House debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

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

Second Reading

5:24 pm

Photo of Jennie GeorgeJennie George (Throsby, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Environment and Heritage) Share this | Hansard source

I begin by commending my colleague the member for Parramatta on her most perceptive and analytical exposition of the reasons why the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2005 ought to be opposed. Prior to the member making her comments I happened to be sitting in my room and had the opportunity to hear some of the comments made by the member for Fremantle, particularly about the issue of financial donations to the political process, and I might come back and comment on that later.

Having heard those very erudite contributions, I want to say a few words for the public record so that the voters in my electorate know how I voted and felt about this important issue. One thing that really concerns me is that we have a wonderful democracy and we have an abiding principle that all adults have an equal right to vote and that their vote should be considered of equal value. I think that is a fundamentally important underpinning of our country’s open, accessible and democratic electoral system. Up until now, according to the history of electoral changes and reform, much of which has been very progressive, it has usually been done with the support of both political parties—for example, the introduction of secret ballots, votes for women, preferential voting, compulsory voting, although I note in more recent times the differences of political opinion that are emerging about that issue, and votes for 18-year-olds. All those major and significant milestones in our electoral history have enjoyed bipartisan support and I am really concerned that, for the first time, reforms are being proposed in this House which have a distinctly partisan political approach to them. They are reforms that are not brought here on the basis of some expert evidence or are the impartial views of the Australian Electoral Commission but being promoted by certain members of the government who perceive that these changes would give government members some political advantage in future elections.

As the local member, I believe, as argued by the member for Parramatta, that it is my responsibility to do everything in my power to encourage the people I represent to believe they have a stake in the political process and that the views and opinions of every person—whoever they might be, however wealthy or poor, however engaged or disengaged, whether they are in work, those at the top end of the income scale or those on pensions and benefits—who comes to my office and seeks my support is equally important to me. It is only once every three years that people in my electorate have the opportunity to express their view about the competing policy platforms of the major political parties.

On a couple of occasions people have come to me and said, ‘Jennie, I didn’t vote for you in the last election,’ but that is no problem for I have always taken the attitude that, regardless of who they vote for, the most important thing is that they cherish the fact that, unlike many other countries in the world, they have a process that allows them a secret ballot and one chance every election period to express their point of view about matters that are of significant concern to our nation.

I am opposing this bill because all the changes that are raised in it are in complete contradiction to the principles that I believe in and to the principles that underpin our democracy. I think we ought to look at the reasons for the arguments advanced that the so-called integrity of the roll needs to be enhanced or that we need to prevent electoral fraud. I do not think this nation has any history of electoral fraud. The member for Parramatta referred to 71 cases of fraudulent enrolments that were investigated over a decade. Yes, you might find isolated cases of wrong enrolments, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the integrity of our electoral process or the roll that is prepared for our elections.

The acceptance of the integrity of the process is well shown in our history. Even when my party has won a majority of the two-party preferred vote but has failed to win enough seats to govern, Australians have accepted that outcome. I think there is a great deal of faith in the system. People might not like politicians, but I do not hear people raising with me their concern about widespread problems in our electoral system.

Believing as I do that every vote and every constituent is equally important and valued, I would never support anything which made it more difficult for people that I represent, whether they vote for me or not, to have the chance to express their opinions on election day. I am particularly concerned about the proposals for the early closure of the roll. I am also concerned about the greater identity requirements, which are going to impact on people who are already marginalised, and the new requirements for provisional voters to show proof of identity on polling day or soon thereafter.

I do not accept the minister’s argument that the changes are designed to ensure the integrity of the roll. I do not accept that personally and I find it of interest that no evidence was produced in submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters or in any testimony made to the joint standing committee to indicate the concerns that allegedly bring these changes before us. In fact, the committee majority itself conceded:

... to date the committee has had no evidence to indicate there has been widespread electoral fraud.

I can only repeat that I have come to the conclusion that the real motivation is the belief that the changes foreshadowed in this bill would give this government some future partisan political advantage.

The early closure of the roll is going to have a marked impact on people’s ability to vote, particularly young people and people who have moved into an electorate, as many do in my electorate, and find that they are going to be caught short. It may appear on the surface that the proposal will close the roll at 8 pm on the third working day after the issue of the writ. If you look at the fine print, there are only a couple of exceptions. For the majority of people enrolling for the first time, that decision will have to be made and exercised by eight o’clock on the first day of the writ being issued. Only existing enrollees will be given three days to change their details.

Why this change? That is really the question that is at the bottom of my strong opposition to these proposals. In 2002 the Electoral Commission argued:

It would be a backward step to repeal the provision which guarantees electors this seven day period—

which is what is in place now—

in which to correct their enrolment.

The commission’s longstanding view has been that last-minute enrolments constitute neither an administrative overload for their staff nor a source of fraud. In its submission to the 2000 parliamentary inquiry the commission stated:

... early closure of the rolls will not improve the accuracy of the rolls for an election. In fact, the expectation is that the rolls for the election will be less accurate, because less time will be available for existing electors to correct their enrolments and for new enrolments to be received.

I find it really remarkable that the government’s proposals are in direct contrast to the advice of the independent Australian Electoral Commission. I came across an article written by researchers at Swinburne Institute which looked at the changed position—the almost somersault in position—that has been adopted by the AEC in the last 12 months. It seems to coincide with the appointment of the new Electoral Commissioner, Mr Campbell.

In March 2005, when the AEC made its first submission to this inquiry into the conduct of the 2004 election, the AEC then expressed no concern about the workload it faced at the election when voters were given seven days grace. Nor did it express its support for the argument that the last-minute rush of enrolments creates opportunities for fraud. Yet, interestingly enough, as Costar and Browne in their article point out, almost exactly a year later, appearing before a Senate committee on 7 March 2006, the recently appointed Australian Electoral Commissioner, Mr Campbell, expressed almost exactly the opposite view.

