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Wednesday, 30 November 1983
Page: 3044

Senator ROBERT RAY(5.38) — The Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill is, as other colleagues have pointed out, well and truly overdue. The last major consolidation of the Commonwealth Electoral Act was carried out in 1918. In spite of many promises over recent years we have seen no movement at all in this area. The Australian Labor Party Government of 1974 and 1975 introduced many electoral Bills that passed the House of Representatives only to meet their doom in this chamber. Once the Labor Government went out of office in 1975 there were many promises made by honourable senators opposite that they would reform the Commonwealth Electoral Act, but no Bill came forward. Labor has been in power for eight months. We have managed to hold an inquiry into the electoral process and to produce a Bill and have it in this chamber in eight months. I think that is a tribute to the Ministers concerned, both Mick Young and Kim Beazley.

Senator Chipp —And to the Committee.

Senator ROBERT RAY —And to the Committee, but especially to those Ministers for getting this complex legislation through the House of Representatives and into this chamber in eight months. It is a tribute to them.

The first thing I want to comment on in this Bill is the introduction of an independent electoral commission, which I think is well overdue. The problem with electoral laws in this country is that they have been subjected to partisan interference. This Bill seeks to have the running of the electoral process put in the hands of an independent commission. We are not talking about setting up a commission and putting a few Labor stooges in charge of it. If we read the fine detail of this Bill, it becomes quite clear that what we are about is a truly independent commission. I guess the one area in which one has to be independent is in drawing up the electoral boundaries. This Bill proposes that four individuals will carry out each redistribution in a State and later another two will be added to the appeal process.

I would like to mention the appeal process because in the past what has happened if people have been dissatisfied with a redistribution is that they have been able to write to the commissioners appealing against certain provisions. No one else got to see what appeals had gone in. There was no interchange or discussion of them. Whoever appealed simply wrote to the commissioners and their appeal was either upheld or dismissed. This led to interference in the redistribution process. It was quite strange that when the commissioners brought out their proposal on one redistribution affecting the seat of Lowe the then member for Lowe, Sir William McMahon, wrote to them and for all different reasons, pointed out that the seat was wrong. Two or three very strong Labor voting subdivisions were removed and two or three very strong Liberal voting subdivisions were inserted. That was all done without anyone else knowing about it. I do not criticise the fact that it was done but everyone should have known and had the right to appear before those redistribution commissioners and to say: 'Look, the real reason for these three subdivisions coming in and the other three coming out is not the shape of the river or the community of interest; it is the survival of the member'. If the redistribution commissioners had wanted to go ahead and continue to save Sir William McMahon, that would have been fair enough. But we should have had a debate about it.

The next area-this is an area of disagreement with the Liberal Party of Australia-is that this Bill does not provide for redistributions to come back to this chamber. It provides, as does the South Australian and Victorian legislation, for the decision on the boundaries to be made independently and to be gazetted without reference to this institution. People ask why, because Sir John Carrick and others claim in this debate and elsewhere that there has never been a crook redistribution. I must say that, in the last 21 years, twice redistributions have been rejected. In 1962 all six States were distributed, and the proposals were knocked back in the other chamber by a combination of the Australian Labor Party and the National Party of Australia. The other night I had a sense of deja vu about that. Those parties knocked it back simply because they were getting a bad deal out of it. That was when the whole move to break the nexus started. It was not for any reason of principle that the National Party and the Labor Party combined to knock over the 1962 redistribution. Menzies, whose speech was a masterpiece, ended up by simply saying 'This Bill is dead' and sitting down.

In 1975 six redistributions were completed. Every one of those was knocked back in this chamber for different reasons. If they were genuine redistributions-and people say there has never been a crook one-why were there reasons for all six to be knocked back on that occasion? I interpolate here that the Victorian boundaries were knocked back and two years later the Fraser Government had them redrawn. I can tell honourable senators which set of boundaries I liked. It was the 1977 set. It was far more favourable to the Labor Party than the 1975 set. But as long as parliament is allowed to interfere with electoral boundaries there will be crook boundaries and political interference. When self-interest is involved politicians cannot resist minor tampering with the boundaries. Indeed, one of the most capable members of this chamber could not resist trying to tamper with the names of certain seats and he has been in political exile ever since. If anything, this Bill is designed to save him, our current Special Minister of State (Mr Beazley), and maybe a potential Special Minister of State, from the temptation of trying to interfere in redistributions.

