Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Electoral Matters Committee; Report
On behalf of the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I present the report on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, together with the minutes of proceedings of the committee and the transcript of evidence.
Ordered that the report be printed.
by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
There are 1.5 million eligible Australians missing from the Commonwealth electoral roll. The Australian Electoral Commission, the AEC, estimates that 600,000 of those 1.5 million eligible electors had previously been on the roll. Many of the 600,000 were removed from the roll when they moved house and failed to update their details with the AEC. This bill will help reduce the number of people removed from the roll. The AEC will have the power to directly update the address details of people already on the roll.
In Australia, enrolment and voting is both a right and an obligation. All Australians should take responsibility to meet their enrolment obligations in order to ensure that they can participate in selecting their representatives. The methods to enrol and update enrolment details are not onerous; however, some electors neglect to update their details until an election seems imminent while others believe that the Commonwealth roll will reflect state enrolment or change of address details that have been supplied to another government agency. Currently, a change to the address details must be elector initiated. When the AEC receives information about a change of residential address, it writes to the person instructing them to update their details, but it cannot take the next logical step and update the details. Worse still, if the person fails to respond, the AEC is obliged to remove them from the roll on the basis that they are no longer entitled to be enrolled at the previous address.
The AEC's continuous roll update process is limited because it can only use the third-party data received to encourage the elector to update their details; it cannot do it for them. However, if the person does not respond, the same data can be used to remove them from the roll. There is a fundamental inconsistency that this data can be used to remove eligible electors from the roll but cannot be used to keep them on the roll.
The state of the roll necessitates the introduction of direct address update as a matter of urgency. It will provide the AEC with greater flexibility to help counter the trend in declining enrolment over the last decade. It is appropriate for the AEC to have this power and to determine the agencies from which it will receive data. The AEC will continue to use data from Centrelink, roads and traffic authorities and Australia Post, which has been tried and tested in the continuous roll update and objection processes.
I take this opportunity to thank my fellow committee members for their contribution to the inquiry and to the groups and individuals who participated by making submissions or appearing at the public hearings. I also thank the committee secretariat for their assistance. I commend the report to the Senate.
This is the third time that I have had the privilege of dealing with this particular proposal, although in this case it is in a shortened form. It was previously an automatic enrolment bill that applied both to new enrolees and to those who were moving.
I note that while this actually is only a limited part, dealing with maintaining enrolment, a proposal to allow full automatic enrolment is currently being considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters as well. So all that the government has actually done is to divide a bill that has been rejected previously into two separate measures. I am not sure if that is an attempt to try and somehow overcome the legitimate objections, which I will go through now, that the Senate and a number of those stakeholders have previously had.
It appears that the Labor Party is determined to see automatic enrolment proceed at the expense of the integrity of the electoral roll and at the expense of the possible future pursuit of electoral fraud as well. Underpinning this is what we have just heard from Senator Carol Brown, which is the extraordinary concern that somehow our electoral system lacks legitimacy because of those who do not enrol.
Let us be clear about this: there are no legal barriers to enrolment in Australia. There is no allegation that there is systematic intimidation of voters preventing their enrolment. What we have is a very small form to fill out; smaller than most people would fill out to access a Centrelink payment and smaller than most people would fill out to enrol their child at a primary school. It is a very easy process to enrol to vote in Australia and to find a witness. Yet what the Labor Party and their fellow travellers are seeking to do is somehow to contrive a crisis in our electoral system merely because people are not enrolling to vote. I have said before that I think that is more a reflection upon us than it might be on the voters.
The point is that we have an attempt to change profoundly the way we manage our electoral system. That actually means that at a point in the future for someone who is newly enrolled—if the second bill comes before the Senate—or for someone who potentially changes, we lose the paper trail. The paper trail is very important because when we consider issues of electoral fraud it is handy to have a signature. I note that the Australian Electoral Commission officer downplayed the importance of a signature and a paper trail when this bill was considered before the electoral matters committee, but he did concede that it was a piece of evidence that could be of value in a case or in considering matters of electoral fraud.
I do not think we can legitimately say that because people do not enrol to vote we have a legitimacy problem with our elections. We have education programs and we do not have any barriers to enrolment; we have programs going into schools and universities and no-one has yet said at any point that there is a prevention of someone enrolling to vote. That is only one of the problems, but it is important to outline that this contrived crisis is not based on any fact; it is based upon the Labor Party and the Greens seeking electoral advantage.
I say that there does seem to be a fetish in our various electoral commissions at the moment for the use of technology. As voters complain about queues getting longer on the Saturday morning of polling day we seem to have electoral commissions focusing on how they can drag more people into the net. It is effectively conscripted enrolment. You are saying to people that they no longer have the choice to opt out, but the state is too lazy to pursue them for breaching the law so we will just try and drag them in.
