Thursday, 17 March 2016
Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016; In Committee
Senator Moore is right. The government very strongly asserts that these reforms before the Senate today are a great step forward for democracy. Senator Moore is right that the government asserts that the reforms, if legislated, will ensure that the result of future Senate elections will truly reflect the will of the Australian people—because they empower Australian voters to determine what happens to their preferences. Instead of having political parties, backroom operators and preference manipulators determine, trade and direct preferences in different directions according to their own interests, it will be up to the voter to determine what they want to do with their vote. So the government's message to voters is: 'This is your vote, your decision. You determine whom you vote for, whom you preference, either above the line or below the line.' That is indeed one of the great virtues of these reforms.
Senator Moore asked about the campaign. I have sought to address her question in different ways. I did touch on this in my responses to questions from Senator Wong. This campaign will be run by the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is an independent statutory agency which is nonpartisan
It operates completely independently from any political party and it has a proven track record when it comes to running relevant information campaigns in the lead-up to elections. These education campaigns, which are non-partisan, non-politically charged and informational, essentially present the facts and the information that voters need to have. They focus on what the voters need to know in order to exercise their democratic rights.
I cannot remember off the top of my head a previous example, but changes have been made by previous governments on previous occasions and the Electoral Commission ran campaigns to make sure that people across Australia understood those changes. The process that will be followed on this occasion is the exact same process. This will not be a political campaign; it will be an education campaign. It will be run independently from government, at arms-length from government, by the Electoral Commission as they believe it needs to be done in order to explain the way the voting system will operate if these reforms are passed.
I completely reject the proposition that the amendment I have moved, which is what is in front of the chair at the moment, shows that voting below the line is going to be more complicated in the future than what it is at present. Let me explain exactly what the arrangement in voting below the line is at present. If you want to vote below the line at present, you have to fill in every single box. There could be 120 or 150 boxes; you have to fill in every single one of them. And the way the savings provisions work is that for your vote to be formal, you have to at least get 90 per cent of those boxes filled in correctly, with no more than three errors in sequence in that filling in of all of the boxes.
What we are going to do from here is we are going to say to voters: 'We're going to make it easier for you. If you want to vote for individual candidates instead of expressing a preference for your party of choice above the line, if you want to order the candidates for the Senate in order of your preference by voting below the line, we're going to make it easier for you.' We are going to say to you that on the ballot paper, in black-and-white on the ballot paper, 'To vote below the line, number at least 12 boxes from 1 to 12 in order of your preference, 1 being your highest preference to 12 being your lowest preference.' People are free to do what they have done so far—that is, fill in every single box—but the guidance on the ballot paper will be to fill in at least 12 boxes from 1 to 12 in order of a voter's preference. There is a savings provision, which is much more straightforward than the current savings provision. The savings provision will be that if you get at least six boxes right, from 1 to 6—if you number at least six boxes from 1 to 6—so that is 50 per cent of what the guidance provides; certainly much less than the full ticket—then your vote will be counted as formal.
The Electoral Commission will find the most appropriate way, based on expert advice and contracting external providers as appropriate to assist in the actual running of the campaign. They will provide factual information to inform the Australian people, in good time before the next election, on how they should vote in the Senate: to vote above the line, number at least six boxes, 1 to 6, in order of your preference; to vote below the line, number at least 12 boxes below the line in order of your preference from 1 to 12. It is really as simple as that.
What the artwork is going to be like, exactly what words are going to be used—that is not something I am going to involve myself in. That is not something the government is going to be involved in. And that is not something that governments of either political persuasion would have been involved in in the past. This is why I have said to Senator Wong, in answer to a number of her questions, that I cannot really provide her with some of the very specific details she was seeking, because, quite appropriately, the political arm of government does not get itself involved in the conduct of that sort of campaign at that level.
What I can say is that the government has made a very firm commitment that the AEC will have all of the necessary resources to run that campaign in a way that they, in their professional judgement, feel that it needs to be run. From the government's point of view, that is our responsibility, and that is responding to JSCEM and the recommendations they have made. When you make a change like this, you do have to run a campaign to inform the public. The Electoral Commission will tell us what that needs to involve. They will put together the campaign with advice that needs to be run. They will tell us how much it will cost and they we will have the necessary resources.