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Conduct of the 2004 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR —Welcome. We have received your submission, which has been numbered 131. It has been authorised for publication. Is there anything you wish to add to that submission or correct or amend in any way?

Mr Lynch —There is nothing I wish to amend or correct.

CHAIR —As I said, we have your submission. We have received a number of submissions on this topic. I ask you to make a very brief opening statement and then we will go straight to questions.

Mr Lynch —Certainly. As you will have seen from the submission, it pertains to the issue of homelessness and voting and particularly the enfranchisement of homeless voters, having regard to the various barriers and disincentives that people experiencing homelessness confront when seeking to participate in the electoral process, the importance of meaningful participation in the electoral process, and also the identification of strategies, policies and programs to enhance electoral participation among people experiencing homelessness. You will no doubt have heard from previous witnesses that, according to the ABS, there are about 100,000 people who experience homelessness on any given night across Australia. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there are about 154,000 that accessed homelessness assistance services during 2003-04.

Our research indicates that many of these people, in the order of 65,000, are eligible to vote, and experience multiple barriers to voting and to electoral participation, notwithstanding obviously the obligation that the Commonwealth has to facilitate participation under international human rights law and also under principles of representative and robust democracy, and also notwithstanding the importance of voting and meaningful participation in public affairs to people experiencing homelessness themselves. Our submission is based on and informed by primary research conducted with 104 people experiencing homelessness. They were people who came from the categories of primary homelessness—that is, people sleeping rough, people with no form of conventional accommodation; those in the secondary category—that is, people in crisis accommodation, people couch surfing with friends, relatives and so on; and those in the tertiary category—people who are in boarding houses or rooming houses and do not have security of tenure or whose accommodation could be said to fall below minimum community standards. I will stop the introduction there because I am aware that you have received and will have read the submission which, as I say, identifies barriers and strategies, and it is probably most effective if we have a discussion about it.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. We will proceed to questions.

Senator MASON —Were you here when we had the discussion with Professor Costar and Mr MacKenzie?

Mr Lynch —No, I was not, but I have read their submission.

Senator MASON —I will go to the heart of the matter, and I note that you have looked at amending section 96(12) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Obviously you have to be registered to be entitled to vote. Homeless people do not always have a domicile. What are the technical barriers to enfranchising homeless people?

Mr Lynch —You will have seen from the research that people experiencing homelessness may enrol to vote as ordinary electors; more appropriately they will or should ordinarily enrol as itinerant electors. The reality is that a very, very small minority of them enrol as itinerant electors. In part, that is an issue of electoral awareness, education and the dissemination of information, but it is also due to legislative impediments. I have identified in our submission three particular impediments to effective enfranchisement of homeless voters through the itinerant electoral provisions. They are that a person becomes ineligible to enrol as an itinerant after the expiration of one month if they have a real place of living. Many people experiencing homelessness will have a real place of living for more than one month, having regard to the definition of ‘real place of living’, which is a place that a person lives and has a fixed intention of returning to. So if a person is domiciled in crisis accommodation for six weeks, for example, even arguably if they are sleeping rough in a squat for an extended period, they will become ineligible to enrol to vote as an itinerant elector.

The other key impediment is the way in which the itinerant voter provision is drafted, such that an itinerant voter is deemed to have enrolled to vote in the electorate in which they last had an entitlement to enrol to vote, or if that does not pertain, the electorate in which they have a next of kin enrolled. It is only if neither of those categories applies that a person will be enrolled in an electorate with which they have a close connection. Given the transience of the homeless population, the last electorate in which they enrolled may well be in Western Australia. They have subsequently moved to Victoria; they have not been enrolled to vote for six years. They try to enrol as an itinerant voter and they are told that their electorate will be in Western Australia. That is a significant disincentive to voting because it renders really illusory the concept of being represented by someone who really represents you and is accountable to you. The perceived futility of voting was a key issue affecting the level of enrolment in our research.

Senator MASON —I did read that, although once again, as I said to Mr MacKenzie, I am not sure that that differs much from the general population. But we will leave that aside for a second. With the technical problem, what do you propose to better enfranchise homeless people?

Mr Lynch —In terms of the itinerant elector provisions, we would recommend amendment of the provisions such that a person is enrolled to vote in the electorate with which they have the closest connection. That approach would be consonant with the approach taken overseas, including in the United States and the United Kingdom, in efforts to enfranchise homeless voters.

