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Thursday, 1 June 1989
Page: 3241

Senator SHORT —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I table the first report on the Committee's current inquiry into the conduct of the 1987 Federal election and the 1988 referendums. I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the reports.

Leave granted.

Senator SHORT —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Late in 1987 the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters received a reference from the then Minister for Home Affairs, Senator Robert Ray, to inquire into all aspects of the conduct of elections for the Parliament of the Commonwealth, including legislation governing the operation of the Australian Electoral Commission. The Committee's predecessor, the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, has reported on previous elections. This report concerns the conduct of the 1987 Federal election and is the product of a committee representing both Houses of this Parliament and all shades of political opinion. The report contains over 50 recommendations which will bring about reform and improvement in Australia's electoral system. With the exception of the small number of recommendations referred to in the minority comments, the recommendations were unanimous.

I wish to mention just briefly some of the Committee's recommendations. A number of submissions received expressed concern about electoral fraud, particularly the accuracy of the rolls and the possibility of cemetery voting, multiple voting and impersonation. The Committee did not receive any factual evidence to support these allegations of organised electoral fraud but, whilst no evidence to this effect was obtained, the Committee has suggested a number of ways to improve the accuracy of the rolls. Some members of the Committee have called for the introduction of locality voting, which would allow electors to cast ordinary votes at only one polling place in their electorate. Prior to 1984, when electors had to vote within their subdivision, voters who attended a polling booth within their electorate but outside their subdivision were forced to cast a declaration or absentee vote. In the view of the majority of the Committee locality voting would result in large numbers of electors having to cast declaration or absentee votes increasing congestion at booths and dissatisfaction and confusion amongst electors.

Another suggestion was that a computerised electoral roll be introduced to prevent multiple voting. This would require an on-line terminal at every table in every polling booth in every electorate and, in our view, would be prohibitively expensive. The Cundy inquiry calculated it would cost New South Wales more than $20m to introduce such a system. Given the seriousness of allegations of electoral fraud, the Committee has recommended a substantial increase in the penalties for electoral fraud. For example, the Committee recommends that for multiple voting impersonation the penalties set at $1,000 or six months imprisonment should be increased to $12,000 and/or two years maximum imprisonment. This hike in penalties reflects the fact that electoral penalties are well overdue for review. The recommendation will also put Australia in line with other countries which have much higher penalties for electoral fraud than we do here.

Since the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended in 1984 only Australian citizens have been eligible to nominate for election to the Commonwealth Parliament. British citizens enrolled before 1984 are eligible to vote but not eligible to nominate unless they become naturalised citizens. After being declared elected to the Senate in 1987, Mr Robert Wood was found to be in this category, although he believed he was an Australian citizen at the time of nominating.

To reduce the possibility of persons who are not Australian citizens nominating, the Committee has recommended that the Commonwealth Electoral Act be amended to require candidates to declare on their nomination form how they became Australian citizens-that is, by birth or naturalisation-and, if naturalised, where and when the ceremony took place. The Committee rejected a proposal to excuse aged voters from compulsory voting, as occurs in Victorian local government elections. The Committee believes that most elderly voters would take exception to the idea and supports the continuation of uniformity for Federal, State and local voting to minimise confusion.

The Committee received a submission suggesting that it was in the public interest that candidates be required to declare their political affiliations when nominating. To overcome the difficulty in determining which organisations are political, the Committee has recommended that candidates be required to declare their membership of any registered political party at the time of nominating. The Committee received from the Australian Electoral Commission a report on an audit of six divisions and was concerned at the considerable number of errors revealed in that audit. The Committee welcomes the decision of the Australian Electoral Commission to expand staff training and to conduct future audits using the strictest audit standards to ensure uniform electoral procedures are being followed throughout Australia.

Finally, on behalf of the Committee, I wish to thank the secretary of the Committee, Trevor Rowe, and other members of the secretariat who have assisted in preparing this important report-Denise Denahy, Helen Missa and Lexia Noakes. I would also wish to draw the Senate's attention to the minority comments that are contained at the end of the report, expressing some views contrary to the majority report. As was said earlier, they are small in number, but important minority recommendations nevertheless. The minority report signed by me, Mr Michael Cobb and Dr Wooldridge recommends, firstly, the introduction of a system of locality voting and, secondly, that the three months provision, which was removed from the Act in 1987, be reinstated. We disagree with the majority of the Committee in not proceeding with these because of the widespread reports of concern in the community that the electoral system is subject to abuse and manipulation and, therefore, to inaccurate or rigged election results. We believe that any long term perceptions of this nature would inevitably erode the confidence the electorate has in our democratic parliamentary system. The implications of this, of course, are obvious and would be of profound significance and concern.