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Thursday, 4 May 1989
Page: 1857

Senator MACKLIN(10.14) —The last comment of Senator Short certainly has merit. It seems to me that the fact that this Bill has languished so long on the Notice Paper brings it into the area where it could very well be superseded by a further report from the committee that has been looking at the last election. It might be advisable for the Government to consider whether any of those arguments could be put in legislation form. Undoubtedly, there will be only one run at such a Bill before the next election. The history of the exercise so far is that the reports from the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters have been accepted by the Parliament. The vast bulk of the recommendations have been unanimous and have found their way into legislation.

It is not only the majority reports that have found their way into legislation; some minority reports also have. I served as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, as it was then, from its formation in 1983 until last year. I appreciate the Committee's workload. I was most impressed by the depth of analysis of the various items that came before the Committee. Unlike Senator Short, I think that Australian federal electoral law is one of the best electoral laws anywhere in the world. It is one of the very few laws to have been scrutinised rigorously by a parliamentary committee. The Joint Committee has recommended changes which have been accepted by Parliament. Those changes have been re-examined in terms of how they may have operated in an actual election context and the report has resulted in further changes which, again, have been adopted by Parliament. The Committee is now in the process of looking again at the changes that were made as a result of its second major report-not the second report, but the second major report-on electoral matters to see how they worked. So I cannot accept the litany of criticism made by Senator Short with regard to the electoral law.

Electoral Acts can always be improved-there is no doubt about that-but members of all political parties in this place have a lot to be proud of in respect of the electoral laws at Federal level in terms of the extent of the franchise that we have been able to achieve. Indeed, some people have been critical of the fact that we have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that all Australian citizens are able to register and to vote. I refer, for example, to citizens who work in the Antarctic, who used to be deprived of the vote but now get it; to itinerant workers, who used to be deprived of the vote by the nature of their occupation, but no longer are; and to women who, after leaving home with their children because they were bashed by their husbands, did not go on the electoral roll because they might be able to be traced, but who are now able to go on a silent electoral roll.

It is pretty easy to criticise, but let us look at the state of the Act before all this activity took place. I urge Senator Short, if he is not aware of the massive contrast, to read the first report of the Committee with regard to the basic electoral law. I think that he, like me, indeed, like all members of the Committee-will be stunned by the corruption of that system that crept in over a myriad of years. I am referring not to corruption of individuals but to corruption of the system. On one occasion we found that public servants had decided that they did not like the way in which, under the Act, women were not required, when they married, to change their maiden name on the roll unless they wished to do so. Whether the name was changed on the roll was entirely at their discretion. The bureaucrats decided that they did not like that and they made the women re-enrol under their married names, or knocked them off the roll if they did not. That was entirely contrary to the Act, even as it operated, having been passed by this Parliament in the 1940s. That had nothing to do with the new found position. Quite rightly the Parliament said that, under the Electoral Act, it was not a matter of dictate that that should occur. But obviously, in practice, it did not carry the day.

I would like at least to register my appreciation of the work that has been done by the Committee over the years and the work that has been done by the Parliament in improving that Act. I believe that, while changes can be made, we have gone a long way. I think one of the items that will stand to the credit of this Government is that it was willing to take on the task of reforming the electoral laws and to give that its best run. That time, energy and effort was not put in by previous governments for a long time.

One of the minority recommendations that I made, which appears in this Bill, was a dissenting report to the first report of the Joint Committee in September 1983, in which I urged that those citizens who had already been deprived of their liberty because of a prison sentence were suffering a double penalty under the current legislation because they were not allowed to vote. At the time I noted:

Having established a duty to vote with a penalty for non-compliance it is odd for the Committee to exempt certain citizens from that obligation and that penalty because they are serving prison sentences. The removal of political rights because of civil or criminal offence was entirely inappropriate for a democracy.

I stand by that statement. One of the things that was often held against the Soviet Union was the fact that it deprived people of political rights by using other methods. It seems to me highly incongruous that, while that type of criticism was being made of the Soviet Union at that time, people were happy to condone it in Australia. The Government has picked up that matter in this legislation. I am pleased to see it because, as the Minister has said, we now have a more rational and consistent approach to the recognition of voting rights and responsibilities. I argued this matter very strongly at the beginning of this Committee and I am pleased to see that it has now infused the whole of this Bill.

Political rights stem from citizenship. I know that, at that time, this was a ticklish problem. I argued very strongly that, ticklish or not, we should grasp the nettle and say that the right to vote was a right that flowed from citizenship in this country. People should be entitled to vote not because they happen to live here but because they are citizens. Some residents of this country are still entitled to vote but no new residents are able to be added to the roll. So, in a short space of time, our electoral rolls will be made up-as they should have been for a long period-entirely of citizens. If one is a citizen one is entitled to vote, whether or not one is in gaol. As I have said, one's voting rights stem from one's citizenship, not from one's situation in terms of civil or criminal law.

I have submitted other dissenting reports. In fact, I was able to join later with Senator Collins, operating in his previous capacity as a member representing the Northern Territory at a constitutional convention, on a vote against quite a number of his colleagues on the question of the Northern Territory becoming a State and whether it should be on a par with the original States. I saw no justification whatsoever for the argument in the majority report at that time-which was signed by all members of the Australian Labour Party, the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia-that if the Northern Territory became a State it should be treated in a way other than the original States that were represented in this chamber. I am still very much of that view because I believe that the philosophy of the exercise is impeccable.

Mr Acting Deputy President, I know that you have a very strong views on this matter also. When you were a Minister I remember you telling me of those views at around 2.00 or 3.00 one morning when we were waiting for a Bill to come back from the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, although you were persuasive as always, I still hold to my view-although it might not be shared by many-that ultimately, the only way for the constitutional principle upon which the Senate is founded to be able to operate is for every State to be represented in this chamber on an equal basis. I made a dissenting report in December 1986 on other matters which are pertinent to this Bill. The recommendation of the Committee was:

The surname, given names, address, occupation, sex and date of birth of each elector should be available on the electoral roll and on the publicly available microfiche of the electoral roll.

I dissented from that recommendation and I will continue to argue that we should eliminate all unnecessary details from the electoral roll. The Government, after due consideration, picked up my dissenting report as it desired at that stage to reintroduce the words `sex' and `occupation' on the electoral roll. The issue of sex is a non-issue because unless two people are living in the same house and they both have the same surnames there could not possibly be any confusion. But even worse is the notion of occupation. I have no idea what occupation has to do with the right to vote. It may be useful for political parties. We do not establish the roles for political parties; we establish them to determine the right to vote. I believe that the minimum of information ought to appear on the electoral roll and that information should be used only for the purposes for which it is gathered.

I look forward to a stimulating debate in the committee stage of this Bill, whenever we manage to get to it. The way in which this Bill has been meandering through the Senate that should be some time next year. I look forward to a stimulating debate on why we should collect information from citizens for the purpose of the electoral roll, operate a private enterprise exercise, and tout that information around to the highest bidder. I am totally opposed to that and I will be seeking to move an amendment with regard to that matter in the committee stage. I will also be seeking to move amendments with regard to a number of other matters-most notably what I have entitled `the licence to lie' that is provided for political parties in the Electoral Act. I assume that, as has happened in the past, we will do nothing about that. I know ultimately we will have to do something about that as there is pressure from the electorate. I hope that, at least in the committee stage, people will be able to bring forward some slightly more rational and reasonable arguments as to why they believe companies in Australia should tell the truth when they advertise but political parties should have absolutely no obligation to do anything about the truth when they advertise. I look forward to debating in the committee stage that and other matters.

Debate interrupted.