Senate debates

Monday, 18 March 2013


Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Bill 2013; In Committee

12:45 pm

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

by leave—I move opposition amendments (3), (4), (9) and (10) on sheet 7360 together:

(3) Schedule 1, item 6, page 4 (line 25), omit "fourth", substitute "eleventh".

(4) Schedule 1, item 7, page 4 (line 27), omit "fourth", substitute "eleventh".

(9) Schedule 1, item 33, page 13 (line 16), omit "fourth", substitute "eleventh".

(10) Schedule 1, item 34, page 13 (line 18), omit "fourth", substitute "eleventh".

Before I come to the specifics of these amendments, there were a couple of other amendments flagged in earlier discussions of this bill for which I would like to outline why the opposition will not be moving them today. In the initial draft of this bill and in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters there were some provisions to deal with the events of a ballot box that had been inadvertently opened or that may have been tampered with. These were aimed at addressing the situations that occurred in Boothby and Flynn at the last election, and I hasten to add that they were inadvertent errors rather than any malfeasance. The opposition, in the inquiry into the bill, flagged our concerns with the provisions as originally drafted by the government, and we were intending to move amendments. However, we note that the government brought in their own amendments in the House of Representatives last week, and the opposition, while they do not think they are ideal, support the amendments. They are something, however, we may wish to address in the future. We do not think they deal with all of the problems.

Amendments (3), (4), (9) and (10) together are about the time for making applications for a prepoll vote. This issue was addressed in the substantive debate earlier this morning and has been addressed in great detail in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and the coalition comments, so I will not take up too much of the chamber's time, but I will restate the coalition's view. Making postal vote applications available is something our electoral system does very well. It would be very difficult for people to say that accessing a means of vote outside the polling day itself is an onerous burden in Australia. In fact, both major political parties go to the trouble of printing and sending out a great deal of such forms. The prepoll voting period was originally developed in order to facilitate those who might find it easier to vote before polling day—for example, shift workers, weekend workers, emergency services workers—and then to allow them to vote before the polling day itself. The opposition believes that, contrary to the expression that has occasionally been used—'polling period'—we should do as much as we can to maintain the polling day.

When we look at other democracies around the world, the one with which many are familiar is the United States. It does provide an interesting laboratory for the consideration of different polling processes. We all know about the hanging chads and dimpled chads of the 2000 campaign; but, apart from that, we actually have very different electoral procedures adopted not just across states but also across counties. In fact, at least one state in the United States now has a state-wide postal ballot. When people have looked at the dynamics of a campaign in that state, it has proven to be quite different because you do not have a single polling day and everyone sharing the same campaign experience. The opposition does not think it is necessary to extend the period available for making applications for a prepoll vote out to, effectively, almost three weeks before polling day. We are happy with the two-week period.

I also add that I think prepolling, an extended prepolling period and an extended number of prepolling locations do provide an advantage to incumbent members, and I do not know if that is something we want to further entrench in our system. But the key argument is that we want as many people as possible to vote as close to the end of the campaign as possible. Voting in Australia is very easy by world standards. We do not have the hours and hours of queues in very cold seasons that might be experienced in North America. To have people voting three weeks earlier would effectively be less than halfway through the campaign. It is amazing what can happen over the course of a campaign, and I am sure the current and former prime ministers could attest to that with what happened in the last campaign.

So the opposition firmly believes that three weeks is unnecessary. People who know they are going to be away for that period can access a postal vote, and that postal vote, of course, can be exercised later in the campaign and posted at an appropriate time to ensure it is counted. But prepolling three weeks out gives people, in our view, too easy an option to vote too early when in many ways the campaign has not progressed past many of the substantive moments. So I urge the Senate to take those factors into account when considering these provisions, because this is not about, as was alleged before, people not being able to vote. I do not think anyone could seriously put the case that this amendment would deny anyone at all the possibility of exercising their franchise. I do think we should all share as an aspiration that that Saturday at the end of a polling period, where we get a large voter turnout and have sausage sizzles at schools and fundraising, be one of the great experiences of Australian democracy.

I once taught some overseas students in 1998. They were in Australia from America. When they were here for the 1998 election campaign they commented on the fact that in Australia it was very easy to vote compared to where they came from. With both prepolling and postal voting there was never an issue about being able to exercise the ballot. But there was also something about a limited time campaign of five or six weeks and then a balloting day on the Saturday allowing most people to attend, unlike a working day, as it is in some other parts of the world. It is a strength of our democracy. I do not think we are strengthening it by extending the prepoll period. I think we are potentially weakening it.

