Thursday, 26 August 2021
Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021, Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021, Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021; Second Reading
That these bills be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.
The speeches read as follows—
This Bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to respond to the evolving electoral environment, with note to technological progress and changes in the scale and complexity of federal elections. These measures build on the Government's investment in assisting the AEC to stay at the forefront of electoral technology, whilst also helping to make the voting process more efficient for Australians.
The measures in this Bill respond to recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), as well as submissions by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to support the continued modernisation of the AEC's operational processes.
Modernising postal voting procedures
The Bill enables postal voters outside Australia to complete certain procedural steps electronically if they are unable to comply with authorised witness requirements, for example where lockdown conditions are in place. This amendment does not allow a voter to submit their postal vote electronically.
The Bill also introduces a vote-saving provision for postal votes that are received outside a sealed postal vote certificate. This amendment prevents a postal vote from being excluded from the count solely because it was received alongside, rather than inside, the voter's postal vote certificate.
The Bill introduces a fixed pre-poll voting period of up to 12 days prior to election day. The timeframe balances voters' opportunity to participate in elections with the benefits that a more clearly defined pre-poll period provides to the AEC and participants in the electoral process.
Increased candidate scrutineers for Senate elections
The Bill increases the number of scrutineers permitted to observe the computerised scrutiny of Senate elections. The amendment will allow candidates to be represented by one scrutineer for every second tier data entry operator conducting exception checks, in addition to the existing entitlement to be represented by one scrutineer for every AEC officer present.
This promotes transparency and confidence in the integrity of electoral counting processes, whilst balancing this with the physical capacity limitations of counting centres.
Early opening and sorting of pre-poll ballot papers
This Bill will give the AEC the option to open and sort, but not count, ordinary pre-poll ballot papers for the House of Representatives from 4pm on election day.
Given the significant increase in the number of pre-poll votes in elections, this will support the AEC in ascertaining a timely result on election day.
Scrutineers will observe the initial sorting process, and their release of any information about opening and sorting prior to 6pm will be prevented by law. Counting and formality checks of ballot papers with the oversight of scrutineers will then occur from 6pm, as is currently the case.
Early extraction of declaration votes
The Bill allows the AEC the option to extract declaration votes from their envelopes in the five days prior to polling day, and place them in a ballot-box by themselves for further scrutiny. Scrutineers will have the right to witness all aspects of the extraction process.
This amendment will assist the AEC in its processes to complete the initial count and deliver a timely result on election day.
Technical operational efficiency measures
The Bill also makes a number of changes to electoral processes that are necessary to keep pace with modern technology, and will contribute to the AEC's operational efficiency.
The Bill amends how records of paper-based postal vote applications are managed. This recognises that the majority of the applications are now submitted online, and therefore do not require forwarding to the Divisional Returning Officer for the Division in which the applicant is enrolled.
The Bill removes the requirements for pre-poll declaration envelopes to carry a distinguishing number, and for the name and address of printers who printed electoral matter to be included in electoral authorisations.
And finally, the Bill aligns the handling of envelopes containing 'spoilt' or 'discarded' ballot papers with broader ballot paper handling requirements.
These amendments will assist the AEC in the responsibility of delivering efficient and timely elections, promoting continued public confidence in a key democratic institution.
ELECTORAL LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (PARTY REGISTRATION INTEGRITY) BILL 2021
This Bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to strengthen the integrity of party registration by ensuring there exists a genuine base of community support for political parties, and reduce the risk of voter confusion.
This Bill responds to reports of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM).
Political Party Membership Requirements
The Bill amends the Electoral Act to ensure that registered political parties are built on a genuine foundation of community support.
It does this by increasing the minimum membership requirements for non-parliamentary parties from 500 members to 1,500 members, as recommended by JSCEM's Report on the conduct of the 2013 federal election and matters related thereto.
This provision will apply from the date of Royal Assent for new political parties applying for registration.
Non-parliamentary parties that are already registered will be provided three months from the date of Royal Assent to demonstrate they have at least 1,500 members nationally.
This Bill also clarifies the existing requirement that an individual who is a member of more than one party can only be counted once for purposes of demonstrating a party's minimum membership requirements.
This in no way precludes candidates contesting elections as Independents.
Political parties with same words in names or logos
The Bill amends the Electoral Act to minimise the risk that a voter may be confused, or potentially misled, in the exercise of their choice at an election due to a political parties being registered with very similar names.
The amendment guards against this risk by requiring the Electoral Commissioner to refuse an application to register a political party if the applicant party's name replicates a word in the name of an existing registered party.
This will include commonly accepted variants of a word, and will also apply to the proposed abbreviation of the applicant party's name.
Common sense exceptions will apply—
The provision will not apply to words that are collective nouns, like 'alliance' or 'party'.
It will not apply to country or place names, or their variations - like 'Australia' or 'Australian'.
It will also not apply to function words like 'the', 'for' and 'of'.
Further, where an applicant provides written consent from an existing registered party with a similar name, the Electoral
Commissioner will be able to accept the applicant party's name even if it contains the same words as the existing registered party.
The Electoral Commissioner may also refuse to register the logo of a political party on the grounds that it contains a word or abbreviation of an existing political party.
Amendments are made to Section 134A of the Act to ensure consistent application to all existing registered political parties.
The Electoral Commissioner's decisions in these matters will be reviewable by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Together, these provisions will enhance the integrity of the electoral process by reducing the likelihood of voters inadvertently associating or confusing political parties with similar sounding names.
This amendment responds to a recommendation of the JSCEM in its Report on the conduct of the 2019 federal election and matters related thereto.
ELECTORAL LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (ELECTORAL OFFENCES AND PREVENTING MULTIPLE VOTING) BILL 2021
I am pleased to introduce the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. This Bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to strengthen the integrity of our electoral system.
These amendments will help guard against instances of multiple voting and clarify circumstances that may constitute an offence of interference with political liberty under the Electoral Act. The amendment also increases the penalty associated with this offence.
While Australia is fortunate as a democratic nation to experience very few instances of voter fraud, this amendment will help strengthen our electoral system's defences against instances of multiple voting.
Schedule 1 to this Bill amends the Electoral Act to introduce the category of 'designated elector'.
The amendment empowers the Electoral Commissioner to declare an elector a 'designated elector' if the Commissioner reasonably suspects that the elector has voted more than once in the same election. This conclusion could be drawn from data and investigations from previous electoral events.
If the Electoral Commissioner declares a person to be a designated elector, the Commissioner must give the elector written notice of the decision and set out the elector's rights of review. These rights include having the decision reviewed by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
A designated elector will be protected in their entitlement to vote, only they will be required to cast a declaration vote. This means the elector will have to cast their vote through postal voting, pre-poll declaration voting, absent voting, or provisional voting.
The amendments prohibit the disclosure of a person's status as a designated elector. This is to maintain the privacy of a person's status as a designated elector.
A designated elector's declaration vote will not be withdrawn from its envelope until after the close of the poll. This provides a safeguard to ensure that, if the designated elector casts multiple votes in the election, only their declaration vote received first can be accepted into the count. This ensures that no voter is disenfranchised, but that nobody can vote more than once.
This amendment strengthens the integrity of our electoral system and maintains voter confidence in elections. It also aligns with other state jurisdictions that have taken similar steps to overcome instances of multiple voting.
Interference with political liberty
Schedule 2 to the Bill amends the Electoral Act to clarify what may constitute interference with political liberty, which is an offence under the Electoral Act.
This clarification notes that violence, obscene or discriminatory abuse, property damage, and harassment or stalking with relevance to an election are examples of what can be considered interference with political liberty.
