Thursday, 17 March 2016
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; In Committee
Just to say again what I said in my opening sentence: there were two principal issues that Senator Wong raised; the assertion that there would be increased levels of informality and the issue of exhausted votes. I will address both. Let me say again, there is absolutely no reason why there should be an increase in informal votes when voting for the Senate under this legislation. It was none other than the Labor spokesperson for electoral matters at the time that comprehensively discredited assertions by Senator Dastyari that these reforms would lead to 800,000 additional informal votes. As Mr Gray pointed out, Senator Dastyari had clearly not read the legislation. He had not understood that our proposal was not only to provide guidance to the voter when voting above the line, to number at least six boxes above the line; we would also include a very generous savings provision, which means that any ballot which fills in at least one above the line will indeed be considered formal.
In relation to voting below the line, what we are doing with the amended legislation, if it is supported by the Senate, is making it much easier for people to vote below the line compared to current arrangements. Right now, you have to fill in every single box. There is a savings provision which says that if 90 per cent of the ballot paper is accurate and you do not have more than three errors in sequence, then the ballot will still be considered formal. Essentially, the requirement right now under the current system is that you have to number every box in order of your preference. What we are proposing here is much less cumbersome.
We are proposing to say to the Australian voter that if you want to vote below the line for individual candidates, all you need to do is number boxes 1 to 12. And there is a generous savings provision where if you number the boxes in order of your preference from 1 to 6, your vote will still be formal. Even under the current system, contrary to what people might think, the level of informality from people voting below the line is actually extremely low. I was surprised myself when I sought that advice from the Australian Electoral Commission. At the last election, about 481,000 Australians voted for the Senate below the line. Less than two per cent of that vote was informal. If you compare that to your average House of Representatives election, given the complexity of voting for the Senate below the line at present, I would have thought that that was good.
Senator Wong talked about the issue of exhaustion, and she made the point that for the last 30 years people have voted 1 above the line and, if they keep doing what they have been doing, then we are going to have all these exhausted votes. Let me make a couple of points. Firstly, right now people have no choice but to vote 1 above the line. They are not allowed to vote more than 1 above the line. As soon as you vote 1 above the line you lose control of your vote. You lose control of your vote to political parties who then trade and direct those preferences to other parties, not according to the voter's preferences but according to the preferences and the strategic and tactical interests of their political party. It gets so ridiculous that they can not only trade and direct these preferences after the voter votes 1 above the line to one set of political parties but also direct them in three different directions. All of these different group voting tickets are registered on the Australian Electoral Commission website, and a voter can go and consult what group voting tickets people register with the Electoral Commission, but how can any normal voter figure out what ultimately happens to their preference when voting for a particular party 1 above the line? To compare a circumstance where right now you have no choice but to vote 1 above the line if you vote above the line—which 97 per cent of voters did at the last election—and to extrapolate that into a situation where, now that voters are allowed and encouraged to number every box above the line, at least 1 to 6 above the line, but with a generous savings provision, and to say that as a matter of course we can translate the circumstance at the last election, where you did not have any choice but to vote 1 above the line, and to overlay the system now onto the result of the last election is completely erroneous. It is flawed logic. You cannot draw the conclusion that voters at the next election will do exactly as they did at the last election, when clearly now they have a choice and a power over their votes and their preferences that they did not have before. You cannot make that comparison. Exhaustion of a vote is not actually a bad thing per se.