12:52 pm

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate on behalf of the government that we will not be supporting the amendments proposed by the opposition. This proposed amendment aims to provide certainty about the commencement date for prepoll voting regardless of the type of election. This amendment decreases the minimum early voting period that has been in place since 1990 by a period of two days for Senate-only elections and three days for House-of-Representatives-only elections. It also aims to provide the AEC with sufficient time to print and distribute ballot materials in time for the earliest prepoll voting date. This aspect of the proposed changes is particularly beneficial when an election is run to other than the minimum timetable.

The effect of this amendment is that the AEC would be required to provide early voting services in divisional offices from four days after nominations are declared. A large number of early voting centres would also be open at that time. Under existing arrangements, early voting must commence in divisional offices two days after nominations are declared, which is less than 24 hours after the deadline for lodgement of the Senate group voting tickets. This deadline creates significant logistical challenges when ballot papers must be typeset and proofed, printed and then distributed to the divisional office and early voting centre locations, which are found across Australia, within only a 24-hour window. To meet this deadline currently, the AEC provides PDF versions of ballot papers that can be used by divisional staff until printed ballot papers are delivered. Early voting centres do not open until fully printed ballot papers are available.

It is worth remembering that at the 2010 election there were some 1.5 million votes—an average of 10,000 per division—cast at early voting centres, with just under 14,000 votes—that is, around 100 per division—cast on the first Monday. If the proposed change is approved by the parliament, those voters would now have to wait until the next day to cast their vote.

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendments (3), (4), (9) and (10) on sheet 7360 moved by the opposition be agreed to.

1:01 pm

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

The opposition oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:

(5) Schedule 1, items 8 to 23, page 4 (line 28) to page 6 (line 6).

(6) Schedule 1, item 27, page 9 (lines 14 to 15).

(8) Schedule 1, items 29 to 31, page 10 (lines 4 to 9).

(11) Schedule 1, items 35 to 48, page 13 (line 19) to page 14 (line 17).

(12) Schedule 1, item 51, page 14 (lines 23 to 24).

These amendments that the opposition is moving regard the proposal in the legislation and the proposal of the Labor Party to remove the certificate that the voter is required to sign for accessing a pre-poll vote.

I addressed this issue earlier in my speech on the second reading, and this amendment was also moved in the other place. The logic behind the government's proposal is that since we now count the pre-poll votes on a Saturday night and since they are now considered, effectively, ordinary votes for that purpose and constitute a polling booth in the public mind when they look at tables of election results, that we should not actually have this requirement for voters to submit a certificate.

Can I, respectfully, disagree. The reason for that is that what we did when we changed the way that pre-poll votes were counted was not in any way to change the treatment of the votes other than the fact that they would be counted on a Saturday night. With the number of people who are voting pre-poll, particularly in close elections and in close electorates, it was generally agreed that counting them on the night of the poll would facilitate people getting a quick result, and that that is actually something people would be interested in knowing about on the Saturday night rather than having, potentially, 10 or 15 per cent of the votes not being counted until another time.

None of that undermines our view that voters should still be required to outline, effectively, why they are accessing a pre-poll vote. This goes to the point I made earlier: we do not believe in the logic of a polling period. We believe that there should be a polling day, with facilities made available for those who cannot access that polling day. We strongly support postal votes and we strongly support the distribution as widely as possible of postal vote applications. This particular amendment proposed by the opposition will in no way reduce the ability of someone to access a pre-poll vote. In no way does it make it harder. In fact, if people want to put the argument that it is a compliance mechanism I would say that this must be the only form of red tape this government seeks to abolish, because businesses and everyone else are being wrapped up in it and yet, again, here we have a seemingly inexplicable urge to remove a paper trail that can be part of protecting the integrity of the electoral process.

And so the opposition is not convinced by the logic of the government's proposal. The opposition is not convinced that it does not pose another little crack in the wall of the integrity of how votes are exercised. The way that I understand the process is that this certificate is not an onerous one—I have never exercised a pre-poll vote that I can recall—it is not an onerous burden, but it is something that can be used, whether that be as a disincentive for someone to try to exercise a vote to which they are not entitled or whether it provides a piece of evidence in the chain that may be used to exonerate or otherwise tackle issues of electoral fraud.

