Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2018; Second Reading
I am seeking to continue my remarks on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2018. When I stopped my contribution at 1.30, I was referring to a range of matters which dealt with the fact that many constituents of mine—they are not constituents in a sense because they are not on the electoral roll, but many Aboriginal people who live in remote parts of this country, in this case in the seat of Lingiari, are not on the electoral roll and are being denied their rights as citizens to vote because they're not on the roll and they can't participate in our democracy.
This is a deliberate decision which has been taken by this government to cut funding to the Australian Electoral Commission to deny them the opportunity to run education and enrolment campaigns that used to be available in remote communities across this country. This has one damning effect: it ensures the disenfranchisement of the poorest and most vulnerable people in this country. That's what it does. For whatever reason, this government has done it. You can only conclude that it's a deliberate act by this government to prevent people from being enrolled on the electoral roll, from being educated about their rights as citizens to vote and from being able to participate in elections at voting time.
Not only does this affect people who want to vote in federal elections but it also has a direct impact on people who vote in Northern Territory elections, because there is a common roll, and the people who administer the roll and ensure people are enrolled are the Commonwealth. It seems to me that the facts are beyond dispute. Only 84 per cent of Territorians are enrolled to vote; 16 per cent are not, clearly. Across the country, more like 96 per cent are enrolled to vote. In the Northern Territory, 26,377 are not enrolled to vote—figures provided by the Australian Electoral Commission. I suspect it's higher than that, probably closer to 30,000. I have been arguing for some time that the population information the bureau's census collects, by its very nature, is a significant undercount and that the assumptions made by the Australian Electoral Commission are therefore wrong. I made these arguments in presentations over the redistribution which took place in the Northern Territory, where I was given the magnificent opportunity to include in my electorate a number of electors who wouldn't otherwise have been included. My argument is that, had they used the accurate data, the bounty would have gone the other way.
We are seeing here a very deliberate exercise by the Commonwealth to ensure those people are not on the roll. If they're not on the roll, they can't be counted in the assessments of voters for redistribution purposes. I make the assumption that the vast majority of the 26,377 persons not on the roll are in the seat of Lingiari. These people, who should be voting in the election in the next few months, will not be able to vote, because they are not on the roll. This is all down to decisions taken by this government to deny them the vote. Shame on the government!
Following on from the member for Lingiari, the longest-serving member of this House, is always difficult, because I've learnt from listening to him over the years that he always speaks with conviction, with passion and without notes. As a newer member of parliament, I'm always a little intimidated but honoured to follow in his footsteps. As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I concur: exactly what he is saying is true. The penny-pinching cuts we have seen when it comes to funding the Australian Electoral Commission shows to me that this falling-apart LNP government does not take democracy seriously.
I will come to that in a little while but I want to start by talking about the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2018. I joined the standing committee to ensure that our democracy was open, transparent and inclusive. All members of parliament have a duty to uphold this trust in democracy and in our parliament in carrying out our duties. Since being elected to the joint standing committee, I have been very fortunate to travel the country and meet with community groups, businesses, parents, schools and students. I was so privileged to host the standing committee at the mighty Glenella State School in my electorate to hear from students firsthand about their views on how democracy functions and ways that we can potentially make it better.
The Australian parliament is the people's parliament. We take their views very seriously, and the Australian people take this parliament seriously. That's why electoral legislation such as this should be dealt with in a very caring and consultative manner. There should be no corners cut and no rush to push through short-sighted legislation, and, perhaps more importantly, there should be widespread consultation to make sure that we get it right. When we are debating electoral legislation, we are debating not only the laws that govern ourselves but the laws that lay the foundation for our democracy. The bill here today seeks to draw a line under the trust that Australians have in their democratically elected officials and ensure without any doubt that Australians can have faith in their parliament and the elected people who serve them.
In its current form before the House today, this bill has three schedules, which I want to spend a little bit of time going through. Of these, the proposed section 44 checklist, outlined in schedule 1, is perhaps the most important. We know only too well the uncertainty and vagueness that has plagued this parliament over the past two years because of the lack of understanding and clarification concerning section 44.
