House debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005

Second Reading

5:04 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise, like my colleagues, to oppose the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005. I am surprised and saddened that in 2006 in Australia we are discussing a bill that acts so strongly to weaken what is a great electoral system in this country. This bill is without any doubt entirely about political power. It is about weakening the power of voters and about strengthening the power of political donors in this country, all for the absolute good—and only the good—of the Liberal Party.

I have believed in the power of the vote ever since I was a child—the power of a single vote in this country. That was years before I discovered what that really meant in a marginal seat. In a seat like mine, which I hold by 0.7 per cent, the numbers that change the course of government are very small. In a community of 3,000, 10 people changing their mind gives a swing of 0.7 per cent. In the local soccer club of 100 people, one person changing their mind and voting the other way gives a swing of 0.7 per cent. In those circumstances, one person who is informed, engaged and active in a community can dramatically change the course of an election.

But this is not just true in marginal seats. Unfortunately, we cannot lock all of our electors in the one electorate—they cross borders, they go into safe seats and they work in other seats, they play sport in other seats, they get their information from across the community. So even people in safe seats, who sometimes feel quite powerless, have extraordinary power to influence the votes of the very small number of people who ultimately affect the direction of an election. Individuals in our society have extraordinary power—and so they should. When I was campaigning I discovered the many people in my electorate who no longer believe in the power of their vote, who believe that it is not particularly useful to engage in the political process at all. By opting out, they make that lack of power a reality.

I believe that this parliament, all of our parliaments and all members of this House have a fundamental responsibility, as custodians of the important positions that we occupy temporarily, to leave our democracy in a better state of health than we found it in. That means more empowered voters—more informed, more engaged, more active. We should be judged not just by what we achieve in government or in opposition but by the state of the political process and the reputation of the positions that we hold when our terms are over and we pass those positions to the next person.

We do that, unfortunately, in Australia at the moment in the context that the average person is becoming less and less sure of the political process. Many believe that politicians do not listen any more to the people in the street but that we do listen to unnamed voices of wealth, big business and power. Our job is to improve the integrity of the democratic process in our local areas and federally and to leave our electorates more engaged, more empowered and more informed. That does not mean only empowering the voter but ensuring that the real power is with voters and that it is not unduly influenced by the flow of money through the electoral system. The power is with voters and not with donors. That means that donations to political parties need to be open. People need to feel that their vote is important and they need to engage and participate. Business needs to know that policy cannot be bought with campaign donations. The structure of our systems must allow broad participation as candidates, not based on wealth alone. We must not follow the American path where winning and losing becomes more a matter of money and advertising than the characteristics of our candidates. How this government will be judged at the end of its term will depend greatly on the support for the bill that it has put before us today.

This bill fails the test of lifting the integrity of our democratic system by fundamentally undermining the value of the voter and profoundly increasing the value of political donations. It is ironic that this bill has in its title the words ‘electoral integrity’. When you see that, you might think that it does actually improve the integrity of the system. You would be foolish to think that, of course, because we have seen in the last couple of months many bills with names that make a lie of the content of the bill. We have seen Work Choices legislation that offers no choices to workers. We have seen Welfare to Work legislation that traps people into welfare. This electoral integrity bill undermines the electoral integrity of our great system.

Let us start looking at the ways in which our system is weakened by this bill. There are quite a few. They are all significant changes. Some make it easier to have political influence and to participate in the political process, and some make it harder but, ironically, it makes it easier to participate in the political processes in areas where the general public would find that a negative. It makes it easier for people to donate secretly to political organisations—to donate behind closed doors by raising the disclosure threshold from $1,500 to $10,000—and easier to donate by increasing the threshold for tax-deductible donations; in other words, asking taxpayers to subsidise political, behind closed doors donations. This is a movement towards donocracy, not democracy. It makes it harder in areas where the Australian public would feel it should be easier. It makes it harder to vote. It does this by closing the roll essentially on the day that an election is called and by making it more difficult to enrol in the first place. It makes it more difficult for ordinary people to vote. It makes it harder for community groups to comment on government policy by introducing new disclosure regulations for organisations, but it makes it much easier for people and businesses with extra cash to donate to political parties secretly. When they do donate, it asks taxpayers to subsidise the donations but then will not give you a list of whom exactly you subsidised.

