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Wednesday, 30 November 1983
Page: 2987

Senator COLSTON(11.14) — Mr Deputy President, the Senate is debating the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill. This is a comprehensive Bill and it will make a significant revision of Australia's electoral laws. I mention at the outset that this must be a Bill of some note. Some honourable senators will recall that in 1981 I brought forward a private member's Bill which was eventually passed by this Parliament in 1982. This Bill became the Senate Elections (Queensland) Act. That Act is now going to be incorporated in the electoral legislation, upon passage of the Bill now before us. Prior to the passing of the Senate Elections (Queensland) Bill the Constitution allowed Queensland to be divided into electoral divisions for Senate election purposes. I refer any honourable senator who wishes to recall what I said at that time to page 832 of the Senate Hansard of 26 March 1981. In that speech I outlined the need for some legislation from this Parliament to close what was perhaps a loophole in the Constitution. The legislation before us seeks to repeal the Senate Elections (Queensland) Act and the provisions of that Act will be incorporated in section 16 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

There will be many speakers on this Bill both during the second reading stage and the Committee stage. Therefore I intend to mention only certain features of the legislation. First, I would like to mention the Senate ballot paper. Senator Scott, who spoke before me, made some reference to this and in some respects I disagree with what he said. The number of informal votes that are cast in Senate elections is totally unacceptable and this Bill tackles that problem. Given the complexity of the ballot paper and the voting system it is understandable that we have so many informal votes. It is worth while looking at the number of candidates at Senate elections in each State and each Territory in recent years. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a table which is headed 'Number of Senate Candidates 1974-1983'. This table, which has been compiled for me by the statistics section of the Parliamentary Library, has been shown to the Opposition.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-


19741 19751 19772 19802 19831

N.S.W. 73 53 35 33 62 Vic. 48 38 28 34 50 Qld 25 40 23 33 42 S.A. 38 37 19 27 35 W.A. 29 53 19 23 30 Tas. 32 28 10 13 17 N.T. . . 10 8 10 6 A.C.T. . . 12 8 9 9

Total 245 271 151 182 250

Notes: 1. Full Senate Election

2. Half Senate Election

Senator COLSTON —I thank the Senate. The table indicates that in 1974 there were 245 candidates for the Senate election in Australia. This is a fairly typical number. In 1975 the number was 271; in 1977 there was a drop to 151; in 1980 the number was 182; and in 1983 it was 250. It is perhaps more pertinent to look at the numbers in each State rather than the total number. Senator Scott mentioned that in 1974 there were 73 candidates in New South Wales. This meant that electors in New South Wales who went to the polls were obliged to fill in numbers from one to 73. I can recall a story about a lady who picked up her ballot paper, took it out of the polling booth, which I suppose is against the electoral legislation, took it home, made a cup of tea and while she was drinking her cup of tea filled in the numbers from 1 to 73. She took it back and put it into the ballot box. That was probably a long-winded way of filling in a ballot paper. However, many people made errors when confronted with that number of candidates. I really wonder when one has to list 73 candidates how one can determine one's preference between the fifty-eighth and fifty-ninth candidates. It seems to me to be taking the situation to an absurd length to continue with the same system of voting when we have so many candidates.

There were 62 Senate candidates in New South Wales in the election in 1983, which was almost the same number as the record number in 1974. In Victoria there were 50 candidates and in Queensland there were 42. Despite what we might say about the intelligence of voters-most of the electors are intelligent and know the way in which they are going to vote-electors are going to make unintentional errors if we have so many condidates. Those of us who have scrutineered in Senate elections know full well that many people who want to fill out the ballot paper are unable to do so because of the complexity of the ballot paper itself.