Further, the penalty for 'interference with political liberty' will be brought in line with the penalty in the Criminal Code for 'interference with political rights and duties'. The penalty will be increased from:
'Imprisonment for 6 months, or 10 penalty units, or both', to
'Imprisonment for 3 years, or 100 penalty units, or both'.
These amendments will promote continued public confidence in the electoral process and ensure voters can participate in the electoral process free from harassment and intimidation.
[by video link] I speak on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021 and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. Labor supports this package of bills. They implement a number of recommendations of the multipartisan Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. They also make some efficiency and technical amendments, as requested by the Australian Electoral Commission. Labor always considers proposals for electoral reform thoughtfully because any changes directly affect our democracy. We have done that with these bills and believe that the amendments will strengthen our electoral system.
The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 makes amendments aimed at streamlining the AEC's processes so that it can deliver a timely election result. Conducting an election is a massive exercise for the AEC. The commissioner described it as Australia's largest peacetime logistical event. It's made harder because we don't have fixed terms federally, despite every mainland state having them. So this bill will allow the early opening and sorting of prepoll House of Representatives ballot papers from 4 pm on election day, but, importantly, counting won't start until 6 pm. Declaration votes may be opened and placed in a secure ballot box up to five days before polling day.
These simple changes will save a huge amount of time for the AEC and lessen the time that Australians have to wait to find out the election result, which I confidently predict at this stage will be an Albanese Labor government. Scrutineers will be able to view all aspects of this process, and increased penalties will apply for anyone disclosing information prior to 6 pm on election night.
The other big change this bill makes is to limit the prepoll period to 12 days. The 2019 prepoll ran for nearly three weeks, increasing costs and staffing challenges for the AEC. This also has an impact on parties and candidates, and, it must be said, a significant impact on smaller parties and independents. While it provides flexibility for voters, it means that they're going to the polls before they're armed with all of the policy information needed to make an informed choice. More and more people are voting by prepoll at each election, but the majority do so in the week before polling day. In fact, in 2019, 50 per cent of prepoll votes were cast in the last five days, so this change will not affect the majority of prepoll voters.
Labor supports in principle the shortening of the prepoll period, but there must be some flexibility for the AEC while we're grappling with this terrible pandemic. If this government had done its job on vaccine and quarantine, we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now, with half the country in lockdown and experts predicting that cases in New South Wales could rise to 2,000 a day. Only about 25 per cent of the Australian population is fully vaccinated, so there's no way we can safely have an election now, yet one could be announced at any time. That's why we've sought assurances from the government that there will be further legislation to deal with the JSCEM's recommendations from its inquiry on the future conduct of elections operating in times of emergency situations.
The government has advised that the legislation will allow the commissioner to extend both the period of prepoll voting and the permissible reasons for voting early. It's important that the commissioner have the ability to make these changes if that becomes necessary. There are further technical and efficiency measures in the bill that I won't go into, except to say that Labor supports them, as they will assist the AEC to do its job in what will be very difficult circumstances.
The party registration integrity bill increases the minimum number of members a non-parliamentary party needs to be federally registered. Currently a party needs 500 members; this bill will increase that to 1,500. The federal jurisdiction is the easiest in which to register a party, when taking population into account. New South Wales, with a population of eight million, requires 750 members; Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia all require 500 members; in South Australia it's 200; and in Tasmania it's 100. In 1984, when party registrations were introduced, a minimum membership was set at 500. Our population was then 15½ million. We now have 26 million people, so 1,500 is a reasonable number and is intended to ensure a party has real community support.
Many minor parties already meet the proposed threshold: the Animal Justice Party; the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party; Pauline Hanson's One Nation; the Sustainable Australia Party; and the Liberal Democratic Party. Other parties will have three months to increase their membership. Party registration brings benefits. A registered party can run candidates in all 151 House of Representatives seats; it can have its name appearing underneath the names of its candidates on the ballot paper; and a registered party's name will appear above the line on the Senate ballot paper, increasing its chances of having a candidate elected. It is justifiable that, for registration, a party must show that it has national support. Requiring only a small number of members leaves the door open for people with deep pockets to run bogus campaigns, represented by nothing but their money—no real support; just dollars, influence and privilege.
I note that the member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, wanted the threshold reduced to 1,000. Mr Kelly says the bill will make it difficult for independent voices to be heard, but there is nothing to stop an Independent running for parliament. I suspect Mr Kelly is more worried that he will lose his seat at the next election and the United Australia Party won't be able to find enough members to retain their registration. Fundamentally, if you can't inspire 1,500 people across Australia to join your party, I fail to see how you can inspire the nation to vote for you.
This bill also prevents parties being registered with a name containing a word that is in the name of an earlier registered party. It also prevents similar logos from being used. A decision by the AEC under the provisions is reviewable by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Voters deserve to have a clear choice at the next election, and the changes ensure that there is no confusion between different political parties. We know that some parties deliberately try to confuse voters by registering themselves with names sounding similar to those of parties already in existence. This bill seeks to address that and limit the influence of big money.
The last bill in this package, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021, makes it clear that the existing offence of interference with political liberty includes conduct such as stalking, harassment, violence, property damage and obscene or discriminatory abuse. Labor deplores any acts of violence, intimidation, or abuse in any context. We must never accept behaviour designed to intimidate or disrupt someone exercising their democratic rights. This amendment will help ensure the safety of participants in the process.
This bill also introduces the new category 'designated elector' to address multiple voting. Multiple voting is rare, it must be said. The Electoral Commissioner has described the number of multiple votes received as 'vanishingly small'; it's something like 0.01 per cent. When it does occur, it's usually older or infirm people who have simply forgotten that they have already voted. Nevertheless, this bill will address this. Designated electors will be able to vote only by declaration vote to ensure that only one vote is counted. To be placed on the register, the Electoral Commissioner must have a reasonable suspicion that the person has voted more than once, a decision that in itself is reviewable by the AAT. The person's status as a designated elector can't be disclosed to anyone, not even polling booth officials. Labor consistently fought against voter ID laws. Requiring people to provide identification discourages some people from voting [inaudible] democracy and something we should all be proud of. Because a polling official will be unable to identify a designated voter, they will have no cause to ask someone for ID. We have received assurances from the government and the commissioner that this change will not enable anyone to ask for voter ID. It is on this basis that Labor is supporting this amendment.
In closing, I must say that there's more work to be done on electoral reform. The Morrison-Joyce government needs to properly fund the AEC so that it can raise enrolment levels in the Northern Territory. I understand Senator McCarthy has a second reading amendment on that issue. We need real-time disclosure of political donations and a fixed disclosure threshold of $1,000 so that voters know who is donating to parties, how much and when. To level the playing field so elections aren't run on the basis of who has the deepest pockets, we need caps on electoral expenditure. We need truth-in-political-advertising laws to prevent the dangerous spread of disinformation—things spouted by the likes of Clive Palmer, Craig Kelly and George Christensen. But those changes, I suspect, will have to wait for the next Albanese Labor government. I would like to thank Carol Brown, who has carriage of this matter in anticipation, for her assistance in this matter. I thank Minister Morton for his consultation throughout this process.
[by video link] I rise to speak on not one, not two but three electoral bills that are being rammed through this parliament through a cosy relationship between the two big parties. The provisions of those bills will benefit and help shore up the flailing support for those two big parties.
