House debates

Friday, 12 June 2020


Electoral Matters Committee; Report

11:00 am

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to make a few very brief remarks in connection with the work in progress of this very significant committee. I want to touch firstly on some work which was undertaken initially by the committee in the previous parliament, of which I was a member, and to associate myself with the report, which is in connection with our participation in the international efforts to deal with disinformation, fake news and concerns that are widely shared in this parliament and broadly about the operation of social media and its impact on our democracy. I'm very pleased that my colleagues Senator Brown and the member for Oxley were able to participate in the most recent engagement of that process, and I look to those recommendations and hope that we can see some fruit of that brought back before this parliament. I would also like to speak again briefly on the recommendations that go to the committee's consideration of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering the Donation Disclosure Threshold) Bill 2019. I want to restate my firm view that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is a particularly significant committee. Unlike the other committees of the parliament, it is the committee charged with safeguarding the institutional framework within which we do our work and conduct our debates. Its work is significant. In the past, and indeed through this committee, I believe, members strive to reach bipartisan views to make sure that there is a broad agreement on the framework through which we undertake our politics.

Right now I believe that rising to this challenge is more important than ever. At the moment we know that Australians crave decision-making that is clearly in the national interest broadly defined and which brings people together. That is something that we are all hearing from our constituents, and we all striving, through the various disagreements we have in this place, to meet those expectations. But meeting those expectations on a day-to-day basis requires us to look seriously at the framework within which our democracy operates. An enormous part of that is ensuring that all Australians can have trust and confidence in the operation of this place and wider democratic institutions. We've seen in recent months, for the first time, an increase in those Australians who feel trust in politics and our democratic institutions. We can't ignore this. We need to recognise that we need to do more to build on this, to turn around a decade-long decline in political trust.

A critical part of that is recognised on the Labor side and, indeed, by many of the crossbench, including my friend the member for Mayo, in reducing the influence, real and perceived, of money on our politics. That is why it is so disappointing to see this bill dealt with summarily by government members. I urge all members of this place to look carefully at the dissenting report of the Labor members and to think about that as a basis for further action in this regard.

We need to come together to boost transparency when it comes to donations reform. We need to look at lowering the disclosure framework as part of a broader approach to tidying up our political institutions. We need to think about real-time donation so that people can more clearly assess any influences on our politics outside the formal process. We need to think about issues around expenditure and ending the arms race around donations that has done so much to damage the standing of politics.

We need to take a broad look at our political institutions now. It would be remiss of me, in encouraging that this week, not to include reference to seeing a voice for Indigenous people reflected at the core of our political institutions. So I urge all members of this place to consider carefully the dissenting report of Labor members and to hold government members to account for the closing remarks in their report, for their commitment to look closely at these issues and to deliver real change in this parliament, so that Australians can have trust and confidence in the operation of our democracy.

11:05 am

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to associate my remarks with some of what the member for Scullin has said, particularly the importance of the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters in this place. I was honoured to join that committee at some point in my first term, and despite a short hiatus I'm really pleased to be back. I share his view about the important need to protect the institution itself and to ensure that Australians have trust and confidence in our electoral system. In that regard, I think we should start from first principles. I personally believe that Australian democracy is a gold standard around the world. I don't think anyone would take issue with that. That's not to say that don't need to stay ever vigilant. We absolutely do. In my view, one of the reasons why the Australian democracy is the gold standard around the world is that it hasn't descended into becoming the plaything of the rich. If you look in other jurisdictions, you will see ultimately that one of the first things you need if you want to run for political office is an extremely healthy bank balance. It has become a question of individuals and their extreme personal wealth. In my view that should never be a prerequisite to running for office, and thankfully it's not in this country. But we need to be clear and careful about how we manage that. In short, those that seek to amend our donation system in this country are running a risk of very serious unintended consequences. Those unintended consequences have been highlighted by a number of political parties and movements who have made submissions in relation to this, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering the Donation Disclosure Threshold) Bill 2019, which the committee was tasked to consider.

