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Tuesday, 9 May 1989
Page: 2115

Senator BEAHAN(9.55) —It is nice to know that Senator Bishop did not want to finish her comments, because they were not making a great deal of sense up to that point. It is also heartening to see such a good audience in the House for my speech on this seminal Electoral and Referendum Amendment Bill 1988. The Bill proposes amendments flowing from the consideration by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform of the 1984 election. It has been suggested by Senator Short and by some other senators on the Opposition benches that the Bill should be withdrawn and resubmitted to include consideration of the 1987 election. That has some superficial appeal, but in reality it means that no reform will be achieved before the next election. We might be well into the next term before any reform would be possible.

I draw the attention of honourable senators to the fact that it is not the Government which is delaying Bills. This massive backlog of Bills is a problem for the Opposition, not for the Government. It would be very easy for the Opposition to bring on this Bill at a much faster rate, along with many others. Most of the comments which have been made seem to refer to the integrity of the rolls. I must say that the comments that have been made are causing an immense amount of damage to the electoral system in Australia, with wild and unsubstantiated claims about cemetery voting, multiple voting and impersonation. These claims are damaging because they affect people's faith in the integrity of the rolls and in the integrity of the system itself. I believe that Australians have good reason to be satisfied with the reliability and integrity of the electoral system in this country. I agree with Senator Macklin's earlier comments that we have much to be proud of in the electoral system here. He said that it was a system which was the envy of many other comparable countries. However, there is no doubt that constant baseless criticism undermines the credibility of this system, despite the fact that this credibility deserves to be much higher.

It is not as if the Liberal Party had any substantive evidence for the claims it has made. In both the Senate submissions in this debate, and in formal written submissions made to the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters, the Liberal Party has admitted that it has only anecdotal evidence, at best, and very little of that. In its written submission to the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters, the Liberal Party gave no indication whatever of the nature of the information it was claiming was so damaging to the electoral system. It admitted in writing in that submission that the evidence it had, such as it was, was anecdotal. Clearly, for those of us who read it, the evidence was very superficial. Yet, under parliamentary privilege, the Liberal Party is prepared to run with it, regardless of the accuracy of the statements it is making, in the full knowledge that talk-back radio, which seems to enjoy peddling ignorance and hysteria, will pick it up and that this will in some way damage the Government.

I believe that this process is reprehensible and damaging to the system under which we work. It undermines the perceived integrity of the system, as I have said. Perhaps, as importantly, it directly criticises officers of the Commission and, because this goes back further than that, to 1984, and before that to accusations relating to New South Wales State elections, it also criticises Australian Electoral Office staff and State electoral office staff in New South Wales who are unable to defend themselves against these attacks. The Federal Electoral Commission, in its response to the Liberal Party's submission, made a telling and accurate comment in assessing the value of the allegations. At page 796, the submission of the Commission, in its response to the Liberal Party submission, states:

Nonspecific and unauthenticated allegations of multiple voting (and other breaches of electoral law) are made at most elections as part of the process of denying the legitimacy of an unwelcome outcome.

I think that is at the base of the criticisms being made without substantiation from the Opposition benches. In the same response, and having examined the scant evidence provided, the Commission drew a conclusion at page 799 of that same report. It referred to multiple voting, because that is where most of the attacks had been made. It said:

Multiple voting is not thought to be a significant problem; it is not a threat to the integrity of election outcomes.

Having looked at all of the evidence, that is the conclusion arrived at by the Commission. The references that have been made by Senator Bishop particularly but by others also to the Castlereagh New South Wales case amaze me. I am simply amazed that she has the gall to come into this chamber and repeat allegations that have been demolished point by point not only by Senator Schacht earlier in this debate and by Senator Robert Ray in other debates in this chamber but also by about seven pages of submissions by the Electoral Commission, in response to her allegations. This response tore her allegations to shreds and made nonsense of them. Yet she repeats them. Despite the fact that letters have been sent by the Minister to Premier Greiner asking him to look into the allegations that have been made, because it is after all a State matter, and the fact that no response has been received to those letters, Senator Bishop still feels free to come back into this chamber and repeat allegations that, as I said, have been demolished point by point on several occasions both in this chamber and outside it.

Senator Hill, having again made vague allusions to the integrity of the roll, then draws the red herring of the New South Wales inquiry into the operations and process of the conduct of State elections, the so-called Cundy report. He neglects to mention that that report made little of many of the accusations. It was not studying the same accusations that have been made by Senator Bishop or by others here. It was looking at the whole question of fraudulent voting and it concluded:

Much has been written and spoken about votes being cast in the names of deceased electors (cemetery voting). While it is known to have occurred it has been on such a minor scale that it has had no effect on election results. Impersonation of electors falls into much the same category as `cemetery voters'.

