Monday, 15 March 2010
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill 2010; Social Security and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010
I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill 2010. I move:
That these bills be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated into Hansard.
The speech read as follows—
I am pleased to present legislation to reform and modernise the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act) and the Referendum Machinery Provisions Act 1984 (the Referendum Act) and, in so doing, to meet two of the Government’s 2007 election commitments.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) conducted an inquiry into the conduct of the 2007 federal election. The resulting report, entitled Report on the conduct of the 2007 federal election and matters related thereto (JSCEM Report), contains 53 recommendations for electoral reform. 45 of these recommendations were unanimously supported.
The first four Schedules deal with amendments arising from the JSCEM Report. These amendments will:
- restore the close of Rolls period to seven days after the issue of the writ for an election;
- repeal the requirement for provisional voters to provide evidence of identity;
- modernise enrolment processes to enable electors to update their enrolment details electronically;
- allow the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to manage its workload more efficiently by enabling enrolment transactions to be processed outside the Division for which the person is enrolling; and
- enable pre-poll votes cast in an elector’s ‘home’ Division to be cast and counted as ordinary votes.
The final Schedule which deals with an issue that emerged at the 2009 Bradfield by-election and relates to multiple candidates being endorsed for a single Division by the registered officer of a political party. This Bill contains amendments that will allow the registered officer of a political party to endorse only one candidate for each Division.
The overriding aim of the amendments in the Bill is to enhance the ability of otherwise eligible Australians to participate in the electoral process by removing obstacles to their enrolment. The Electoral Act currently contains a number of hurdles to facilitating modern and technologically up-to-date interaction between the AEC and eligible electors. Of particular concern is the estimated 1.4 million eligible electors currently not on the electoral Roll, with up to two thirds of the missing electors falling in the 18 to 39 year age group. It is intended that amendments introduced in the Bill will address declining enrolment rates and improve electoral participation in this age group, and more generally, by enabling flexible and modern interaction between eligible electors and the AEC.
Passage of the Bill during the 2010 Autumn sittings is necessary to maximise the prospects that the reforms in the Bill will be in place before the next federal election.
The amendments contained in the Bill implement six reforms, to the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act. Three of the reforms, in schedules 3 and 4, implement recommendations of the JSCEM that received unanimous support.
Schedule 1 – Close of the Rolls
Schedule 1 to the Bill deals with the close of the Rolls for an election. There is a deadline for every federal election after which the roll will be ‘closed’ for an election. This is known as the ‘close of the Rolls’ and specifies the date after which no additions or deletions can be made to the electoral Roll. The certified list of voters for an election is a list of persons who enrolled or updated their details before the close of the Rolls deadline.
The amendments proposed by Schedule 1 implement one of the Government’s pre-election commitments to restore the close of rolls period to seven days after the issue of the writ for an election. This amendment will provide sufficient time for new voters to enrol to vote for a federal election or existing electors to update their address details with the AEC.
Schedule 2 – Evidence of identity and provisional votes
Schedule 2 to the Bill repeals the requirement for provisional voters to provide evidence of identity. Provisional votes are a type of declaration vote cast by an elector at a polling place on polling day. The Electoral Act and the Referendum Act currently specify that a person who needs to cast a provisional vote at a polling place on polling day must provide a polling official with evidence of identity at the time of voting or by the first Friday following polling day. If the elector does not provide such evidence of identity by the deadline, his or her provisional vote will be excluded. The AEC estimates that over 27,000 provisional votes were excluded at the 2007 federal election due to the operation of the existing evidence of identity provisions.
In accordance with JSCEM Recommendation 2, the Bill will repeal the requirement for voters casting a provisional vote to provide evidence of identity and will instead insert the new requirement that, where there is any doubt as to the bona fides of the elector, the signature on the envelope containing a provisional vote be compared with the signature of the elector on previously lodged enrolment records.
The amendments in Schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill implement recommendations of the JSCEM supported by the Government as necessary to provide eligible electors with the greatest opportunity to enrol and vote in an election.
Schedule 3 – ‘Home’ Division pre-poll votes as ordinary votes
The amendments contained in Schedule 3 to the Bill will enable pre-poll votes issued in an elector’s ‘home’ Division to be cast and counted as ordinary votes, wherever practicable.
The Electoral Act and the Referendum Act provide for pre-poll voting to take place prior to polling day. This provides electors who have specified other commitments to meet their voting obligations by voting early. Recent elections have seen a large increase in the demand for early voting; at the 2007 federal election almost 15 per cent of the total votes were cast as early votes.