What worries me and what worries the coalition is that without this we may see yet another surge in pre-poll votes. I have outlined why I do not think that is a good idea with respect to the focus that should remain on a polling day. Also, if indeed signing a certificate is a disincentive—and I do not know whether it is for people who are accessing a pre-poll vote—then there is a reason for that. We still say that pre-poll votes should not be like turning up to the local primary school on polling day itself to exercise your ballot. We say that people need a reason for a pre-poll vote. This particular proposal by the government goes further to undermining polling day as the focus of the campaign. Combined with the other provision, about which the opposition just lost an amendment, effectively we now have almost three weeks of pre-polling.

Again, I think that we get to the point that there is no established need for this. There is no established need that this is a disincentive and that people entitled to a pre-poll vote are not accessing it. There is no established need that this is imposing an undue burden upon people who want to access a vote. There is no established need that it is imposing an undue burden on the Australian Electoral Commission. But there is a risk, and the risk is that we are seeing the lack of focus on polling day; that we may have more and more people voting nearly three weeks before polling day, which may be less than halfway into the campaign; that we are not asking people to exercise their judgement as to whether they are entitled to a pre-poll vote; and, potentially—and I say this only as a worst-case scenario—whether or not having the certificate acts as a disincentive. Does it facilitate people voting more than once or people voting in the names of other people? If indeed the certificate does have a disincentive effect with respect to that, then I do not think that is something we should be removing.

1:06 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

The government will not be supporting the opposition amendments as proposed.

The requirement for electors to sign a certificate declaring that they are qualified to cast an early vote prior to being issued with an ordinary pre-poll vote came into effect at the 2010 election. Similar requirements have been removed from a number of state and territory jurisdictions, with the aim of speeding up the issuing of ballots. There is no evidence available to suggest that this change impacts on either the number of electors applying to vote by pre-poll or the overall integrity of the process when compared to pre-poll voting at previous elections. What we are doing today is moving to identify pre-poll voting as ordinary voting. In order to treat these pre-poll votes as ordinary votes, this requirement for the signing of the certificate is not required.

1:07 pm

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

I want to respond to a couple of points made by the government. I am sick to death of hearing that states and territories have done something and therefore the Commonwealth should do something. That is a lemming argument. What if one of the states or territories started to disenfranchise, as they would be entitled to do under most of their constitutions, anyone serving any custodial sentence whatsoever? I imagine that people on the other side of this chamber would be screaming and bleating, as they were earlier. So the argument that a state or territory has done something is not an argument for us considering a change to our electoral system. That is a lowest common denominator argument. It formed the basis of much of the argument for automatic enrolment, because New South Wales had done it, but it is not an intellectually consistent argument nor is it an appropriate one, when this parliament has responsibility for the electoral processes for elections to this parliament. We would not let a local government change the laws or influence the laws around the changes to a state election or to this place. I do not see why a state or territory doing something should be of any relevance whatsoever.

Can I also suggest that with respect to the treatment of pre-poll votes as ordinary votes, the agreement from the coalition regarding that before the last election was for their counting only, in order to facilitate the arrival at a fast result and to facilitate the public interest in knowing the result as soon as possible. It was not about anything to do with how people access the votes. I would point out that the Labor Party have actually gone to extraordinary efforts over many years to restrict the involvement of political parties in postal votes for their own naked political interest. Let's not pretend that the Labor Party have haloes in this regard. This amendment does not deny anyone a vote; it merely provides a process whereby people have to declare their eligibility for it. We believe it is a process that could potentially actually provide some evidence if people are acting inappropriately with respect to the Electoral Act.

1:09 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I have been listening intently to this debate and I have been encouraged to make a contribution by Senator Ryan's warning that anything that the Labor Party does with the electoral system could make it easier for voters to vote more than once or to vote in the name of other people. I think that the coalition's amendment, as moved by Senator Ryan, is a good one and anything that helps overcome those problems with our voting system is worth supporting.

I fear any time the Labor Party gets involved with the electoral system. I well remember, in my own state of Queensland, a state election where the Labor Party completely rorted the system. It happened in Townsville, the city in which I have my office. In fact, I am pleased to say that some of my staff—in their own time, I might add—did a lot of work in working out the rorting of the voting system undertaken by the Australian Labor Party at the time of the Mundingburra election. Those who follow political history will recall that it was a by-election held after the first election was inconclusive because of rorting of the electoral system by the Australian Labor Party.