In May last year, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters handed down its report into the impact of section 44 on Australian democracy. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the outstanding work of the committee and secretariat, which, I may add, is always done in a bipartisan and very professional manner. I pay tribute to the secretariat. I also want to pay particular tribute to the members of the committee. I commend Senator Linda Reynolds, former chair of the committee. Senator Reynolds is now serving the government in another capacity. I commend the current chair, Senator McGrath; the deputy chair and my great friend the member for Scullin; opposition senators Carol Brown and Ketter; and my colleague and friend the member for Tangney, Mr Morton. I also want to acknowledge the work of Senator Lee Rhiannon, who is no longer in the other place but who played a very important and crucial role in making sure there was proper scrutiny and oversight.
The committee was fortunate to receive many submissions from a wide range of individuals and groups on this important matter that we are discussing today. We heard evidence from experts in the field and professionals with many, many years of service, who had a great understanding of the issue and who suggested different ways forward to mitigate futures that could be uncertain.
In handing down the report in May last year, the committee highlighted four key recommendations of reform surrounding section 44 and the impact of the parliament. These included sweeping reforms, including a national referendum and constitutional change. However, when considering such a dramatic proposition, I do think it's key to acknowledge that the committee found that a referendum would be unlikely to be positively received by Australians and that the outcome of any referendum would indeed be uncertain. As such, the committee recommended that, if constitutional change is not put or is unsuccessful, administrative or legislative processes be put in place to mitigate the impact of section 44 on political participation in Australia. As we know, that is evidenced by the uncertainty and, dare I say, the chaos that we have seen recently.
The importance of strategies such as we are debating today as part of this bill should not be underestimated. These changes will compel all Australians considering nominating for federal parliament to take this matter into deep consideration and ensure that the information is correct, because every federal candidate should ensure their compliance under our country's Constitution. That's why Labor is supporting the first schedule of this bill to enforce the section 44 eligibility checklist as a compulsory requirement for all candidates in a federal election. This checklist will be a key tool in ensuring that we can all ensure our own eligibility before the law. The checklist mirrors that which was used most recently in the by-elections, which added changes to compel candidates to answer mandatory questions regarding eligibility for nomination, where answers indicate issues with eligibility, provide evidence of rectification and acknowledge that deliberately providing false or misleading information may attract penalties.
I note that several submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters commented that candidates in political parties should take greater responsibility for due diligence and checking of their personal backgrounds and could include tendering documentary evidence when nominating to stand as a candidate. As a former party official in Queensland, as the state secretary and campaign director, many years ago, I understand the importance now that this will be placed upon party officials and Independents who may not have party structures around them. This is in line with checklists outlined in schedule 1 that we are supporting today.
The bill also specifically restricts the AEC from determining whether information provided is correct or incorrect, to maintain the importance of the independence of the AEC. This is something that all committee members thought was particularly important, to make sure that the AEC remains the trusted and independent source it has been well known for, and the authority of parliament and judiciary, in such matters. However, importantly, nominations where evidence has not been provided will be automatically ruled invalid, compelling candidates to consider their circumstances prior to nomination. Whilst no strategy or change can be guaranteed to rectify 100 per cent of future uncertainties, this measure, I believe, will go a long way to ensuring greater transparency in our democracy and strengthen the trust that Australians have in their parliament.
There are a whole range of schedules but I want to focus, in the main, on the first one. The bill will also go further to implement other recommendations, made by the Electoral Commissioner, to include some administrative arrangements for assisting the AEC in their duties. At this time of the debate, I want to place on record my strong support for the work of the Australian Electoral Commission. They do an incredible amount of work under a very trying set of circumstances. I think all candidates and, particularly, all members of parliament have a very professional and great relationship with AEC officers.
AEC officers perform some of the most important—if not the most important—duties in upholding our democracy, and tonight I want to recognise the staff, the relief and support staff, and the management and leadership of the Australian Electoral Commission, under the commissioner, who uphold some of the highest electoral standards in the world. However, on this side of the House, the opposition is of the view that the parliament should include some of those changes that are necessary for the impending federal election.