I'm going to make some detailed comments on each of the bills, but I first want to start with the disgusting process that these bills have followed. They only just passed the House yesterday, and here they are. They were exempted from the cut-off, which normally would give private members' bills, or any bill, the appropriate time for scrutiny, deliberation, consideration, amendment and discussion. They were exempted from the cut-off order yesterday, such that in less than 24 hours these bills will now be rammed through both houses of parliament. That's not democracy and it's certainly not integrity or transparency. One has to think that an election is in the offing when the two big parties are ganging up to try to make sure that voters have fewer choices on who to vote for. They're ramming through these three bills in order to achieve that. The process of these bills passing the parliament is an example of how not to do democracy and really proves the point of why we need to break the back of the two-party system, so that we have a democracy that's functioning in the interests of the public rather than just a little power play thing for the two big parties.
I want to start by talking briefly about the first bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021. This bill essentially limits prepoll to approximately 12 days prior to election day and makes some other administrative changes. We won't be opposing this bill. We think these administrative changes are all fairly straightforward and sensible. I note that the vast majority of the prepoll votes in the 2019 election were cast in the final two weeks. I want to note that having a longer prepoll period does present some challenges: the compressed timetable for organising, printing and distributing how-to-vote cards, particularly in regional electorates; and the strain on volunteer resources, which of course advantages parties with larger supporter bases or parties that pay for people to hand out how-to-vote cards—this party shall remain nameless, but we all know which party I'm talking about. That longer prepoll period can have significant disadvantages.
We think the balance has been struck correctly with a two-week or, more precisely, 12-day prepoll period, although I do note that in legislation that has been foreshadowed by the government for elections in emergencies—perhaps such as the pandemic that we're currently in—there will be some discretion granted to the AEC as to the prepoll period. We will look forward to considering that bill once its provisions come forward to the house. That is the first bill.
I want to say that this first bill is an opportunity to address a concern that was raised before JSCEM, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, after both the 2019 and 2016 elections, so it's a longstanding issue about the transparency of the ballot count. Whilst there's no suggestion that there are inaccuracies in the current count, we have seen international examples of a lack of transparency and doubt being weaponised to undermine confidence in election outcomes. We don't want that to happen here. Australia has an electoral system to be proud of, so greater transparency would protect our system against that criticism.
The time frames for these amendments were very condensed, so I believe I need leave to move what I hope will be a committee stage amendment which requires a routine statistical audit at the conclusion of each election undertaken by an independent reviewer into the process of scrutineers. It's essentially just to check that the electronic scanned versions of the ballot papers are appropriately reflective of their original paper versions. This was raised by numerous experts and people in the field as something that would help continue people's confidence in the accuracy of our voting systems. With leave, I will be moving that as a committee stage amendment. I note that the recent review of the ACT election recommended a similar audit to bolster confidence in the electoral process, and we agree. We think that adding this degree of transparency will provide assurances that our electoral processes are robust and best practice.
I want to move now to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. There is no evidence to suggest that voter fraud is an issue in Australia, but I am pleased to see that some of the more outlandish suggestions in the chair's JSCEM report have not been taken up and have not made their way into this bill. We are very pleased that things like voter ID and stronger offences haven't seen the light of day. We don't oppose the proposal to allow the AEC to declare a voter who is suspected of multiple voting to be a 'designated elector'. There are provisions allowing a declaration to be challenged and for designated electors to continue to vote in subsequent elections, provided that the vote is cast by declaration. We think that's a fair enough approach and we are happy to support that.
On the proposed increase in the electoral interference offence, the Greens condemn any violence, destruction of political signs or abusive or intimidating behaviour towards candidates, volunteers and electoral staff. There's no evidence to suggest that the current offence provision in the act or the various offences under state laws are failing to deter or penalise bad behaviour, so we query the need for the offence penalty to be increased, but we will not be opposing the bill.
I want to move to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021, which has been made cognate with the other two bills. This is a real doozy. This bill makes it much harder for new political parties to put themselves forward to the voting public to be voted for at election times. It increases the number of members that a party needs in order to even be able to federally register as a party. The two big parties, which see their vote at record low levels, with a very large crossbench, want to deter competition for votes, so it's very convenient for them to bring forward a bill such as this. This is exactly why the bills have been made cognate and rammed through the parliament—these guys don't like a challenge. Well, I would suggest that, if you want to win more votes from the public, then you should earn them by listening to the public and by fixing your policy offerings so that you start delivering for the public rather than just delivering for your vested interests and big party donors. They're the ones who seem to be running the show, no matter which party we're talking about, whether it's the government or the so-called opposition. Rather than trying to shut out competition from smaller parties and from new parties in particular, why don't you provide a decent offering so that people want to vote for you? That's why they're not voting for you. They see that you're putting the interests of your donors ahead of the interest of the voting public—and nature, for that matter. Rather than trying to fix the system to boost your flailing stock, do better. Earn those votes.
I want to raise the point that this could have been a perfect opportunity to fix some of the real flaws in the system, rather than just fixing the system to help the two big parties in this duopoly of mediocrity that we have on show every day in the parliament. There are so many other issues that could have been addressed that would have improved the integrity of the electoral system and improved our democracy. We should have had rules coming in about donations and electoral spending caps, as the Greens have long proposed. We have private members' bills for these issues, and we routinely move amendments about them.
I flag that I will be moving a second reading amendment, on sheet 1416, to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021. That talks about the need to get big money out of politics. It talks about the need to cap private donations to political parties, because they have not only a corrupting influence on election outcomes but also an unseemly and inappropriate influence on policy positions and on decisions that actually influence people's daily lives. That second reading amendment calls for a cap on donations. It calls for a cap on electoral spending, because we've seen many millions spent by the likes of Mr Clive Palmer to influence election outcomes and to send text messages to every person and their dog. Big money is wrecking our democracy. It has no role in our democracy and shouldn't be allowed to continue to play a role. But, rather than actually addressing that problem, the government has turned its targets on the smaller and newer political parties, which is very telling. So that second reading amendment goes to donations and spending caps and tries to remove the influence of big money on our democracy.
Instead, we see the absence of that. There are no moves to have stronger rules to prevent Liberal Party campaigning being disguised as government advertising. Of course, there are no rules for truth in political advertising in any of these electoral reform bills. There are no rules about stopping grants from being used as election slush funds, as we've seen with sports rorts, 'pork and ride' and now the Beetaloo, which unfortunately failed to be disallowed yesterday, because once again the opposition forgot that they were the opposition and waved through the government's nefarious spending. Incumbents already have huge advantages in elections. They get to call when the election is. They have the brand recognition, the staff and the fundraising capacity. This government seems to think that they can also use public money for their own private party purposes, to spread around in marginal electorates to prop up their electoral fortunes.
Bills that make it even harder for other voices to be heard and that stop other parties from even having the chance to run weaken our democracy. I might point out that these bills won't affect the Greens. We have more than enough members to meet these criteria, and we have sitting members. It is not because of self-interest that we are making these comments. We are here to defend the democratic system, which should allow anyone who wants to run to put their hand up to run. The real test of whether there is support for a political party should be in how many votes they get at the ballot box, not in artificial limits that are set by the Liberal and Labor parties to try and lock out competitors. It's just a really embarrassing display of your own sense of inadequacy, frankly. If, because you don't think you can win those votes, you'd rather stop your competitors from even being in the race, it says an awful lot about what you really think about how much support you deserve to receive from voters.
I want to quote from one of the experts in this field, Professor Graeme Orr, who's made some specific comments about this third-party registration bill, particularly in relation to the restriction of the use of words like 'liberal' in the names of new rival parties. There are no prizes for guessing which new party this bill is aimed at. Professor Orr says:
What is going on? Is this about democratic values, or is it a power play?
People may differ about the bill's justification. But one thing is clear to a lawyer: as drafted, the bill is cooked. It overreaches and is not well drafted.