Mr MELHAM —I think we did that with Norfolk Island at one stage, didn’t we? At one stage, the committee made some recommendations that allowed residents of Norfolk Island that option as well; they were not at that stage tied to the division of Canberra. So there is an Australian precedent for that as well, not just an overseas precedent, if I am right.

Mr Lynch —Thank you. I was not aware of that precedent. We would suggest an amendment to enable people to enrol to vote in the electorate with which they have the closest connection. Section 96 should be amended to ensure that a person can reside or have a real place of living for a period of longer than one month before they become ineligible to enrol as an itinerant voter—I would suggest a period of, say, six months; and section 96 and also, by extension, section 4, the definitions section of the act, should be amended to ensure that ‘real place of living’ does not include somewhere that constitutes unsafe or insecure accommodation, such as crisis accommodation, transitional housing or, indeed, a squat or a park.

Senator FORSHAW —So it does or it does not?

Mr Lynch —So that it does not include those areas.

Senator MASON —When you were referring to homeless people, that conjures in one’s mind, of course, people living in a squat or under a cardboard box, but that in fact is not necessarily the majority of people, is it? There could be itinerant seasonal fruit pickers, people who perhaps work in shows, people who work in theme shows and so forth and travel around; do you include them as well?

Mr Lynch —They would not be included in the ABS methodology. We are relying on the ABS enumeration of the 2001 census, but you are quite correct: only 14 per cent of people categorised as homeless fell into that primary homelessness category—that is, people who are sleeping rough, who have no form of accommodation at all, other than perhaps a squat or a derelict building.

Mr MELHAM —I am interested in your recommendation 4 which goes to the real place of living. I asked earlier witnesses about this: what is it that we should be looking at in terms of itinerant voters? What do you say constitutes a real place of living in terms of section 4 of the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act? Can you further define that for the committee?

Mr Lynch —The term ‘real place of living’ is derived from the Commonwealth Electoral Act as against the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act. The notion of unsafe and insecure housing drawn from the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act basically refers to crisis accommodation, transitional accommodation or any other form of accommodation provided for under that act. It basically means accommodation that threatens the health, safety or security of a person and does not afford them appropriate security of tenure.

Mr MELHAM —Could we define that for a period, such as a month, similar to current provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, for instance? If someone is in that sort of accommodation for a month then they would be able to be picked up under a particular section?

Mr Lynch —Such that they would not become ineligible to enrol as an itinerant elector?

Mr MELHAM —That is right.

Mr Lynch —Yes, that would be one approach that could be taken.

Mr MELHAM —What I am attempting to do is to come up with a definition and a clause that is workable, transparent, not open to abuse, but that is consistent with some of the existing principles within the act.

Mr Lynch —Recommendation 4 is drafted with that intention in mind.

Mr MELHAM —Subsection 96(7) provides:

Where a person who has applied under subsection (1) to be treated as an itinerant elector:

  • (a)     resides in a Subdivision for a period of 1 month or longer;
  • (b)     (b)forms the intention to depart from Australia and to remain outside Australia for a period of 1 month or longer;
  • (c)     ceases to be entitled to enrolment;

the person shall, as soon as practicable, give notice in writing to the Australian Electoral Officer to whom the application under subsection (1) was made ...

It seems to me that if they reside in that subdivision for a period of a month or longer then that is when they can be picked up as an itinerant voter, but given that subdivision—

Mr Lynch —Yes, but they will become ineligible if their place of living or if where they are staying is considered to be or regarded as a real place of living, which in turn is a place that a person lives or has a fixed intention of returning to.

CHAIR —Give us an example around Melbourne where you and I live?

Mr Lynch —An example might be that if a person is resident in Ozanam House or Flagstaff Crisis Accommodation for a period of, say, six weeks, that is clearly a place that they are living; it is clearly a place that they have a fixed intention of returning to; they are clearly homeless within the definition of the Supported Accommodation and Assistance Act or, indeed, the ABS definition. But if they stayed there for longer than a period of four weeks—and for the most part people stay in crisis accommodation for periods of up to six weeks before they are then sought to be moved into transitional accommodation—they would become ineligible to enrol as an itinerant voter at the expiration of the four-week period or the one-month period.

Mr MELHAM —They must enrol at that address?

Mr Lynch —And would need to enrol as an ordinary elector at that address, indeed, notwithstanding that they would then change address two weeks later.

Senator MASON —That is why you favour six months?

