Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012; Second Reading
Before I was interrupted for statements by members and for questions without notice, I was referring to Australia's great democracy and the pillars which underpin it. One of the essential pillars that does indeed underpin our great democracy is the confidence which we have in our voting system. There are many components to that. There is the way that the elections are conducted on the day and the way that the counting is done subsequent to the day, including having scrutineers and the like. But a critical component in us having confidence in the system is that we also have confidence in who is enrolled on the electoral roll and therefore who is eligible to vote. It is immensely important for all of us in this chamber, and indeed for everyone across Australia, to have confidence in that so that we can have confidence in the system overall. My great concern is that the amendments that have been put in front of us will diminish the confidence that we have in our system and that the integrity of the enrolments will indeed be diminished.
The legislation allows the Australian Electoral Commission to automatically update the voter records by taking into account a number of sources rather than leaving that in the hands of the individual. It is not clear exactly what sources the AEC will use to update that information, but it could have quite dramatic consequences if they get it wrong. That is our concern. You would think that they would look at, say, tax file numbers from the Australian Taxation Office, follow that path down its track and use the information to update voter records. But, if they did that, they could very well have many mistakes. An ANAO report found quite recently, in the last census, that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia. Information as concrete as that, which you would think you would be able to rely on and therefore use to update the electoral roll, is in part not accurate. In fact, there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals, and 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. There are some quite extraordinary figures from what we would typically regard as a very reliable source of information, let alone what they would be if we went to other potential sources.
I will use another example. We might think that Medicare is another source of information which is rock solid and something which the AEC might be able to use to update its records for the electoral roll. Again, though, I point out that an ANAO report found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased. So their records can be considerably wrong, and this report found half a million active Medicare enrolment records were, indeed, possibly wrong. That is one of our concerns. The last thing we want is for records which are incorrect to be updated because that will reduce the overall integrity of the electoral system.
The second problem I have with these amendments is they take away individual responsibility. We on this side of the House believe that individual responsibility is an incredibly important principle which should infuse all policymaking. We hold individuals responsible for enrolling to vote, accurately maintaining their enrolment at their permanent place of residence and casting their vote when an election is called, and we ask them to fully extend preferences to all candidates contesting elections for the House of Representatives in their local electorate. These are the basic responsibilities which individuals have, and we on this side of the House believe that individuals should rightly retain those responsibilities and the responsibility to update their records.
The third and final argument which I have against the amendments in front of me is privacy. This has been spoken about by the speakers before me. There is a significant concern that, if records are updated without the knowledge of individuals, they may not even be aware of being on the roll to start with or of what district or electorate they are enrolled in. Further, they may not be aware of the information which the AEC holds or what information the AEC is using to update their records. We believe there is no need for these amendments to occur. We do not believe there is a case to be made for changing the way the electoral roll has been managed so far. We believe the single most important principle is maintaining integrity in the electoral roll and, to date, both sides of the House have found, by and large, that we can have confidence in the electoral roll. We amend these laws and change this system at our peril. If we reduce the integrity that is inherent in the electoral process, that will be a poor result for democracy overall.
Like my colleagues, I do not support the amendments in both the bills before the House: the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. In simple terms, the legislation will damage the integrity of the electoral roll by adding new electors, who may not be entitled to vote, without their knowledge and potentially without their consent—particularly if the elector does not receive the Australian Electoral Commission's notice of enrolment. I live in a rural and regional electorate and this certainly happens. That is evidenced by the number of inquiries I get approaching an election.
We on this side believe in personal responsibility. We believe it is an individual's responsibility to enrol to vote, to notify the AEC if they change their address and to vote at elections. The extensive privacy implications that this legislation raises have been virtually ignored by the Labor Party and the Greens. Previously today, in the debate on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill, we heard that Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation provided the committee looking into this with some valuable information about the individual privacy concerns that this legislation raises. We share those concerns. We have very real concerns about electors having details published on the electoral roll without their knowledge or the opportunity to apply for silent elector status. Depending on where the AEC sources this information from, this is a very real issue.