Well, this bill is cooked and it is designed to prop up and to entrench the cosy duopoly of the two-party system: the duopoly of mediocrity. As I said before and will say again, as much as it breaks my heart, this is not a system that is delivering for the voters. It's certainly not a system that's delivering for nature or our climate. At the minute, the two-party system is delivering for the big donors to those two parties, which is exactly why we're moving that amendment to cap political donations and which is why for many years the Greens have opposed the influence of big money on politics. I know our amendment will fail, because you're hooked on the big money from your donors, but let the ballot box reflect the wishes of the Australian voters and bring on the election.
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate notes that robust disclosure laws, caps on donations to political parties and campaign spending limits are needed to curb the influence of political donations on electoral and policy outcomes".
This legislation, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 and related bills, responds to the recommendations of the bipartisan Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, JSCEM, as part of their reviews of the 2016 and 2019 federal elections. It also responds to a number of recommendations raised by the Australian Electoral Commission in their submission to the 2019 inquiry.
Firstly, in relation to the prepoll voting period, this bill proposes a statutory limit on the length of the prepoll period from three weeks down to two weeks prior to election day. The government, recognising the bipartisan recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, proposed this change, noting the benefits of the shorter prepoll period. It will allow the AEC additional time to secure the best available prepoll facilities for disability access, security and voter convenience. Any voter unable to vote in person on election day has multiple options to cast their ballot. They can request a postal vote, they can cast an absentee vote if they are outside their home electorate or they will be able to prepoll vote on any one of the 12 days prior to the election at a prepoll voting centre open in their area.
This is a very important reform. I am sure everyone in this chamber would have been involved in elections for a long time and would know the tyranny of a three-week voting period. So I am very much welcoming this from an organisational point of view such that parties are able to get the volunteers that are necessary. The Liberal Party relies completely on volunteers. We don't have paid-up union members to send along to voting centres to be there by proxy. We rely very much on volunteers and are very grateful for the support that those volunteers provide. But the feedback that we get from volunteers out there on the voting booths is that those first few days and up to a week of the three-week prepoll voting period is very desolate in terms of the number of people who come through. That was certainly my experience. That is what I was experiencing at the last federal election and even at the last state election in WA. In those first five days or so, very few people were coming through. Of course we have seen an increased number of people take up that option of prepolling, but the bulk of those people are really coming through towards the end of the prepoll period heading up to election day.
So I asked the question of the AEC commissioner when we were last in estimates, 'That's what I've experienced, but can you let me know if the stats back that up?' I had an answer that came back on notice from the commissioner. He's a fantastic commissioner, indeed. He said that, by the last five days—so in the 10 days before that—54 per cent of people had voted. So the balance was 54 per cent voted over the first two weeks and 46 per cent voted in the last five days leading up to election day. That's showing you that the majority of people are coming in at that point and there are very few people coming in during that first week. So this reform recognises what is happening anyway. It's making it simpler for parties, particularly smaller parties. This is an opportunity for smaller parties who struggle to get the volunteers that the major parties get. They can't get the people out on the ground. So this is a very fair, important and good reform that is happening.
The other aspect of this bill that I certainly support is in relation to the sorting of prepoll votes. As more Australians choose to vote by prepoll or by post, the AEC faces unique challenges in ensuring that the speed of the count on election night meets community expectations. More and more people are voting early, be it prepoll or postal. We want to see a result on election night. As political tragics, we can't wait to see the numbers start to come in. It can be disappointing when you've got to wait for prepoll votes. With elections of late tending to be so close—except in my home state of WA, sadly—the earlier we can get that information from voting centres, the clearer it will be on election night, and that's a very good thing.
This bill proposes to open up the unfolding and sorting of prepoll votes between 4 pm and 6 pm on election night. This will assist the AEC to meet community expectations by delivering that result in a timely manner. It doesn't mean votes are going to be counted. This bill doesn't do anything to change that very important point. Votes will only be counted after 6 pm. But scrutineers will be invited in to watch the opening of envelopes and the sorting of ballots to ensure we have a secure, compliant and robust electoral system. That's very important. This bill will ensure scrutineers are able to do that. Having those votes sorted by 6 pm means they can be counted immediately and we can start to see the results come in.
We have an excellent electoral system. Arguably, it is the best in the world. Thank goodness we have such a great system. We saw the debacle surrounding the US elections in November last year—the allegations of fraud. We don't have that in Australia. We have an independent commission, and an excellent administration is being run there. It is independent of government and political interference. It is fantastic. Australians can be confident in our voting system. These reforms are good; they are important. They will help to ensure a more transparent system, a better system, that is clear and transparent.
This bill will address issues around overseas postal voting. Australia is a country with a proud democratic tradition. While voting is compulsory for those who live within our nation's borders, tens of thousands of Australians also take pride in taking up the opportunity to vote while living abroad. Australians abroad can request a postal vote just like any Australian at home who is unable to access a polling booth. Being outside of Australia can present unique challenges. This bill will expand the options of Australians abroad who cannot find another Australian citizen to act as a witness by expanding the current allowance for voters to provide a self-certified copy of their passport to allow the equivalent online identity check options administered by the AEC. This is an important reform and, should this bill be passed today, it will be enabled.
Another bill we are discussing is the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. This bill will introduce a new term, 'designated elector'. This term will be applied to voters suspected by the Electoral Commission of previously having voting multiple times in the same election. While Australia, as a democratic nation, is fortunate to have experienced very few instances of voter fraud, this amendment will help strengthen our electoral system's defences against the rare instances of multiple voting. It is very important. It is an issue that came up at some point in estimates. I'm on the Finance and Public Administration Committee, and I recall the committee saying that the number of instances of voter fraud in Australia is, thankfully, very, very low. It doesn't make a material difference to the outcome, but we've got to make sure the system is the best it can possibly be. We've got to make sure it is almost impossible to skew a result by, in this case, voting multiple times. It's a very important reform that this bill is addressing.
There are a number of safeguards to protect the privacy of designated electors, including that the Australian Electoral Commission cannot disclose information about the person's status as a designated elector. So no-one's going to be named and shamed in this regard. It's just going to be an issue that will be dealt with in a discreet way. Those electors will appear on the electoral roll as silent electors for the purpose of elections, so this means that AEC polling staff will treat designated electors the same as a person who, for privacy reasons, has their address suppressed from the electoral roll. So, when someone walks in, if they're a designated elector, it's not going to be revealed. The person that's working there for the AEC won't understand the difference, so they won't know that they're listed as silent, just the same as someone who's voluntarily elected to be silent. There won't be any difference, so there's no reason for that person to be named or shamed at all.
What we want to also see through this bill is limiting the interference with political liberty. This amendment clarifies the existing offence of interference with political liberty under section 327 of the Electoral Act to note that interference may, for example, include 'violence, obscene or discriminatory abuse, property damage and harassment or stalking'. The amendment responds to recommendation 16 of JSCEM's report on the inquiry into the 2019 federal election. After hearing submissions and testimony from witnesses, it recommended the Electoral Act be amended to penalise such behaviour in the context of an election. It also increases the penalty for an interference with political liberty from imprisonment for six months or 10 penalty units or both to imprisonment for three years or 100 penalty units or both, to bring the offence in line with the existing offence provisions in the Criminal Code Act 1995 for interference with political rights and duties.
In the remaining time that I've got, I will talk about another element of this bill in relation to party registration integrity. I'm very pleased to see that there's going to be, through the passing of this legislation, some clarity given in the registration of political party names. There is often confusion out there on polling booths or even in a postal ballot situation where there are parties with similar names. It provides confusion for those electors when deciding. We saw it even at the last state election in Western Australia, where the Liberal Democratic Party even went so far as to get exactly the same colour T-shirt and exactly the same font and logo for the name of their candidate—and I saw it with my own eyes and witnessed it on a prepoll booth. A volunteer was even confused as to which organiser they were meant to go to on the day to get the right T-shirt. So these changes are important in dealing with the names of political parties and the logos that they're using and just making sure that it's completely clear for the Australian public as to who they're voting for, because we can't have situations where people are mistakenly voting for one party thinking they're voting for the party that they wanted to.