Mr Lynch —That is why we favour six months, because it reflects the reality of people’s movement through the homelessness service system, which I certainly do not romanticise as being a continuum from rough sleeping to crisis accommodation to transitional housing—

Mr MELHAM —What do they then get? They register as an itinerant voter?

Mr Lynch —They register as an itinerant voter and they do not become ineligible to vote as an itinerant voter until such time as they have been in safe and secure accommodation for a period of six months, on our recommendation.

Senator MURRAY —I want to test a proposition I put to Professor Costar earlier today. I was down in Bunbury, WA, and met a number of homeless people. Some of these people are living rough, simply because there is no accommodation; there is nothing available for them. They are being moved on regularly; they are not even resident in a park or by a creek because they are moved on. But the place they go to regularly, every day, is the place they eat at, and typically that is run by a charitable organisation. It seems to me that one possibility on the itinerant electoral status is that they should not have to confirm a real place of living for the period of the election; they could, either on a pre-poll basis or on a normal basis, be registered at the place they are eating. That is a small number of Australians. According to the statistics we are given, 4 per cent of homeless people are enrolled to vote as itinerant electors, so that is roughly 4,000. What do you think of that proposition, moving completely away from a place of living to, say, the place of—I hesitate to call it ‘eating’; what should we call it?

—I will respond to a number of issues you have raised. The first is to comment on the dearth of crisis accommodation available. The demand for crisis accommodation significantly exceeds the supply of crisis accommodation. A report commissioned by the Commonwealth government estimates that an increase of 40 per cent in the funding levels of the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program would be required to meet the demand for crisis accommodation, so I certainly do not find it surprising that you saw people sleeping rough in Bunbury and unable to move into crisis accommodation. You have highlighted precisely what we would recommend in respect of the itinerant voter provisions; that is, the provisions enable a person to enrol to vote in the subdivision with which they have a connection—in this case, the subdivision in which they are receiving services, assistance, eating and so on.

Senator MURRAY —That is your recommendation 19?

Mr Lynch —That is right. The difficulty with the provision as currently drafted, of course, is that they will not be enrolled in that electorate or that subdivision; they will be enrolled in the subdivision in which they last had an entitlement to enrol. If they have moved from Melbourne to Bunbury to try to secure fruit picking work, for example, then they will be enrolled to vote if they are aware of the itinerant voter provisions—and that is a separate problem and issue—in Victoria rather than in Bunbury, where they should rightfully, on any representative and accountable basis, be enrolled to vote.

Senator MURRAY —There is a coalition proposal to close the rolls early, and I have consistently opposed that. One of my reasons has been that, without fixed terms or a fixed date of election, you raise the possibility of disenfranchising large numbers of people. However, if the coalition were to pursue that proposal, there is then the possibility that we should look at an ameliorating provision. Essentially the proposition is that people who are rational, able and responsible should get their affairs in order. Of course, there is a whole category of people for which that is difficult: perhaps young people, certainly homeless people and so on. If the coalition were to ever go down that route, perhaps there needs to be a class of people exempted and allowed more latitude. How would you react to the view that, if the coalition were to close rolls early, the homeless should not be subject to that early close, that they should continue to have the seven days presently available?

Mr Lynch —I would certainly support that approach. I am aware of the coalition proposal, and have previously expressed to the Australian Electoral Commission the view that that would have a disproportionate and discriminate impact on people experiencing homelessness. It would effectively disenfranchise a significant number of people experiencing homelessness. The reality is that, notwithstanding the importance of voting, voting is not a really significant priority in the context of trying to get other fundamental parts of your life together—finding somewhere safe and secure to live, finding something to eat, trying to secure employment, and so on. People experiencing homelessness will most often be catalysed to enrol to vote by the calling of an election and the media campaigns that surround that. I think it is very, very important that the window of seven days remains open to enable people who would not otherwise prioritise voting, for understandable reasons, to remain enfranchised.

Senator MURRAY —Because they are self-evidently a disadvantaged community?

Mr Lynch —Absolutely.

CHAIR —I have a couple of questions relating to your submission. You have made a number of recommendations with respect to the Electoral Commission. You have obviously had some discussions with the Electoral Commission over quite a period of time. How have they gone? Are they open to some of these ideas? We are hearing from them in about a week, so it would be beneficial to get your comments.