Once the distribution commissioners make their decision it will be final after the appeal process. Some people may be suspicious of independent commissioners. I will relate very quickly the Victorian experience in the last few weeks. There has been a move, which was agreed to by the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, to have an independent commission in Victoria. That commission has redrawn the boundaries. All parties profess to be happy with them. Probably the result of the distribution will be that Labor gains three seats and the Liberal Party four . The Labor Party would have been much happier picking up the whole seven new seats but we went through the independent process and we have copped the results even though they are not as favourable as some people in the Labor Party would have hoped.

The next area of the Bill on which I want to touch-no one else has done so yet but I will not spend long on it-is the problem of elections at large. There is a problem in our Constitution that, if States get out of kilter in terms of their representation, we have to have elections at large. No one really went into the details of the consequences of that. There are two basic propositions if we do not legislate on it. One is that in any State affected there could be a proportional representation system one-off. I do not think the Australian Democrats, who support proportional representation, would want a one-off exercise when it does not exist in any State in Australia. Alternatively, we could have a winner take all situation. That would be like the old Senate block voting system where every candidate of a particular party would win or lose. That is a system we would favour in Victoria when the ticket is headed by Bob Hawke, but I am not so sure that we would always be in favour of that system. So to avoid a major constitutional crisis we have written into this legislation at least some temporary provisions that provide for a very temporary quick redistribution in the case where an election at large could be needed. I do not purport to say that it is a perfect solution. It is a temporary patch-up solution that will at least head off any future disaster. I am pleased to say that those measures have received bipartisan support. We are really talking about unknown waters that everyone wants to avoid.

Another aspect that has caused some controversy is our recommendation for 6 o' clock closing of the polls. I do not want to anticipate debate on an amendment later today other than to say that objections to 6 o'clock closing have always been voiced when it has been brought up. But the fears have never really come to fruition. In 1979 the Liberal Party in Victoria introduced six o'clock closing and people said: 'This could be a disaster. Hundreds of people will miss out on votes and it will discriminate against a whole range of people'. I did not receive one complaint about it. I am usually the one who is given the task of educating scrutineers across the State. At every one of the meetings I went to to educate the scrutineers I said: 'I want it reported to me if any one tries to vote after 6 o'clock'. I wanted to see whether it was a problem. I did not get one piece of feedback to suggest that any person missed out on a vote in 1979, or again in 1982, through the bringing about of 6 o'clock closing. It has been in existence in Queensland for 50 years and it has operated well in New South Wales and Victorian State elections. It is cost effective. It reduces the cost of elections and I know that those opposite are so anxious to do that. They did not want more parliamentarians or anything else. They should be very anxious to support that measure.

I move to another area which has always been almost an obsession of mine; that is, postal voting. In this Bill we make three major provisions to get around some of the problems of postal voting. In my view the major problem with postal voting has been the perverting of the electoral system by political machines that go out and garner postal votes irrespective of the wishes of the persons concerned. I pay tribute in this chamber to the Liberal Party's postal vote machine over the years. In Victoria it has taken us years to build up a comparable machine. I am pleased to say that we have finally done it. But why should we have to? Why should the old people be preyed upon for their vote with the methods that have been used in the past? I do not believe that they should be pressured into voting in a particular way, especially those in nursing homes.

The alternatives we have put up are threefold: Firstly, we provide for the automatic dispatch of application forms for postal votes to people on a register , that is, people who regularly apply for postal votes; secondly, we provide for mobile polling booths in hospitals and nursing homes; thirdly, we tighten up the restrictions about witnesses going to homes in order just to witness postal vote application forms. Of course, these will be subject to debate at the Committee stage, but we must take action to stamp out abuses of postal voting. I note that the point about witnesses not being able to attend an elector's home unless given written permission was put into the Electoral Act in Victoria by the Liberal Party. I note also with interest the division that again occurs, that what is good for the Liberal Party in Victoria does not seem to be good for the Liberal Party nationally.