We know that this is statistically backed up, because, if you look at the history of results for both state and federal elections dating back to 2013, in all six instances that the Liberal Democratic Party has drawn to the left of the Liberals on the upper house ballot paper, whether it's the upper house in the state parliament or indeed in the Senate, their primary vote has exceeded two per cent. In all the other instances, the 11 times when they've been randomly drawn to be on the ballot paper to the right of the Liberal Party, their vote has tallied less than two per cent. Now, you could say that's just random, but hang on: if it were random, it would be like flipping a coin and getting 17 consecutive coin flips returning the same result—17 times and getting heads every single time. The odds of that are one in 131,072.
This change is very important. Parties need to stand up for what they believe in, their principles. They need to stand up for their own policies and not just ride on the coat-tails of another party. This does not just change it for the Liberal Party; it registers the important words that are used within the names of the Labor Party, the Greens and all other major parties. So it's a very significant, important and sensible reform. I support this bill.
I'm pleased to speak in this cognate debate on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021 and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. In doing so I foreshadow that I will move the second reading amendment standing in Senator McCarthy's name. Labor supports these bills. As noted, the counting, scrutiny and operational efficiencies bill introduces a range of measures designed to increase the efficiency of voting and counting. The party registration integrity bill increases the number of members required for registration of a political party. The bill also prevents parties from being registered if their name replicates a key word in the name of an earlier registered party, unless the earlier registered party consents. The electoral offences and preventing multiple voting bill creates a new category of designated elector in an attempt to address multiple voting and expands the existing offence relating to interference with political liberty.
These bills arise in part from the work coming out of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into the 2019 federal election. This inquiry process follows every federal election and is an important opportunity for the parliament, in a cross-party manner, to examine all aspects of the conduct of an election and seek to make recommendations to improve transparency and efficiency and maximise the opportunity for all voters to have their say in our essential democratic processes. Of course, there are many areas in which those in this place disagree when it comes to potential reforms and improvements to our electoral processes. However, where we can find agreement, it is important that we progress those changes to continually enhance the efficiency of our national elections. It is in that spirit that the opposition is prepared to support these three bills before us today.
The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 contains welcome measures to streamline the AEC's processes so we can have a smooth-running national election and a result as early as possible. We made it clear that Labor believe the Morrison government should be doing much more, but at least this bill will make things somewhat easier for the AEC. Running a national election is a much more difficult feat than running a state or territory election or local elections, even in ordinary times, particularly in an environment absent of fixed terms. However, running a national election during a pandemic and specifically in the situation the nation faces right now would be a very tall order indeed. In fact, as things stand, it could be next to impossible. Thanks to this Prime Minister's inability to do his job, with his failures on quarantine and on vaccination, this nation is now more fractured than ever before, with vastly different situations on the ground in terms of health orders between jurisdictions. The current situation would make it very difficult indeed, if not impossible, for the AEC to conduct a consistent and fair national election, certainly not without substantially increased resources, something this bill does not go far enough in addressing.
However, the bill does do some good things. It contains important savings provisions to reduce the number of wasted postal votes, and it allows greater opportunities for people voting overseas to be able to securely and efficiently participate in our elections. The bill also limits the prepoll period to 12 days. This is something the opposition supports. Lengthy prepoll periods are resource-consuming for the AEC and, of course, for political parties. The bill also allows for early sorting of prepoll votes, something that will enable a timelier result on election night. Amongst other efficiency changes, the bill also removes the requirement for the authorisation of electoral material to include the name and address of the printer of the material. This amendment will reduce the number of frivolous complaints to the AEC.
Then we come to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021. This bill increases the number of members required for registration of a political party. The bill also prevents parties from being registered if their name replicates a key word of the name of an earlier registered party, unless, as I've said previously, the earlier registered party consents.
In our dissenting report for the inquiry into the 2019 federal election, Labor members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended that the minimum number of members required for party membership be increased to 1,000. It is currently 500. Two previous JSCEM inquiries, into the 2013 election and the 2016 election, recommended this increase. The government is proposing a slightly higher minimum number of members for a non-parliamentary party—1,500. Party registration does come with privileges, and it is important that registered parties in our nation of more than 25 million people are able to demonstrate a reasonable level of community support. A 1,500 minimum is far from being an unreasonable proposition.
The bill also seeks to prevent a party from being registered if its name contains a word that is in the name or the abbreviation of the name of a registered political party. Quite rightly, there are a myriad of exemptions and appeal mechanisms included in the legislation. This amendment is intended to reduce voter confusion between established parties which have recognised names and parties which are subsequently registered. We know that some parties deliberately use words from the names of recognised parties for mischievous purposes. This amendment will address that issue, and the opposition supports it.
The final bill in this package, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021, creates a new category of 'designated elector', in an attempt to address multiple voting, and expands the existing offence relating to interference with political liberty. The New South Wales Electoral Act contains similar provisions. This will allow a person to cast a declaration vote if there is a reasonable suspicion they may have previously voted in the same election. The drafting of these provisions means that polling officials will be unable to identify a voter as a designated elector. Importantly, the government and the Electoral Commissioner have given assurances that these provisions will not be able to be used to require a voter to provide identification. Labor considers this reasonable. It is longstanding and unshakeable Labor policy that we oppose so-called voter ID laws, as these types of requirements lead to disenfranchising of vulnerable and disadvantaged electors. The bill also seeks to deal with violence, intimidation and abuse where it is used to interfere with legitimate democratic processes such as the right to cast a ballot in safety and secrecy. It does this by providing clarity in amending prescribed offences and penalties. The opposition supports these measures.
Briefly I want to touch on the opposition's second reading amendment. At the request of Senator McCarthy, I move the amendment:
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:
(a) notes that the Northern Territory's enrolment rate lags behind the rest of the country with only 85.6% of eligible electors enrolled to vote; and
(b) calls on the Morrison/Joyce Government to close the gap by providing more resources to the Australian Electoral Commission so that people living in disadvantaged, remote and regional communities can exercise their democratic right to vote".
This is a matter that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has considered in detail, and the committee has, indeed, received many submissions concerning the lack of enfranchisement of voters in the Territory, particularly remote voters, a very high proportion of whom are First Nations people. This is something this nation should not tolerate. More must be done in this space, and it is disappointing to say the very least that the Morrison-Joyce government has consistently failed to address this matter. I ask the government to consider this issue for inclusion amongst the next set of issues it attempts to deal with as part of much-needed electoral legislation amendments.
I'd also like to put on record my appreciation of the work that has been done by Senator Farrell on behalf of the Labor Party in the negotiations on the bills before us today.
[by video link] Here we are again with major reform being rushed through the parliament without proper scrutiny or debate and, yet again, Labor is totally complicit. This is such a predictable and shameless exercise of retaining power by the major parties. It is a reform with one simple purpose, and that purpose is to make it harder for the Australian people to elect one of their own to serve in this place rather than copping the product of some back-room factional deal. The electoral reform we really need in Australia is not restrictions on party names. It is not stricter membership rules. It is not even new rules to prevent multiple voting, which is truly a solution in search of a problem. What we need is transparency—absolute, real-time transparency—on donations.