It is worth while comparing the number of informal votes in the Senate with those in the House of Representatives. Since 1974 we have had Senate elections at the same time as House of Representatives elections. In 1974 10.8 per cent of votes for the Senate throughout Australia were informal. Over one in 10 persons cast an informal vote. By comparison 1.9 per cent of votes in the House of Representatives election were informal. If one took the argument, and I do not think one really can, that all of the 1.9 per cent of informal votes were deliberately informal, one could say that 8 per cent of people unwittingly cast an informal vote for Senate candidates. If we look at the figures for elections held between 1974 and 1983 we find a consistent difference of about six or seven percentage points between the House of Representatives informal vote and the Senate informal vote, the Senate informal vote being higher on every occasion. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a table compiled for me again by the statistics section of the Parliamentary Library and headed 'Percentage of Informal Votes Federal Elections 1974-1983'.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-


1974 1975 1977 1980 1983

% % % % % House of Representatives 1.9 1.9 2.5 2.4 2.1 Senate 10.8 9.0 9.0 9.6 9.8

Senator COLSTON —I thank the Senate. This table clearly indicates that there is something drastically wrong with the Senate ballot paper and the way we have to vote. For instance, in the 1983 election 9.8 per cent of Senate ballot papers were spoiled because the voters could not fill out the ballot paper in a way that was acceptable. Almost one voter in 10 could not fill out the paper correctly. Something is drastically wrong when one elector in 10 spoiled his ballot paper.

When discussing this matter in this place some years ago I suggested that it would be an easy task for those with a mind to do so to sabotage a Senate election. For example, it would have been possible to put a large number of candidates on the ballot paper. By paying the then deposit of $200 for each candidate a thousand candidates could have been put on the ballot paper for a particular State at a cost of $200,000. The consequence of electors having to mark their preference from one to 1,000 or from one to 1,023 would have been chaotic and would have thrown the whole electoral legislation into disrepute. Voters would have rebelled. A strategy like this will be far less likely and perhaps will be negligible with the passage of this Bill. First, a candidate's deposit will be increased to $500. I suppose this will deter some candidates although I do not think it will deter many who have nominated in the past. I am not of a mind to try to deter people by using financial considerations, but at least the deposit has been increased and if anybody were to make a serious attempt to sabotage the ballot paper by putting on so many candidates it would cost that person a lot more.

Perhaps even more importantly, with the list system of voting, the informal vote is likely to be far lower, irrespective of the number of candidates. So if we have a very large number of candidates and people want to use the list system of voting, they will be able to do so without really being concerned about the number of candidates. Under this legislation, an elector may cast a vote using the list system and that vote will be deemed to be cast according to the preferences registered by a party on its how to vote card.

It should be mentioned that individual choice of candidates will still be possible using the current preference system of voting. So if people do not want to use the list system, they can still do their own thing and put down preferences according to however they want them. I recall that in a recent Senate election in Queensland a great many people did their own thing. They did not always follow the order of the candidates set down on a party's how to vote card. There will still be people who will want to do that. They will still be entitled to do so, but those people who want to use the list system will be able very readily to cast what they know to be a valid vote. If we allow people to cast a vote and have it counted in the way in which they would like to have it counted, we will be getting closer to what we want to do-that is, to allow every person who has the right to vote to be able to do so and to have that vote counted. We must bring down the informal vote for the Senate. The informal vote is not an indication that the voters' intelligence is at a low. It is an indication of the fact that our system is much too difficult and much too complex to place before the voters.

I would like to move on now to mention some matters about the House of Representatives ballot paper. A sample ballot paper is shown in Schedule 1 to the Bill. There are two changes in the actual format of the ballot paper. I will dwell on the first one and will mention in short detail something about the second change. The first change is that candidates' names will no longer necessarily be in alphabetical order. Under clause 80 of this Bill, proposed new section 106 (2) (a) will make it mandatory for places on the ballot paper to be determined by lot. Of course, this measure has been adopted to counter what is often called the donkey vote. It is a poor reflection on our society that the donkey vote can have a decisive effect on who will represent us in Parliament. But donkey votes do occur and I suppose that they will continue to occur. It seems unfair that a person's chances of success should be increased because his surname starts with a letter close to the beginning of the alphabet. For persons with a surname such as Colston, I suppose it is not too bad, but for my colleague in the House of Representatives, Mr Young, it is not too good.

Senator Grimes —What about Senator Zakharov?

Senator COLSTON —Senator Zakharov would certainly not be enamoured of the present situation. Apart from individual members, it is also unfair to the institution of Parliament that those who collectively make up that Parliament may be there by chance. Donkey voters, of course, are people who number their ballot papers in numerical order straight down the ballot paper without considering the merits of respective parties of candidates. Estimates of the value of the donkey vote vary. However, Boyce and his co-authors in the Dictionary of Politics suggest that a donkey vote is worth 2 to 4 per cent of the vote. They suggest that 2 to 4 per cent of the electors cast a donkey vote. Jaensch and Teichmann in the Macmillan Dictionary of Australian Politics suggest that the donkey vote may be worth between 2 and 3 per cent of the total vote.

