Senate debates

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012; Second Reading

7:00 pm

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

These bills represent another in the ongoing attempts by the Labor government and their Green allies to fiddle with our electoral act. I have probably been involved in more particular inquiries on this legislation than anyone else in the building, having served on three of them through two different committees over my short time here. It was initially introduced in 2009 under a different name which would have allowed the Australian Electoral Commission to determine trusted data sources and to use those data sources to automatically enrol people on the electoral roll. I note that 'automatically' is not the preferred term of the Electoral Commissioner. The Electoral Commissioner's preferred term is 'direct enrolment' and in New South Wales the preferred term is 'smart roll'. But the point remains that if this legislation is passed we will no longer have a completed enrolment form by someone who enrols to vote. We will no longer be expecting people to fill out a DL-sized form no bigger than an envelope and to have it witnessed to exercise that most critical element of our liberal democracy—and that is the franchise.

I will go into a number of concerns I have with that. That bill was not passed by this parliament, and on a number of occasions it has been floated again and the opposition has made its views clear that the integrity of the electoral roll is of the utmost importance. There seems to be a contention put by advocates of this legislation on the other side and their Greens partners that somehow enrolling to vote in Australia is a complex task. I do not know about you, Mr Deputy President, but if I go and try to join a video library I will fill out a bigger form than Australia's electoral enrolment form. It is a small form that simply asks for confirmation of the details you assert and a sworn statement that it happens to be true. It provides a signature whereby the Australian Electoral Commission can compare that signature if, for example, you are using a declaration vote.

This is not an onerous task. Australians fill out forms all the time—Centrelink forms, schoolkids' vaccination forms, childcare forms. The process to enrol in Australia is an easy one. At every citizenship ceremony I have been to, the Australian Electoral Commission either is there or has handed out material with the citizenship packs to allow new citizens to exercise their franchise as soon as possible. As children leave high school, we have the Australian Electoral Commission contacting them. People can enrol provisionally from the age of 16 in this country. It is not like certain other countries where there may be allegations of intimidation or there may be allegations of bureaucratic hurdles that make it difficult to vote. In Australia enrolling to vote is probably the easiest interaction with government bureaucracy you are ever going to have.

Our system has a remarkably strong record of enrolment—with over 90 per cent of people enrolled—we have high turnouts at elections, as a general rule we have very safe electoral processes and we do not have a fraudulent electoral roll. I admit that there are concerns about the policing of the electoral roll and the investigation of electoral offences, but I think it is fair to say that when we have a close election the Australian people have faith that the result is fair. The only example of sustained electoral fraud that has come to light in the last couple of decades that I have been following politics has been that exposed by the Shepherdson inquiry and undertaken by the Queensland branch of the Australian Labor Party. But, as a general rule, we have a trusted electoral system.

Why is this bill being put forward? We have an allegation that somehow there are a million people missing from the electoral roll. There are people who are not on the electoral roll, but I am not so arrogant as to think that a DL-sized form is actually the source of that. A person with a touch of humility might say that people not enrolling to vote in our compulsory voting environment is more of a reflection on the politicians than on the people. I put that view. However, what the government and their Greens allies now seek to do is conscript people onto the electoral roll and to remove that particular responsibility and duty from Australian citizens. It is a very, very important change in our electoral system, not just for reasons of security but because we are no longer expecting people to enrol. I would imagine that the reason some people choose not to enrol to vote is that we have a compulsory voting environment. The only way in which you can exercise what some might consider a right not to vote, as I do, or to not attend would be to not enrol. I say again, I do not think that is a reflection on the citizenry as much as it is on politicians.