Every Australian knows money buys access in this place; it buys influence. All big corporations and industry groups know this. I would rather we ban big donations entirely. But, if we can't ban them, we should at least make them public. We ought to know who is paying in real time and what they are getting in return. We ought to know who is buying $1,000 seats and $10,000 tables at fundraisers. We ought to know when these donors are getting face time with the minister or dinner with the Prime Minister, and we ought to know immediately. Real-time transparency and real-time honesty—that is the kind of reform we need in Australia. It's the kind of reform Australians want to see. It is the kind of reform that scares the major parties.
Major parties are afraid of transparency because they are afraid of what it will expose. Instead of giving us transparency, instead of giving us the reform Australians actually want, we get this piffle. These bills are a series of small tweaks, creating the illusion of reform and giving cover to a bigger change that will perpetuate the dominance of the major parties. Let's be clear about this: it is not for the benefit of democracy. If the Liberal and Labor parties were not just the parties of government but the parties of good government, they would not need to change the rules and give themselves a head start. In fact, they wouldn't have to worry about minor parties at all, as there would be little need for many. Voters look on and see the games, the stories of rorts and the cover-ups, and they are repulsed. They are repulsed and they want change, so many of them look for other options and other parties—someone who is actually worth voting for.
It's no coincidence that every crossbench senator supports greater transparency—every single crossbencher in this place and the other place. Every crossbench senator supports good governance. Every crossbench senator supports an end to rorts. That is not because we all have the same ideology or values—most of us are very different. It's because that is what the voters want. I'm sure the government know this and I'm sure the opposition know it, too. They know it, but they don't want to own it. They don't want to jeopardise their own sinecures, their own comfortable futures. They know the path to preselection is being a team player and not in any way rocking the boat. So they would rather change the rules and prevent the people from having their say than give the people what they want. It is shameful.
The first thing I'd like to do in relation to this contribution on these important bills is to respond to some of the issues Senator Waters, the Greens senator from my home state of Queensland, made during her contribution to the debate.
The first is that, supposedly, this legislation is being rammed through this place. I've heard this line so many times from Senator Waters. I always find it quite ironic when someone makes that claim after they have just given a 15-minute speech in relation to why they oppose the legislation. These bills are going through exactly the right process, the process that you would expect. Everyone in this chamber is providing views and different thoughts with respect to these bills. We've just heard Senator Griff, a senator from South Australia I greatly admire, give a crossbencher view. We've heard from Senator Waters, Senator Farrell, Senator Brown and my colleague Senator O'Sullivan, from Western Australia. Everyone's getting an opportunity to make a contribution on these bills, representing the whole gamut of philosophical views. This legislation is not being rammed through this place; that is simply incorrect.
The second point I want to make is to note that so many of the reforms contained in these bills went through the joint parliamentary committee process. We're now less than 12 months out from an election, and we're taking into account the reflections from the last election. So this is entirely appropriate. I'm not sure when Senator Waters would expect us to consider these bills. It would be highly inappropriate to consider them after the next election. We need to get this done, and there is some urgency in relation to it. I just want to place that on the record.
In that spirit, I do want to acknowledge the very good contributions—and I sat here and listened to them—from Senator Farrell and Senator Brown in relation to this debate. I think a lot of good points were made. I do respect the contributions that others have made, including those of Senator Griff.
The first bill is the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021, which deals with the number requirement for party membership and also party names and logos. I don't think it is unreasonable for the minimum number of members of a party, which was first set in 1984, to be adjusted in 2021. I think people listening to this debate would understand that the Australian population has grown and, therefore, the membership qualification for party registration—which does give privileges to the registered party, a point Senator Brown made—should change; it should be adjusted. That seems clear and obvious to me. It seems reasonable, proportionate and democratic. I think it is quite a reasonable proposition.
I would like to say to everyone listening to this debate: join a political party; get involved in the political process. I'd love to it be my party, but, if you don't agree with my views, join another political party. Get involved in the process. I say that to everyone—young people, older people, our multicultural community. Get involved in a political party.
This month is the 50th anniversary of Senator Neville Bonner being sworn in as a senator in this place. Senator Neville Bonner first got involved in the political process when he joined the One Mile branch of the Liberal Party in Ipswich. He got elected as a branch office bearer, then as a delegate to convention. He then ran for preselection. He was unsuccessful the first time, but he ran again and was successful. That's what party membership can lead to. So, everyone out there listening to this debate, get involved in a political party. Fight for your beliefs and values. Let your voice be heard. I'd love it to be my party, but I expect not everyone is going to join my political party. That's why we're a multiparty state. But get involved. It's extremely important.
The second aspect of the party registration integrity bill, the first bill I'm discussing, is this important point about party names and logos. I don't think there can be any reasonable counter to the proposition that there have been clear instances where voters have been confused because key words in party names have been similar, or the same, so, when voters go and cast their vote, they vote for one party, reasonably believing it's another party. That undermines the efficacy and integrity of our election process. So it is absolutely fair and reasonable that there are checks and balances in the system. And let me flip that over and say it would be a failure of this house, of this Senate, if we didn't have checks and balances in the system to prevent that.
I can remember sitting and watching the draw for the ballot paper on the Senate ticket in Queensland in the lead-up to the last federal election, hoping and praying—and I'll put this on the public record—that the Liberal National Party had a position on the 'tablecloth' Senate ballot which was to the left—physically speaking, not philosophically—of the Liberal Democratic Party. Why? Not because I wanted to do anything to prevent anyone who in good faith wanted to vote for the Liberal Democratic Party but because I know, and the statistics prove decisively—and Senator O'Sullivan, my colleague from Western Australia, spoke to this point—that, if the Liberal Democratic Party is to the left of the Liberal National Party or the Liberal Party, voters get confused. They see that word 'Liberal' and they assume it's referring to my party, and we can understand that. That issue is escalated especially in our multicultural communities.
This is a question of integrity. There needs to be a check and balance. If there is the same key word in the names of two competing political parties and there's a previously registered party that first uses that key word, it is fair and reasonable that a subsequent party be prevented from undertaking a course of action which will mislead the Australian voter or a goodly number of them. That is fair and reasonable.
Again, I'll flip it around and say we would not be discharging our obligation to this place, to the Australian voters, to maintaining the integrity of the election system, if we were not to support a proposition like this. People in this country have a right to vote for whatever party they want, but let's make sure, let's make it clear, that they know who they're voting for and they're not misled. That's what this reform achieves, so I commend this bill to the Senate.
The second bill is the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill, and it deals with three issues: the prepoll voting period, the sorting of prepoll voting ballots and postal voting. First I want to talk about the prepoll voting period. I'm going to give a big shout-out here to one of the leading academics in relation to the study of elections, Dr Paul Williams, from Griffith University, in my home state of Queensland. He is an outstanding academic and makes a considerable contribution to discussion with respect to election matters. He coined the phrase, following the last Queensland election, 'We don't have an election day anymore; we have an election period.' If you've got a three-week prepoll period, that means you've got a three-week election period, which just makes it logistically incredibly hard to actually do all the things you need to do as political parties—and voters, including consideration of policies and competing arguments. It makes it incredibly hard to get through and do all the things you need to do before the commencement of that election period. So this reform, this proposition, is reasonable, it is proportionate, and it is common sense that the prepoll period become a 12-day period.
I can remember, and Senator Brown probably remembers, the time when you could only vote prepoll if you couldn't make a polling booth on election day, and they would actually ask you when you went into the polling booth: 'Why do you need to vote today? Why can't you vote on election day?' But the world's changed. We are not going to change it; people like their convenience and that's fine. We should maximise the opportunity for people to vote, and a 12-day prepoll period is an appropriate and reasonable balance in providing people with that opportunity.