As a result of the by-election, which was won at the time by the Liberal Party candidate, Mr Frank Tanti, the government of Queensland actually changed. So it was quite important. Had the rorting by the Australian Labor Party not been addressed and not been discovered and opened up, you would have had a government of Queensland that should not have been there because the election was a complete fraud insofar as that electorate was concerned. I have to say that was an electorate where we were able to gather the evidence. I am always concerned. At the time, a state secretary of the Australian Labor Party, Mr Mike Kaiser, subsequently entered Queensland parliament in a safe Labor seat. He was mentioned in inquiries relating to this fraudulent activity by the Australian Labor Party. He was subsequently required to resign his seat in Queensland parliament—not that it did him any harm, I might add.

A couple of years back, Senator Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, suggested to Mr Quigley, the head of the NBN, that if he was looking for a government relations/communications expert perhaps he need not look any further than, who else, Mr Mike Kaiser from the Labor Party, who had been involved in the shady dealings with the electoral system. Mr Quigley gave evidence that once the minister had suggested this person for a job, which I think was worth $350,000 or so—it may have been more than that—he thought that it was not necessary to advertise the position, to go out to tender or to get a job search agency to look at it. Lo and behold, Mr Kaiser was appointed to that very lucrative job. It always amazed me that they need a government relations manager, seeing as the NBN was totally a government organisation—I could never quite understand that. Nevertheless, Mr Kaiser was eventually compensated for the fact that he did not have a long-term career in the parliament of Queensland because of these allegations of electoral fraud.

I support Senator Ryan's amendments, which try to tighten up the electoral system so that the sorts of fraudulent operations that we know the Australian Labor Party has indulged in in the past cannot happen. We often hear—said almost jokingly, such is the Australian way—'vote early and vote often'. There are clearly cases of people voting in other people's names. Now I do not say that every member of the Labor Party involves themselves in this sort of activity at every election, but what I do say is that there is documented evidence where this sort of thing happened once before. In that instance it was rorting, as I recall it, of the ALP's own voting systems that I talk about and, as a result of that, a couple of people including one ALP alderman on the Townsville City Council at the time ended up in jail. I always feel sorry for that particular person; I think she was the fall guy for bigger names who found a scapegoat to wear the burden of what was exposed at that particular time.

I am concerned about these allegations. We know from reading articles, like the one I have quoted a couple of times already by a Grace Collier, writing in the Australian Financial Review on 16 November last year, about some of the exposes she has related about the union movement and how they operate. There have been descriptions of some union officials as being bullyboys. Those of you that experienced the 2007 election—remember, that was the Work Choices election—remember the ETU, amongst others. And I remember in Cairns quite clearly—and Senator McLucas might remember this too—where the ETU paid someone, and I will not say bully, but certainly to put maximum pressure on those who would support anyone but the Labor candidate. There were a few allegations made at that time. As I say, you read this article by Grace Collier and you hear of other incidents.

You look at what is happening with ICAC in Sydney at the moment with my namesake—and I always take the opportunity when I mention that to confirm to everyone that it is not me and he is no relation to me, although our names are spelt the same. Some of the dirty dealings that occurred in some of the elections that my namesake, Ian Macdonald, and Mr Eddie Obeid were involved in at the time would cause you to pause and think carefully. That is why I think it is very important that this amendment moved by Senator Ryan be seriously considered, particularly by the crossbenchers.

I would not expect the Labor Party to get too involved in it or to give it too much credence because, as I say, there are documented cases of the Australian Labor Party rorting the system. But the Greens are always on about probity and honesty in the electoral system, notwithstanding they are the recipients of Australia's largest ever single donation of money from a businessman. There is nothing wrong with that of course, I might say; all parties depend upon donations. But it gets a bit hypocritical when the Greens blame everyone else for accepting money from big business and then they are the recipients of the biggest ever donation by a single businessman in the history of Australian polling. As I say, there is nothing wrong with that, but the Greens do often portray themselves in politics as the honest broker, the honest third party, and I cannot imagine why they would not be supporting Senator Ryan's proposal. Certainly Senator Ryan's proposal does not take things back. It does not make it any more difficult for a legitimate voter to get a vote. But it would help the system, and any activity, any action, proposal or initiative that confirms the honesty and integrity of our voting system is something that needs support.

The CHAIRMAN: The question is that items 8 to 23, 27, 29 to 31, 35 to 48 and 51 in schedule 1 stand as printed.

1:26 pm

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

by leave—I move opposition amendments (14) and (16) on sheet 7360 together:

(14) Schedule 1, page 15 (line 11), omit the heading.

(16) Schedule 1, item 54, page 16 (line 3), omit "and 53".