I just comment on the question of party names on ballot papers, because that is a reform that we are introducing. It is not one that advantages the Labor Party, incidentally, but it helps the electors to determine which candidates they are voting for. We have a capacity basically to man every booth in Australia, barring some very small rural booths. So our how to vote cards are there and the electorate finds out who our candidates are. It does not really help the National Party, because that party mans all its booths, and the same applies to the Liberal Party; but it will help minority parties. I am not known as one to go around pressing the case for minority parties, but it is the electors' right to know who they are voting for and which party those candidates represent; so if anything, this is one of the bonuses in the legislation for the Democrats and for other minority groups. But it is really not derived out of any inherent sympathy that we have for minority groups; it is just that the electors have the right to know which party they are voting for.

While I am on the subject of candidates' names on ballot papers, I should mention that we have introduced a long overdue reform-a draw for position on the ballot paper. This is not the perfect solution to eliminating the donkey vote. Maybe the perfect solution is the rotation of names on ballot papers throughout the whole voting process. But the problem with that is that it would introduce far too many informal votes. Therefore, we go for a draw for position. All that it really does it prevent parties from cashing in on the positions, because they do not know the outcome beforehand. It would be no use running Senator Boswell in Wide Bay, for instance, because it would not be known whether he would get the donkey vote. Much analysis has been done of the House of Representatives and of legislative assemblies to prove that a disproportionate number of people whose names start with the letters A, B or C get endorsed for seats. I have used before, and I must use again, the classic example in my electorate, where I live . The sitting Liberal member between 1975 and 1980 had a name which started with A. He was chosen because the name of the incumbent candidate started with C. It took us five years to dig him out of that electorate, but lo and behold, there was a pre-selection for Bruce, a key marginal seat, and he wins again. I am sure that it is because his name starts with A. If anyone can think of any other reason for his pre-selection, would they please let me know, because I have seen no other quality and no other ability exhibited that would possibly suggest to me that he should be picked above other candidates.

I qualify that statement by saying that I am not attacking the Liberal Party for cashing in on the donkey vote. Every party does it. But if one does not know beforehand where a candidate's name will be on the ballot paper, one will tend to pick the best candidate and take one's chances.

Senator Chipp —What do you estimate that it means as a percentage in a doubtful electorate?

Senator ROBERT RAY —It is very hard to estimate. It varies between about 0.5 per cent and one per cent. It is most noticeable that where an Australian Democrats candidate runs. When there are no how to vote cards in terms of absentee votes one will find that Democrats can poll up to 20 per cent of the vote, double their normal vote in the absentees. That proves that there is a donkey vote, especially in the absence of the how to vote cards.

I now comment on the closing of the rolls and the problems that that caused in the last election. The rolls were closed about 24 hours after the election was announced. In this legislation it is proposed that the rolls cannot close until seven days after the issue of the writs. Again, that is attracting bipartisan support. It will be there and it will not disadvantage any group in the future. For five working days people will be able to enrol at their convenience. We know that people do not think in advance. If they have moved, they think of getting on the roll only when an election is announced. We shall never have again anything up to a couple of hundred thousands people excluded from voting.

We also try to include more people on the roll than have ever been on it previously. Itinerant voters have never had a chance to be on the roll because they never have an address from which to enrol. This legislation gives them the chance to come on to the roll, either at their last place of abode or in the electorate in which they were born. As well as that, people who are overseas will have a far greater opportunity now under this legislation to stay on the roll and not be debarred from voting. Automatically they can stay on the roll for three years after they have left this country, and then, if they apply to stay on the roll after the three years, still being overseas, they are automatically granted the ability to remain on the roll. Finally, at long last we have made voting compulsory for Aboriginals. This is long overdue. It was a form of inverted racism which allowed them to have the luxury of deciding whether to be enrolled. If we are to have equality in our society, we should have equality of responsibility, and compulsory enrolment for Aboriginals is long overdue.

I come to some of the more substantive parts of the legislation which have caused some disquiet amongst the conservatives. The first one is the question of disclosure. This legislation requires that donations to political parties be disclosed if they are over $1,000 to the central party or $200 to candidates. It is interesting that this matter has aroused such opposition from the Liberal Party. The Liberals have always taken the attitude that donations are a private matter. I believe that the public has a right to know who is donating to political parties. I do not allege that there is undue influence over political parties, but as long as the prospect is there for that to occur, there should be disclosure.