The second reform in this bill is the sorting of prepoll votes. It should be recognised that some prepoll voting centres at the last federal election took upwards of 25,000 votes—25,000 votes! I have never scrutineered at a booth that's taken 25,000 votes. I can't imagine what that is like. When they tip out the voting papers they would just about be submerged under the weight of ballot papers. The AEC need time to unfold and sort, and the two-hour period before the closing of polls provides an appropriate time for them to be able to do that. Bear in mind that at the last election there were 149 prepoll centres that took upwards of 10,000 votes. So this is an issue that has arisen in recent times and it is attached to that concept of an election period as opposed to an election date. Again, this is a commonsense reform—reasonable and proportionate.
The last issue dealt with in this bill is postal voting. Following the last Queensland election I was provided with the 'opportunity' by the Liberal National Party to do the review of the Queensland state election. I think it was, to some extent, a situation where they asked for volunteers and everyone else who was asked took one step backwards. When we went through that process, one of the issues we identified was that there were upwards of 50,000 postal votes declared invalid at the last Queensland state election. A lot of people were trying to vote using a postal vote because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the issues was that it was just too complicated for people to work out: 'I've got to fill out my ballot paper. I've got to put in it this envelope. I've got to sign that. I've got to put this envelope in that envelope, make sure I get all that right and then get it posted and pray that Australia Post delivers the thing.' It was just too complicated, and if people made a small error then their vote was discounted. They were disenfranchised for that small administrative error, and that should not be the case. People should not be disenfranchised for a small administrative error. So, again, this is a fair and reasonable reform which will enhance the opportunity for people to participate in our electoral process.
The third bill is the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. I want to talk about this issue of intimidation because it is a really important one. I have seen the atmosphere on polling booths change in the 34 to 35 years I have been involved in the political process—and I have been involved since I was 17, so people can work out how old I am. We are at our best as a nation on election day, when people with competing views attend our polling booths to spruik their views, to represent their parties, to represent their values and to engage in courteous, polite discourse at the polling booth while respecting everyone's rights and liberties. That's when we're at our best and that is what we need to aspire to. We are at our worst when people attend polling booths and intentionally set about intimidating, stalking, using obscenities and interfering with the democratic process. The people who typically do that are the people who don't have confidence in their own views, because they can't win the argument without that intimidation. We need to protect Australia's voting system from that sort of base intimidation, so I support that part of the bill.
Lastly, the last element in the omnibus package that's being put up is the issue of a designated elector. These can be sad cases where someone has repeatedly tried to vote more than once, or they have voted more than once, and there's a process there, with appropriate rights of appeal, for them to be allowed to make a declaration vote. They can still participate, but there are checks and balances. (Time expired)
[by video link] The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 introduces a range of measures designed to increase the efficiency of voting and counting. It supports the enormous work of the Australian Electoral Commission in planning and conducting federal elections.
In 2019 the AEC employed a temporary workforce of 90,000 people and provided over 500 prepoll or early voting locations right across Australia. It issued more than 1.5 million postal vote packages, had more than 550 mobile polling teams—visiting over 3,000 locations—and provided 6,571 polling places on election day. On top of that, the AEC deals with nominations and candidate eligibility, and complaints about electoral authorisations and election advertising. It maintains an accurate and secure electoral roll and regulates electoral expenditure and election-funding claims from candidates and political parties.
This bill contains welcome measures to streamline the AEC's processes so that we can have a smooth-running election and get a result as early as possible. While an efficient election is a good election, we must ensure that the process of enrolling and voting enfranchises all voters, no matter how remote. The Northern Territory has the lowest rate of voter enrolment in Australia, with estimates of more than 26,000 people from rural and remote areas not being enrolled to vote. It's no accident that, along with the low numbers of rural and remote enrolment in the Territory, the AEC is woefully understaffed, and that's thanks to cuts from the Morrison government. Under a federal government restructure in 2017, the Australian Electoral Commission office in Darwin was reduced from 16 staff to three, with five jobs axed in enrolment and four in Indigenous participation and voter education. It was an underhanded and effective way of reducing the democratic rights of people who are already some of the most disenfranchised in the country.
Before the cuts, the AEC had managed to increase the NT enrolment rate, over the two years to 2018, from 79.4 per cent to 84.1 per cent. However, this rate was still significantly lower than in other states and territories, where 96 per cent of people are on the roll. It's been estimated that up to 40 per cent of First Nations people in the Northern Territory may not be enrolled to vote. The underfunding of the AEC and the resulting denial of voting rights is an absolute scandal—it really is. In 1996, when the Howard government were elected, one of the first things they did was to get rid of the Aboriginal voter education and enrolment service in the Electoral Commission, limiting the capacity of the commission to go and enrol people and to educate them about their obligations and rights as citizens to exercise a vote.
I've spoken on numerous occasions in the Senate about the importance of language and of translation into First Nations languages. Here in the Northern Territory, we have around a hundred First Nations languages, so that kind of education was critical. The evidence shows that conservative governments have continued to passively—and actively—prevent the enrolment of First Nations people by continuing to cut funding to the AEC, restricting its ability to engage, educate and enrol remote voters. This is why Labor has introduced an amendment to the bill that calls on the Morrison-Joyce government to close the gap by providing more resources to the Australian Electoral Commission so that people living in disadvantaged, remote and regional communities can exercise their democratic right to vote.
The concern about the effective disenfranchising of thousands of remote and mainly First Nations voters has led to Territorians exploring legal channels to end what they see as discrimination in voting. On 15 June 2021 a complaint was made to the Australian Human Rights Commission about the maintenance of the electoral roll and the conduct of the Australian Electoral Commission in the 2019 federal election in respect of remote Aboriginal communities. The complaint was made by Matthew Ryan from Maningrida and Ross Mandi of Galiwinku. These Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land are the sixth- and eighth-largest towns in the Northern Territory, with populations of 2,308 and 2,088 recorded in the 2016 census—an increase of over 40 per cent since 2001. Maningrida and Galiwinku are part of the federal electorate of Lingiari, which has an Indigenous population of 41.7 per cent—the highest in the nation, followed by Durack in Western Australia at 16.7 per cent.
As is common in remote Aboriginal communities, there are no enumerated street addresses or letterboxes and no Australia Post mail service directly to a residence. Instead, residents collect mail from the community post office or may use a private postbox. In 2012 the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was amended to provide for Federal Direct Enrolment and Update to address an alarming drop in the number of eligible persons on the electoral roll—in 2009 enrolment was at 91.63 per cent and trending downwards. The amendments empower the AEC to directly enrol eligible persons who are not on the electoral roll or to update the contact details of persons on the roll, such as change of address, using electronic data from trusted agencies. These trusted agencies at present include Centrelink, vehicle registration and drivers licence agencies, and the Australian Taxation Office. The AEC simply gives written notice to the person that enrolment or an update of an existing enrolment is proposed. After 28 days, if there is no response, the AEC actions the enrolment or update.
Importantly, the amendments explicitly empower the AEC to give written notice to electors by electronic means—particularly email, SMS text messages and social media—as well as by ordinary mail and registered mail. Electronic notification is key to the success of the amendments. It resulted in a staggering 97 per cent enrolment for the 2019 federal election, which the Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers described as 'the best roll since Federation', a genuine piece of unalloyed good news and a stellar result, and a 'modern miracle' of which he was very proud. However, the good news does not extend to the electorates of Lingiari in the Northern Territory and Durack in Western Australia, which sit in the lowest enrolment rate band of 75 per cent to 80 per cent—substantially lower than 97 per cent. Nor does the achievement extend to remote Aboriginal communities in other federal electorates, or in electorates for the Northern Territory elections.
