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Thursday, 28 October 2021
Page: 10278


Mr TAYLOR (HumeMinister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction) (10:20): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today I introduce the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Contingency Measures) Bill 2021.

Elections are a critical part of Australia's system of representative government. It is vital to the continuing success of Australia's democracy that Australians are able to participate in the electoral process, and exercise their franchise safely, whatever the situation.

The bill futureproofs the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, by enabling the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to duly conduct elections in situations where a Commonwealth emergency declaration is in place.

The measures in this bill respond to recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters' Report of the inquiry on the future conduct of elections operating during times of emergency situations.

This morning I also table the government's response to the report.

Modification powers

The bill introduces powers for the Electoral Commissioner to make limited operational modifications to the Electoral Act by legislative instrument where a Commonwealth emergency law is in force, to a region or sub-region covered by the emergency law.

The modification powers granted to the Electoral Commissioner are limited to the following in the specified emergency area:

Expanding the grounds on which a person can apply for postal or pre-poll vote;

Extending the period during which applications for pre-poll votes may be made to a pre-poll voting officer;

Adjusting the number of scrutineers a group of candidates is entitled to be represented by at a Senate scrutiny being undertaken in an emergency area;

The bill also enables the Electoral Commissioner to allow persons to travel or be present for campaigning activities within 100 metres of a polling place, and actions under the Electoral Act such as the ballot draw or attend the scrutiny.

These modification powers can only be exercised when a Commonwealth emergency law is in force and the emergency interferes with the safe conduct of an election. Modifications will also be limited to the specified geographical area affected by the emergency. The specified area can be a subset of the area affected by the emergency law.

Before making a modification, the Electoral Commissioner will be required to notify the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in writing, including the reasons why any modifications are considered necessary.

The Electoral Commissioner will also be required to publish the legislative instrument detailing these modifications on the AEC website as well as the Federal Register of Legislation.

This modification power can only be in effect for as long as the Commonwealth emergency law is in force or until the return of the writs for the election, whichever occurs first.

Temporary suspension and adjournment of the polling

The bill amends the existing power to adjourn or temporarily suspend the polling by uplifting the decision-making authority from the presiding officer of each polling place to the Electoral Commissioner.

This amendment aligns the power to temporarily suspend or adjourn polling with the decision-making authority of the Electoral Commissioner, reflecting the significance of the decision to adjourn or suspend polling as a measure of last resort.

Where polling has been adjourned, the commencement of the scrutiny of House of Representatives votes for that division will be delayed until the close of polls for the adjourned polling place.

While the scrutiny of Senate ballots can proceed, the release of any information about the Senate election in a division where polling has been adjourned will also be prohibited. This prohibition is lifted following the close of polls at the adjourned polling.

This is to protect the integrity of the election result by ensuring electors can cast their vote free from the influence of any indicative results which may have otherwise been released.

Postal Voting

This bill also provides additional flexibility for the AEC when printing postal vote certificates, to assist in managing the heightened demand for postal votes along with supply chain disruptions that can occur in emergency situations.

The bill also amends the deadline for the receipt of postal vote applications from the Wednesday three days before polling day to the Tuesday four days before polling. This will provide extra time for the delivery of postal vote ballot papers to electors to ensure they can vote on or before polling day.

These amendments safeguard electors' ability to cast a postal vote in an emergency situation if they are unable to attend a polling place.

Conclusion

These amendments will assist the AEC to conduct safe, efficient and timely elections, and ensure continued public confidence in Australian elections.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.