With that view, I understand that the bill will be amended in the Senate in line with bipartisan discussions between the government and the opposition, which have been held in a constructive way. The key sections of this bill that the opposition believe should be proceeded with include: the section 44 checklist or schedule 1, applying the six-metre exclusion zone at pre-poll stations, which will be consistent with the normal polling booth arrangements; amendments to the forwarding and processing of declaration votes; removal of the requirement to conduct the divisional returning officer, DRO, Senate count, allowing for the earlier commencement of preliminary scrutiny of declaration votes; removing the requirement to produce postal vote applications for preliminary scrutiny; allowing for earlier recheck of rejected declaration votes; and streamlining the process for counting and packaging the House of Representatives ballot papers. Sections other than these key changes should be removed from the current bill and, we believe—I certainly believe—should be considered at a later debate.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, at the centre of our democracy is trust in the institutions that run it and trust in the people who serve it. The bill, once amended in the Senate and passed, will be a small but valuable step in restoring public faith in our electoral system and parliamentary democracy. I want to thank the government for their bipartisan approach to the legislation, particularly the offices of Minister Hawke, who's in the chamber today, and Minister Cormann who, I understand, have worked very closely with the office of Labor's shadow special minister of state, Senator Don Farrell, and his small but very effective group of advisers who have worked in a collegiate and collaborative way on this matter and, I know, on other electoral committee matters. I look forward to seeing the amendments made in the Senate and the smooth passing of this important bill.
I want to thank all members for their contribution to the debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Bill 2018. I want to particularly thank members of the opposition and Senator Farrell and his office for working closely with the government on ensuring that this bill was a bipartisan bill and will restore the confidence that all members of this House are seeking to have in our electoral system. I'd like to thank members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their significant work on electoral law modernisation and the impact of section 44 on Australian democracy over the course of the 45th Parliament. The government appreciates the constructive approach and the goodwill demonstrated by all committee members across all party lines. The recommendations of the committee have informed the government's policy decisions and the drafting of this bill.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 is one of Australia's oldest pieces of legislation. While it has served the nation well, it is important that we continue to address deficiencies in this legislation in a non-partisan manner, modernising and improving electoral processes where necessary. The government has discussed this bill heavily with the opposition and I can indicate that, in the interests of progressing changes to the most crucial amendments that are necessary for the efficient conduct of the 2019 federal election, the government has undertaken to the opposition that we will move amendments to remove the less pressing amendments so they can be considered after the election with the benefit of greater reflection by all parties. For efficiency, those amendments will be moved in the Senate by my colleague the minister for finance, who will have more to say about those amendments in the Senate debate.
As amended, the bill will deal with the eligibility of candidates, streamlined processes for forwarding declaration votes, removing a redundant step from the counting processes, allowing earlier checking of declaration votes, streamlining processes for counting and packaging of votes, and extending the six-metre exclusion zone to pre-poll centres, consistent with how it works on election day. Of the parts of the bill that will progress at this time, schedule 1 is particularly important because it will make it compulsory for candidates nominating for election to complete a qualification checklist demonstrating their eligibility under section 44 of the Constitution. This reform will ensure our electoral system protects the integrity of the candidate nomination process by forcing potential candidates to consider specific questions about their eligibility before they nominate. The mandatory checklist will also increase transparency, assuring Australians that candidates are qualified to sit in parliament before they cast their vote.
In a 2018 report, Excluded: the impact of section 44 on Australian democracy, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters proposed that, in addition to legislative changes to require federal election candidates to disclose information about their eligibility to hold office under the Constitution, the Senate and the House also needed supplementary parliamentary processes related to issues of constitutional qualifications. Specifically, the committee proposed that there was a need for each chamber to require disclosures to the chambers following discovery of new information after an election. It also proposes a process for making referrals to the High Court sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns.
Consistent with the proposal from the committee, the government will move parliamentary motions after the passage of the modernisation bill in this chamber and in the Senate to ensure that there is a methodical process for disclosure of qualifications of senators who are appointed to fill casual vacancies and for parliamentarians who need to supplement information already in the public domain. The motions will also provide a fair and orderly process for referring questions about qualifications to a parliamentary committee inquiry process and for, in turn, referring cases to the High Court sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns. Where it is found that an MP or senator has misled a committee, this would be a matter for the Privileges Committee in the relevant chamber. These motions have been shared with the opposition, as I've stated. They have also been provided to the chair of the Senate Standing Committee of Privileges, the chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee of Privileges and Members' Interests, and the chair of the Senate Standing Committee of Senators' Interests.
The reforms in this bill are important and are necessary to support the integrity of Australia's electoral system. Modernising and improving electoral processes will benefit the Australian public. The reforms will assist the Australian Electoral Commission to deliver effective and timely elections. They will also promote public confidence in Australian democracy ahead of and beyond the next federal election.
Once again, I thank all members for their contribution. I commend this bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.