The integrity of the electoral roll is, as has been articulated by my colleagues, at the very heart of our democratic process. It is imperative, as a result of that, that we maintain the integrity of that roll. I think it is paramount in any democracy but particularly in this one in Australia. The roll needs to be accurate, as we have heard. We know that seats can and will be decided by a small number of votes, so the integrity of the roll, and the will of the people expressed by that, is paramount. The responsibility for enrolling and for updating individual elector details is so important—and it is an issue when that right and responsibility is taken from the individual, as this legislation will do, and given to the AEC. Not only is there the possibility for significant error; it also opens the roll to fraud, and I have no doubt that that is what we will see.
The legislation, as I said, will corrupt the integrity of the electoral roll. The fact that people are going to be put on this roll without their knowledge could lead to quite a number of potential irregularities. The legislation gives the AEC the discretion to determine what those sources of reliable and current data are and where those addresses can be obtained from. This is far beyond the purview of the AEC. It is really up to me as an individual to tell the AEC about my details and my environment. It really comes down to the individual to talk to the AEC about enrolling and maintaining the address they have or when they have to change the address.
The reliability of data sources has been mentioned repeatedly by my colleagues, and I do not think we should underestimate where the information comes from. We heard previously from the member for Aston, who touched on the reliability of the potential sources of information for the rolls. We have heard that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people, if that was the source of information and data. An ANAO audit report of Medicare found that up to half a million—we are not talking about enough votes or enough integrity. We are talking about using potentially incorrect information and data from whatever source the AEC chooses to use and the fact that it could have a major impact on the outcome of an election.
The other thing that we as coalition members are majorly committed to and have great concerns about is that the right to vote is one of the highest held tenets of democracy. The right of the average citizen to play an individual part in deciding who will lead them into the future and who their government will be is basically essential to democracy and good governance in our world. It is a privilege. I do not think that any of us on this side of the House see the right to vote as anything other than a right and a privilege in this country. We do not take it for granted, and I am hoping that the majority of Australians do not take it for granted either. Just talk to the people in Syria, perhaps, or talk to the people in Egypt. People fight and die for the right to vote on a regular basis.
I was privileged to go to Cambodia as an Australian delegate to the United Nations to look at the election process there. One of the most profound experiences I had as part of that visit was the absolute excitement of the Cambodian people at having the right to vote. In that system, one of the ways they tested whether someone had voted only once was by the use of indelible ink. They would dip their finger into the ink as a sign that they had voted. They knew who I was; I had the vest on. They knew what I was there for and, when they came out of the polling booth, they would come up to me with great excitement, showing me their finger. They were absolutely elated at the right to vote.
It is something that we in Australia see—we can sometimes—because we have all grown up with it. It is what we expect, know and love, but we also need to protect it. That is what the integrity of the electoral roll does: it protects the right to vote, the eligibility of the individual elector, and that is critical to what we do as a nation. As I said, when I met those people in Cambodia, it made me look at the things I value about being fortunate enough to be raised in this fantastic country, where democracy and the democratic process is something that we expect. But with this legislation I see that that expectation may be compromised, and I am not prepared to sit back and say, 'That's fine,' because I do not believe that it is.
We have had constant battles for representation and referenda. What I am trying to get to is that in Australia we should not take this right, this privilege, for granted. It has been hard won. Over many years around the world countless lives have been lost in the pursuit of the right to have a say in who your elected representatives are and in the form of governance and government in your country. In the same way that it is a right it should, because of respect for that right, carry an inherent responsibility. It is the responsibility side that is often forgotten, especially in this country that is so blessed by a stable democracy, probably for longer than almost any in living memory.
What is it that we ask of our fellow Australians who want to inherit and should inherit their share of Australian democracy? What is it that we are asking them to do? We simply ask them to register to vote and to come along on election day, and let the AEC know if they change their address. I really do not think that is too much to ask. In fact I think it underpins how important our democracy is and underpins the need to fight for and protect that right. If we gave that opportunity to people who live in other countries who do not have the right to vote, I wonder if they would say, 'You know, maintaining my address is just too hard.' I think that, like those people in Cambodia, they would say, 'I am absolutely beside myself with the right to vote. I've got the finger that I have dipped in the indelible ink to prove the fact that I had the right to vote and I am so excited about having the right to vote.' In fact, some of those people have not been able to vote many times in their lives. That is why we need to protect the integrity of our electoral roll.