Transparency is an important goal, and no-one is running away from the need to maintain transparency around political donations. But we need to balance that with the practical implications. On the one hand, if we were to lower the donation threshold to $1,000—when I say 'donation threshold' I mean the threshold below which disclosure doesn't need to be made—there would be a couple of very real practical limitations in my view, which I will speak to. But it's not just my view; it's a view shared by a number who made submissions to this process, including minor political parties and also the Human Rights Law Centre. The Human Rights Law Centre, in addressing this issue, said that it imposed onerous compliance obligations on community groups and charities and imposed a greater administrative burden on third party community groups and charities that rely on donations.

I don't deny that $1,000 is a reasonably large sum of money, but when you think about it on a per weekly basis—and political parties are moving increasingly to low-value, high-volume donations—then we're talking about less than $20 a week. If we were to move that threshold down from where it currently sits, which is somewhere in the order of $14,000—the figure was increased under John Howard to $10,000 and has been indexed ever since—you would, in my view, deter everyday Australians from engaging in the political process. I myself have come across examples in other jurisdictions where individuals are limited to these lower sums.

I was reflecting on this before and noted that the Labor submission speaks to the threshold being set by the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1983. I thought to myself, 'I was six. I didn't really have a view of what $1,000 bought you in 1983.' So, I thought I'd reflect on some data. In 1983, the average house price in Sydney was $81,400. In 1983, the average house price in Melbourne was $52,500. Today the average house price in Melbourne is a touch under $550,000. In my respectful submission, the thresholds we have today are about on par with the thresholds that Bob Hawke set in 1983. We all know what inflation does to the value of money, but we have a threshold which is more or less based on a 10-times multiplier of the threshold set in 1983 of $1,000. House prices have increased more or less by the same magnitude, so I suggest to you that the thresholds we're currently operating under have the same practical effect as those in 1983.

Suffice to say that that's not the only issue that I and the government take issue with. We also shouldn't underestimate the administrative burden that administering a program of this type would result in. That has been highlighted by, amongst others, the AEC. I appreciate that others will say, 'We'll just give the AEC more resources.' Fair enough. But I'm more concerned about the deleterious administrative burden that will be borne by minor parties. Larger political parties, one of which I'm a member of and represent, will have the architecture, the administrative know-how and the manpower to get this work done. What I don't think you can say is that minor parties—particularly independents, but minor parties as well—would share in that view. Before others in this place jump to their feet and clamour that all will be fine, there are a number of minor political parties, such as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, who have indicated their objection to this proposal on that very basis.

We need to be clear about this. The administrative burden would effectively impose a barrier to entry. If we were to drop the thresholds to this point, increasing the need for backroom administration, then those of us, particularly from large political parties, would be able to deal with it, and minor political parties would be able to deal with it, if they've got the resources that come with political office. But I'll tell you who will be most disadvantaged: minor political parties with aspiration—those parties out there that don't have a publicly funded office or administration and that don't have the benefit of public resources that come with winning an election and other things. I think we need to be very cognisant of, and the government has been very cognisant of, the unintended consequences. It is important to note that we've got a gold standard democracy. I think everyone would accept that transparency in our democracy, particularly at a federal level, is the envy of the rest of the world. In terms of the donation threshold, in my view, on the quantum, we've got the balance about right and we've had it about right since it was first instituted in 1983. But the benefits of such a scheme do not outweigh the costs of it in terms of the administrative burden and the difficulties that it will impose on minor political parties as well. That is why the government has adopted the position it has.

Finally, I need to make this observation. People in this place who reckon that donations exert political influence or are the best way to exert political influence are perhaps belying the reality and the recent reality. I think if someone were looking to exert political influence or influence over political processes in a way that amounts to malfeasance—and in my view any form of donation for political or policy outcome is an exercise in malfeasance—then there are far easier ways and much more illegal ways to go about that. So, I suggest that the efforts of those in this place who want to maintain the quality, veracity and strength of our democracy should target their guns, if you like, on those other ways that influence is exerted on political actors. In recent times, in this place, we've seen people leave this place and the other place—I'm not going to mention names, but I think they all come to mind—where, for example, personal debts were satisfied and those sorts of things, all of which sit way outside the political donations framework. I think it is to those things that we should turn our attention if we want a healthy, strong and resilient democracy.