The increase in demand for early voting has several consequences. First, it requires the AEC to devote increased resources to deal with early voting as more resources are required to issue and count this type of vote. Second, the results of an election are more likely to be delayed as the counting of these early votes generally does not take place on polling night as the declaration envelopes containing the votes must go through the time consuming preliminary scrutiny processes.
The Bill provides for pre-poll votes cast in an elector’s home division, that is, the Division in which the elector is enrolled, prior to polling day to be treated as ordinary votes, wherever practicable. For an elector to cast a pre-poll vote in this manner it will be conditional upon the elector making a declaration at the time of voting indicating that they are entitled to a pre-poll vote and the elector’s name being marked off the certified list. This will ensure that the integrity of this type of vote is maintained. Votes cast as ordinary votes in an elector’s home division, for counting purposes, will be treated in the same manner as ordinary votes cast in polling places on polling day. The AEC estimates that if this amendment had been in place for the 2007 federal election it would have resulted in an additional 667,000 votes being counted on polling night.
Schedule 4 – Efficient management of AEC workload & Electronic address update
Schedule 4 to the Bill contains amendments that can be grouped into two main themes. The first theme provides for the efficient and effective management of AEC workload. The second theme enables electors to update their enrolment details electronically.
Recommendation 42 of the JSCEM Report recommends that the Electoral Act should be amended to enable the AEC to manage its workload in non-election periods by allocating work, principally enrolment applications and enrolment changes, throughout the AEC divisional office network. The Electoral Act as it currently stands provides that such workload sharing can only take place during the election period. There is no apparent rationale for limiting the operation of this workload sharing to the election period. Expanding this ability will result in a number of benefits to electors and reduce handling times.
Such changes will allow the AEC to manage its workload more efficiently by enabling enrolment transactions to be processed outside the relevant Division. These amendments will provide the AEC with additional tools to maintain the electoral Roll in a timely and efficient manner.
These changes will ensure that the Electoral Commissioner has the obligation to receive and action any enrolment related transactions rather than only the Divisional Returning Officer or the Australian Electoral Officer. The Electoral Commissioner will then use an enhanced delegation power to delegate the processing of the transactions to any AEC officer or member of staff, which may include Divisional Returning Officers and Australian Electoral Officers.
The second theme of amendments in Schedule 4 provide for modern enrolment processes to enable electors to update their enrolment details electronically. Despite recent trends encouraging Australians to communicate with government agencies electronically, the Electoral Act still requires voters to complete and sign paper forms when enrolling or updating their enrolment details. These forms are then required to be sent to the AEC by post to be entered into the electronic database used to maintain the electoral Roll.
These amendments give effect to Recommendation 9 of the JSCEM Report and will enable persons who are already on the electoral Roll to update their address details by providing this information to the AEC in an electronic format. In addition to the requirement that the person is already on the electoral Roll, the Bill foreshadows the making of regulations which will prescribe minimum verification information that the elector will need to provide to the AEC before the Electoral Commissioner can act on the electronic communication. The regulations will enable the AEC to request prescribed information from electors, for example date of birth and drivers licence number, to ensure that the electronic transaction is authentic and is being undertaken by the elector to whom the information relates.
These amendments will facilitate the maintenance of an effective electoral Roll by enabling voters to communicate with the AEC by electronic means rather than by written hardcopy forms. These changes are the first tranche of electoral reform aimed at improving participation in the electoral system through enabling modern interaction between eligible electors and the AEC. The Government has referred recent reforms in New South Wales, establishing a ‘smart roll’ in that jurisdiction, for examination by the JSCEM for inquiry and report. The Government also released the second Electoral Reform Green Paper – ‘Strengthening Australia’s Democracy’ in September 2009, a paper which looked at options including automatic enrolment. The Government is actively investigating whether and how automatic enrolment could be introduced at the Commonwealth level in the medium-term.
Schedule 5 – Limitation on the number of endorsed candidates per Division
Schedule 5 to the Bill contains reforms which will restrict the number of candidates that can be endorsed by a political party in any one Division. At the by-election in the Division of Bradfield on 5 December 2009 there were 22 candidates, nine of whom were endorsed by a registered officer of a single registered political party.
The ability for a registered officer of a political party to endorse candidates for an election was introduced into the Electoral Act in 1987 to provide a streamlined way for political parties to nominate candidates. If not endorsed by a registered political party, a person seeking to be a candidate for an election must obtain the support of 50 electors in the Division in which the person is seeking to nominate. The current provisions of the Electoral Act do not prohibit political parties from endorsing more than one candidate in each Division for an election.