We also oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:

(15) Schedule 1, item 53, page 15 (lines 12 to 14), TO BE OPPOSED.

At the outset I note that the amendments now being moved by the opposition with respect to the extension of the automatic enrolment provisions to the use of ATO data incorporate amendments that have also been moved and are listed by Senator Xenophon.

I would like to address a couple of the points raised earlier in the debate following my contribution about the opposition's position on automatic enrolment. With respect, Senator Rhiannon and Senator Polley stated and/or implied that the opposition sought to keep people off the electoral roll. I am sick to death of coming into this place and finding out that the people on the other side have a window into my soul and determine my motivations. On this particular issue, I have been consistent, as have my arguments and all the criticisms I have offered of automatic enrolment. These ad hominem attacks that the Labor Party and the Greens throw up serve no purpose if we want to look at what is actually happening with our electoral roll. With respect, I do not think Senator Rhiannon should be going down the path of trying to interpret people's motives for what they say and do.

I go back to the key point. I challenge anyone to find an easier form produced by the Commonwealth parliament than the electoral enrolment form. I challenge anyone to walk into a Medicare office, a Centrelink office or an office seeking some sort of licence to undertake business activity and find an easier form than an electoral enrolment form, which is an A4 page. The form to register a newborn with Medicare has 80 questions. So let us not pretend that there is in any way a burden or disincentive for people enrolling to vote. These arguments need to be recounted because of the slurs put upon the coalition's consistent position time and time again by contributions like those from Senator Rhiannon and Senator Polley.

We have said that you have a legal obligation to enrol to vote and then you have a legal obligation to effectively vote. There are some people missing from the electoral roll. There is some debate about the numbers, but let us not confuse people choosing not to exercise their right to vote with disenfranchisement, which is the conflation the Labor Party and the Greens try to come up with: that in Australia we have a system, prior to automatic enrolment or in those states where it does not exist, that somehow prevents people from exercising their franchise.

This is patently and demonstrably untrue. It is an insult to every other voter. It is an insult to the Australian Electoral Commission. Let us be honest about what people are on about here, which is seeking to circumvent the government's responsibility to pursue those who do not enrol to vote because it is just easier to start using technology and add people. Senator Rhiannon and Senator Polley attacked the coalition and said certain things about people whom we allegedly would not like to have the vote, despite there being no evidence supporting those accusations at all. It does make one wonder what their intentions are.

If we go back to what exists in Australia, we now have automatic enrolment. It is inevitable that a mistake will be made because nothing is perfect. When that mistake happens, the people who have constantly criticised this process and constantly warned of the mistakes can legitimately say, 'We told you so.' But I am sure there will be some sort of excuse and attempt to obfuscate and to avoid responsibility from the Labor Party and the Greens. Various other measures that are being put in place seem dedicated to preventing a paper trail which can be useful in determining whether or not there is electoral malfeasance going on.

I am humble enough to say that, if there are a million people not on the Australian electoral roll, that is more a reflection on the members of this place and the members of the other place than it is on any law in our country or the citizens for not complying with the law. If people are choosing not to enrol, then the government should have the courage to enforce the law and go after those people, as the Victorian Electoral Commission tried to do. But the government does not wish to do that. It wishes to surreptitiously increase the role and reach of the state by conscripting people onto the electoral roll.

We heard the complaint from Senator Polley that the reason we have had these people added to the roll was that in the past the Electoral Commission cleansed the roll. As it should, because I want my Electoral Commission taking people off the electoral roll if they are not entitled to be on it or if they are not entitled to exercise the vote at the address which they claim. That might just be an oversight because they forgot to change their address after they moved house. The AEC uses data-matching facilities to send people letters and remind them, saying 'We understand you may have moved house. We understand that you have not changed your enrolment. Here is an opportunity.' There is a warning letter, saying 'If you don't change your enrolment, we will strip you of your entitlement.' Letters are sent to old residences saying, 'Sign this and send it back to demonstrate that you still live there.'

Many Australians have gone through this. It is not a hard process to comply with, yet now under automatic enrolment the opposite happens because if the AEC is of the belief, after looking at various databases, that you should be on the roll and you are not or that you should be on the roll at a different location than the one which you are at, after they send you letters or an SMS or email and you do not respond, they will add you.