11:15 am

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, I'd like to thank the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for undertaking an inquiry with respect to my private member's bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Lowering the Donation Disclosure Threshold) Bill 2019. I would say that the bill was not asking for the world. It just sought to make the political world more transparent to an increasingly cynical nation. The committee examined the issue of lowering the political donation threshold from $13,800 to $1,000 and removing ongoing indexation. The decision of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters not to recommend that it be put forward to the parliament is not only disappointing but, I would go as far to say, a blow to democracy. I would like to thank Labor for their dissenting report and I would encourage people who are interested in this area to read the report.

I would like to note the committee's comments on what they were potentially concerned about. They say the bill 'would potentially place considerable additional administrative and financial burdens on the Australian Electoral Commission; minor political parties; independents; community groups; charities; and third parties'. I can say, as a member from a minor party, that we can live with that administrative burden. We don't have the resources that even, say, the Greens have. They actually have party status. There are just three of us. We would be very satisfied, as would be a number of Independents in this place who want to see this kind of donation reform.

Let me be quite clear: right now, a family of five can give $60,000 to a political party and no-one in Australia is any the wiser. I don't think that's a good situation. I think that there are many people right across Australia who don't think that is a fair and right thing to exist in our democracy. The Museum of Australian Democracy report in 2018 clearly showed that trust in democracy is on the decline, with satisfaction in democracy more than halved in a decade and trust in key institutions and social levers eroding. As leaders in the political system, it's up to us—it's up to the parliament—to address this decline. We cannot continue to avoid the reality of the decline in trust in us and the decline in respect of us. You only have to look to the United States to see how the collapse in trust of those in authority has driven millions to the streets to protest in the middle of a pandemic. Trust takes time to rebuild, but the first steps towards that, I believe, include transparency. That 2018 Museum of Australian Democracy report showed that most Australians are happy with democracy as a system of government. They just do not like the way politicians practice democracy. One of the first steps towards fixing this is to open the books so people have a greater understanding of exactly who is funding politicians to get into the job before they go to the ballot box.

I am forever an optimist. I note that there will be a review in November that the committee will be undertaking. That will look at the new legislation, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018. It will undertake a holistic examination of the current disclosure regime of political donations. As I said, I am optimistic that we will see change. I think it will benefit all of us: minor parties, Independents and major parties. The more we can do to regain the trust of the Australian community the better for all of us.

11:19 am

Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to start by congratulating the member for Mayo, not just on putting forward the private member's bill, which the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters reported on and we're taking note of, but also on the speech she just made about transparency and integrity in politics, because it is fundamentally important. I start my speech by congratulating my Labor colleagues who are members of that committee on their dissenting report, because it is fundamentally important that we deal with the influence of big money in politics. That is a subset of this point: we rebuild the trust—the ongoing rebuilding of trust—of the Australian people, not in democracy per se but in the way all of us, collectively as politicians, practise democracy. The member for Scullin described the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters as a fundamentally important committee because of its role in safeguarding the institutional framework of democracy. He put that extremely well. The institutional framework of democracy is what we have in our country to guarantee that we have a political system that serves the people. I'm not the first person to say that democracy is not perfect, but it's the best system that we have. That is very true, but the responsibility of all of us who have the privilege of being elected to be members of this parliament is to continue to strive to make that democracy better. It's a strange argument to say that something that was introduced in 1983 should always be the standard. This government likes to refer to Bob Hawke and is perhaps at times trying to emulate Bob Hawke, but it's no Hawke government. The member for Barker should be aware that what the Hawke government put in place in 1983 was groundbreaking, but it's 2020 now and we can't just sit on our laurels. We must continue to strive to make our democracy better.