Setting the figure at $1,000 was not easy. The National Party's federal submission suggested $10,000. It suggested, in writing, that it should be $10, 000 because one could not buy any influence for anything less. I do not know what the National Party judges that on, but it is there in writing; maybe it is based on experience, maybe just speculation. I must say that the various State directors of the National Party were somewhat shocked when they read that statement. We have set the figures at $1,000 and $200. In some ways it is guesswork. We shall see how it works. The Act will be amended if it does not work or if people can get around it. There is no foolproof way of ensuring that all donations are declared, but this will act as an inhibitor.

Senator Harradine —You exclude all donations.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Yes, there is no way in which all donations can be declared in our view.

Senator Harradine —Why not?

Senator ROBERT RAY —Because there are ways around it, by using front organisations and everything else. There will always be a way round it, but what the legislation does is to set down at least what the moral principles are in politics, and if people want to break them, they can take the consequences if they get caught. Senator Peter Baume said that one of the problems with this is that retaliatory action can be taken against the donors. It occurs to me that in a certain political party, unnamed, retaliatory action is taken if one does not donate. I am not referring to the Liberal Party and I am not referring to the National Party in any other State but Queensland.

The question of public funding is related to disclosure up to a point. Some honourable senators opposite have said, 'You should not dip into taxpayers' money to fund election campaigns'. What do they think they do already? What about the VIP planes? They are paid a salary throughout the election period. They use their telephones for electioneering. Let them not tell me that they do not do that. There are heaps of government resources that are marshalled behind political parties. All that this legislation is doing is making it very honest. We are saying: 'We shall allocate so much money to campaigning'. It will probably double the amount spent by government on campaigning, because already probably $8m, $9m or $10m is spent in supporting political campaigns in this country.

I believe that it is necessary to fund political parties, because that lessens the chance of corruption. It lessens the dependence of political parties on donations and on donors. It frees political parties from having to go out and sell their soul because they simply need the money to compete in the system. Secondly, it enables political parties to compete on a more equal level. There is a cut-off point above which political parties can survive out there, even if they do not have equality of funding; but if they fall below that, they have no chance. The beneficiaries in this competitive thing will clearly be the Labor Party and the Democrats, because we have not been able to compete with the amount of money spent by the conservative parties. It has not been a fair electoral process since 1972. Just occasionally the system reverses itself. In 1981 the Liberals in the State elction in New South Wales were disadvantaged in the spending, I think, and they got steamrolled in that election. The Labor Party absolutely murdered them and spent a lot more money. That was not fair, either. Elections should be made more competitive.

Also, we have this rather remarkable thing that the Liberals are opposed to public funding in principle. I must say that the National Party went one step further. It said it was opposed not only in principle but also morally. But both groups will accept the money. 'What price principle'? I ask honourable senators. What the Liberals are really saying is that for $3m they will sell out their principle. We have established what the Liberal Party is and what its price is.

I also mention a related matter which is the declaration of expenditure. The Harders Committee of Inquiry into the Disclosure of Electoral Expenses, which the Liberal Party commissioned to look into that matter, has reported and this Bill basically encompasses most of its recommendations. Nearly all expenditure should be stated by candidates and political parties, and I think that is long overdue. I have some sympathy with Senator Macklin's point that we should also be looking at limiting campaign expenditure, but in the time frame that the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform had it was a matter that we could not tackle. It is a very difficult problem to try to contain electoral expenditure via legislation, to put ceilings on it, because it is almost as easy to dodge as paying taxes in this country, or it has been up to this time. But it is a matter that we will have to look at in future. No one, no political party, wants campaign costs to spiral any higher than they are at the moment.

I move on to the question of list voting, because that has excited some comment , especially by Senator Bjelke-Petersen who preceded me. I suggest to her that out of self-interest the Opposition look at that because one of the great problems between the coalition parties in Queensland is the lack of tightness of preferences. If there was list voting all that squabbling between the Liberals and the Nationals could go on but at no cost because they could register their how to vote cards and tighten up the exchange of preferences.

Senator Chipp —And belt hell out of each other.

Senator ROBERT RAY —And belt hell out of each other. They could entertain the whole country and not at a cost to themselves. But, unfortunately, for once the Nationals are not perceptive enough to see where their own self-interest lies. I must say that it is a first for me. Why introduce list voting? I think Senator Maguire has outlined the reasons and I will therefore be brief in putting my reasons forward. It is clear to us from the 1977 study into informal voting at Senate elections that 77 per cent of those who vote informally have tried to fill out their ballot papers to some extent. They have put a '1' in a square and then the system has beaten them. That effectively means that the complexity of the system is defeating them. Senator Peter Baume comes in here and says: 'I'd like to pay tribute to the Australian people in that 90 per cent of them can get it right'. I suggest to the Senate that it is a function of his profession that a 90 per cent success rate is fair enough. But I think we should try to make the system 100 per cent successful. If we can make it 100 per cent right we must go for it. I think the list voting system will probably be 97 or 98 per cent right.

