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Wednesday, 2 November 1983
Page: 2213

Mr BEAZLEY (Minister for Aviation, Special Minister of State and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence)(4.03) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

About 200 years ago the great English artist William Hogarth drew a series of six cartoons showing a typical election day. With a limited franchise, some of the rotten boroughs had less than 10 voters and bribery was rife. Open voting meant that the candidate and his agents were able to be assured that their bribes had paid off. The candidate had to get his money for the campaign bribes from some rich patron and secret subsidies from the King or his Opposition were an essential part of the politics of the day. We have advanced some distance from the eighteenth century. But, there is still a potential for the corruption of candidates and parties, who just like the politicians of other days, must have money to campaign even if today it does not go on bribes.

Australia in the nineteenth century showed the way to the world in electoral reform in making democracy work. As early as 1856 Victoria turned away from the violence and corruption of open voting as shown by Hogarth to a secret ballot for its new parliament. Four other States, South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania, followed within three years. Western Australia dragged the chain a little, but by 1877 the secret ballot was in operation throughout the whole of Australia. We were also the leaders in abolishing the property vote and establishing payment for members, both crucial democratic reforms which took powers away from the rich cliques and gave it to the people's representatives. In female suffrage, while New Zealand was the first to give women the vote in 1893, South Australia followed within two years. After Federation women were able to vote, in the first elections under Federal law in 1903. Compulsory enrolment came in 1911 and compulsory voting in 1924.

While Australia once led the world with such reforms we have had a patchy record since. There has been no substantial overall review of Commonwealth electoral law in over three quarters of a century and no major consolidation since 1918. Despite the many fundamental changes which have occurred in society since the turn of the century most Australian governments have not attempted to amend our electoral legislation to reflect those changes. Their failure to act has usually stemmed from a perceived partisan advantage resulting from the decay of the system. One vote, one value was eroded by manipulation of electoral boundaries, people were disfranchised by excessively complex voting systems, by rigid and complicated enrolment procedures. For example, even the introduction of proportional representation in the Senate while conceived as a stabilising, fair system has, in practice disfranchised up to 10 per cent of the electorate through a tendency to encourage informal voting. The size of electorates and the increasing complexity and weight of demands on members have denied the electors the services they deserve and have a right to demand. The sky-rocketing costs of modern election campaigns have threatened to create a situation where the national government can be delivered to the party with the best bagman. It is essential for public confidence in the political process that no suggestion of favours returned for large donations can be sustained. However, it is not only the potential for corruption in the financing of multimillion dollar campaigns that should be a matter for concern. A serious imbalance in campaign funding threatens the health of democracy.

My Party pledged itself to electoral reform before the last election. We have been anxious to work towards co-operation and agreement. All parties are diminished when democracy fails to function. It was because of this that my predecessor the Hon. M. J. Young, MP, moved to establish a Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform and obtain the agreement of this House and the Senate in May of this year. This reflected his long-standing concern about the quality of democracy in this country. His confidence in the value of such an inquiry was well justified by the result. The inquiry was most comprehensive. There were 212 submissions considered by the Committee, not only from political parties, but also from large and small organisations, academics, local government bodies and individuals. The scope of the inquiries covered not only questions of major public policy, but also topics like the problems of handicapped persons and the disenfranchisement of the members of the Australian National Antarctic Research expeditition, both topics to which they were able to propose solutions. What was impressive about the deliberations of the Committee was the concern of all members, of whatever political party, to produce an effective report. Inevitably in the end there were differences. However, I would like to quote the Chairman of the Committee, the honourable member for Prospect (Dr Klugman). He stated:

In view of the highly political questions involved, where every party would be expected to look to its own advantages, the Committee's deliberations were examples of rational discussion. I especially thank the Opposition members for co-operating in helping to design reasonable methods for introducing public fundng of elections and in reaching a voting system designed to reduce the large number of unintended informal votes for Senate elections, two questions which might have been expected to produce extreme polarisation of viewpoints.

Mr Hunt —He was a good chairman.

Mr BEAZLEY —Yes, I think he was. There were pretty good members on the Committee too. I believe the proposals contained in the Bill are of a non-partisan nature. The Government in considering the Committee's report has been able to adopt it in full except for some largely mechanical changes in relation to the proposed Electoral Commission and its procedures in relation to redistributions. On our side we in the Australian Labor Party were prepared to give ground. On the question of Senate voting we accepted a compromise. On Senate voting, the Government has accepted the recommendation of the Committee to provide, firstly, that a voter may mark one square indicating the adoption of his preferred party' s how to vote ticket and, secondly, for the validation of any person's vote up to the point where the voter's intention remains clear. It has been a matter of notoriety that the complexity of the ticket has contributed to a substantial informal vote and also just as significantly to the throw-away vote, known as a donkey vote. The Joint Committee had before it material from the Australian Electoral Office which showed how the most trivial mistakes were the major factors in the Senate informal vote. The figures were taken from an analysis of the 1977 Senate and House of Representatives vote. The Senate informal vote was 9 per cent nationwide compared to 2.5 per cent for the House of Representatives. Of the Senate informal votes almost eight out of 10, 78 per cent, had been disqualified on one or two grounds, that is incorrect numeric sequence, or some squares left blank. This meant the disfranchisement in that election for the Senate of almost 600,000 Australians, more than the population of Tasmania. The situation is palpably absurd and this legislation will go a long way towards correcting it. In addition, never again will a political party be able to influence the destiny of a nation by cynically cluttering a State Senate ticket with dummy candidates. Other reforms-party affiliations of candidates on ballot papers, mobile polling for people in remote areas and hospitals, provisions for itinerants-will restore votes for many previously disfranchised.