There is a lot of concern about the changing power in our society. I hear about it at the mobile offices when I am out there and when I am doorknocking. There is a growing feeling that there is very little that an individual can do in the political process. They are losing their power and that power is gradually being transferred to big lobby groups, big business and big money. This bill is all about encouraging that shift in power. It goes a long way to making that perception a reality in a very strong way. People are worried about that transfer of power. It has been going on slowly and surely with election costs going up every election in a dramatic way, gradually following the path of the US. But this bill is overt. This bill puts the agenda absolutely out there in the open. This bill is about nothing else but transferring the power away from the voter and giving that power to money.

Interestingly, it makes two groups disappear. It makes a number of voters disappear. About 300,000 voters will disappear from our roll in the next election because of these changes, and when those voters disappear they lose their power altogether. On the other side, it makes a whole stack of political donors disappear as well. But when you make a donor disappear you increase their power; you make it possible for them to feel comfortable in making a political donation without scrutiny by the public or the media.

Labor is strongly opposed to the provisions of this bill which make it more difficult for people to vote. The first change is the closing of the roll on the day that the election is called, effectively reducing the time that people have to update their enrolment from the current seven days to just 8 pm on that day. There are a few small exceptions: people under the age of 18 who will turn 18 between the calling of the election and the election and new citizens, but that is a very small number. For the vast majority of people, the roll will close at 8 pm on the day that the election is called. This bill will also introduce new proof of identity requirements for people enrolling to vote and new proof of identity requirements for people lodging a provisional vote. At the same time as it improves the flow of secret money, this bill introduces a set of regressive changes that make it much harder to vote.

These changes are supposed to be about electoral integrity but they are far from that. The Australian Electoral Commission, an organisation held in extremely high regard by Australians, which has managed very clean, well-organised elections for decades, says that there is not a problem with the roll. It has made it very clear that it does not believe there is an issue with the integrity of the electoral roll. The experts are quite baffled by the government’s decision to change these laws in the light of that statement by the Electoral Commission. Even the Australian National Audit Office reported in 2002 that the electoral roll is one of high integrity, so there is very little evidence out there that the electoral roll is so distorted that it warrants disenfranchising up to 300,000 voters in the next election in order to improve its integrity.

Professor Brian Costar has argued:

If there is a fault in the current Australian electoral procedures it is not in rampant enrolment fraud but the very real perception of secretive influence peddling produced by the excessively free flow of political money.

Again, this bill increases the ability for secret money to flow and makes the electoral roll less accurate than it is now.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters conducted a really thorough investigation into the integrity of the electoral roll back in 2001. During that inquiry the Electoral Commission testified that it had compiled a list of possible cases of enrolment fraud during the decade of 1992 to 2001. It identified 71 cases of electoral fraud—one per 200,000 enrolments. In order to expunge the electoral roll of as many as 71 fraudulent enrolments, we are looking at introducing a set of regulations that will effectively mean that up to 300,000 voters cannot vote in the next election. The main way it would do that is through the early closure of the electoral roll at 8 pm on the day the election is called. Currently, we have seven days before the roll is closed.

These changes will substantially affect the least powerful in our community. Young people in particular will be affected. Anybody essentially who moves house a lot will be affected by these changes. People in public housing, new citizens and young people will all be dramatically affected by these changes. In the 2004 election, over 280,000 people enrolled to vote or changed their enrolment details after the election had been called, 78,000 of whom were new enrollees, 78,000 were people changing or updating their existing details, 96,000 people were transferring intrastate and 30,000 people were transferring interstate. These are all people with a legitimate right to vote. These are all people who I have always thought did have the right to vote but who will be excluded from the next election and the election after that simply because they moved house at the wrong time.

