. About 40 per cent are out there sleeping on couches and floating around with acquaintances and friends. In a sense, they are an invisible part of the population that is very hard to reach. They may come at some stage into an agency or they may not. Public education and using the mass media in various ways would be the only way to reach such people.

As to the 20 per cent or so that are in contact with agencies—and over time more than 20 per cent would use an agency over the year—they can be reached. We have a very good system that has had bipartisan support over many decades from both parties of supported accommodation and a range of other assistance. Senator Murray’s suggested that those sorts of agencies are in a very good position to be in contact with homeless people and are the logical place where certain things could be done to make sure people are enrolled and aware of what is going on.

The people sleeping out are also in contact with agencies, generally speaking. They are a very small group at any one time in cities, about five per cent, but in Bunbury or in country areas, a much greater number of people actually sleep out, simply because you can. Up to 25 per cent of the homeless population in a country area could be sleeping out, camping out, on river banks and so on. They are also probably in contact with agencies. So it is a fairly significant number—maybe a third of the population—of people who are in contact with agencies and where something could be done. Another major part of it is that others are not, and that is more difficult. There is a further section of the homeless population that is living in cheap rooms, in very cheap boarding houses, and so on. They are also contactable, because they actually have a place of residence, even though they are technically homeless. I will not go into those technicalities now. They can also be reached.

Mr DANBY —With respect to the early closure of the roll, you outline in your submission that 300,000 people would be disfranchised if the roll was closed on the day the election was announced, which is apparently a government proposal. Are you aware that, in table 7 of the AEC’s supplementary submission, they actually state that 345,177 people would be disfranchised?

Prof. Costar —Yes, I am aware of that, but I did not have those figures.

Mr DANBY —I am not criticising you for it, but I just wanted to make sure that it was on the record before this committee.

Prof. Costar —I think that is a very interesting table which can be put to use as to the effect of closing the roll.

Mr DANBY —There are some very interesting figures also on new enrolees. It states that 7,500 Victorians would be disfranchised by an early closure of the roll and 37,000 18-year-olds across Australia, comprising 78,000 people altogether—if that had happened at the last election.

CHAIR —Just for the purposes of clarity, Mr Danby, that table does not assert that that many people would be disfranchised. So there is no confusion, ‘disfranchised’ is your word; is that right? What you are asserting is they are the figures in the AEC submission. The Australian Electoral Commission does not say, ‘Here is the number of people that would be disfranchised,’ because you are talking about figures from the last election. Is that right?

Mr DANBY —Yes.

CHAIR —You are operating on the assumption that there would be zero behavioural change in the event that there was some change to the existing requirements. We can find a difference of opinion, but for the sake of clarity—

Mr DANBY —I appreciate the chair’s refinement of that; it is a perfectly proper issue of classification. Professor Costar, what was the implication of that happening at the last occasion in 1983 when the roll was closed on the day the election was announced? What happened amongst voters on election day subsequent to that?

Prof. Costar —It provoked a High Court challenge which told us that section 41 did not mean that if you had a vote in a state election you automatically had one in a federal election. That was probably the most enduring effect of the requirement.

Mr DANBY —Can you say that again? It did not mean that you had a vote?

Prof. Costar —No. The High Court ruled that section 41 was what they call a ‘transitional provision’—that it was there to deal with the transition from the colonial parliaments into the first federal election. A person took an action and said: ‘Look, I’m a voter in New South Wales; I am on the roll’—I think there were no common rolls at that stage—‘I am being disfranchised because the roll was closed. Therefore, I am being denied my rights to vote under section 41.’ In finding that it was only a transitional provision, which was hardly surprising, it does underpin that I think we all have to remind ourselves that there is no right to vote enshrined in the Australian Constitution.

Mr MELHAM —It has been said emphatically that, in effect, the Electoral Act now is what gives the right to vote, and parliaments are paramount in that regard, not the Constitution.

Prof. Costar —I think what flows from that—

CHAIR —We just might keep moving because I am very keen, since we are discussing possible disfranchisement, not to disfranchise Senator Brandis, my colleague Ms Panopoulos and indeed Senator Forshaw! Perhaps we can just wrap up.

Mr DANBY —Professor Costar, can you just finish what you were saying?

Prof. Costar —I think we all need to bear in mind that, because there is no entrenched right to vote in the Constitution—neither is there in the American Constitution—we need to proceed carefully when we are thinking about making the electoral roll less inclusive than it is now. That is not to say there are not good reasons to exclude some people from enrolment; under 18s would be one big category. But I think it needs to be thought through very carefully, and we should not be rushing in to make the roll more exclusive than it is now, given that it is something that Australia can be pretty proud of. It runs the electoral roll and does what I call representative democracy reasonably well.