I am concerned that we are debating legislation that basically thumbs its nose at our proud history of democracy and our entitlement to vote and leaves it open to fraud and abuse. I am appalled that our electoral roll, as a result of these bills, could be subject to fraud and abuse. I think anybody who, like me, absolutely values the right to vote and our democracy and is prepared to stand up for that would feel the same and should feel the same. We do not take it for granted. The government is suggesting that the effort of maintaining their addresses and maintaining their registration to vote is too much for Australians and that the government has to do it for them. I think we need to take responsibility and we need to constantly reaffirm the fact that we value this democracy and we do not take our rights and our democracy for granted. I do not believe that it is too much to ask for us to maintain our addresses. I just do not think that we should be taking it that lightly.
It is our freedom and democracy here that are part of this legislation and part of what is potentially eroded by these bills before the House. We know that Australians before us have fought and died to build and protect the democracy that we now enjoy. I encourage all Australians never to take that for granted and never to take for granted the integrity of the electoral roll and how important it is to our democratic process.
But it appears that the government does not understand that sacrifice and thinks that perhaps getting to a post office to get an enrolment form or seeking it from an elected representative or from the AEC and putting it in a postage paid envelope is too hard for Australians. Strangely enough, millions of us have managed to do so. We have been able to quickly and simply have our democratic say.
I see the legislation before the House as an insult to those who have made the effort to enrol, to those who fought and died for the democracy we have built and to those over centuries who have fought for democracy. I urge all Australians to see this and to see the right to vote—your eligibility to vote—as a reinforcement of our democratic process. We all, as members, talk to young people in schools. We go along and present flags, and we talk about the rule of law. We talk about what our flag represents. I think our electoral roll and the integrity of it fit into the same category.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012 amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to directly enrol new electors on the electoral roll when it is satisfied that an individual has been living at a particular address for one month and is eligible to be on the roll. This bill follows on from the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, which will give the AEC the authority to change the address of electors when it believes they have changed their residential address. As with the previous bill, the coalition opposes this legislation because it will greatly reduce the integrity of the electoral roll, infringe on the role of the individual to keep their details up to date and reduce the privacy of Australians who may not wish to be publicly registered.
The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recently conducted an inquiry into the 2010 federal election, reporting in July 2011. One of the recommendations of the Labor and Greens committee members was to introduce automatic enrolment, a process by which an individual elector is put directly onto the electoral roll without ever filling out an enrolment form, based on information from other government sources. This bill seeks to implement that recommendation.
The coalition is concerned about how this will impact on the integrity of the roll. As Professor Graeme Orr notes in his publication The Law of Politics:
Like other official public registers, such as land registers, a chief feature of electoral rolls is their finality. The purpose of a roll is to be a definitive statement of the entitlement to vote … Thus there is a rule that the roll is conclusive evidence of the entitlement to vote.
He goes on to say:
Reinforcing this is the secondary rule … that a court of disputed returns is not to inquire into the correctness of the roll.
Given our experience at the 2010 federal election, where no political party won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and results in some electorates came down to just a few hundred votes, it is imperative that the roll which is used to elect our parliamentarians is accurate and reliable. We must not allow this very important document to be shrouded in concerns or doubts about its legal standing and validity. It is also the responsibility of the individual in our democratic society to maintain their enrolment details when they change addresses.
As outlined in the coalition's dissenting report, it is the duty of each Australian citizen to enrol to vote, to accurately maintain their enrolment at their permanent place of residence, to cast a vote when an election is called and to fully extend preferences to all candidates contesting election for the House of Representatives in their local electorate. This responsibility is far from onerous, and moves to water down this process only detract from each Australian's right as a democratic citizen. As Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation notes:
The notion of the vote is a right—it is an entitlement—and turning it into an obligation, which is what that entails, I just do not believe is appropriate in a democratic process.
This legislation allows changes to due process that will ultimately lead to a high number of potential irregularities with little or no benefit to the democratic process. It also opens up the roll to fraud.
