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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 29934

Mr DANBY (11:34 AM) —I wish to join the members for Banks and Melbourne in opposing the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2001. I do not think anyone could have been as eloquent as the member for Banks in exposing the fact that this amendment is absolutely unnecessary to do what could have been done by simple discussions in the Liberal Party. In fact, what this amendment is was revealed on the AM program on the ABC, which, as the member for Banks says, is compulsory listening. There is a severe difference between people in the Queensland branch of the Liberal Party—particularly Senators Mason and Brandis, who are very strongly opposed to this amendment—and the national secretariat of the Liberal Party and, apparently, the Prime Minister.

The act currently provides that public funding is to be paid to an agent of the state or territory branch of a party for the state or territory in which the candidates stood. As the member for Banks said, that was the arrangement that the Liberal Party sought in the beginning. The Labor Party, quite differently, has arranged, via agreement by its state branches, for our federal matching funding to be paid to our national secretariat. The exception to this, which was mentioned by the members for Melbourne and Banks, is where a state branch lodges a notice with the AEC requesting payments to be made to the agent of another party. This amendment provides a simple mechanism for state and national offices of parties to register agreements over which a body will receive public funding. In the case of the ALP, as I have said, our national secretariat reached agreement with all the state ALP branches so that the national secretariat would receive this funding.

It is clear that the Liberal Party federal secretariat is unable to reach a similar agreement with its state divisions, particularly with its Queensland division. I notice they had to wheel out someone from their Western Australia division this morning to try to see that it had some support from the state divisions. I know there is opposition in other states from other people in the Liberal Party. Given the financial and political problems of the Liberal Party's state divisions, particularly its apparently bankrupt Queensland branch, the federal secretariat is desperate to create a mechanism so that it will receive and determine the distribution of public funding due to the Liberal Party following the 2001 and subsequent federal elections. I suppose in an economic rationalist sense—the ethos that informs this government above all else—this is quite a sound principle from its point of view, and this is what Mr Crosby and the Prime Minister have in mind. They do not want to throw good money after bad. They do not want the Queensland Liberal Party branch profligately spending this money and they do not want it going into a branch which is obviously so incompetent it does not even have a cricket team in the Queensland parliament.

The exception of the Australian Democrats was raised by the member for Banks and the member for Melbourne. They explained that, because the Australian Democrats had a different political set-up from the beginning, the legislation dealt with them in a quite different way. The member for Moreton was the only person the government could wheel out to defend this highly unusual legislation—apart from Queensland Liberal senators, who are vociferously opposed to this `dash for cash' as the member for Melbourne called it, by the Liberal Party national secretariat and the Prime Minister— which attempts to fix up internal Liberal Party finances and differences in state divisions with federal legislation. The member for Hume, Mr Schultz, has now joined in opposition to this. He has questioned the federal government's decision to use parliament to try to change the party's funding rules. The member for Hume has said that the parliament and the government should give more thought as to how it deals with these matters. He said just this morning:

That is a decision that has been made at a senior level of the party and, whilst I may have some personal views as to whether that is appropriate or not, it is immaterial. It has been made by a senior level of the party and the party will follow it through.

So he was putting the finger on the Prime Minister's office and the national secretariat. This is not something that the member for Hume supports either. This is something that is being brought about at a very senior level by the government.

The member for Melbourne raised what I think is the crucial point in this whole debate, and it was opened up by the member for Moreton: the lack of principle that informs this amendment. The member for Melbourne said that there were much more serious issues of electoral funding before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, of which I am a member. The member for Banks pointed out that this peculiar amendment—this `red-hot' amendment, as he described it—had never been recommended to this parliament by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral matters. It has not come from the minister's office via the Australian Electoral Commission. Serious matters of corporate donations and foreign donations have been identified by the Australian Electoral Commission, but there has been no principle that informs this decision. It is simply the result of an internal Liberal Party brawl that the government is trying to solve by having this parliament make a decision that should have been made freely between the various state offices of the Liberal Party.

The member for Moreton used the very strong language that the integrity of the electoral roll was in danger of being perverted. That, coming from the government, is really an inversion of reality. Let us look at some of the issues of principle that we should be looking at as a parliament. They were raised by the member for Moreton and give some context to the extraordinary proposals advanced by the government this morning, which were not advanced out of any principle or by the relevant independent commissions or by the relevant committees. I particularly want to turn to the issue of the proposal to close the electoral roll. Enrolling to vote is not often at the front of a first-time voter's mind, usually a 17- or 18-year-old. They want to participate in our democratic process—they have to because of our compulsory voting system—but voting is not necessarily at the front of their minds. The proposal advanced by Mr Lynton Crosby— and this is part of his plan: get the cash, exclude the young voters—to limit the number of people who are allowed to enrol was first revealed in the post 1998 election report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. This amendment, which deals with the proposal for an early closure of the electoral rolls and other regulations about witnessing, which I will come to in a minute, is part of this wider context of the government's lack of principle when dealing with these matters.

The matter of younger people and the people who enrol in the week after the election is announced is a serious one. I asked a question on notice on this subject of Mr Fahey, the Minister for Finance and Administration representing the Special Minister of State, in Monday's Hansard. The Electoral Commission suggests that some 400,000 people will have a change of address and will potentially be excluded from the electoral roll. A total of 80,000 first-time voters might be excluded if this Liberal Party proposal, from the same secretariat that is advancing this amendment, is carried through this parliament. As I told Melbourne radio this morning, this is not something that is simply a recommendation from the Liberal Party; this is something that has been passed by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and, in the normal course of events, would be passed by this parliament and taken up by the government. The Liberal dominated Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has recommended and taken up Mr Crosby's suggestion that the voters roll be closed on election day. The Australian Electoral Commission, in Monday's Hansard, said that 400,000 Australians would lose their democratic right because of this proposal and that 80,000 first-time voters would lose their democratic right.