Mr DANBY —If 300,000 were disfranchised in the 1983 election, do the press reports of the time describe turmoil at the polling booths with electoral officials having to deal with people who thought they had the right to vote but did not in fact have it because they had not advised the AEC in the week of grace that they had normally had until that date?

Prof Costar —No. Remember, they never had the week of grace—until the act changed in 1983. So in a sense, if you like, a pattern had been developed. As you all know, people come along to a polling place looking for their name on the roll and, if it is not there, they insist on a provisional vote. Of course, some do not and wander away. I think it was settled policy. It had been settled policy since 1984, and I hear that there are suggestions that it might be changed. Nothing has been proposed, as you know.

Mr DANBY —I do not need a comment on this, because I have to turn over to my colleagues, but I am pleased to see that the AEC is going to provide us with information—I am sure it will be available to people like you—on the effect of this electorate by electorate had it been implemented at the 2004 election.

Senator FORSHAW —I pick up on the issue of homeless people who may be able to be enrolled through an agency such as St Vincent de Paul, through one of their night shelters or whatever, where they go to spend the night. Would that put an added burden on organisations that are already stretched to the limits in terms of providing services, and increasingly being required by government to provide services and support that they might not have done in the past? For instance, I have sat on committees where people from St Vincent de Paul and the Smith Family were saying that the range of issues and services that they have to cover now is much greater than in the past. Are you aware of the views of those organisations? Have you ever discussed that with them and their taking on a role of promoting enrolment with their clients?

Mr MacKenzie —I think there is a sense of community out there in the sector with the programs that support homeless people, given that they have not been given increased resources for a long time. Any additional expectation does raise the issue of the added burden. There would be a lot of people in the sector who would possibly agree with me on this point. Elections only happen from time to time and, given the nature of homelessness and the disengagement of homeless people from the mainstream of the community, the idea of actually assisting people to exercise their right to vote is perhaps better seen as part of bringing people back into the mainstream and having the same expectation of homeless people as you would have of anyone else—rather than saying, ‘Well, they’re homeless; we don’t need to worry about them.’ Put in that context, I think we are likely to see a fairly positive response from service providers. The added burden in real terms is fairly small. The people out there working with homeless people are very resourceful, very committed, very hardworking and generally do whatever it takes to assist the people they are working with.

Senator FORSHAW —The context in which I raise it—and I understand and would not disagree with your point—is that a lot of what they have to do also involves trying to assist these people to register to qualify for other forms of government support, such as Centrelink, or referral to mental health agencies or whatever. Following on from this issue—and my colleague Senator Murray raised this—I can see how it is a sort of a meeting point. It is a place where these people go essentially to stay at night. There are two aspects to this question. Firstly, let us say that they were able to be enrolled at the address of the local Sydney City Mission. How would you see that working out in practice? The tendency for these people is that they only visit those centres at night. They might be put on the roll, but does it necessarily mean that they are likely to go and vote at a polling booth? Would you need a polling booth in the agency’s centre itself? Would that mean you would have the polling booth open later because they are wandering around the city?

Secondly—and it is probably even more contentious—I refer to the capacity for abuse from other people. Let us say you have 200 people enrolled at XYZ agency facility, but if it is the expectation that they may not necessarily all go and vote, or very few would vote, you then have a block of names and addresses that provides potential for other people to vote illegally on their behalf. This is the sort of thing that I heard about when I first became involved in politics. Real estate agents would know who was on the rent rolls, who was on the electoral roll from those rent rolls, and who had left the district. When the absentee figures came in, you were often suspicious about how it was that many of those people voted. Would you comment on those aspects?

Mr MacKenzie —In my experience, there is a very, very strong ethos of confidentiality in those agencies. The women’s refuge is an example. If I were to pick any institution or any organisation out there, these would be the ones that I would be least worried about with that sort of thing happening.

Senator FORSHAW —I am not suggesting that they would do it, but it is publicly available—just as people are resident on the roll in a retirement village. It is publicly available information that John Smith is enrolled to vote at such and such a mission, or the city agency centre—

Mr MacKenzie —We actually have very few of those very large institutions. We have redeveloped our services significantly. What we tend to have in Australia, unlike in the United States where they have large warehouse type shelters in all the major cities, are smaller agencies but many of them. I think there are about 1,200 dispersed throughout the community and throughout Australia. There are very few where there would be those large lists that you are talking about. Generally speaking, there might be 10 or 20 or five or six, and they are small houses in suburban locations throughout the country.