There is a major and significant difference to the integrity of the roll between adding people when they do not respond and removing them. The job of the AEC should not be mistaken as saying, 'We want to get everyone on the roll.' The job of the AEC is to maintain the integrity of the roll. There is a subtle difference there. Because if we start having people on the roll at places they are not entitled to be at because of mistakes by the AEC or mistakes by state government databases that the AEC relies upon when it compares births, death and marriages to the national database on citizenship ceremonies, to the state databases on school leavers or driver licences or car registrations, would anyone in Australia have faith that all those are error free?

If people fill out a form as a citizen entitled to vote, we take that form at face value because a citizen has put their name to it and signed it. If they have not signed it appropriately, then they have committed an offence. But the government and the AEC and the Greens do not want to actually go after people who have not enrolled. They want to conscript them onto the roll and add them, quite possibly, without their knowledge. The experience of the last Victorian election is that—contrary to the wishes of those opposite and the Labor Party and the Greens—there was a much lower rate of voter turnout amongst those that had been automatically enrolled than there was amongst the general enrolment. That is to be expected. It is what you would expect from people who might not even know they have been added.

There was a statistic quoted earlier that, if someone has not voted at their first three elections, they are highly unlikely to vote at future ones. That may be the case. But does anyone seriously pretend that that is due to that person being denied the right to vote? I would suggest that person is going to a great deal of trouble to not enrol. That is more a reflection upon us as politicians than it is upon citizens or the Electoral Commission.

Why is this amendment so important? The coalition consistently opposes automatic enrolment. This represents an extension of it and a worrying extension. There has been a very good reason why there is a very strong privacy wall around ATO information. It is pierced occasionally but rarely. In fact, in this chamber and the other place only weeks ago, those of us on this side were being lectured by members of the government that those very privacy laws prevented the government telling us how much the mining tax had raised on the off chance that it might identify someone. Those were simple numbers about what revenue a tax had collected that people see twice a year in MYEFO and the budget papers. Yet now, after the government relented on the absurdity of that situation, we have this bill which proposes that the ATO data can be released to the Electoral Commission in order to facilitate the automatic enrolment process.

There is another risk here. I have the utmost respect for the staff of the AEC, despite the occasional disagreement. I have said before on the record that I think the AEC crossed the line and advocated policy when they supported automatic enrolment, because it was a contentious issue. That said, I think we can look at our electoral processes as some of the best in the world in terms of their administration. I think there are legitimate concerns about training of officials, about the budgets that are provided, about the length of time people are waiting and about the focus on issues like a so-called polling period rather than a polling day, but they are all within the bounds of what I would call reasonable debate.

The more we use external databases, the more we are not relying on people of the AEC, the more we are not relying on people who are aware of the sensitivity of the role of the AEC and of the information. I am not alleging anything here about the ATO; I am certain that their staff understand, probably more than anyone, the importance of privacy of ATO data. But I am also certain they are not trained in the code of conduct or appropriate behaviour for Electoral Commission staff, just as people at VicRoads or the New South Wales RTA would not be.

We are using sources of data that are collected for a different purpose, in this case the purpose of taxation administration, and we are giving it to another party. The opposition has constantly and consistently opposed this. In respect of the ATO, we are crossing another line, one which is actually about people's relationship with the Commonwealth, people's relationship with the tax office and whether or not it is appropriate that information be shared. I have long been a person who is very concerned about the data matching that goes on within the Commonwealth and state governments in this country and its impact upon privacy, and again I do not think there is a justification being made for this particular change.

The assertion that there are one million people missing from the electoral roll is made to imply that somehow they are being denied the opportunity to enrol to vote. No-one has come up with a single example to illustrate whether that is the case. The assertion that we need to maximise the number of people on the roll is seemingly made at the expense of legitimate concerns about integrity. And no-one can guarantee that these databases will not result in a mistake being made. That is not to say there is not a mistake now if someone has made a false assertion, but we have a trail by which that person can be pursued. If in a close election, like the McEwen electorate in 2007, we find out in a few years, after the operation of this automatic enrolment process, that 50 people out of an electorate of 105,000—I think that is what it was then—were mistakenly enrolled, when the margin after the count finished was a couple of dozen votes, what does that do for faith in our electoral system?

Anyone on the other side of this chamber who relies or who seeks to rely on the coalition not pointing out that flaw given our constant warnings about the risks of this approach will be hoping in vain. We will point out the flaws, we will point out why this was done, we will point out how often the warnings were made, and we will point out the fact that we made the point about flawed databases elsewhere. I am not particularly optimistic this afternoon about the success of this amendment, but I am hopeful that people will note that, yet again, the coalition is making the point that this is a flawed process and that the sharing of this data is not appropriate for an electoral roll that is an important document and is one that should be based on citizens asserting their acquired or born right to exercise their franchise in this country.