Even where it refers to multiple voting to which it gives slightly more credence and about which it is a little more concerned, it can come up with only two accusations or instances of multiple voting in recent years. They could find no evidence about one of them. The other, which was handled by the Electoral Commission at the Federal level, was the case of a Mr Haantjens who in fact admitted the offence in order to show up the system. He had voted some 15 times in order to make a fool of the system. That is the only case that the report mentions although, as I said, it gives slightly more serious attention to it. In the other two areas of cemetery voting and impersonation, it discards them as relatively unimportant although not totally absent from the system, yet much is made of these things by the Opposition.

Of most interest in all of this are the Liberal Party suggestions for overcoming what I believe is an imagined problem. In its written submission to the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters the Opposition suggested a number of ways of overcoming this imagined problem. Let me go through some of them because they show up the fundamental difference in the attitude of the Liberal Party on the one hand and that of the Labor Party consistently on the other hand.

The first suggestion is that we go to a totally computerised system offering total integrity. That sounds fine until questions are asked about what is meant by that. What is meant, for example, by a system of total integrity? If it means that it will be impossible to cast more than one vote, it would have to involve a whole range of things. It would certainly need the provision of an on line computer that would link every polling place with a central storage and processing unit. Such an online system would have to be capable of remaining operational continuously and at the 8,200 polling places from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on polling day. No such facility has ever been attempted, nor is it likely to be because of the cost and the unreliability. One breakdown in the whole system would be enough to throw the whole election out and we all know the propensity for even modern and reliable computers to break down.

If on the other hand it were to have total integrity, it would have to be coupled with some sort of unique identifier such as the proposed Australia Card, an internal passport or something similar. What has happened to the Liberal Party's great concern for individual liberties when it suddenly believes that we need some sort of individual identifier of that sort? It was not prepared to countenance one in relation to tax rorting but it is prepared to countenance one when it comes to people's rights to vote. I suggest that that is because it would prefer people not to vote rather than to vote. If there is a theme in their responses, it is to limit rather than extend the franchise. The theme in everything the Labor Party has done is to extend, not limit, the franchise.

The second suggestion made by the Opposition is a return to subdivisional voting. The idea behind it is that the number of electors attending a particular polling place will be so small as to make recognition possible by the polling staff, scrutineers or somebody else. There is nothing unreasonable in principle in that system. In fact it is applied in some countries but, in those countries that do insist on electors voting at designated polling places, the total number of voters is usually set at between 500 and 1,000 at each polling place, and a number of 750 is common.

In the 1983 general election, which is the last election that was organised on a subdivisional basis, and that is what the Liberal Party is suggesting in its submission that we go back to, fewer than one in six electors was located in subdivisions of 5,000 electors or fewer and more than two in five of those electors were in subdivisions of over 10,000. Does anybody on the Opposition benches seriously suggest that a polling official, scrutineer or anybody else in a polling place could recognise, with a degree of accuracy, 5,000 to 10,000 people by sight? It is a nonsense. The idea of going back to subdivisional voting is a nonsense. If Opposition members want to reduce the numbers, they will have to go far lower than that and I would suggest that the cost would be substantial not only in terms of reducing the number of polling places and having to pay the additional necessary staff but also in training voters that they will have to vote at a particular polling place from then on. It is a recurring cost because it will have to be done again at every election. What will all this be for-to satisfy the imagined irregularities identified by a group of people who are having difficulty coping with losing elections. That is the crux of the matter.

The third suggestion made in the Liberal Party submission is that electors should be required to provide corroborating documentary evidence of residence and address, and that this might involve the enrolment being witnessed by justices of the peace. This is really true to character for the Liberal Party. Again, as I have indicated, it is an attempt to restrict the franchise, to reduce the number of voters. It is quite opposed to the sort of position the Labor Party has been taking consistently and has taken in the various Acts passed by this Government, which have exactly the opposite effect of enhancing the franchise, of enhancing the number of people able to vote.

I well remember being involved in the 1977 Kimberley campaign when I assisted Ernie Bridge, the Labor candidate, in that disgraceful election where the Liberal Party, in a sustained effort, attempted to stop Aborigines from voting. The Liberal Party had a variety of techniques for this.