So soon after the Queensland election it is hardly necessary to remind the House that the gerrymander is alive and flourishing in Australia. Research undertaken by the Australian Electoral Office shows that widespread cynicism about gerrymanders in Australia is a significant factor contributing to apathy and reluctance to enrol, particularly among young people. We can do something here about meeting and dispelling that scepticism at a national level. According to the Joint Select Committee, there is 'great merit in the existence of an Australian Electoral Commission with a statutory basis and which is seen to operate independent of political influence'. The Bill provides for the establishment of a truly independent Electoral Commission to be made up of a judge of the Federal Court of at least three years standing appointed by the Governor-General in Council from a panel of three nominated by the Chief Judge; The Electoral Commissioner, a position replacing the Australian Electoral Officer; and a permanent head of the Public Service or a person of equivalent status in a Commonwealth statutory authority. The Electoral Commissioner would be a full time executive officer of the Commission, while the other two members would be part time.

The Commission's areas of responsibility will be the current functions of the Australian Electoral Office; the conduct of educational programs for voters and potential voters; the implementation and administration of public funding of election campaigns; the implementation and administration of legislation governing disclosure of donations to political parties and candidates, and of electoral expenditure of candidates, parties and organisations; periodic redistribution of electoral boundaries; and the day to day administration of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

An independent commission is needed to take the drawing of electoral boundaries and the general operation of the Electoral Act out of the control of the whims of the current government, of whatever political complexion. A crucial part of the legislation provides that the final determination of electoral boundaries and names is not to be subject to parliamentary veto, but it may be reviewed by the Federal Court, through a prerogative writ, if prima facie the criteria set out in the legislation are not followed. It will not be subject to any process of approval by Parliament or any disallowance motion by either House. This has been done deliberately and after the fullest consideration of the Joint Committee's recommendation. This Government is determined once and for all to establish fair and impartial procedures for honest redistributions. We owe this to the Australian people. There will be no need for any royal commissions on this topic in future. Within a State the Redistribution Committee under the Australian Electoral Commission will consist of: the Electoral Commissioner; the Australian Electoral Officer for the particular State; the State Surveyor- General; and the State Auditor-General.

Under the legislation, regular redistributions will take place. Their timing will be beyond the reach of governments. Redistributions will, in general, occur in each State and the Australian Capital Territory at least once every seven years, when one-third of the divisions within a State deviate from the State average enrolment by more than 10 per cent, or when population shifts require a change in the number of divisions in a State.

The Government believes that the independence of the Commission must be reinforced by a similar faith and trust in the integrity and independence of our political parties. The cost of electioneering these days in any of the Western democracies would have been unthinkable to the politicians of, say 1949, let alone the founding fathers of Federation. The estimated cost of the Federal election campaign earlier this year was $12m. It is simply naive to believe that no big donor is ever likely to want his cut some time. The price of public funding is a small insurance to pay against the possibility of curruption. The whole process of political funding needs to be out in the open so that there can be no doubt in the public mind. Australians deserve to know who is giving money to political parties and how much. I might say that the fear of potential corruption is by no means confined to members of the Labor Party. According to a final point of the Joint Committee, even the National Party Federal body ' accepted in principle that large undisclosed donations could provide the potential to corrupt the political process'.

The move to public funding and disclosure is not as radical a step as has been suggested by some sectors of the community. Indeed, the list of countries which have taken up public funding and disclosure shows that Australia will simply be catching up with the rest of the democratic world in this important area of reform. Austria, West Germany, France, Finland, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada and the United States of America have all embraced this so-called radical step. It is time that Australia also recognised the essential reasons for supporting public funding. Public funding ensures that different parties offering themselves for election have an equal opportunity to present their policies to the electorate. Without it, worthy parties and candidates might not be able to afford the considerable sums necessary to make their policies known. In this way, public funding contributes to the development of an informed electorate. As well, it helps counter the problem created by the mounting costs of political campaigning due to the increased use of television as a medium of communication between the people and the politicians seeking their endorsement.

