Monday, 18 June 2007
Electoral Matters Committee; Report
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I have great pleasure in presenting the committee’s first report for 2007 entitled Civics and Electoral Education.
Ordered that the report be made a parliamentary paper.
As one of the six longest continuous democracies in the world, Australia has a proud history and solid foundation of democratic principles. A basic understanding of our political and voting systems is fundamental to a vibrant participatory democracy. It is of some concern to the committee that surveys have shown that Australians between the ages of 15 and 35 typically have limited knowledge of Australia’s political history and political system and have little interest in Australian political affairs. Young people are not alone in this feeling of disconnection; evidence suggests that Indigenous Australians and migrant citizens also experience some difficulties in their interactions with the democratic process.
The committee’s inquiry sought to examine the reasons for low rates of electoral participation amongst young people, Indigenous Australians and migrants, and to find more meaningful ways to encourage citizens to participate more directly in Australian democracy, primarily based on their poor English language skills. The terms of reference for the inquiry were very broad, enabling us to hear from a diverse range of Australians, from school children and teachers to community leaders, academics and practitioners. The committee conducted 11 public hearings which included hearings in every state and territory. The committee also visited 10 schools—both primary and secondary—and held two school forums, during which it held discussions with 244 students and 47 of their teachers.
The committee has made a series of recommendations which we believe will contribute to a healthier democracy with more citizens who are informed, involved and engaged in the issues that are important to them. While many of the committee’s recommendations focus on matters regarding the provision of civics education, we also recommend a number of practical measures aimed at reducing the disenfranchisement of eligible voters. Some of the committee’s key recommendations include: developing a short, focused electoral education unit to be delivered to either year 9 or 10 students and year 11 and 12 students, in all secondary schools; reassessing the parliament and civics education rebate as it affects students from the remotest parts of Australia; improving training and guidelines for polling officials communicating with Indigenous Australians; reviewing the languages which the Australian Electoral Commission currently translates its materials into, taking into account the languages spoken by more recent arrivals to this nation; and providing a program of electoral education in the lead-up to federal elections which specifically targets areas of high informal voting, including those with a high proportion of voters from non-English speaking backgrounds and those in areas where there are different voting systems in place for state elections.
I take this opportunity to thank my fellow committee members, including the previous chairman, Mr Peter Lindsay, for their dedication to the inquiry. I also acknowledge the support that the Australian Electoral Commission has provided to the committee throughout the inquiry. I particularly acknowledge the work done by the secretariat and greatly appreciate the efforts and work of Stephen Boyd, Justin Baker and their team, the secretariat, in bringing this report to fruition. I thank all the groups, organisations and individuals who gave their time to prepare submissions and appear as witnesses before the committee. That having been said, on behalf of my committee colleagues, I commend this unanimous report to the House.
Those opposite have deemed civics and citizenship education a ‘national priority’. While any proposed initiatives that encourage young people to become involved in the political process are welcome, it is important to point out that this government has a long history of disenfranchising voters, especially young voters. Recent changes made by the government to electoral laws will see thousands of people left off the electoral roll at the next election—a large number of those people will be young Australians. We already know by admission of the Electoral Commissioner that only one in two 18-year-olds are on the electoral roll and changes to proof of identity requirements will only make it harder for those young people to enrol. In an attempt to appear like the government is concerned about the state of the electoral roll it provided the AEC with $18.2 million over five years to publicise these changes. However, it is important to put this contribution into perspective. Figures revealed to date show that the sum of what the Howard government has already spent since its election in 1996 on advertising, and has already budgeted to spend, will be over $1.8 billion by polling day. The message from this government is loud and clear—if it is in their political interest to advertise, they will spare no expense, but if it is about informing the Australian community about the reforms that make it harder for them to enrol and cast their vote it will go quietly into the night.
There are a number of recommendations in this report worth mentioning which promote youth engagement and involvement and which Labor supports and would like to see actioned as soon as practical, including the following. Recommendation 5 recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission be granted sufficient funds to create several electoral education officer positions in each state and territory with responsibility for the development and presentation of electoral education teaching resources. Given the number of young people currently not on the electoral roll, this is an important initiative. Schools provide an opportunity for a large targeted audience, but it is also just as important to ensure that other measures are designed to target those young people who are no longer at school. Recommendation 10 recommends that a modified civics education website be created for Indigenous audiences and recommendation 11 recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission provide adequate training and guidelines for polling officials in communicating with Indigenous Australians.
We know that anecdotal evidence suggests that Indigenous Australians are failing to comprehend questions put to them by electoral officials and, given the frequency of assisted voting and the high rates of informal voting in the Indigenous community, these are extremely important initiatives. However, it is astonishing that this report makes so many recommendations regarding further investigations. For example, instead of simply recommending that the AEC email all year 12 students an enrolment form and/or send them birthday enrolment cards as a matter of course, feasibility studies are to be conducted to determine the practicality and cost. Unfortunately, I anticipate that if the Howard government is re-elected the implementation of these recommendations may never see the light of day.
In trying to ensure that young people are engaged, we need to move from communication methods of the past and keep up with changes in technology that are effective in targeting a new generation of voters. This poses challenges not only for the Electoral Commission but for members from both sides of this House. We need to ensure that young Australians take ownership of their system of government at the earliest age possible, through better and more widespread targeted education and far more effective enrolment methods. Under a Rudd Labor government this will be a priority. Under the Howard government, there has been nothing but years of inaction followed by legislation restricting the capacity of eligible electors to enrol. A far more focused approach must be adopted to restore fairness to our electoral process, and a far greater emphasis must be placed on providing every opportunity for young Australians and others disenfranchised by these changes to enrol with ease.
This report raises some important issues, but only goes part of the way towards establishing the answers. It is a useful contribution in itself, and I take this opportunity to thank the committee secretariat for their hard work in preparing this report. But I would urge the House to realise that this is only part of the answer and that more needs to be done. The changes this government have made have made it more difficult for people to be part of the process. This report identifies some of the errors of their ways.
I do, Mr Speaker, and in doing so I hope that others who speak to this motion actually speak to the matters in the report and do not use it to make partisan political comment, particularly as they had an opportunity to make suggestions to the report.