We in this place all know that trust in politicians and politics in Australia has been on a decade-long decline. Last year we were looking at 26 per cent of the community who had trust in politics and politicians. It is true to say—and it is welcome—that some trust has been regained recently because of the way in which politicians from across the political spectrum, at state and federal government level, have dealt with the health crisis of COVID-19. But it's a shame, isn't it, that it took a global pandemic for something to shift in Australian political behaviour and for our community to start to show some trust?

So here's a moment that we should all be taking to build on that trust, and not have it be a fleeting moment in time. It is a moment when Australians are looking at their leaders and saying: 'Yes, you are putting the national interest before your own interest. Yes, you are acting on data and the advice of experts and scientists and making difficult decisions that aren't always electorally popular but are for the good of the people. We respect you for that, even while we have to make sacrifices because of your decisions.' We need to take this moment in time to bring in broader reforms to the way we behave as politicians and the way this parliament operates and democracy operates, to build on trust and to have better politics. We need to reform question time, not just because the procedures are outdated but because the way politicians behave in question time is embarrassing. We should be ashamed of some of the things that we see. In my opinion, we need to put in place a code of practice for politicians as to how we behave in parliament so that when schoolchildren, adults and older Australians watch question time in parliament they say, 'That's how leaders behave,' not, 'That's how children are taught not to behave.'

We need to have a government that has a genuine commitment to transparency, a government that will answer difficult questions, look at difficult issues, take Australians into their trust—as has been done a number of times during this pandemic—and say: 'This is hard. We don't always have the answers. Yes, we got some things wrong, but together let's work towards solving this problem.' That's how we rebuild trust.

We need to look at constitutional reform first and foremost—and, gee, over the last week and a half haven't we seen why we need it? We need to have an Indigenous voice to parliament. We need to recognise the First Nations people of this country and we need to adopt all of the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, including truth-telling. Australia's history is a difficult history. It's difficult for our First Nations people. It's difficult for us to have to acknowledge the way in which they have been treated since day one. But you cannot have true reconciliation and move forward until you have truth-telling. History isn't perfect. That's why we have to learn our history properly and then learn from our history. It's not just symbolic to say that our Constitution has to recognise First Nations people, and it's much more than symbolic to say that we should have a constitutionally recognised voice to parliament.

If we have four-year terms in this parliament, if we give governments time to govern and less time to campaign, perhaps we can have governments that have three-, five- and 10-year plans for our country. We might even have, one day, a Liberal-National government that is brave enough to stand up and say: 'Climate change is real, and we're going to take real actions to deal with it, on the advice of scientists, experts and data. We might feel a bit of electoral pain from our base for a little while, but we're going to put those measures in place and you're going to see the good results.' We'd then go to a vote, after a four-year term, being able to point to the improvements in our way of life because we'd actually have dealt with one of the greatest threats facing countries around the world, which is climate change.

We need a federal ICAC. Sports rorts has shown that. The most recent export rorts, which were raised in question time yesterday, with 97 per cent of grants to small business for exports before the election going to Liberal seats, have shown that. We know it's not enough to act honestly, to act with integrity; we have to be seen to act honestly, to act with integrity. And we have to be willing to be held up to high standards. We need to meet them but also we need to be willing to be held to those standards and, quite frankly, investigated if there is any suggestion that we haven't met them.

When David Thodey did a review of the Australian Public Service, he said:

To build trust in the public sector, all participants in the system—the APS, Parliament and ministers (along with their advisers) as well as third parties—must operate with high levels of integrity.

They're simple words and they're true words. Not only must we act with high levels of integrity; we must be seen to act with high levels of integrity. And we must not be scared of transparency. That is what the bill that the committee considered was about and that's what reforming democracy is about.

There is a moment in time now that we must grab. Question time yesterday saw ministers and the Prime Minister revert to name calling and personal attacks in response to questions about government policies, like robodebt, which have caused real pain and harm to citizens. We can't have that continue. We can't snap back to politics the way it was in 2019. We have to build a better future out of this pandemic. We have to take this fledgling opportunity, when there is some growing trust in Australian politicians, to build a better democracy.