What do these bills do? I note that we now have two bills before us—one about changing addresses and one about the initial enrolment. When Minister Gray introduced in the other place the bill that relates to automatically changing people's address, I note that he did actually say that the bill only changes people's addresses and is not moving to automatic or, as he described it, direct enrolment. So another separate bill came forward. Let us go back to where we were in 2009 and simply say that here we have a package of bills that is going to profoundly change our electoral roll by automatically enrolling people. What are the concerns we have? I have mentioned some of the concerns I have with respect to the security of issues like provisional votes. Let us go to the data sources that could be used. The Australian electoral roll is actually one of the most accurate databases that anyone in Australia would have. By using other government databases that are not designed for this particular purpose, we put at real risk its integrity, we put its security at real risk of being watered down and we put its quality at real risk of being lowered. For example, databases that have been considered for use by the New South Wales Electoral Commission are things like drivers licences. They do not contain citizenship data. Similarly, high school leaving databases, whether they be HSC exams in New South Wales or VCE exams in Victoria, do not necessarily contain citizenship data. They do not necessarily contain country-of-birth data, which might at least create a subset of people who could be used. These databases are not designed for the purpose that an electoral database is. Similarly, with electoral rolls based upon RTA or VicRoads databases, people do not necessarily always update their drivers licence. At the moment, people are required to update their information with the Electoral Commission within 30 days of a change of address. I appreciate that it is not always the first thing on people's minds. Also, drivers licences, unlike electricity or mobile phone accounts or bills that you have to pay, are not automatically updated by people.

I will go to a couple of reports that have been quoted in the dissenting reports of the opposition to show that some of the databases people might like to think would be fit for this purpose are indeed not. A 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration entitled Numbers on the run: review of the ANAO report No. 37, 1998-1999 on the management of tax file numbers found that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than there were people in Australia at the previous census. There were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records and 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Similarly, an ANAO audit report stated that:

ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.

The databases of other governments are not to the standard that we would expect for an electoral roll.

One of the reasons that people have faith in election decisions that can be decided by a handful of votes, such as the seat of McEwen at the 2007 election, even after challenges and court judgments, is that there is no question about the electoral roll. Again, there has been no demonstrated need for this change. Yes, there are people who are not on the electoral roll but no-one has alleged that there is in any way a campaign that makes it difficult for those people to be on the electoral roll. No-one has alleged that this is in fact an overly bureaucratic process, when every other government form takes hours to fill out. I was fortunate enough late last year to become a father. The Centrelink form to register the birth of a child takes a day to fill out with 85 questions. It is one of the more complex forms I have ever come across. It is not an easy form. The electoral form would be less than a 10th of the size of it, yet somehow we have to address this. There is a real risk with the use of external data sources here.

Another thing that gives people faith in our elections is the impartiality of the Electoral Commissioner. I say nothing now that I have not said on the record to the commissioner himself. I believe he made a mistake when he advocated this issue. This is a contentious political issue and I believe the commissioner made a mistake when he advocated the Labor Party's position on it. This bill will give the commissioner the power to determine trusted data sources. We do not have any criteria around what those trusted data sources will be and there is no avenue for parliamentary disallowance of such. What happens if a mistake is made? What happens if people are added to the roll and votes are exercised if they are not supposed to be on the roll, if one of the trusted data sources is wrong, if a mistake is made?

Anything involving human decision with respect to this will involve mistakes. I think that is a risk to the commission, because in a close election if we do not have the same level of faith in our electoral roll and if decisions have been made by impartial officials, even if done in good faith—and I allege nothing less—then we will bring into question the impartiality of the electoral process and the faith that people have in our electoral process and, indeed, in the Electoral Commission. I do not want a bill like this to go forward that puts the commissioner in a position where a genuine mistake could cause a loss of faith in the commission.

Let us go back to what we have—a simple form, less than an A4 piece of paper, saying who you are, where you live, your date of birth, your citizenship or nation of birth and to be witnessed by someone that says the above is true. That is not an onerous task and it creates that level of public confidence and faith in our electoral system—and that is being put at risk by this bill. The lack of criteria about the data sources that will be used, the lack of criteria about when decisions will be made and the lack of information about those decisions being publicised all create a risk for mistakes to be made. Even with all the good faith actions by the Electoral Commission, they create the risk of mistakes being made and therefore some of that public faith potentially being removed, because there is no data source or database that government has that will not have mistakes.

One of the other criticisms of our current electoral arrangements is that we cleanse people from the roll. At the moment, we can remove people from the roll but we cannot add them to the roll without their consent. That is true. We may have all received a letter at some point in our lives from the Electoral Commission asking us to validate our enrolment by saying, 'Yes, we still live at this address,' signing it and then sending it back in a reply-paid envelope. If you receive multiples of those letters and do not respond—they come with big warnings saying, 'You will be removed from the roll'—you will be removed from it. That is not in any way a criticism of our current process. I fail to see how that is a flaw.