For a voter to cast a formal vote they are required to number a ballot paper from ‘1’ to the number of candidates on the ballot paper without errors in the numbering sequence. At the above mentioned by-election for the Division of Bradfield the rate of informal votes was 9.00 per cent. This is a record for any election for the Division of Bradfield and more than double the informality rate for the Division at the 2007 federal election. The average national informality rate at the 2007 federal election was 3.95 per cent.
The practice of multiple candidates for a single Division being endorsed by the registered officer of a political party has not emerged on this scale prior to the 2009 Bradfield by-election. Legislative amendment is required to prevent a similar rise in the informality rate in multiple Divisions at the next federal election.
The Government is committed to restoring the integrity of our electoral processes and systems. The first step in that process was the introduction of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2008, and the subsequent 2009 Bill, which aimed to restore accountability, integrity and transparency to our system of donation disclosure. Unfortunately, those provisions have been blocked by the Senate. The reforms contained in this Bill will continue the important process of updating the Commonwealth Electoral Act, as well as implementing two of the Government’s 2007 election commitments.
Social Security and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010
This Social Security and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010 implements another key reform set out in the Australian Government’s White Paper, The Road Home: a National Approach to Reducing Homelessness, which was released in December 2008.
In the White Paper, the Australian Government committed to halve homelessness and offer accommodation to all rough sleepers who seek it.
The Government has provided an additional $1.1 billion to boost services for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
In addition to this, we are adding 80,000 social and affordable homes to the national housing stock by 2012 – through the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan and our National Rental Affordability Scheme. This is the single biggest investment in housing ever made.
While housing is critical, fixing homelessness is not always just about providing a roof and four walls. Many people have a number of challenges they need to overcome to get housed and stay housed.
The Australian Government’s White Paper on homelessness emphasises the need to address these challenges as well as the undersupply of social housing. That is why we are working hard to prevent homelessness, providing people with the support they need to sustain their housing and linking our new housing with intensive, specialist support to break the cycle of homelessness.
Centrelink has a critical role to play in reducing and preventing homelessness. We know that Centrelink provides income support payments to 6.5 million people, many whom are disadvantaged, vulnerable and socially excluded.
As a key ‘first to know’ agency, Centrelink is well placed to identify people who are at risk of homelessness and assist them to stabilise their housing situation.
Centrelink has already introduced an ‘indicator’ in its systems to identify clients who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This ‘indicator’ will let Centrelink staff know that the client needs active follow up, from a Centrelink social worker, to make sure they are receiving the support they need to stay housed. The ‘indicator’ allows Centrelink to improve and tailor its service to the people who are most vulnerable to homelessness.
In October last year, Centrelink also began to establish its network of Centrelink Community Engagement Officers. This program now has 90 specialist staff, located across all capital cities and many regional centres, supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
Community Engagement Officers are working with non-government organisations like drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, mental health services, hostels, boarding houses, refuges and drop-in centres to provide homeless Australians and people who are at risk of homelessness with better access to income support and the many other services available through Centrelink.
This bill now provides another reform being implemented by Centrelink under the Australian Government’s White Paper on homelessness.
As part of the Australian Government’s efforts to prevent homelessness, we are introducing weekly payments of income support payments for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
We know that some Australians have difficulty budgeting and spend their fortnightly welfare payments too quickly. This can mean they are left with no money to pay for rent, food or essential services.
Vulnerable customers, who are being supported by Centrelink staff, will be able to choose to receive their income support payments weekly instead of fortnightly. While the payment amount will stay the same, weekly payments will allow the most disadvantaged welfare payment customers to budget more easily. It will also give these vulnerable Australians an opportunity to stabilise and improve their circumstances.
Currently the social security law is unclear on the extent of the Secretary’s discretion to determine that more than one payment can be made in respect of an instalment period. This bill clarifies that a social security payment may be paid on a weekly basis in respect of a 14-day instalment period to individuals in a declared class. This bill provides for weekly payments under the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 to come into effect on the commencement of the legislative instrument defining ‘vulnerable customers’.
The bill also enables changes to the family assistance law. Those vulnerable customers who receive Family Tax Benefit as well as income support will be able to elect to receive income support weekly, and at this stage it is expected that this will be sufficient to improve their money management. The Government’s intention for the moment is to limit weekly payments to income support payments, and retain family assistance payments on a fortnightly basis. However to enable the Government to respond to changing circumstances, the bill will also amend the family assistance law to allow for the introduction of weekly payments for Family Tax Benefit and Baby Bonus as required.
This measure is intended to alleviate some of the financial hardships faced by those Australians who are most disadvantaged and, in doing so, it is intended to prevent these people becoming homeless.
Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.
Debate (on motion by Senator Wong) adjourned.