11:30 am

Photo of Kate ThwaitesKate Thwaites (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to these reports, both because I am a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and because I do believe that both of these reports go to matters that are important to our democracy. They go to how people perceive our electoral process, how they regard their elected representatives and how much trust they place in our system of democracy. As elected representatives, these are issues that we should all be concerned about, because, without trust in our actions, we struggle to be able to effect change. We're actually in a position at the moment where, as a result of the recent pandemic and people looking to us for support through a time of crisis, trust in politics is at a much higher level than it has been in a long time. That's something we should build on, not something we should squander. It's why these reports are particularly important. Firstly, the report on the International Grand Committee meeting looked at the business model of social media and search platforms such as Facebook and Google, the data-collection process, the disinformation and the electoral interference. We know that the way people get information has changed drastically with the rise of social media. Indeed, with recent trends, many people have no choice but to rely on social media for their information. With the rate of closure of local, regional and other news organisations during this pandemic, and journalists' jobs being slashed, we're actually forced to go to social media because there's very little traditional media remaining. But social media isn't regulated in the same way as traditional media—there isn't an editor. Therefore, it is very difficult for people to assess where their information is coming from, and it is very easy for other people to manipulate that information with malicious intent.

The report from the International Grand Committee meeting highlights a number of these issues. The experts who reported that meeting included reports of how the business model of social media and search platforms rely on monetising personal data, while encouraging users to engage addictively with the platforms, creating a vicious but highly lucrative circle in which click-bait material of hate, outrage, conspiracy and tribalism proves the most engaging. They reported how there's a capacity for both state and non-state actors to run disinformation operations, and that there was evidence of this occurring in international election contexts, including the French presidential election in 2017. They reported how this is a global issue, and that there is a need for governments to work together on possible solutions.

I want to be very clear that, here in Australia, we are not exempt from this problem. We only have to look at the previous election and the spread of information around Labor apparently introducing a death tax—completely false material, completely false reports, but that information spread. Reports and investigations since the federal election have shown how that information spread across Facebook, and it spread across Facebook without being tracked. My experience as a candidate in that election was that I was completely unaware of these reports, because they were untrue, until I was standing in a pre-poll line a couple of weeks before the election and someone came up to me and said, 'But what about death taxes?' I said, 'What death taxes?' They said to me, 'You know; the death taxes Labor is going to put in,'' and I said, 'That is completely untrue.'

It is really scary that this information can spread without being seen, without being clear who is sharing it and without us knowing that it is out there. It is really open to manipulation, not just by political parties but also by foreign state actors and by people with malicious intent to undermine our democracy. It's a problem that we have to consider very seriously.

Concerningly, we know that Facebook itself and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, have shown little interest in addressing the spread of misinformation on that platform. We've seen this most recently in the US in the past few weeks with the protests and civil unrest there. But, again, as I've said, we've seen it in the Australian electoral experience. In fact, Facebook haven't even done Australia the courtesy of setting up an election library, which they've set up for many other countries and which would allow us to track election ads at least during an election period. But they don't think that we're worthy of having that system of tracking this information. I am concerned that it's an issue that Facebook is not taking seriously.

It is an issue that governments, including the Australian government, have to get serious about. They need to take this report seriously. They need to look to work from like-minded parliaments overseas and think about which of those measures we may also be able to adopt here. Without that, we run the risk of continuing to conduct conversations in extreme bubbles—conversations that are open to manipulation and to misinformation.

The other report that's before us goes to electoral donation reform—and what a missed opportunity we have in this government's response to this issue. Electoral donation reform is something that Labor has been pushing for for a long time now. The submissions to this inquiry made it clear that the influence of big money on our politics is something that many people and organisations are very unimpressed with. Unions would certainly be part of these regulations. Again, this is an issue of trust. If people believe our politics is being operated and manipulated by the influence of donations that don't have to be reported, why should they trust what we have to say? Why should they back us when we ask for reform or back us on restrictions or trust in our system? We have to earn that trust. One of the ways that we earn it is through being transparent about where the money is coming from and when it's received.