Senator McMullan —Senator Crichton-Browne knows all about this.

Senator BEAHAN —Yes. One of the ways it did this was to send lawyers there to try to badger and intimidate the Aborigines into feeling that they could not go ahead with the process of voting. Other ways were less subtle, such as getting Aborigines drunk or delivering 44-gallon drums of port free of charge to Aboriginal settlements. That failed. There was a court of disputed returns and the evidence raised there was a damning indictment of the Western Australian branch of the Liberal Party, from which that branch is still suffering. The Liberal Party cannot raise a fraction of the votes that we can from Aboriginal communities because Aboriginal communities, with all the difficulties they might have with the Government from time to time, cannot bring themselves to vote for the Liberal Party because of the disgraceful events of 1977.

As a result, because the Liberal Party failed to stop Aborigines from voting, Sir Charles Court, who was an expert on limiting franchises, attempted another way. What he tried to do is what the Liberal Party is now suggesting for Federal legislation. The Liberal Party tried to make it more difficult for Aborigines to enrol. If all Aborigines are going to vote, and the Liberal Party could not stop them from voting by intimidating them with lawyers or trying to get them drunk, it would stop them from enrolling. It was made mandatory to have the signature of a justice of the peace (JP) or a policeman on an enrolment form. That was difficult for people in remote communities in the Kimberley, the Central Desert region and elsewhere. Where would they find JPs? How many Aborigines would be comfortable about going to policemen, particularly in those days, to get a signature on an enrolment form? The whole attempt was to restrict the franchise and stop Aborigines from voting. It was a shameful attempt which we undid when we got into government later on.

Other things can be said about the use of JPs' signatures. One is that they are unevenly spread. They are not as easily found in one place as in another. Secondly, they are politically appointed. In some places they are much more openly politically appointed than in others.

The Electoral Commission's response to the Liberal Party's report quotes an article which is quite telling about JPs. Page 8 of the Electoral Commission's response refers to an article in the Courier-Mail of 12 October 1988. I will read this because it is a very good example of the difficulty with JPs, particularly in some parts of this country. It states:

A large number of Queensland's estimated 43,000 Justices of the Peace receive their commission as a political reward, according to Queensland's foremost JP.

Dr Keith Tronc also said about 35,000 of Queensland's JPs have made false statements about their willingness and competence in statutory declarations submitted as part of their applications for appointment. Dr Tronc, a solicitor and professional educator who was asked by the State Government Justice Department to write the manual for Queensland's JPs, said political rewards were common and deplorable.

I know this because MLAs have on numerous occasions said to me, `I nominate everyone who seeks to become a JP and I offer nominations to everyone who helps with my electoral campaign-it's a sure-fire winner', he said.

Dr Tronc said he had replied to the MLAs, whom he refused to name, that a JP's job was difficult, complex and training was needed before nomination. ``To which comment some of our honourable members have replied, `That would be unnecessarily restrictive','' he said.

Dr Tronc said some people were nominated as JPs for handing out how-to-vote cards.

That gives an idea of how, in at least one State in this country, becoming a JP is not a big deal and having a signature on a nomination is not particularly substantial.

The fourth suggestion that is made in the Liberal Party's submission is that some form of substantiation might be produced to prove that the person who is voting is who he or she claims to be. In the original case referring to computers, it might have been an unconscious call for the return of the Australia Card or some sort of internal identifier. This is a much more open, clear and unambiguous call for the introduction of an Australia Card or similar identifier. Again, I wonder what has happened to the Liberal Party's concerns about privacy and individual liberty.

Senator Short expressed concern about some of the comments in the report of the Electoral Commission's response to the Liberal Party's submission, and said that the officers of the Electoral Commission were unprofessional in their approach to this submission. I was quite amazed that he should quote part of that submission which, I think, was quite damning to the Liberal Party's submission. I will refer to the quotation which Senator Short used, and re-read it as follows:

The submission's contribution to the perception in the minds of many voters that the administration of the electoral process is not adequate by repeating such an extraordinary collection of quarter truths and total fabrications devalues its protestations of concern about the consequences to the vanishing point.

That is enough said about the Liberal Party's submission. It is a written submission to a joint committee of this Parliament and, frankly, it is a disgrace when compared with the other submissions that were put to the Committee. I notice that Tony Eggleton did not appear to give evidence to the Committee in support of the submission despite the fact that it was above his signature, but that a junior official from Canberra was forced to answer some difficult questions from members of the Committee who shared the conviction that it was a dreadful submission.