Let us go through some of the actual facts about this bill and what it does. They want to be able to use databases that are not designed for this purpose to be able to move people around on the electoral roll. They want to use things like drivers licences or high school examination or graduation databases. There are a number of problems with databases being used for purposes for which they were not designed, and I put to you, Madam Acting Deputy President, that the coalition's view on this particular bill, as is outlined in our dissenting report, is that the integrity of the electoral roll must be maintained. This bill enables the Electoral Commissioner to exercise his or her judgment to determine the use of databases. Madam Acting Deputy President, I say to you and to the chamber in all seriousness that if the Electoral Commissioner makes a mistake and we find that people have been enrolled to vote incorrectly, and if one of those seats happens to be a seat like McEwen, which ends up before the courts with less than a couple of dozen votes that determine the outcome, I think that puts the perception of our electoral system being free, fair and transparent at some risk.
I do not think, and I have said so in a previous dissenting report on this bill, that this is an appropriate decision for the Electoral Commissioner to make, because by its nature it could become partisan. One of the good things about our electoral system is that the Electoral Commissioner is not seen to be a partisan figure, unlike in some comparable democracies. But if the Electoral Commissioner makes a decision that is disputed and they have been warned about it, and that ends up having an impact, even if only in perception, on an electorate where there are only a couple of dozen votes determining the result in, potentially, a hung parliament like we have at the moment, then I put it to you that that is not a situation we should put our Electoral Commissioner in.
What they wish to do when they get hold of these databases is to use them to send a letter to the new address, for example, notifying a person that they are actually going to be enrolled at that address. If they receive no response then they will be deemed to be at that address. I say to you that that seems to me to be perverse; if you do not get a response you are actually deemed to be at that address. The difference between that and the CRU process that we currently enjoy is that you are required to be enrolled at your electoral address. When the Electoral Commission uses databases to check whether you are at your electoral address you are given the option—I have received a letter myself: are you enrolled at this address?—of ticking the box, signing the form and putting it in a reply paid envelope. That is the Electoral Commission doing its job. That is the Electoral Commission maintaining the integrity of the roll. But to reverse that and somehow to say, 'We are going to deem you to be at this address based on the drivers licence database from the state of Victoria, and if we don't get a response we are going to take that as confirmation,' is a perversity of outcome and poses a threat to the electoral roll that no-one on the Labor side or the Green side has been able to come up with an answer to. They simply say, 'Oh, these databases are good, and we won't use databases that we don't trust.'
I do not believe in the perfection of humanity and as long as you involve a person in this decision, be it the Electoral Commissioner or someone else, you will inevitably get a mistake. I do not think that we can say legitimately that our electoral system will be strengthened if we have an electoral result that could be called into question in a single seat of parliament. This bill puts the integrity of our electoral roll at risk, and it does so through those examples I mentioned.
I will just use a couple of the examples that we mentioned in the dissenting report. A 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration found that an ANAO report discovered that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people at the previous census and there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals. I would think that they are the things that the Commonwealth has the greatest incentive in maintaining accurately.
We hear stories of fraud. The government when it was undertaking its second stimulus package managed to send $900 cheques to dead people. Yet we are going to use these databases to determine who can vote? We are going to use these databases to send out a letter, an SMS or an email and if you do not respond we will deem you to have said yes or to be at that address? This makes no sense, so the only explanation for it can be that it is something being done by the Labor Party and the Greens in their political interests. And it is being done so at the risk of our electoral roll.
Let me emphasise again that we strongly oppose this. We did in the last term of parliament and we will continue to do so in this term. No-one is in any way proposing that there not be education campaigns and enrolment campaigns, but the fact that people choose not to enrol or fail to enrol or maintain their details is not something that should be addressed by conscripting them with databases that are unfit for this purpose and that put the Electoral Commissioner in potential breach of a difficult decision that they may not be aware at the time they make it may have unforeseen consequences. The coalition has a strong dissenting report to the government's recommendation on this.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, as we know, arises from the inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2010 federal election. This is one of the very healthy recommendations to come from that report that, fortunately, have been adopted. Overall that inquiry was a missed opportunity with regard to a number of critical issues to do with electoral funding and protecting our democratic system, and I do look forward to coming back to some of those issues, but right now we have before us a piece of legislation that can increase the integrity of our roll.
So it was very interesting to listen to the previous speaker, Senator Scott Ryan, because he was certainly trying to whip up a crisis around this and was making out that Labor and the Greens were working to contrive a crisis, to use his sensational language. As is so often the case with this senator, he has not provided all the information. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.