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Thursday, 24 May 2018
Page: 4605

The SPEAKER (15:12): Could I please have the attention of the House on this important matter: I'd like to read a fairly lengthy statement, and then I'll be tabling some documents. Earlier in the week, I advised the House I would provide an update on possible dates for by-elections in the seats of Braddon, Fremantle, Longman, Mayo and Perth. This update follows further consultation with the Australian Electoral Commissioner and party leaders. Under the Constitution, it is my responsibility alone to issue a writ for a by-election when a vacancy occurs, and generally it has not been the practice to provide an explanation for the exercise of this responsibility. I have varied from the usual practice because of the quite unusual—quite unique—circumstances surrounding these by-elections.

As the House of Representatives Practice makes clear, there is no statutory period within which I must issue the writ. As a matter of principle, Speakers have generally sought to issue writs as soon as electorally practicable to ensure that electors are not without a representative here in the House for longer than necessary. However, the timing of the calling of each by-election has varied considerably because of circumstances, and in this case there has been a unique set of circumstances.

While there has been much commentary around the five by-elections occurring on the one day, the Australian Electoral Commission actually has to consider whether this is feasible and desirable. The advice I have received from the Electoral Commissioner is that although this is the largest number of by-elections to be conducted at the one time since Federation, and the holding of them across four states adds complexity, the AEC believes conducting the by-elections on the one day is the preferred option. I intend to follow this preferred option.

As noted in my statement on Monday, the Electoral Commissioner advised me that the government was considering urgent changes through regulation to the nomination process to ensure that all candidates are aware of their obligations under section 44 of the Constitution. The implementation of these changes prior to the by-elections was supported by the Electoral Commissioner and by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in a unanimous recommendation. The latest advice I have from the Electoral Commissioner is that the regulations have been signed by the Special Minister of State and will be submitted to the Governor-General soon for his consideration, expected to be 29 May. Regardless of the date for submission to the Federal Executive Council, the AEC has advised me that it has commenced preparations to implement the regulations and will require approximately two weeks to do so. The implementation would need to be complete prior to the writs being issued.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER: I say to members: I'm giving this update as a courtesy—members on my right—and it would be in all their interests to listen to the entire statement. Let me repeat: the implementation would need to be complete prior to the writs being issued, because nominations open as soon as writs are issued, at which time candidates can start nominating. This is, in part, to accommodate the requirements of the Electoral Commission but, more importantly, so that all candidates in the forthcoming by-election—all candidates—have sufficient time to comply with the new requirements.

Turning now to the date for the by-elections, the Electoral Commissioner has advised me that there is a complication of the school holiday period affecting all four states subject to by-elections, extending across a three-week period from 30 June to 21 July. Although, as the commissioner advises, it is possible to hold by-elections in the school holiday period, it does create additional difficulties for voters and risks disenfranchisement and low turnout. Let me say this is particularly—particularly—the case in by-elections, for, whilst in a general election there are significant absentee voting opportunities outside the electorate in which a voter resides, in by-elections there are not. If there is to be a single date for all by-elections and the school holidays are to be avoided, this pushes the next possible date to 28 July. Although the Electoral Commission—

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER: Members on both sides! Members on my right! The member for Bendigo! I say to those members interjecting: the majority of members are seeking to listen to my statement. Although the Electoral Commission would not usually provide advice about a preferred date, I can advise members on this occasion the Electoral Commissioner has advised that 28 July is the optimal date. As the commissioner notes in his advice to me: 'This achieves three things. It provides sufficient time for the AEC to implement the changes'—

Mr Dreyfus interjecting

The SPEAKER: The member for Isaacs is warned. The commissioner's advice states: 'It allows sufficient time for the AEC to implement the changes, enables prospective candidates to comply with the new requirements and ensures that voters are not disenfranchised.' I consider it is prudent in the current circumstances that I follow this advice and allow time for the changes related to section 44 to be implemented and avoid the by-elections taking place in the school holidays. I, therefore, propose to accept the commissioner's recommendation for the optimal date of 28 July. I will consult with the AEC about the date to issue the writs and the relevant dates for the by-elections and will advise the House when the dates have been settled.

One very important consideration for me has been that this will not impact on the elected members' ability to take up their seats in the House at the earliest opportunity because of the break in the sittings from 28 June until 13 August. The earliest date that any elected members could now take their seats regardless of the date for the by-elections is the resumption of the sittings on 13 August. Because of the particular nature of the issues surrounding these by-elections, I'm going to table the advice I've received from the Electoral Commissioner. There are two pieces of correspondence from the Electoral Commissioner, one dated 17 May 2018 and a further, updated letter of 23 May 2018, and this is not a precedent for the tabling of such advice by Speakers in the future.

Mr Pyne: Mr Speaker, during your remarks, the member for Barton made a very unparliamentary remark, and she should withdraw it.

Mr Burke interjecting

The SPEAKER: I say to the Manager of Opposition Business: the majority of members were listening. Some were interjecting and, surprisingly, not wanting to hear the statement or the reasons, but I have read them into the Hansard and the correspondence has been tabled. I couldn't hear what the member for Barton was particularly saying but I will ask her, as is the custom, whether she made an unparliamentary remark. The Manager of Opposition Business on indulgence.