Senator FORSHAW —So you do not see—

Mr MacKenzie —I do not see it as a big problem.

Senator FORSHAW —that there is scope for people—

Mr MacKenzie —Very, very small scope for that.

Senator FORSHAW —to say, ‘Here is a whole list of names on the electoral roll that we feel confident may not vote.’

Mr MacKenzie —In real terms, from my point of view, it is small—very small.

Ms PANOPOULOS —I was quite pleased to hear you say before that the sample size of the research was rather small. That is something that struck me at first. I always go to the sample size. The submission states that quite a few identified homeless people refused to cooperate. How many were actually approached in the overall research?

Mr MacKenzie —In our study there were 39 who did. There were a few people—only two or three people—who said they did not want to talk to us. But overwhelmingly, in terms of the interview study that we did, homeless people were very cooperative. They were quite prepared to talk.

Ms PANOPOULOS —But how many homeless people were approached to participate in this study?

Mr MacKenzie —Forty-two or something like that. Ours was an interview study so we were not surveying a large number. We were not randomly sampling a group from the population. We were actually trying to find out, by asking detailed questions, what was going on. So when we infer from the population, we do that with all the reservations that you have noted. We are not seriously arguing that the whole population is like that. It is encouraging that the three small studies corroborate each other—that we are getting something like the same answer.

Ms PANOPOULOS —It could be the same answers or it could just be the same innate fundamental flaws in the methodology to reach a result.

Mr MacKenzie —As a researcher, I am very willing to say we do need much more research always, so I will make that admission.

Ms PANOPOULOS —The other issue that was particularly interesting was the comment that one of the factors overriding a homeless person’s desire or willingness to vote was the fear of welfare payments being denied. Can you expand on that?

Prof. Costar —I am sure you have read the PILCH submission. As David said, they are small studies, they are beginning studies, they roughly corroborate each other—and that could be for all sorts of reasons. We hope to be before you again in three years time with a much bigger project to report to you. The interesting thing is that this was picked up in a number of workshops, if you like, that were held over the past 18 months, that people from agencies and the AEC and homeless people attended. There was a view—and I would not say it was a majority view—amongst homeless people that they did not make a particular distinction between elements of the benign bureaucracy or, for them, the less benign bureaucracy. This is not surprising. Interestingly, the PILCH report stated that a number of the people surveyed said they would like to have information put through Centrelink. We take that as reported. Again, a number of people were, if you like, reluctant to put their name on an electoral roll, or they said they were, because they thought they would be pursued by other agencies, or if they enrolled—let us say they were 38 years old—and they had not been enrolled for years or they had never been enrolled, they feared that there would be retrospective fining.

Ms PANOPOULOS —I was not asking about being fined; I specifically wanted to know and understand this fear of being denied welfare payments. What was that founded on? Outside that general dislike and suspicion of bureaucracy, why was that an overriding factor for so many people? Is it because there is an element of fraud in welfare? Why would people be afraid of losing their welfare benefits?

Mr MacKenzie —My simple answer would be that it is just a general distrust of government and bureaucracy felt by some people who are homeless and highly alienated. There was no evidence in any of the work we did of welfare fraud—that they were defrauding the system and worried about being found out.

Ms PANOPOULOS —So you are saying that that was an unreasonable fear that they had?

Mr MacKenzie —A few of the other attitudes that people have are unreasonable. We note that they have a view, but it is not always a factual view or a reasonable view. I think that mistrust is just something that you find amongst homeless people, given the pretty terrible experiences that they have had. They have a very great distrust of authority and government agencies, and some of them have reported difficult experiences with government agencies. The view of some people is understandable, given that context.

Prof. Costar —We witnessed some fairly robust exchanges between homeless people and, if you like, hardly bureaucratic agencies, quite small agencies. I am not saying it is universal. We began our submission by talking about diversity, and that is the thing that is in this area of research.

Ms PANOPOULOS —I was just trying to ascertain whether there was any evidence on the basis of that unreasonable fear.

Prof. Costar —We did not find it, but then again, I am not homeless.

CHAIR —I thank both of you for making your submission and agreeing to come and give evidence on this important topic. As you are aware, we will be hearing from other witness today and we also be going to Adelaide and Perth, and then back to Canberra. If you want to submit anything additional over coming weeks or months, that can be accepted also.

Prof. Costar —Thank you very much for having us.

Proceedings suspended from 10.27 am to 10.45 am