As with the electoral and referendum amendment bill 2012, the 2011 bill gives the AEC the discretion to determine what 'reliable and current data sources' are from which information about elector addresses can be obtained. This is far beyond the scope of the AEC. Surely only individual electors should supply details about their enrolment, rather than a mish-mash of data from various government departments. Indeed, what about people who, for instance, own holiday homes? Potentially their information could be taken out twice from these various sources to put them on the voters roll twice. I seriously question the reliability of these other data sources. As coalition members on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters noted in their dissenting report:
The reliance on external data sources that have been collated and that are utilised for other purposes does not make them fit for use in forming the electoral roll.
As outlined in the previous report into these proposals, a 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration titled Numbers on the run found that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia at the last census, that there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals and that 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Similarly, an ANAO audit report stated:
ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.
Neither this bill nor the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 specifies what data sources constitute reliable data, nor are there any restrictions on which data sources the AEC can use to enrol an elector. There is no provision specifying the standard of proof that the AEC needs to enrol an elector. Nor is there any legislative requirement for the AEC to check whether a person is over 18 or is an Australian citizen before they are added to the roll. This bill will give the AEC full discretion in these matters:
… to directly enrol eligible electors on the basis of data or information provided by an elector or electors to an agency approved by the AEC, as an agency which performs adequate proof of identity checks, where that information is subsequently provided by that agency to the AEC for the purposes of updating the electoral roll.
I believe that this is far beyond the jurisdiction of the AEC. Individuals who are not entitled to vote may also be added to the roll because of this bill. Members of the community who are not Australian citizens, who are under 18, who are not living at the address the AEC believes or are otherwise ineligible to vote may be incorrectly added to the electoral roll under this bill. Even without any contact from the individual, the so-called eligible voter will still be added to the electoral roll. The AEC submission to the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the bill stated:
… the AEC would receive data from a third party data source, conduct a data matching process including a check of the eligibility of individuals to enrol, notify eligible individuals and, after a period of 28 days, make additions to the electoral roll and inform electors of the AEC’s action.
In reality, the AEC could use any data source it likes, including records from the Taxation Office or Medicare which, as I have said before, have been demonstrated to be problematic.
In that light, I draw the attention of the House to the difficulties experienced in New South Wales state elections. Former Labor governments in both New South Wales and Victoria have introduced automatic enrolment for their recent state elections, which means that a number of electors in these states are only enrolled for state, and not federal, elections due to the differences in state and federal legislation. As such, when an elector has their details changed or they are added to the state electoral roll in New South Wales or Victoria, they are then sent an enrolment form by the AEC to complete for the federal jurisdiction.
Commentator Antony Green noted in an article on 16 July 2011 that only 64.3 per cent of those automatically enrolled for the first time at the 2011 New South Wales state election actually turned out to vote. Surely, this high non-participation rate is indicative of the unreliable nature of the information used to put new electors on the roll. Electors either did not know of their eligibility to vote or had no intention of voting anyway. This bill will only lead to electors being issued with a fine for not voting when there is no entitlement for them to be on the roll in the first place or because their address details are in fact incorrect through no fault of their own.
Most importantly, there are also significant privacy implications that this legislation raises—an issue that is glossed over by Labor and the Greens. Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation submitted valuable information to the joint standing committee about the individual privacy concerns that this bill raises. He stated:
We are not aware of any risk assessment having been performed. We were not aware of any privacy impact assessment having been performed … We are not aware of the APF or any of the civil liberties organisations being involved in any of those.
The coalition and I have very valid concerns about electors having their details published on the electoral roll without their knowledge and without the opportunity to apply for silent elector status. This is of particular concern to those who are victims of domestic violence, those involved in custody disputes or those Australians who may want their address suppressed because of safety fears or other reasons.
The coalition has long opposed moves by the Labor Party and the Greens to introduce automatic enrolment and notes that this bill is being introduced solely to improve the electoral prospects of both Labor and the Greens. The first obligation of the AEC is to uphold the integrity of the roll. The AEC has instead focused on maximising the number of people on the electoral roll at the expense of that obligation. This bill gives the Australian Electoral Commission a blank cheque to decide what information sources it uses to add people to the electoral roll. This legislation does not require the AEC to justify the use of a particular data source or the potential for parliament to disallow the use of particular data sources. Nor does it state the level of proof required for the AEC to add a person to the electoral roll. I do not believe this legislation is in the best interests of Australia. The responsibility of enrolling to vote should remain with the individual Australian citizen and should not be given to the bureaucracy.