An allegation often thrown about by our opponents is that public funding would serve to assist the government of the day more than those parties in opposition. Overseas evidence suggests that this is just not so. American figures show that during the 1980 presidential elections, the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, received $29.4m by way of government subsidy. This was exactly the same amount that the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, was given. In our own proposal, funds will be distributed strictly in accordance with votes received. It has been a long time in Australia since one party polled more than 50 per cent of both the Senate and House primary votes combined. In the specific provisions for public funding, the Government has been prepared to go to substantial lengths to meet the Australian Democrats and the Liberals. The Australian Labor Party's submission to the Joint Committee sought 10 per cent as the minimal formal vote target before a registered party candidate or group became eligible for assistance. The Democrats proposed no threshold and the Liberals one of 5 per cent. The legislation before this House provides a figure of 4 per cent. The rate of public funding is to be as follows: At a double dissolution, or a combined House of Representatives and half Senate election, 60 cents per House of Representatives vote and 30 cents for each Senate vote; for a House of Representatives election and by-elections, 60 cents per valid first preference vote; for a half Senate election, 45 cents per valid first preference vote; and these amounts to be indexed to the consumer price index.

An essential corollary of public funding is disclosure. They are two sides of the same coin. Unless there is disclosure the whole point of public funding is destroyed. The legislation lays down that donations for Federal election purposes of $200 or more to a candidate and $1000 to a party be disclosed and the donor identified. Radio stations, television stations, printers and newspapers are required to report electoral expenditure to the Electoral Commission. These organisations must identify the source of the funds. Anonymous donations above the set limits cannot be accepted by candidates or parties. If such donations are received, a matching amount must be paid by the recipient to the Commonwealth. The Joint Committee of Electoral Reform will closely monitor the effectiveness of these provisions.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as I said, the Bill before the House is the first major overhaul of our electoral legislation since 1918. Amongst other things, it seeks to consolidate the various pieces of legislation which up till now have governed the electoral process; to remove or bring up to date many outmoded provisions; to remove certain anomalies; to extend the right, and in the case of Aboriginals , the obligation to enrol and to vote; to make it easier for electors to get on the rolls and stay on the rolls; to alter polling procedures to make voting more accessible to previously disadvantaged groups; and to make the voting process simpler. For example, the Bill provides that there must be a sufficient time between the announcement of an election and the close of rolls for that election . I am afraid that the previous Prime Minister demonstrated only too well that without this sort of provision the cynical exercise of the strict terms of the law could effectively stop many thousands of people enrolling and voting. There will be new provisions enabling Australians living temporarily overseas to retain their enrolment whether or not they have a current permanent address in Australia. I add that in doing this the Bill at last makes proper provision for the families of servicemen overseas so that they do not lose their entitlement to vote. Special arrangements are being proposed for such handicapped people as quadriplegics, for electors in the Antarctic who previously have been disenfranchised, and also for itinerant persons who up till now have not been catered for at all.

The Bill will also seek to make the voting process easier. In future, for example, electors will be able to vote as an ordinary voter at any polling booth within their division instead of only within their subdivision. Mobile polling facilities will be provided in the outback and for patients in hospitals and similar institutions. A register of postal voters will be established so that people in remote areas or people unable to attend polling booths can be sent an application for a postal vote immediately an election is announced. I would also add that the Government has accepted the proposition that the polling hours for Federal elections should be 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. This will bring our polling arrangements in this regard into line with the majority of the States and make it less confusing for electors.

As I have mentioned, the Bill also proposes that the party affiliations of candidates can be shown on ballot papers. Additionally, new procedures are proposed for the marking of ballot papers which will make it harder for a voter inadvertently to vote informal. It is proposed that it will be possible for an elector voting for the Senate to indicate his choice of candidates by reference to a registered party ticket. We are confident that not only are these proposals intrinsically fair and reasonable but also they will act significantly to reduce the informality rate in Senate elections in the long run.

Honourable members will be aware that in recent months the Government has demonstrated its concern for and interest in electoral matters. We have already taken steps to ensure that the Australian Electoral Office is provided with adequate funds and resources. Provision has been made to increase significantly the Aboriginal electoral education program; funds have been provided for the development of a substantial computer installation; and just recently we provided over $3m dollars to enable the Office to conduct an education and enrolment campaign. Honourable members will be well aware of the concern which the Government expressed when the results of the Electoral Office research showed how many eligible people were not on the electoral rolls.

The legislation which I am now putting before honourable members should be considered against this background of our deep and demonstrated concern. Australia must have an electoral system designed for the people it serves. The Government believes that the changes proposed to our electoral machinery are both timely and sensible, yet at the same time they preserve the basic elements and broad principles which are already at the heart of the current system. On the other hand, the major overhaul undertaken will, we believe, improve the electoral administration; make the whole electoral process of enrolment and voting easier and simpler for the elector and ensure that we have an electoral process which is modern and free from any allegations or even possibilities of corruption or political pressures. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Steele Hall) adjourned.