Recently, I was associated with a situation wherein the donkey vote was, with little if any doubt, decisive in determining the successful candidate in one State electorate in Queensland. We had State elections in Queensland on 22 October this year. In the electorate of Maryborough there were three candidates. Mr Alison was the National Party candidate, Mr Bailey was the Liberal Party candidate and Mr Nightingale was the Australian Labor Party candidate. So the ballot paper was listed Alison, Bailey, Nightingale. Bailey, the Liberal candidate, was eliminated when preferences had to be distributed. After the distribution of preferences the result was that Alison received 7,648 votes and Nightingale received 7,640. So Alison was elected by eight votes.

I do not wish to detract from Mr Alison's success, but if his name had been Yalison, it is highly doubtful whether he would have been elected. If the donkey vote were worth only one per cent-it might be recalled that I quoted authorities who said that it was worth between 2 and 4 per cent-it would have been worth 150 votes to Mr Alison. It should be recalled that he won by only eight votes. Even if the donkey vote were worth only 0.1 per cent, it would have been decisive in having Mr Alison elected, because 0.1 per cent would have been about 15 votes, and honourable senators will recall that Mr Alison won by eight votes. Again, if I may use an example from Queensland, it is worthy of note that one character changed his name by deed poll from Smith to Asmith. His aim was to be the first on the ballot paper. Now it would be a nice twist to be able to inform the Senate that he was beaten by a person called Aboud, but that did not happen. In that situation, he was decisively beaten by everybody. But a person changing his name by deed poll in order to get on top of the ballot paper makes a mockery of the democratic process.

In this Bill, we have at least gone part of the way to overcoming that by providing that positions shall be balloted for. So those whose surnames start with a letter close to the beginning of the alphabet, such as A, B or C, will not necessarily have an electoral advantage. As I have said, we have only gone part of the way. Those who are fortunate in the ballot will be advantaged by the donkey vote. So someone will still receive an advantage. Therefore, I do not believe that we should regard this as the final step, significant though it may be. By issuing ballot papers which have candidates' names in different orders, it is possible to counter completely or almost completely the donkey vote. This system is in use in Tasmania and there is no reason why it should not work in Federal elections.

The second alteration to which I referred in relation to House of Representatives ballot papers is the printing of names of political parties on the ballot papers. With the passage of this legislation, this will occur, and it is a measure which is long overdue. There are also alterations in relation to the way in which completed ballot papers may be regarded as formal.

However, I should not dwell on this matter but instead turn my attention to a clause dealing with enrolment. Many Australians remember how thousands of potential voters were denied the right to vote at the Federal elections in March this year. In February the then Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Fraser, announced that there would be an election for both Houses of the Parliament. He made the announcement on 3 February. The rolls closed on 4 February. Thousands of people did not have an opportunity to enrol. Not thinking that an election was imminent , they saw no immediate need to place their names on the electoral roll. Mr Fraser's haste denied them the right to vote. Of course, all eligible persons aged 18 years and over should ensure that they are on the roll, but not everyone in the community is as politically aware as all of us here. Often electors do not see a need or any urgency to enrol until an election is about to occur.

The situation which occurred in relation to this year's election in which many people were denied the right to vote will not occur after the passage of this legislation. At least seven days' notice must be given before the rolls close. Under clause 45 of the Bill that we are discussing the date fixed for the close of the rolls shall be seven days after the date of the writ. No longer will potential electors be ambushed as they were earlier this year. Of equal importance is the amendment which will allow for provisional enrolment for 17- year-olds. After provisionally enrolling, which will not be compulsory, people will automatically become enrolled on their eighteenth birthday. I can foresee that provisional enrolment will become a routine task for those in their last year of secondary school.

Before concluding, I wish to offer my congratulations to the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform which worked with diligence to present a report to the Parliament in September this year. The proposed legislation which is before us is heavily dependent on the Committee's report. I have mentioned but a few of the contents of this Bill. However, I do mention that it is a comprehensive Bill and one which is to be commended to the Senate.