1:40 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

The amendments being proposed to the Taxation Administration Act 1953 implement recommendation No. 3 of the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters 2010 following the general election. This amendment simply enables the Electoral Commissioner to receive personal information that was supplied to the Australian Taxation Office and use that information to commence a process of enrolment with that information. The ATO information will be used alongside other sources of information, including Centrelink and drivers licence information, as well as the direct enrolment and direct update of enrolment provisions legislated by this place during 2012. These provisions are currently being implemented across Australia and allow the Electoral Commissioner to write to electors advising of his proposal to enrol an elector at a particular address. The elector then has 28 days to confirm or dispute the proposed action. Following the 28-day period, the Electoral Commissioner determines the appropriate enrolment action, including, when an elector does not respond, undertaking the proposed enrolment action.

ATO information through this process will be subject to all the same stringent checks undertaken with all enrolment activity aimed at ensuring and maintaining the existing very high level of integrity of the electoral roll. ATO information represents another source of information that will assist in identifying and enrolling eligible Australians, particularly younger Australians. The amendment does not allow the provision of anyone's financial information to the Australian Electoral Commission. This information is, of course, not needed for enrolment purposes. The AEC will not be the first Commonwealth agency to receive personal information from the ATO; other agencies also receive data for their purposes, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Customs. The government will not be supporting the amendments.

1:42 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Again, having listened carefully to Senator Ryan, I would be urging the Senate to support the amendment proposed. I would ask the minister if she could address Senator Ryan's question about how—we were told this a little while ago—the ATO was incapable of providing information and yet in this instance it seems to be pretty easy.

I have not heard a lot from the Greens political party in relation to this particular bill and the amendments being proposed by the coalition. I would have hoped that the Greens political party, having portrayed themselves as the 'keeping the other lot honest' group within parliament, and always indicating how keen they are on the proper operation of the electoral laws, would be giving us the benefit of their 'wisdom' on these amendments. Perhaps it is because the Greens do not come with clean hands.

I have referred to GetUp! before as foot soldiers for the Greens political party, much to the denial by the Greens political party that GetUp! is anything more than an independent community group. I think those of us who have ever dealt with GetUp! understand that it is really an element of the Greens political party. In fact, I remember at the last election in Townsville members of GetUp! were walking along the lines of people waiting to vote and illegally handing out Greens propaganda material. They were inside the gate. The Greens certainly take advantage of GetUp! and their supposed independence. Of course, that supposed independence cover was blown the other day when the former head of GetUp!, who I understand is now running as a Greens candidate in the ACT, published a flyer saying, 'Come along to the GetUp! Function to support our Greens candidate running for election.' I would be interested in the Greens' contribution to this debate on how those sorts of things could possibly happen. I suggest this shows the Greens political party do not come with clean hands when it comes to electoral matters. I think that incident in Canberra supports that, but I support the amendment.

1:45 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The emotive language that Senator Ryan used to justify the coalition's amendments opens up a window, giving us an insight into the coalition's approach. When you start talking about conscripting people onto the rolls, clearly that is not what is happening at all. What we have is an attempt by the coalition once again to muddy the waters and not to face up to their attempts to restrict getting people on to the rolls, which is clearly a responsibility of the government and the AEC. Now with the new technology that we all benefit from we can improve the very integrity of the roll. The language is quite misleading.

It is interesting that Senator Ryan then started dealing with the Australian Taxation Office. He said that he is concerned that they are not aware of the sensitivity. It certainly sounds as if he suddenly thought, 'Maybe I've gone too far,' because he followed that up by trying to appease, saying he was not alleging anything about the Australian Taxation Office. Clearly, there was an implication there, an implication that is in no way justified. No wrongdoing has been found with regard to how the personal data that the various government departments hold on us is managed.

We are all deeply committed to the issue of privacy and that needs to be followed, but to say that sharing is wrong, another favourite phrase of Senator Ryan, is plain misleading. We have the opportunity now for the ATO and the AEC to share data, so effectively we have an important extension of the direct enrolment provisions that we went through last year. Under those provisions, the AEC uses government data to enrol new voters and update existing enrolments without specific action by the voter.