If you get a letter in a reply-paid envelope—and it is not just done on a once-off basis; it is done if the commission receive some data that says you may have moved, and they do it on multiple occasions to give you an opportunity to respond or to deal with the vagaries of the mail service—all you have to do is sign the piece of paper and put it in the reply-paid envelope and post it and you will maintain your enrolment. That is a core integrity measure to make sure that people are actually where they live and to make sure that the roll is accurate. That is in no way a comparison with adding people to the roll without their consent. The reason for that is that, under the proposals before us, if the Electoral Commissioner receives data that, for example, you have moved house or moved suburb or you are a new enrolee—if you have just turned 18 years old and they have not received a form from you; they might be using a high school graduation database or an exam database or a drivers licence database—they will send you a letter. Or, if they have an email address or a number for text messaging, they will send you one of those, saying, 'We now are aware that you live at the following address and are 18 years old, and unless you respond we are going to put you on the roll.'

Perhaps we can just pause here for a second and consider the extraordinary inconsistency between those two approaches. In one case you are required to update your enrolment if you move. Occasionally the AEC, in a not very burdensome approach to the citizen, will say, 'Please sign this form just to confirm that you still live where you do and put it in the reply paid envelope so we can make sure the electoral roll has integrity.' However, under this system, if you are a new enrollee or you have changed address, according to the AEC or some so-called trusted data source, that letter might go to your new address or it might go to another address they have. If you are not there you will never get the letter, but you may well be added to the electoral roll. That is the opposite of maintaining integrity in our electoral system. That goes to show that the agenda of the Greens and the Labor Party is to at all costs try to get as many people on the roll as possible. I have said again to the commissioner that I think the AEC at the moment has an unfortunate obsession with trying to hit some sort of numerical target for the number of people enrolled.

The correct job of the AEC is to promote enrolment, to enforce the electoral law, including finding those who do not vote, regardless of what one's view on compulsory voting may be, and to maintain an electoral roll as best they can. And they should be able to chase people who do not enrol, because the law requires it, and we may need to consider changes to the law to make it a summary offence to not enrol to vote, rather than to more formally prosecute people as was done in Victoria recently. But none of that is an excuse for removing the paper trail we have that actually ensures that individuals have to sign up to the electoral roll and that therefore if there is electoral fraud an offence has been committed.

What would happen if we suddenly found that there were people appearing on electoral rolls who were not meant to be there, apart from criticism of the commission that put them there? I am not saying this will necessarily happen soon, but a mistake will be made at some point. We cannot necessarily then prove that there was any fraud on the part of the voter. In Queensland, which had the Shepherdson inquiry and where there were serious allegations of people not enrolling or enrolling at incorrect addresses for internal Labor party purposes, we will not necessarily have the paper trail to be able to prove that case. We will not necessarily even have the paper trail to be able to investigate it.

So this represents a very serious threat to a system that works. No-one has demonstrated the problem with our current electoral system. No-one has demonstrated why on earth we need to undertake such a radical change. If people think this is going to be a panacea for electoral participation, they are wrong. The truth is that those who choose not to enrol to vote usually are not that keen on voting anyway. If people think we want to pursue those who do not compulsorily enrol and those who do not vote, then fine: use the legal mechanisms at your disposal rather than creating this Big Brother approach which conscripts people.

To use the example of New South Wales, which brought in this particular process before the last state election in a last-gasp attempt by the Labor Party, about 92 per cent of people who were enrolled on the normal electoral roll voted. That is a pretty standard electoral turnout. But among those who were compulsorily or automatically enrolled the turnout collapsed to 64 per cent, because a lot of these people did not want to vote. We have not yet had all the questions answered over these many years, because the Victorian and New South Wales electoral commissions are still working through this. This is still quite experimental. But the important point is that there has been no demonstrated need to change this core aspect of our electoral roll. The courts have held, quite rightly, that they do not peer beyond the electoral roll. It is a bit like a register of land titles. The register or the electoral roll has become something the court does not peer behind the veil of—and that is as it should be. But what we are doing now is putting at risk the level of public faith that people hold in that roll.

I could speak for hours and probably put many people to sleep with my concerns about this roll, but they are the most important ones. This is strongly opposed by the coalition, simply because there is no need for it. Any allegations that this is somehow addressing people's inability to vote are profoundly misleading and do not represent any form of truth.

Debate interrupted.