The member for Moreton said that the Labor Party would be running `wedge' politics campaigns. We are urging 17- and 18-year-olds to take the opportunity to enrol to vote—undermining the Liberal Party's attempt to see that they do not—by going to their post office, filling out a green Australian Electoral Commission card, and sending it in to the Electoral Commission. There is no postage required. This way they can make sure they are on the roll so that the Liberal Party cannot disenfranchise them, which is their plan as recommended by Mr Crosby and by the Liberal dominated Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. They want to disenfranchise people by removing their opportunity to enrol in the week after the election is announced. If the young or first-time voter is provisionally enrolled, the Electoral Commission will have them on the roll when the election is announced and the Liberal Party's plan will not be carried through.

This is a most serious matter on the basis of evidence already before us. I would have thought if matters of principle were of concern, to Queensland members of the Liberal Party in particular, they would be more concerned about the fact that 40 per cent of 18-year-olds in the last Queensland state election did not register to vote. The Australian Electoral Commission has a wonderful advertising campaign directed towards young people but, in every election since 1983, young or first-time voters used the period in the five days after the election was announced to enrol. At the last election in 1998, 65,000 people enrolled during that five-day period. With the growth in Australia's population, the Electoral Commission predicts that 80,000 first-time voters could miss out on their opportunity, even after the Electoral Commission's public relations and advertising campaign advising people about their ability to provisionally enrol.

The possibility that so many young people could miss out is very strange, based on the context of previous reports. I remember reading last year about the `young fogeys'— generations X and Y—in the Australian newspaper, which wrote in great detail about these young people who support the Prime Minister. It is very strange. Why are they doing this? Why has Mr Crosby got these proposals? Why has Mr Pyne's committee passed it? Why does the Liberal Party intend to treat young people like this, given all of the propaganda in the last 18 months about young people—whom they described as `young fogeys'—supporting the Prime Minister? Obviously, Mr Crosby has looked at the polling and thinks that these people will not support the government. Again, this is a matter of the lack of principle of this government in its treatments of these electoral matter issues.

This comes very much to mind when we consider the next area of the government's lack of principle, which is their proposal to introduce regulations on witnessing. As the member for Banks outlined, this will make it a great deal harder for a large number of people to enrol to vote. People will have to have all kinds of ID and there will be a prescribed number of people who will be allowed to witness an enrolment form. It will make it a great deal harder for a lot of people to enrol to vote, particularly Aboriginal Australians. Again, I think this is part of a wider plan of the government and the Liberal Party, under the rubric of integrity of the electoral roll, to knock out voters who will not support them. This is, I think, what the whole rorts inquiry that was held during the last part of last year was really about. It was about knocking out voters who were not supporting the government.

The witnessing provisions are part of the context which the government has brought to us this morning, together with the lack of principle that it has when knocking out people who have changed addresses and with closing the roll early. The AEC takes a great deal of effort to communicate with 18- to 24-year-olds so that they can maximise their effective participation in the electoral process. It has electoral education centres in Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. It has this continuous roll update, the CRU program, that matches the databases from Centrelink, the Transport Accident Commission and various other databases, to bring people onto the electoral roll as quickly as possible. But the government has been determined over the last year to create this false sense of crisis about the integrity of the electoral roll, to minimise their rights to vote.

One of the things I remember in particular about the committee hearings was the testimony of the Electoral Commissioner, Mr Becker. Mr Becker explained that, in the last decade, Australia has had six voting opportunities: four elections, a constitutional convention and a referendum. On each occasion, 12 million voters took part. That is 72 million votes over a decade. What do we find with people who had falsely enrolled or against whom the Australian Electoral Commission was able to act? Even after Senator Ferris came out with her silly example about the cat that was enrolled in the seat of Macquarie in 1980, there have been 72 cases—out of 72 million votes. These people were able to produce from their inquiry one example of electoral rorting in a decade. I think the Australian people know that we have an electoral system that is the envy of the world. If we look at what has happened in the United States recently, we can see that we do a lot better than they do. We have a compulsory voting system, we have an obligation to the Australian people to see that we have the right to enrol—

Mr Slipper —It is an honour system—

Mr DANBY —The parliamentary secretary is getting very excited, because he knows the effect of my and other people's highlighting of the fact that the Liberal Party want to exclude young people, people who are of Aboriginal origin, and people who have changed their address and will be denied the opportunity to participate in the Australian democratic process at the end of this year when the federal election comes up. That is what their agitation is all about.

The Australian electoral system works very smoothly. It is a very modern system. We do not need this kind of legislation. This is a completely unnecessary amendment that could easily have been fixed up by the Liberal Party in their state branches. As the member for Banks said, this legislation was introduced without any evidence being brought before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, without any discussion and, as I have outlined, without any principle. Why are we debating this amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act to cover up internal ructions in the Liberal Party? That is a question that I am sure the people in the press gallery will take to the wider Australian public. Certainly, the government's lack of principle on the early closure of the electoral roll and on witnessing provisions where they are trying to knock out voters is something that should be taken up right round this country.