I find very troubling the degree of effort that coalition members in this place and the other place have put into this, because it exposes their elitist attitude. We can improve the enrolment of people who find it tough for a whole range of reasons or whose chances of getting enrolled are reduced for whatever reason. These are equity measures, but the opposition do not want this improvement to the roll. This speaks volumes about their attitudes to people and to the democratic process. The Greens are very pleased to support this amendment.

1:48 pm

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

I am not going to let the sledging go uncontested. I made absolutely no imputation—in fact, I went to a great deal of trouble not to—about the ATO staff. The point I am making is that they are not trained in the same way as the AEC staff. Anyone that asserts otherwise is simply not telling the truth. A person who works enrolling students at a school is focused on a very different set of priorities from those who are focused on maintaining an electoral roll, particularly about maintaining the impartiality of AEC staff. That is a compliment to the staff at the AEC, not a condemnation of any other staff anywhere. They are simply not trained in it because the data they collect is for different purpose.

If Senator Rhiannon wants to lecture people in the implications of what they say then I am happy to say Senator Rhiannon should start explaining the implications of the BDS campaign she has been behind and the implications that has for Jewish Australians and the associations that group has had with people and movements that we do not advertise in this country.

The opposition has never said in this entire debate that we want to stop anyone enrolling to vote. We have never said that it is in any way an upside or a negative side of automatic enrolment that more people will enrol to vote. To assert that is, again, to assert something that is patently and demonstrably untrue. What the opposition has said is that, contrary to what Senator Rhiannon outlined, it is not the responsibility of government to enrol people to vote. In fact, it is the legal responsibility of the citizen to do so, and it has been since compulsory enrolment and voting was introduced. So it is not the responsibility of government to do that, and I am proud to say as a Liberal that I do not think it should be the responsibility of the government to do that.

Senator Rhiannon—and the cohorts from the Greens who want to regulate what people say in a newspaper and who have no problem with a columnists being dragged before a court for an opinion they express—suddenly thinks the greatest burden we impose on the Australian people is filling out an A4-sized form to exercise a right to vote and to provide an evidentiary trail to make sure that we know exactly who has enrolled to vote and that we can pursue it if not. You can watch A Current Affair or any television program from Four Corners to 7.30 time after time and see that there are holes in government databases and, despite the best intentions and best efforts of the people at the AEC, no-one can say they will not make a mistake. No-one can, unless all of a sudden we have found human perfection in a form we have not found it in yet—and it would not surprise me if the Greens were going to assert that. So to come here and say that this is anything about people not being able to exercise a franchise is a complete and utter falsehood, and it further demeans an already demeaned political movement when they will resort to such lows and at the same time vote for laws that restrict the communication and handling of postal vote applications because they do not approve of that.

The coalition's opposition to this has been consistent; it has been based on the fact that we think there is a risk. At the same time we have supported education measures and enrolment measures. What we oppose is reducing the citizen to nothing more than a number in a database that the AEC can conscript onto the roll, and, while Senator Rhiannon denies that it is, no-one asserts that it is not happening without the choice of the voter. No-one is asserting that it is guaranteed to occur with their knowledge or consent, because that is impossible to guarantee. This is about adding people to the roll without any individual acting to do so. The impact of it is about removing a chain of evidence, and the inevitable consequence of it is mistakes on the electoral roll.

1:53 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Ryan has certainly displayed a great sensitivity about this issue. On the one hand he talks about the concerns that he has, but what we have heard from him is that he makes out that he and his party are in no way committed to limiting, and nothing they are doing would limit, the number of people on the roll. But clearly that would be the result if you followed through on the final form that the coalition want this act to take. There is the right, and I believe the requirement, when you are a citizen of this country to participate in the democratic process. Clearly people have a choice, but what we are talking about here is the roll, and the sum of the coalition's position would limit the number of people on the roll. That is what it boils down to. For all the bluster that we hear from Senator Ryan, that is what we need to recognise. Again, he tried to cover his tracks by bringing in an extraordinary tirade that he engaged in about the current debate around the media, doing the running yet again for newspaper and media proprietors. Again, that shows the self-interest that is a theme right through how the coalition is handling this. It is about effectively excluding people from the rolls. We have a real benefit that can come here to the democratic process by this sharing of information.

There is integrity in the process, there is a respect for privacy and it is a real step forward in what we are achieving here. The fight that the coalition is putting up and also the emotive language and the sensational comparisons that the senator has just made about the media debate, I think, is very revealing. So, again, the Greens certainly will not be supporting these amendments.

The CHAIRMAN: The question is that amendments (14) and (16) on sheet 7360 moved by Senator Ryan be agreed to.