There is nothing more important than maintaining the integrity of the electoral roll. All of us in this House are very aware of its importance and very aware that far too often people are excluded from voting when they should be able to vote and, regrettably, people vote when they are not entitled to vote.
I want to share with the House an experience I had when I was running for parliament in the 2004 election. I was standing in the shopping mall at Bondi Junction—interfering with people's commercial activities as we all do when we are running for parliament—and I met a young woman and urged her to vote for me. She said, 'I will be away on polling day.' I said, 'Well, madam, you could get a postal vote or you could vote pre-poll.' She said, 'Don't worry about that; I will get my girlfriend to vote for me.' I nearly fainted—I was absolutely appalled. I impressed on her the seriousness of the offence she and her girlfriend were contemplating committing and I said, 'You can't do that.' She said, 'Everybody does that.' I hope I persuaded her that everybody should not do that. I had a similar experience on three or four occasions over the course of that election campaign and it impressed on me that not everybody takes the integrity of the electoral roll as seriously as they should.
When I came to this place after the 2004 elections, I regret to say that I was unable to persuade the distinguished Prime Minister of the day, the Hon. John Howard, that one of the reforms we should make to the Electoral Act was to require people to produce proof of identity when they go to vote. This was regarded by others much wiser and more experienced than me—not least of whom the Prime Minister—as being a bridge too far. But I still hold to that view. I am open to being persuaded that I am wrong of course—I am open-minded about this.
The more rigour and integrity we can put into the electoral roll the better. It is a remarkable thing that in this country you need 100 points of ID to open a bank account—you need to produce ID to do practically anything nowadays and almost everybody has multiple sources of identification, even multiple sources of photo identification—but you can go and vote and change the government of the nation, indeed the destiny of the nation, without ever having to identify yourself.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 does not deal with the question of producing identification at the polling booth, but what it does do is allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly update an elector's enrolled address following the receipt of information about the address that elector is at—without any discussion with, consent from or engagement with the elector in person. We all say that we have compulsory voting in Australia. In fact, we do not have compulsory voting—
As the honourable member for Melbourne Ports interjects, it is attendance which is compulsory. But the idea that somebody can be enrolled at a particular address simply because the Electoral Commissioner has found their name, with that address, on some other database or some other accounting system is profoundly wrong. Electors should be enrolled at the address they provide. If it turns out that they are no longer at that address, the Electoral Commissioner should do his or her duty and chase them up. Then it is up to the elector to put themselves back on the roll. But the idea of people being automatically enrolled is only calculated to make the electoral roll even less reliable than it is today.
I am not going to speak for very long on this because my colleagues have spoken so well and comprehensively on it. But I will just make this one point in closing, because it is a point I did not hear made by my colleagues earlier in this debate: the most insidious thing this amendment does is undermine the sense of personal responsibility. I gave the example of the woman I met who said she was going to get a girlfriend to vote for her. She had, in my view—and I hope I persuaded her that she was mistaken—a quite inadequate, improper and indeed unlawful view of her responsibility as an elector. She thought she could delegate that to somebody else who could walk in there and impersonate her. Since ID is not called for, in all probability that sort of impersonation would generally be successful.
There is nothing more important that we all do as citizens than vote. All of us have the very important civic obligation of attending a polling place and, if we choose to—and of course almost everyone does—voting. Our engagement with the electoral office is a personal obligation; our engagement with our democracy is a personal obligation. The idea that you can be put on the roll at an address without any action by yourself undermines that sense of personal responsibility. It debases the electoral roll and it will make the electoral roll, which is, as of today, insufficiently reliable, potentially much less reliable in the future. The member for Tangney and other speakers on our side, as well as my colleagues in the dissenting report of the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters, have described all the defects of the various databases that can be accessed. There is no substitute for an elector taking his or her own responsibility for saying, 'This is where I live, and I know that if I make an untrue statement I am committing an offence.' The responsibility should be on the electors, on citizens—after all, this parliament, this democracy, belongs to them. Their engagement with the electoral process should involve a decision by them to put themselves on the roll or to correct and change their address when they move house. It should not be imposed on them by some computerised exercise of pulling their name and address out of a third-party database. For that reason we are opposing this legislation.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2012 allows the Electoral Commissioner to update the address details of an elector on the electoral roll if the commissioner is satisfied that the elector lives at the address. The bill does not propose to provide the capacity for the Electoral Commissioner to directly enrol electors who are not on the electoral roll.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012 provides the Electoral Commissioner with the capacity to directly enrol an eligible person who is not on the electoral roll if the commissioner is satisfied that the person is entitled to enrolment, has lived at an address for at least one month and is not enrolled. It also allows the Electoral Commissioner to enrol certain persons who have been removed from the electoral roll and admit their declaration votes. This bill will corrupt the integrity of the electoral roll, with electors potentially being put on the electoral roll without their knowledge, leading to a high number of potential irregularities.