The other study that was interesting was the 1983 study that the Electoral Committee commissioned to show where the mistakes occurred. In many cases people were putting down two No. 44s or two No. 45s and were having their votes declared informal. Their intention was clear. Their immediate set of preferences was clear. It was only when they got right to the tail end of the vote that they were excluded. I think list voting will go a long way to fixing that up, as will the other amendments to the definition of what is a formal or informal vote. I will not go into any detail on them because a Liberal amendment and a Democrat amendment relate to when a vote becomes informal. Unfortunately, at this stage, there is no uniformity of view between the three parties here as to what constitutes a formal vote. I also add that in a spirit of consensus we allow in this legislation for a split vote to occur, for a political party to register its vote to go either way. There is some doubt constitutionally about that particular clause so we have put in another clause that says that the vote will remain valid to the point at which it becomes unconstitutional. In effect it will have the same result as splitting the vote.

I will mention three or four very minor points that are in the Bill before I finish. Firstly, we tackled the question of the death of a House of Representatives candidate. At the moment if a House of Representatives candidate drops dead five minutes before the close of nominations the election proceeds. If he drops dead five minutes after the nominations close, there is a new election. We propose that if a candidate who is actually nominated dies, the nomination period will be extended by a day. I think that solves the problem for political parties in getting a new candidate into the field. We would have liked , of course, to have tackled the problem of the death of a Senate candidate. That is a very difficult problem because the Constitution says that candidates shall be directly chosen by the people. There is no constitutional way we could come up with a solution other than merely to suggest that parties should run an extra candidate in case one of their candidates drops dead.

A second area that runs right through this legislation-it has attracted bipartisan support and we are grateful for that-is the extra aid for the handicapped, the identification of polling booths that are accessible to the handicapped and allowing quadriplegics to vote by post by just making their marks. All those sorts of reforms are in the legislation and they have attracted support from all parties. We have allowed for voting in Antarctica in a very complicated way. It takes about eight pages of this Bill, unfortunately, but at least the 100-odd people in Antarctica will be able to vote. Probably through all the effort we have made they will vote 50:50 and no one will get any benefit out of it. Nevertheless, they have felt very frustrated being stuck down in Antarctica and not being able to vote. I want to repeat a point about the Territories that I made the other day by way of interjection. No one is in favour of rorting Territory representation in this place or the other place. The Electoral Reform Committee at some stage will look at legislative measures to prevent any expanding of seats in the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory or anywhere else. That is essential because that would create a constitutional and political crisis in this country that we do not need.

Another point that I suppose has created some controversy is the ability of people to vote anywhere in their own divisions. Senator Sir John Carrick and I have had many arguments over that. I suggest that the reason we introduced it was not to rort the system-I do not think that accusation has been made-but to do away with the problem of absentee voting within a division. It creates enormous clerical problems during elections and it creates a cluttering up of the polling booths. In this day of computer technology there should be no problem at all with people voting anywhere within a division. The argument is put up that that allows multiple voting but I am afraid the opportunity is already there for that and it has not been exercised. No evidence of multiple voting in any electorates in Australia at a Federal level has come to anyone's attention. For instance, in my own subdivision where I live there are seven polling booths, so I presume someone could go around to each one of them and-

Senator Chipp —Those early voters.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Yes, they could vote early and vote often, but they get picked up in the reconciliation and there is no evidence that they do it, where there are, say, seven or eight polling booths within a subdivision. So I think the assertion that it will occur in a division is ridiculous. We have also outlawed multiple nominations. There is some disputation about this but I think people have to make up their minds which seats they want to run for. Changing their names by deed poll, like Mr Aussie-Stone did and then nominating over 13 electorates seems to me ridiculous, especially as in a spirit of consensus we have all agreed not to put up the level of deposit to a horrendous level. I say in conclusion that this legislation is the most comprehensive introduced since 1918. I think it deserves the support of every member of this chamber. Again, I compliment the Ministers responsible for this Bill.