House debates

Thursday, 10 December 2020


Electoral Matters Committee

5:55 pm

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I've just tabled the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters' report. In the interests of facilitating the progress of the House I didn't seek leave to make a few comments, but in this adjournment debate I will touch on a few things that have come out of that report. Of course, all members will have a chance to contribute to the debate on the report in the Federation Chamber in the new year.

We all come to this place with varied backgrounds and different skills and experiences, but everyone in this chamber is interested in the way we run elections. How could you not be? We are all here because, of course, we contest the democratic process and we all have a reasonable interest in the way we run elections. I think we all bring the same fundamental principles to that debate, which is that we want to make sure we continue to live in a vibrant democracy. We want to make sure that all Australians equally participate in that democracy. It's the people of this country that choose their government. Happily, they seem to quite regularly choose us. But, nonetheless, the opportunity for reform is always there after an election. To digress, we also have new challenges since the inquiry into 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic and how we may need to prepare ourselves to run election campaigns in quite a different set of circumstances to those which we're used to.

One of the important things that the majority report recommends is the introduction of optional preferential voting in our system of government. I'm a very strong supporter of this. I think it's quite fair and reasonable that not only you should be able to vote for who you wish to serve you in the parliament but you shouldn't be forced to. You can have the option to, but you shouldn't be forced to choose from every candidate. You may decide that you want to cast your vote for one person, and if that person is not capable of being elected then after that you may wish for your vote to be exhausted. If you believe in democracy, and if you believe in giving people the power to choose their governments, then I think this is a fundamental right that we should have.

We are a peculiar jurisdiction, given that we have compulsory voting, and not only do we have compulsory voting but we also force people to vote for every candidate. So you have the perverse situation where there might be five, six or seven candidates and you might choose to vote for someone at No. 1. It could be that your fifth versus six preference ends up determining who is elected when they were the last two candidates you wanted to select. I believe that in a democracy you should have the right to not be forced to vote for every candidate and you should be able to choose if you want to vote for just one, two, three or four of the options you've got before you and of course reserve the right to vote for every candidate if you wish.

The other important reform which I think will achieve some consensus is making changes to pre-polling, in particular curtailing the period from three weeks to two. It has been recommended unanimously by all members of the committee that we move in that direction. There has been enormous growth in pre-poll. It's important that people have access to the pre-poll process, but running it over three weeks is somewhat of a logistical nightmare for all of us that are on the frontline of these campaigns. Given the consensus of all members on committee I hope that that is a reform that's likely to be instituted before the next election.

The other one that is quite interesting but disappointingly has become necessary to address is the issue of political violence, both physical and non-physical violence. We had testimony from a number of candidates, particularly coalition candidates. The member for Boothby in particular had a terrible ordeal through the campaign that no-one who is seeking to put their hand up to represent their community in a democracy should have to go through. Despite the horridness of what she was subjected to, which was both physical intimidation and other forms of slander and harassment, there have effectively been no consequences for the people involved in inciting that against her—not just the people who actually did it, but the organisations that seem to encourage their volunteers and broader networks to be so nasty and aggressive towards political candidates that they fear for their safety.

We are recommending that this needs to be addressed and that we need to consider forming criminal penalties against people who, in the political process, engage in that type of behaviour. There's a lot more I could say—my time's running out—but it's been an excellent process. It's vital to our democracy that we always continue to reform, and I commend that to the House.