This bill package gives the AEC the discretion to determine what are 'reliable and current data sources' where information about elector addresses can be obtained. The coalition believes this is far beyond the purview of the AEC and that only individual electors should supply details about their enrolment. Voting in Australian local, state and federal elections is one of the most paramount rights possessed by all Australian citizens. Like the member for Forrest, who witnessed the Cambodian elections, I witnessed the first ever democratic election in Iraq. I saw the joy of its residents in being able to vote freely, like the member for Forrest saw, with them putting their finger in the ink well denoting they had voted. This reinforces how precious our right to vote is here in Australia.
These bills take the responsibility for enrolment from citizens and give it to just another government department. It is almost as if the government wants to run our total lives. I remind the government that not all Australians are puppets—we do know how to do things. We know it is the constitutional responsibility of every Australian citizen of age to be on the electoral roll. This bill passes this constitutional onus from citizens to the bureaucracy. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? Electors should be in charge of enrolling and maintaining their address details when they change addresses. Only a nanny state would give itself the responsibility of doing it for them. This government is taking over control of people's lives. Surely Australians are capable of deciding to put their name on the roll. I guess this obsession with the nanny state is not surprising from, to quote Labor's 46th National Conference platform document:
The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party …
I am also worried about how reliable the AEC's data sources might be. Coalition members on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters noted in July 2011 in their dissenting report:
The reliance on external data sources that have been collated and that are utilised for other purposes does not make them fit for use in forming the electoral roll.
A 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration entitled Numbers on the run—Review of ANAO Report No.37 1998-99 on the management of tax file numbers found that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia at the last census; there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals; and 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Similarly, ANAO audit report No.24 of 2004-05 on the integrity of Medicare enrolment data stated :
ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.
Under our constitution, the integrity of our electoral roll is paramount to accountable, stable and democratic government and society. It is our constitutional responsibility to be on the electoral roll, to update our enrolment details when we change our address and to vote in every local, state and federal election. One of the things that make Australia great is our constitutional commitment to democracy in every element of our lives. This legislation takes your democratic rights away and gives your constitutional responsibilities to a faceless bureaucrat deep in the bowels of Canberra. Those opposite should hang their heads in shame.
This is a democratic country and we are able to make our own decisions, but in some cases we need more education. We have a large turnover of residents in Gilmore, being a coastal area, and as a local member I always advise those arriving to change their address and if they are new voters to enrol. Instead of just forcing automatic enrolment and government datamatching of Australians, why do those opposite not try actual education initiatives to let Australians know that they need to both enrol and keep their details up to date? An idea I have advocated for quite a while is the introduction of electoral education classes in high schools, facilitated by the AEC. As outlined in the 2010-11 portfolio budget statements, the AEC is funded for one primary outcome, and that is to:
Maintain an impartial and independent electoral system for eligible voters through active electoral roll management, efficient delivery of polling services and targeted education and public awareness programs.
So, arguably, our most impartial government department would have to be the Australian Electoral Commission. This is why the AEC would be the perfect provider to come into schools and teach high school students about our electoral system, their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and how to enrol early once they turn 17. The process would be simple: allow experts from the AEC to visit the local high schools in their region just once or twice a year to talk to students in years 10 to 12. In most high schools, it would be practical to hold a meeting of roughly an hour with an entire year group, with two or three representatives from the AEC briefly explaining how voting works, what every citizen's obligations are when it comes to voting and then allowing those 17- and 18-year-olds in their audience to enrol there and then at their school. This would not be a costly program to implement, with the distribution of electoral enrolment forms already in place in most high schools. If those opposite view enrolment levels as an issue then they need to look at educational options. The problem is lack of electoral education, and therein lies the solution.