If I have to choose between the views of people who have worked in the commission for lengthy periods of time and the commission’s long held view that the seven-day closure was not a problem and its new view, which I find interesting, I have not been able to get to the bottom of this remarkable change in attitude other than Mr Campbell indicating that the early roll closure would mean less work for the commission and that it would ‘make life easier’ and give the commission ‘time to concentrate on the other issues we have to deal with in the preparation for the election’. Costar and Browne in their article argued:

This new attitude from the commission is not only a departure from its thinking a year ago. It is at odds with the commission’s longstanding view that last-minute enrolments constitute neither an administrative overload nor a source of fraud.

What impact will this earlier closure have on people in my electorate? I am particularly concerned that it will have an impact on young people. I am particularly concerned that it will have an impact on people with lower levels of education, on the Indigenous Australian community in my electorate, on the many migrants and people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and on the growing numbers of people who either are homeless or have no fixed address. All the studies, even the AEC’s report Youth electoral study, show that young people are disengaged as it is from the electoral process. Often they do not understand the voting system and they do not perceive themselves generally as well prepared to participate in voting. So I would have thought it was our responsibility as politicians to be out there actively encouraging the participation of young people in the democratic process, showing them that they have a stake in that participation. After all, we do want to have more informed, more engaged and more active constituents in each of our electorates. The one thing that we can be sure of if these changes come into practice is that it will be young people enrolling for the first time who will be severely disadvantaged. Why would any government want to put any unnecessary barriers into the process of young people being able to exercise a vote?

Professor Costar, one of the experts on electoral reform issues, argued just recently that good reasons would need to be adduced to justify the denial of the vote to such a large cohort of citizens, especially the new enrollees, most of whom would be young people who actually need encouragement to become civically engaged. So no good reason has been produced by the government to support the disenfranchisement of thousands of young Australians. I am particularly concerned about the ability of people on the margins—the homeless and the transient populations—to have proof of identity to the extent required in these new changes.

What impact will the changes have? People have already said that, in the seven days after the writ for the last election was issued, 78,000 people enrolled for the first time. They had seven days. If they had one day, how many of those 78,000 people would have got a vote? In that period of time, 345,000 people updated their details. Even after the closure of the roll after that seven-day period, another 150,000 Australians tried to enrol. Under the proposed changes, nearly all of the 78,000 could potentially be excluded from voting, as could an indeterminate percentage of the 345,000. In fact, the large number attempting to enrol late—the 150,000 who still tried to get a vote after the closure of the roll—suggested that, if anything, the period of grace should be extended rather than shortened.

I had a look at the figures in my own electorate, and I rang my divisional returning officer just to understand the impact it might have in the electorate of Throsby. In the last election, between the time of the issuing of the writ and the close of the roll, there was a total of 1,805 enrolment changes—1,805 people changed their details or wanted to add their name in that seven-day period. Many of these 1,805 electors could be denied a vote if these new procedures were to become law. Another 859 changes occurred following the closure of the roll and up to polling day. Of these, unfortunately, 185 were new enrollees. I presume they were young people who would not have been able to exercise their vote on election day.

I come back to saying that our electoral system should do everything to have committed, involved and active constituents participating in the democratic process and that we should always reject any barriers or restrictions in the way of achieving that outcome. It is for similar reasons that I am concerned about the increased requirements for identification on enrolment. Obviously we have to make sure that people are enrolling correctly in their electorates. Some enhanced requirements were suggested but have not been implemented, yet this government’s bill wants to introduce even more stringent requirements when the earlier provisions such as requiring production of a drivers licence or identification by two people on the roll have not even been put into place.

I want to say in conclusion that, at the same time as making it harder to vote, the government is intent on making it easier to donate to political parties. The member for Parramatta and the member for Fremantle addressed this issue in some considerable detail. I am most concerned about the impact of raising the declarable limit for disclosure from $1,500 to $10,000—that is, that donation details would not be made public until the threshold of $10,000 was reached. I have serious concerns because I do think there is a view out there that money opens doors, money buys power and money buys access, and the ordinary citizen becomes somewhat disillusioned with the process. I think this can only encourage massive sums of money to be offered to the coffers of both political parties away from public scrutiny, transparency and accountability. I think the member for Parramatta referred to it as an emerging ‘donocracy’. The member for Fremantle argued very cogently that raising these disclosure limits undermines the notion that each citizen will share equally in political power. The changes enforce the perception that not all of our citizens are equally able to influence their representative—that money buys influence and power. She argued that we run the risk of becoming a ‘corporate democracy’ run by ‘money politics’.

The American experience is that money is a powerful political force. Recently Senator Robert Byrd put it this way:

The incessant money chase that currently permeates every crevice of our political system is like an unending circular marathon. And it is a race that sends a clear message to people: that it is money, money, money—not ideas, not principles but money that reigns supreme in American politics. The way to gain access on Capitol Hill, the way to get the attention of members of this body, is through money.

I know that we are certainly going down the route of America in many areas, and I think we should be very careful and learn from their experiences of the potential for abuse and corruption of the democratic political process when transparency is not part of the system.

For all those reasons, the bill before us is unacceptable. I find it amazing that a government would make it harder for people to vote and to be engaged in the political process and in the same bill make it so much easier for corporate and other bodies to donate in secret to political parties. I think that these proposals are the antithesis of the values that I believe in and the processes that I try to implement in my electorate to make sure that all citizens are actively engaged.


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