Remember that in this country we do not have fixed terms. If we did have a fixed election date, there might be some justification for saying, ‘You know the election will be called on 1 June; you had better be enrolled before then.’ This is not the case. The next election could be called perhaps late this year, any time next year or early the year after. Can we really expect those 280,000 people who are moving at any particular time to be continuously on the roll? All it requires to lose your right to vote is to have moved last week or a month ago and still be waiting for your change of address to come through.

This is an outrageous disenfranchisement of legitimate voters. There can be no doubt that the only reason the government would be doing this is to shore up its vote. The government is well aware that the people who are most likely to be disenfranchised by these changes tend not to support the government. This is simply about the government shoring up its vote. In order to do that, it claims to be improving the integrity of the roll through taking out those 71 fraudulent enrolments by literally disenfranchising up to 300,000 voters.

The weekend before last I doorknocked in one of my public housing areas. In that area I would estimate that as many as one in 10 people are not currently correctly enrolled. In some of the unit blocks it is even higher than that. I know from the hours that I have spent in shopping centres in those areas—because I have worked very hard in those areas of high unenrolment—that a lot of it has been deliberate. In the last election in particular when I was campaigning in those areas I found many people in the streets saying, ‘I am not voting; there is no point.’ In those areas they were clearly choosing not to vote. I have worked very hard because, as I said earlier, I believe that it is a very important function of each politician to improve the quality of the democratic process and that does involve trying to bring back into the democratic process people who currently feel very much left out of it. I know that the vast majority of those people are unenrolled on purpose, that they have lost faith in the system, and I know that as hard as I work to get those people enrolled—and I am having quite a bit of success—making it as difficult as this government plans to make it for those people to enrol will only encourage that attitude.

The government in this bill is proposing changes to the enrolment requirements that are really quite onerous. The new proof of identity requirements for new enrollees and those updating their details are a bit of a nightmare of red tape, I have to say, particularly if you have just moved, particularly if you do not have a drivers licence, particularly if you do not have a passport and particularly if you do not walk around with your birth certificate or know where it is or have the money to get one from Queensland or whichever state you come from. A person enrolling or updating their details under this bill will have to provide one or more of the following types of identification: a drivers licence, a prescribed identity document to be shown to a person who is within a prescribed class of electors and who can attest to the identity of the person or an application for enrolment signed by two referees who are not related to the applicant whom they have known for at least one month and who can provide a drivers licence number.

I know that some of the people in those public housing areas have not known anybody in that area for a month. They could have moved in last week and not have known any local person for a month, they might not have a drivers licence or a passport and they probably do not have a chequebook in order to send a cheque off to whichever state to pay for their birth certificate. Not only that, they are not the keenest voters. They need to be encouraged to vote. They need to be taken by the hand and told, ‘Your vote is worth something.’ They do not need this government to make it so difficult that the inclination to opt out is made even easier.

It will be particularly difficult for young people. For a start, 30 per cent of people in New South Wales between the ages of 16 and 19 do not have a drivers licence and between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of adults do not have a drivers licence. In Parramatta we have a very large population of itinerant people. We have up to 500 homeless people sleeping out per night, and they are just the people sleeping out. There are many more in temporary accommodation concerned about a hell of a lot of things other than changing their enrolment when they are looking for accommodation, particularly when they do not have permanent accommodation.

These are incredibly onerous requirements for the most vulnerable people in our society—people whom we should be bending over backwards to bring into the democratic process. The votes of these people are so important in determining the direction of this country. These people have no other power in the political process other than their vote. These are not people who can make political donations, these are not people who can lobby effectively and these are not people who join political parties. They are the weakest people in our society who have just one go at political influence and that is their vote. That is all they have. In this place we should be bending over backwards to make it easy for them to exercise that vote. We should be ensuring that we take them by the hand and take them down there and show them exactly how powerful they are in this process—and they are powerful. And I have no doubt that that is one of the reasons why the government is trying to ensure they will not get a chance to vote. (Time expired)


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