Our current laws leave enormous gaps in requirements for reporting donations, both in terms of the amount that can be donated without disclosure, as well as the time it takes for donations to have to be declared. Donations of up to $14,000 don't have to be reported, and it can be up to 19 months before voters know that a donation has been made—19 months! There is no transparency in that. Indeed, the Centre for Public Integrity estimates that these rules mean that around $1 billion in party income has not been disclosed since 1999, or almost 30 per cent of the funding parties have received, because of these loose requirements. That's not democracy. That's an opportunity for unseen influence.

Labor currently has two bills before the Senate that seek to reform this area. One would lower the donation threshold from the current $14,000 to a fixed $1,000. The other provides for real-time disclosure, which would require donations above the threshold to be disclosed within seven days. Of course for these reforms to be successful we'll need to support organisations and the AEC with the funding and the systems to make them work. But that is certainly not beyond our capacity. Indeed, many states across our country have already introduced similar reforms. Yet this government is continuing to block any efforts for reform in this space.

The recent increase in public trust and support for democracy shows that a good chunk of the Australian public actually want us to do better. They want us to succeed. Yet all we keep serving them up, time after time, is more of the same. When the opportunity comes before us to do better, to say that we will be transparent, to say that we will show where the money comes from and we'll tell them when it comes in, we pass on it. We're better than that. We can all be better than that. Even the government can be better than that. This is in all of our interests. If we don't take these opportunities now at this time of change, when are we going to? Are we going to be having this same argument in another decade? Is the next me, a newly elected MP, here for a year, still keen on reform? Is she going to be standing here calling for reforms that allow for trust in our democracy? Or will our systems be so eroded by then that what happens in this chamber and this place will be largely irrelevant, because people will no longer trust what we say or have an interest in thinking that we might follow through on some of the things that are happening here? Perhaps people will be so cynical, because they will think, 'Well, you are just being operated by money I can't see, by big organisations, big companies, people with deep pockets' That's not in any of our interests. We can do better. I urge everyone in this place to stand up for these reforms. Labor is doing that. We've got these bills before the Senate. I urge the government to get on board. I know the Independents have also been on board. I do want to thank all the people and organisations who took the time to make a submission to this inquiry. It was really important. It is time for us to make change in these spaces.

11:40 am

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I firstly thank the member for Jagajaga for her very erudite presentation of the arguments as to why we should be making these changes to lower the donation disclosure threshold. This has been an issue for the labour movement in particular for some years. It is important that everyone in this country understands who is providing the resources behind political parties. It needs transparency. It is part of what we need to open up our democracy, just like it's important to open up our democracy by making sure that everyone who's got the right to vote does vote. Sadly, that's not the case when it comes to people who live in remote communities, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as my friend the member for Leichhardt could attest. Over the last week or so we've seen massive demonstrations across the world and here in Australia around Black Lives Matter and all the attendant issues that go around addressing disadvantage and making sure that people are open to participating in our country and having issues dealt with that they need to have dealt with. The problem with that, of course, is that if you're an Aboriginal person living in a remote part of this country, you're very unlikely—in the Electoral Commission's own figures, at June 2019 only 68 per cent of the Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory who were eligible to vote were enrolled to vote. In Western Australia the figure was 65 per cent. The turnout was around 70 per cent. The formal vote is around the same. So you're getting roughly around half the Aboriginal population actually exercising a formal vote.

That raises very significant issues for us in this country. If we're saying we want to hear the voices of Aboriginal people—even though this government denies them that opportunity in terms of a voice to parliament—if we want to hear the voices of Aboriginal people at the ballot box, which is where we want them to exercise their voice, then we'd be making sure they were enrolled to vote. Yet this is not the case. Despite the figure I used from the Australian Electoral Commission, the Australian National Audit Office had a figure suggesting that 42 per cent of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are not enrolled to vote. Think about it: only 58 per cent are enrolled to vote. How are they exercising their voice in this democracy of ours if they can't vote?