Mr Lynch —As you would be aware, the committee made a recommendation following the 2001 federal election that the AEC conduct a targeted public awareness campaign seeking to enfranchise homeless voters. The AEC has responded to that recommendation and has worked with us and with the Council to Homeless Persons, among other organisations, to ascertain and obtain information about people experiencing homelessness, about strategies to promote homeless elector enrolment and participation, and that is progressing. Unfortunately, none of those recommendations were fully or effectively implemented in advance of the 2004 federal election. For example, we did not see a streamlined and accessible itinerant voter form produced. I am aware that the form was modified slightly a couple of weeks before the election, but the reality is that that did not give the AEC divisional returning officers and so on the opportunity to disseminate information about the forms to people experiencing homelessness. They remain quite complex and inaccessible. Certainly that is an ongoing project—the need to streamline that form, the need to disseminate information about those provisions to people experiencing homelessness and to homelessness assistance service providers so that people are enrolled under those provisions.

CHAIR —I have read your recommendations. You would agree that some of what you are proposing falls into an area of change in the law, but a lot of  what you are proposing is within the purview of the AEC itself, and they can do that at any point in time, as they do with any other vote or any other awareness campaign. I just wanted to gauge from you, without putting you in a difficult position, whether you felt that that had gone too quickly or too slowly. We can come straight out of this hearing into our hearings Friday week, I think, and get a bit of an update.

Mr Lynch —We have worked closely and collaboratively with the AEC. Of course, we would always like to see things move faster, but we appreciate that the machinations of big bureaucracies can sometimes be a bit slow. Certainly the committee’s recommendation following the 2001 federal election was crucial, in my view, in bringing the issue to the attention of the AEC and getting the ball rolling. I certainly think a further recommendation to the same effect would assist in the ongoing campaign and enfranchisement of homeless voters.

CHAIR —Would you think that not just a recommendation but also a timetable might be appropriate?

Mr Lynch —Absolutely.

CHAIR —I was not on the committee then, but it was a recommendation, and obviously there have been discussions going on. Given we are now in the second parliament after that, to have a ‘let’s get it done by’ date would be good.

Mr Lynch —Timetables and targets always assist in implementation and accountability, there is no doubt about it. You are quite correct in saying that the legislative amendments are important, but equally important are the administrative measures that are required to be undertaken by the AEC in terms of dissemination of information and public education, particularly around dispelling some of the myths associated with voting, for example. Our research demonstrated that not only were people experiencing homelessness not aware of the itinerant voter provisions but they were concerned that if they did enrol to vote, they would be fined for failure to vote in past elections—

CHAIR —Can I take you straight to that research, because that is what prompted my question. When you look through it all—and I realise we are running a little bit over time—it is obvious that, even though it is a very small sample, on some issues they are very well informed, but on others the opposite is the case. In the one you just referred to, ‘aware that itinerant electors are not fined for failing to vote’, 92 per cent responded ‘no’. So those are the sorts of issues, just dealing with the detail of current provisions, that could be conveyed by the AEC speedily.

Mr Lynch —Absolutely. Similar examples include dissemination of information about the silent elector provisions. Many people are concerned that their details will appear on the electoral roll—

CHAIR —Yes, 82 per cent.

Mr Lynch —Many are unaware of the fact that itinerant voters will not be fined, and many are unaware of the fact that if they are enrolled to vote as an ordinary elector and fail to vote due to their homelessness that that may constitute a valid and sufficient reason for failure to vote. A lot of it is about getting awareness out there. As I have suggested in my submission, some of the key vehicles for achieving that include homelessness assistance services that are appropriately resourced, and also, very importantly, Commonwealth agencies such as Centrelink, with almost 90 per cent of people who are homeless accessing some form of social security benefit.

CHAIR —That is great. If there are no further questions, we will adjourn. I thank you for coming along today.

Mr Lynch —Thank you very much for hearing me on this issue again.

CHAIR —Sorry we were running a little bit over time. As I said, we have hearings in Canberra on Friday, 5 August and Monday, 8 August with the AEC. The committee staff will make sure that you receive a copy of the Hansard of those hearing, where we will get a bit of an update.

Mr Lynch —Thank you. We certainly remain committed to working closely with the AEC and also the Victorian Electoral Commission. The VEC has played a key role in this issue. I would also direct you to recent amendments to the Victorian Electoral Act, which were specifically targeted at the enfranchisement of homeless voters to the extent possible, given that the Victorian roll is linked to the federal roll and, by extension, the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Is it the wish of the committee to accept into evidence as an exhibit the discussion paper titled, Bringing democracy home—enfranchising Australia’s homeless citizens? There being no objection, it is so resolved.

Proceedings suspended from 12.30 pm to 1.29 pm