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Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Page: 4047

Senator BIRMINGHAM (5:12 PM) —As this is the first occasion on which I have noted you in the chair, I congratulate you on your appointment to that position, Acting Deputy President Ryan. I add my comments welcoming these reports of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, thanking in particular the many witnesses who have participated in these inquiries, the committee staff for their hard work in producing these reports, and the chair and deputy chair for their stewardship throughout this process. In particular I note the report on the 2007 federal election and matters related to it.

This undertaking of a full and comprehensive assessment of the conduct of each of our federal elections during the life of the parliament that follows them is an important tradition that has arisen through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It ensures that we take into account the workings and operations of each and every one of those campaigns. As someone who has personally had the experience of running for a House of Representatives seat and enjoying a result that came down to just 108 votes—I note Senator Wong smiling across the chamber at me—

Senator Wong —We win some; we lose some.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —I note the role that Senator Wong played in that campaign—

Senator Wong —We lost a couple in that seat before.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —You had indeed lost a couple in that seat, at least one of those by an even smaller margin some years before. Increasingly we get very close election results in individual seats around Australia, and it is only a matter of time before we have an election somewhere in the future where potentially we will have a result on election night that actually is not a result, because it is not yet known and will hang in the balance in too many undecided seats. In each election, it now seems, we are seeing an increasing number of seats coming down to the wire. It is with that that the merit of reports such as this one stands out.

One of the key recommendations we made in this report, after extensive discussions with the Australian Electoral Commission and the many other participants in this inquiry, is about the treatment of prepoll votes. Increasingly, Australians are choosing to exercise their right to cast a ballot in advance of election day. For whatever reason, we are seeing more and more Australians go into the ballot box to exercise their democratic right and privilege in the days and couple of weeks leading up to polling day. The problem that has ensued, of course, is that because those prepoll votes have not been historically counted on election day it is increasingly the case that more and more votes are put aside on election night and we have a diminished chance of seeing an outcome. We need to see those votes counted on election night to increase the likelihood of having clear results in individual seats and a clear result across the nation. I am pleased that all parties in the majority report of this inquiry have supported the concept that amendments should be made to the Electoral Act to ensure that those prepoll votes are counted, as are ordinary ballots across the rest of the system, on election night. This will be an important change that will deliver better outcomes for Australia in the way our elections are conducted.

Whilst I recognise the many other recommendations that the coalition and other minor parties have supported in the majority report, I do note that there are a number that we do not support. Unfortunately, whilst this is a very valuable process that leads to sensible outcomes such as those surrounding prepoll matters, equally it often leads to a little politicking along the way as well. We should greet with some cynicism and scepticism any of those recommendations that do not enjoy bipartisan support, because they will usually have been made for some type of partisan advantage. I would not put it beyond our friends in the Labor Party to engage in partisan advantage in these matters. We need to treat with a rather large grain of salt those areas in which they have dissented from the views of the coalition or other parties, because it is quite likely that they play to the advantage of the majority party.

We need to be very focused on the responsibilities of the AEC under the Electoral Act. Amongst those responsibilities is a need to focus on accurate enrolment—enrolment that is accurate as to the identification of a person and where that person lives. Another responsibility is the conduct of the election: how, when and in what circumstances a ballot is cast; and how we ensure that only one ballot per person is cast. Then, of course, there is the count: ensuring that preferences are fully exhausted and that the count is undertaken in an appropriate way.

The government have unfortunately chosen to make some recommendations that go against evidence given to the committee and which will undermine the integrity of some parts of that process. They have chosen to make a recommendation about changing the timing of the closing of the rolls. This was despite hearing very clear evidence from the Australian Electoral Commission that the number of people missing at the date of the close of the rolls in 2007 was 100,370 persons whereas in 2004 it was 168,394 persons. Despite the closure date for the rolls being brought forward, we saw fewer people miss out on being on the roll. That was because the AEC ran an effective campaign to ensure that people were accurately enrolled before the closure date. That campaign ensured that people knew they had to have their house in order before the election was called. This was a sensible mechanism that ensured the AEC was not flooded, as they had been previously, with more than half a million changes to enrolments in the days after an election was announced. Instead, it ensured that every enrolment was correct and in place and there was a better outcome in the time frame that was provided. Labor’s recommendation in this regard must be rejected.

We also see suggestions that the changes made prior to the last election to proof of identity for provisional voting should be repealed. Once again we see a situation where the evidence does not stack up, because most people—around 75 per cent—produced their proof of ID when they turned up to cast a provisional vote. That is not surprising. People produce proof of ID all the time nowadays and they do so quite validly. We should not make it easier to cast a vote or to enrol to vote than it is to go to the video store and get a membership card. We should be ensuring that reasonable identification provisions exist—and, in provisional voting, that is quite critical. More than three-quarters of those people who turned up had their ID on them and, of those who did not, a surprising number never bothered to come back with that identification. You have to wonder about the intent of those voters.

This is an important report. I draw the attention of the parliament and the Senate to, in particular, the dissenting comments of Senator Ronaldson, Mr Morrison, me and others. They highlight some areas where we need to be cautious about reforms to the Electoral Act that are perhaps being made for partisan purposes. But I welcome the report and hope that the government embraces the majority recommendations, especially those that will strengthen our processes in the years to come. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.