Part of the issue here goes to the way in which this government has run down the resources of the Australian Electoral Commission. In 2013-2014 there were 179 visits by remote teams to Aboriginal communities across Australia. They had $3 million devoted for that purpose. In 2018-19 that figure had dropped to 91. In the case of the Northern Territory, the Australian Electoral Commission dropped its staffing from 15 people to 3. There are 280-odd polling places in my electorate of Lingiari, 280 remote polling places, which require polling teams to be moving out a fortnight before the final date of the election, on the Monday of the penultimate week, involved in mobile polling. It's very important that people are involved in that polling process. But if there is significant underenrolment, as we know now there is, what action is the Commonwealth taking to address that underenrolment issue?

One of the issues we have here is that direct automatic enrolment is not available to remote communities. That's a significant issue. Direct enrolment is not used in remote communities—God knows for what reason. But there are obvious ways in which you can inform people that they are on the roll apart from using the postal service. There are electronic media which we all use very effectively and which are used effectively by people who live in remote places.

But the fundamental issue here is really, really very important. I think there is an argument to say that the lack of engagement by the Commonwealth Electoral Commission and, indeed, this government, by not ensuring people are properly enrolled to vote and informed on how to vote and exercise their vote at election time, is an act of discrimination. I think there is an argument that it could be contrary to the Racial Discrimination Act in this country, and that's something which this government should take seriously. We have obligations under international law. We're party to agreements in the United Nations which talk about the rights of people to exercise their rights in the democracy, yet we're clearly making it extremely difficult for Aboriginal people who live in remote places to be enrolled and to have a vote.

I've been involved in I forget how many elections—12, and some before that; 12 of my own, that is. They've all involved remote community polling. Very little has changed in the way in which we enrol people. Very little has changed. If you don't have face-to-face interaction, it is extremely difficult unless you're doing automatic direct enrolment. Unless you have face-to-face interaction and take people through the process of filling out an enrolment form, then people don't get enrolled. There are language issues, obviously, for people who live in remote places, where English is the second or third or fourth language. You need to make sure that they've got access to interpreter services so that they understand what you're talking about.

Up until 1996, the Electoral Commission had mobile voting enrolment and education teams operating across remote Australia. One of the first actions of the Howard government was to get rid of them. They haven't been put back since, although there was an increase in the expenditure under Labor. That makes it really, really difficult to understand how this government can be committed to addressing rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country if they don't give them the fundamental right to exercise a vote on polling day. It seems to me that it's in the hands of the government to make changes here, and it requires them to fund the Commonwealth Electoral Commission appropriately so that they can put in place these electoral teams with the proper personnel to be operating on a full-time basis across remote Australia, talking to people about the importance of voting, making sure they're enrolled to vote and turning up on voting day to exercise their right to vote and actually vote formally.

As I'm sure the member for Leichhardt will know from his experience in remote places, sometimes these things are very difficult. The resourcing of remote mobile polling teams is difficult. The ability of the Commonwealth Electoral Commission to do its work in remote places is difficult. We accept that. That's not to say it can't be done or shouldn't be done; it should be done, and every effort should be made to make sure that it is done. This government has chosen the opposite path, undermining the rights of First Nations people in this country to exercise their proper rights as citizens by making sure they're enrolled to vote and exercise a formal vote on polling day.

We talk about a lot in this place. We talk fulsomely about the importance of public policy. We talk fulsomely about the importance of engaging with people across the electorate, across the community. We talk fulsomely about getting people engaged and making them informed, providing them with opportunity. Well, the most fundamental opportunity in this country as a citizen is the right to vote. Yet here we've got what is arguably discriminatory action by this government, ensuring that Aboriginal people in remote communities do not have that right to vote because they've failed to ensure that they're enrolled to vote in an appropriate manner.

Debate adjourned.