Senate debates

Thursday, 22 March 2012


Electoral Matters Committee; Report

7:01 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business and Fair Competition) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report on the so-called Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. We did not have an opportunity to speak to this the other day because we ran out time. I note the committee report was brought down earlier this week in the House of Representatives and this place, and it follows a report on a similar bill that was also inquired into by the committee.

This bill has an Orwellian name. It is described as a 'protecting elector participation' bill. The truth is that it has nothing to do with protecting elector participation and it has everything to do with conscripting people onto the electoral roll. If we go through the steps of what this bill entails, it will allow people to be added to the electoral roll without their consent and without their knowledge.

In Australia today, enrolling to vote is one of the easiest things you can do. There are some areas of Australia where we have specific programs, particularly in remote areas and for our Indigenous communities, but no-one can allege that there is any systematic attempt to do anything other than encourage people to vote and make it as easy as possible. We have the Australian Electoral Commission outside citizenship ceremonies—

Government Senators:

Government senators interjecting

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senators on the right should stop yelling across the chamber. You know it is unparliamentary.

Senator Sterle interjecting

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business and Fair Competition) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Sterle, if you want to go back to Labor's record—

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Ryan, you know you do not take interjections.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business and Fair Competition) Share this | | Hansard source

I do want to take that interjection. Senator Sterle, if you go back and look at the record of the Labor Party on things like white Australia and voting rights, I am afraid that it is not a history that the Labor Party should be proud of. More importantly, we have in Australia a transparent and fair electoral system. Anyone can walk into a post office, if they are Australian citizens—born here or naturalised—and get what must be the smallest government form, fill it out, have it witnessed and enrol to vote. I was lucky enough recently with my wife to have our first child. The Centrelink form with 88 questions to register your child is a truly exceptional effort in government red tape. But to enrol to vote is exceptionally easy. You do not need to have 100 points of ID like you do at a bank; you need less ID than you do for a video card. No-one can allege there is anything other than a systematic encouragement and facilitation of people in this country to enrol.

This bill is the result of a contrived and confected crisis that the Labor Party and the Greens are trying to create. They and the AEC say there are a million people not enrolled to vote. That may well be the case. It is somewhere between half a million and 1.3 million. As I have said before, that is more a reflection on us than it is on the people. If people are choosing not to enrol to vote, as the law requires, then quite frankly the obligation is on the state to go and pursue them.

This bill entails a profound and radical change in our enrolment procedures. One of the justifications for it is that it is easier to remove people from the electoral roll than it is to put them on it. That is true to a certain extent, but that is no bad thing. If people have moved home, for example, or if people have not filled out a form then if you have moved home and you have not changed your address, you will receive a letter from the AEC. If that letter is not returned you are removed from the electoral roll. You are not entitled to be on the electoral roll at that particular address. You should have updated it within 30 days as the law requires.

What will happen under this bill and the related bill is that you will receive a letter, an SMS or an email from the Australian Electoral Commission and your refusal to acknowledge that will put you on the electoral roll. You cannot object because, if you did so you will confirm that that is valid, unless you try to correct the AEC and then you will be at a new address. Even more importantly, you might not ever know you have been put on the roll. How are we to know that that is the correct information? We are supposed to trust various state and Commonwealth government databases.

The dissenting report to this bill has details of Auditor-General's reports about there being three million more tax file numbers than people and about the systematic problems in our Medicare database. Yet, if this bill passes, these are the sorts of databases that can now be used to enrol people to vote. These databases are not designed for that purpose. The electoral commissioner has indicated that he plans to start with state high school databases and roads and traffic authority—in my home state, VicRoads—databases. Neither of these contains citizenship data, so we are apparently relying upon data matching by the AEC to trust that this will lead to a faithful and accurate electoral roll.

We are losing something very important with the bill that the government and the Greens recommend. At the moment we have a paper trail. While signatures may change over time, the truth is that at the moment we have a paper trail between someone's enrolment form and their signature on a postal vote or a declaration vote of some sort. We will no longer have that paper trail. That will be an important part of the chain of evidence that we no longer have. I profoundly believe we are going to put the Electoral Commissioner in an invidious position because one day a mistake will be made. One day, the Electoral Commissioner—whoever that person may be—will make a mistake and there will be people put on the electoral roll who are not entitled to be there. We will then lose something quite dramatic. At the moment the Electoral Commission is above politics. But when the Electoral Commissioner makes a mistake their judgment, their role, may well be called into question.

We have at the moment the first hung House of Representatives since World War II. In the previous federal election we had the seat of McEwen decided by two dozen votes after a 12-month battle that included the High Court and the Federal Court. What would we say if those two events combined and we had people on the electoral roll who were not entitled to be there?

At the moment there are no serious allegations that the result we get on election night, or weeks later, does not reflect the ballot papers and the entitlements of people to cast those votes. This bill, sought for political advantage by the Greens and the Labor Party and for bureaucratic convenience by the AEC, will put that in question. We will no longer have that important paper trail between people signing a bit of paper to enrol to vote and then being able to trace that signature if ballots are contested.

We have close elections in this country, not just now but in the last 20 years. We had one in 1990 and one in 1998. How anyone can say this particular piece of legislation would strengthen our electoral system yet dismiss the concern that it may bring the very integrity of that system into question absolutely astounds me, but it betrays what Labor and the Greens are about, and that is a political agenda. The Labor Party has never been as committed as the coalition to integrity in our electoral system—we saw that in Queensland with the Shepherdson inquiry several years ago—but the coalition will oppose this legislation for the reasons outlined in our dissenting report and because there is no systematic discouragement of people enrolling to vote in this country. We make it as easy as any place in the world, with the smallest government form you could ever pick up and fill out.

This bill contains very serious risks to our electoral system and it will not address the problem the government says it will. When we look at the data from New South Wales and Victoria, of those who were automatically conscripted and enrolled—not always with their knowledge—we did not get a turnout of 90 per cent; we got a turnout of closer to 50 per cent or below. So this bill is not going to address the very problem that the government and the Greens say it will, yet it brings in a whole new range of risks which the government, the Greens and the AEC have not been able to dismiss.

When this bill was brought before this place twice before, it had been broken up and renamed twice before. The coalition will continue to oppose it for the reasons that I have now written in the third or fourth dissenting report in which I have been involved on this issue. We have been consistent, and no-one can put forward the case that there is any discouragement to vote, so the risks contained in this bill are simply not worth it.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.