I now turn to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters dissenting report and remind the House where it was stated that the coalition strongly disagrees with this bill. It is our belief that this bill is being introduced solely to improve the electoral prospects of both Labor and the Greens. It follows similar moves by the former Labor governments in New South Wales and Victoria prior to their last state elections.
Finally, it is important that the integrity of the electoral roll remains. It is imperative that the roll which is used to elect our parliamentarians is accurate and reliable, particularly in the wake of the 2010 federal election where no political party won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and results in a number of individual electorates came down to only a few hundred votes. Where the responsibility for enrolling and updating individual electoral details is taken from the individual and given to the AEC, as this bill will do, the potential for errors to occur is significant. It also opens up the roll to fraud.
Essentially, individuals are put on the roll if the AEC believes they are eligible after consulting various data sources. Neither this bill nor the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 specifies what data sources are required for the AEC to consider what constitutes 'reliable'. There are also no restrictions on which data sources the AEC can use to enrol an elector. There is no provision specifying the standard of proof that the AEC needs to be able to enrol an elector. This bill leaves all these decisions to the AEC, and coalition members and senators believe this is far beyond their jurisdiction. As I said earlier in my comments, there are 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia. How can this government introduce something so sloppy and so undemocratic to do something that we, the Australian people, are proud to do in our own name?
I find myself agreeing with the member for Wentworth and the member for Gilmore and would like to follow their themes as I indicate my opposition to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. Firstly, I would like to describe my own experience and then make some useful suggestions about the real challenges that confront us in maintaining the integrity of the electoral roll.
I spend a lot of time out of my office working with my Electoral Commission officer in cleansing the roll. I am also a regular 'corresponder'. It alarms me that especially new enrolees—the younger group; the 18-year-olds—are so mobile. From the time that I am alerted about a new enrolee to the time that I write them a welcome letter—welcoming them to Mallee and telling them a little bit about the democratic process—it astounds me the number of letters I get back with 'Not known at this address'. In general correspondence, where I might want to communicate with my constituency, I send out a broadcast letter. Again, the number of responses that come back to me with 'Not known at this address' is astounding. We then forward that information on to the Electoral Commission in an attempt to cleanse the roll. I work very closely with the electoral office based in Mildura.
We try to reinforce the real value of our democracy on the younger generation. When schools visit Parliament House, we entertain them in area of the building where they can see the War Memorial. Walter Burley Griffin has done us an enormous favour, I think, in that Parliament House can be seen from the War Memorial and vice versa. The War Memorial reminds us that our democracy has not come cheap. It was very expensive in that men and women had to be prepared to defend it and fight to keep it. I sometimes worry that the importance of being able to vote is not generally understood by the Australian populace because they are so busy trying to make ends meet. They have very busy lives.
A considerable number of my constituents are exempt from having to vote. Their objection to voting is for religious reasons. If they come into my office to complain about something, I will often say to them, 'If you don't vote, you can't come into my office and complain,' which is my way of trying to encourage them to be part of the process. The roll is so important. We all need to do what we can to make sure that it has absolute integrity.
The number of letters that I send on to the Electoral Commission to make sure that the roll does have that integrity alarms me. So I am with the member for Gilmore, who argues that strong case to get in early with the younger generation and get the Electoral Commission to visit the schools. That is being done in my electorate. I encourage it. I do what I can to make sure that youngsters in particular understand the value of voting and that it is their individual responsibility, not somebody else's responsibility. It is such a precious right for them to have and they need it to be their responsibility to make sure that they are recorded on the electoral roll. I was alarmed when I first read what these bills contain—an automatic enrolment!—and what information may be relied upon to make this enrolment. I am, frankly, alarmed. My constituency is based along the Murray River, where there is a huge amount of horticulture that has an enormous demand for labour—people come from everywhere—and the populations of my small Murray River towns grow enormously during the harvest season. One of the most substantial complaints from—