Some comments were made earlier in this debate about the Western Australian election. Certainly Senator Chaney, not in this debate but at other times, has complained about the fact that a claimed 52 per cent of the vote-I cannot be precise about the figures-was gained by the Liberal Party in the Western Australian State election, and yet it did not win the election, and the Liberal Party thought that this was unfair. It is interesting that the Liberal Party in Western Australia has a sudden, renewed interest in the concept of one vote one value. It has shown absolutely no interest in the concept before now. I would like to know, for example, what Senator Chaney was doing, if he is so interested in this concept, in 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987 when the Labor Party attempted to pass Bills which would redress that difficulty and introduce one vote one value in Western Australia. The 1983, 1984 and 1985 attempts were thrown out holus bolus. We did not get past first base because we had no support at all from either the Liberal or National parties. The 1987 Bill did go through with the support of the National Party, but with the trenchant opposition of the Liberal Party.

Senator Chaney waxes and wanes on these issues in any case because, while he is complaining about that fact now and giving tacit support to one vote one value, it was only about a year ago in the old Parliament House that he was defending the malapportionment which previously existed, which was even worse than the malapportionment which currently exists. He was defending it in discussion on the referendum Bills. I will quote him from Hansard as follows:

I made the point that if one had any comprehension of the geography and population of that State, to deny the right of the State of Western Australia to have any degree of regional representation in the upper House is absolutely pathetic and absurd. If one looks at the discrepancy between the Kimberley and the South West Land Division, and the South West Land Division and the metropolitan area, to argue that one can have nothing akin to a regional representation of the sort that Australia has for the whole of its nation is, in my view, not a tenable proposition.

What Senator Chaney-this paragon of virtue, probity and rectitude-is doing there is supporting malapportionment. He is supporting a grossly rorted system, as it was in those days, a system which is slightly less rorted now because the National Party assisted us in getting rid of the worst of the rorts. He has turned full circle, not out of any sense of principle or probity, but out of a sense of self-interest for his political party, and now he is supporting the concept of one vote one value.

The question of that differential in the vote-the fact that the Liberal Party did not win, even though it got more than 50 per cent of the vote-can be explained for those who know anything about electoral matters in a whole range of ways, apart from the concept of one vote one value and the current malapportionment.

Western Australia is made up of single member constituencies, and we will always get some distortions with a single member constituency system. It is only with a system of proportional representation that one's support base is very close to exactly reflected in the representation one gets. But Western Australia has a preferential system with single member constituencies and so we are bound to get some discrepancies because of that. Secondly, it is drawn up to a design of the National Party of Australia. Of course it was put together by independent commissioners, but according to a set of rules that were forced on us by the National Party because we had to get the support of the National Party in order to carry the Bill in 1987.

The third consideration, is that the results in marginal electorates vary from the results found in electorates generally. Marginal seats are less inclined to big swings than non-marginal seats. There is nothing unusual about that. This is partly related to the Australian Labor Party's capacity for very effective targeted campaigns, but it is also partly related to the fact that marginal seat electors know that they are in marginal seats and they are very much more careful about their voting because they know it will have a real impact on the outcome of the election. The other side of this, of course, is that Labor members in the Western Australian election tended to win their seats by smaller margins than did Liberal and other Opposition members, who won their seats by larger margins. That, again, describes part of it.

Of course, another factor is the current malapportionment that exists in Western Australia. By `malapportionment' I mean that some electors have a much more powerful vote than that of other electors. For example, voters in rural electorates have much more power in their vote because there are much smaller numbers of voters in their electorates, whereas city electorates have much bigger numbers and the vote of each individual is correspondingly less powerful. That malapportionment, while it was largely ameliorated by the 1987 Act, was not totally got rid of because the National Party still wanted a distortion to exist so that country electorates would have an over-representation in the Parliament.

It is not the National Party that wants to change that now; it is the Liberal Party in Western Australia that is toying with the idea. It will be very interesting to see whether the Liberals can bring themselves around after so many years of opposition to the principled position that one person deserves a vote that is equal with that of every other person-a position that is consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and with every other civilised electoral convention. As I said, if this is done, it will not be done out of any high degree of principle but out of a sense of survival because they think that the only way they can survive is with a system of one vote one value. I do not believe it is that easy, and I think that at the next election in Western Australia they will find it equally difficult because they have not yet come to terms with the fundamentals of campaigning, selection of candidates or, I suppose, of consistency in the principles they stand for so that people can judge them over time.

Debate (on motion by Senator Walsh) adjourned.