The primary reason the enrolment rate languishes in remote Aboriginal communities is that as a matter of policy the AEC does not apply the most effective tool at its disposal to address that deficiency—namely, direct enrolment and update. The AEC claims that direct enrolment and update cannot be used because there is no direct post to residences in Aboriginal communities. So there we have it. The AEC has explicit power to give notice solely by electronic means and regularly does so for other Australians and other Territorians. Exercise of that power is not reliant on the existence of a direct mail service.
On 4 June 2021 the NT Electoral Commission reported that the AEC's policy disadvantages Aboriginal electors in the Northern Territory and should be reviewed. As at 30 June 2020 it was estimated there were 52,847 voting age Aboriginal electors in the Northern Territory—16,527 of which were not enrolled to vote. The Northern Territory Electoral Commission said that the majority of Aboriginal Territorians live in regional and remote areas not covered by the Federal Direct Enrolment and Update program. So the AEC's policy here predominantly affects Aboriginal residents of remote communities and is discriminatory. The policy operates in practice as a form of voter suppression or gerrymander whereby the franchise for Aboriginal residents of remote communities is suppressed or inhibited in federal and NT elections compared to non-Aboriginal Australians and non-Aboriginal Territorians.
Mr Ryan and Mr Mandi also complained that the AEC does not accurately report electors' addresses in Aboriginal communities, which inhibits participation in the electoral process, and that in the 2019 federal election the AEC did not ensure equal provision of polling booths in Maningrida, Galiwinku and other sizeable Aboriginal communities compared to other towns in the Northern Territory. They argued that these instances of indirect discrimination also breach sections 9(1) and (1A) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The Australian Human Rights Commission has been asked to conciliate the complaint and, if conciliation is unsuccessful, the argument will go to the Federal Court for decision.
It's not good enough that thousands of Territorians do not get to exercise their basic democratic right. It is a situation that this government could have alleviated with the stroke of a pen, but there is no political will. In fact, there often seems to be an active campaign from the conservatives to restrict and block First Nations Territorians from voting.
We've already successfully fought for the Northern Territory to keep its level of representation in the federal parliament. In July 2020 the AEC determined that the Northern Territory was entitled to only one seat in the House of Representatives. Dozens of groups across the Northern Territory—from the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council and the remote children's parents association to the Chinese Literary Association on Christmas Island—supported my call for the Territory to retain two seats: Lingiari and Solomon. We passed legislation that was hailed across all sides of politics that ensured Territorians would be rightly and properly represented here in the national parliament. Now we need to ensure that all Territorians, no matter where they live—no matter how remote—get to be enrolled and get to have a vote.
It is going to be difficult in the upcoming election to ensure remote voters are enrolled and able to cast their votes. Trying to plan for an election during a pandemic is difficult enough, but the Morrison-Joyce government's failure to do its two jobs during this pandemic makes the AEC's job so much more difficult. The government should be doing so much more too. At least this legislation will make things, hopefully, a little easier for the AEC.
[by video link] As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, here we go again. Yet again the Labor Party are about to sit comfortably in the laps of the Liberals and Nationals to vote through measures that are in both of their own interests. Just yesterday I spoke of this parliament being dysfunctional to the point of being a crime scene. The very next day here we are watching the proof unfold again before our very eyes.
For those watching at home and wondering why One Nation did not use these electoral bills to introduce actual electoral reform, the answer is simple: the way these bills were written. There is one bill per topic and they include a long description that prevents One Nation from introducing amendments that move outside of that very narrow, restrictive scope. If the government and Labor wanted to join three bills together and vote in one line, they should have produced the three bills as an omnibus bill that One Nation and the crossbench could have amended—and the legislation badly needs amendment. Senators Wong and Birmingham are once again making a mockery of the democratic process—dodgy siblings doing another dirty deal behind closed doors. When are we going to start writing numbers on the perspex screens so we can distinguish between the Liberal-Nationals and Labor! The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters made 27 recommendations towards more fair and effective elections. The 'Lib-Lab duopoly' has again rushed legislation before the Senate to implement a grand total of three of those recommendations, none of which does anything to ensure the integrity of our electoral process.
The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021 pretends to do something about multiple voting. In the last three elections, the Australian Electoral Commission reviewed thousands of case of multiple voting and referred a few hundred of those to the Australian Federal Police for prosecution, who made the decision to prosecute none of them. Not one person has been prosecuted as a result of the ordinary operations of the Electoral Act despite recommendations to do so and despite that law being on the books for a very long time. That may be why the government has chosen to abandon the legal system and refer multiple voting to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Yesterday we saw cybercrime warrants being moved from the criminal court system to the administrative court system; today we have multiple voting moving over as well. One Nation is uncomfortable with the growing power of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and with the whole concept of having two court systems. Criminal courts are founded in biblical and common law; administrative courts have no such higher purpose to be called on for guidance.
The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021 is clearly an attempt by Lib-Lab to knock out smaller parties and entrench the power of the status quo. I hear the anger on social media over this measure, yet I have some questions in return. Should a multimillionaire be allowed to use his wealth to buy political influence through the United Australia Party? The requirement to have 500 supporters is not going to slow down a very wealthy individual, yet a requirement to have 1,500 supporters will—unless that party actually has grassroots support. This legislation is saying to Clive Palmer, 'Put your supporters where your mouth is, not where your money is.' There is criticism from some new parties who should be more worried about themselves. If you start fact-checking the memes you are spreading, and start offering voters evidence based policy, perhaps 1,500 may be more achievable. I understand that Senator Lambie too is in opposition to this bill. This raises a good question for the government—oops, the Lib-Labs—to answer: why is it 1,500 voters for registration in a populous state and 1,500 in Tasmania? Shouldn't it be some percentage of registered voters in that state?
The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 makes a number of small changes to voting. These have been mentioned by other speakers and I will not review those here. How will all these changes affect the integrity of our elections? Well, we don't know. We don't know now and we won't know afterwards because our elections are not audited. My interest in election integrity started in January 2021, following the US presidential election. My office was inundated with people asking about whether election fraud, such as it was in the United States, could be happening in Australia. The problem is not whether election fraud is happening; the problem is that people think it is happening. Confidence in election outcomes is central to democracy.
The restrictions around COVID have people at boiling point. Small business closures, job losses, high-handed bureaucrats and politics have reduced many people to desperation. The next election will be a powder keg. It is essential to ensure that, whatever the result, the public can accept it and move on. Suspicion of the outcome can be easily fuelled and turned into violence by those who seek to manipulate the result for their own ends. We cannot let this happen. It is for this reason that New South Wales and Western Australia have provisions in their electoral acts to audit state elections. New South Wales conducts an audit before each election to ensure systems are fit for purpose and then audits again after each election to ensure integrity and to see what can be improved for next time. Western Australia audits after every election.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 does not have audit provisions. In February, I started asking questions of the Australian Electoral Commission, the AEC. To be honest, I expected to hear that auditing was under control given the reputation the Australian Electoral Commission claims it has. That's not what I found. The Australian Electoral Commission told me in Senate estimates that the Australian Signals Directorate had conducted an audit of the Australian Electoral Commission's software. The next day in Senate estimates I asked the Australian Signals Directorate if they had done that audit and the answer was a clear no. The Australian Electoral Commission tried to conflate the security audit conducted by the Australian Signals Directorate with an audit of software and systems to pretend our software was being audited and, by extension, was fit for purpose. It has not been audited. The election software is not fit for purpose.
So why did the Australian Electoral Commission make a false statement or imply a false statement? The Australian Signals Directorate looked at potential intrusions into the system, both electronic and physical. Following the audit, the Australian Signals Directorate proceeded with an uplift program designed to harden the AEC network. I call that a fail. If your systems were audited for cybersecurity and the outcome was a comprehensive uplift program to improve your security then clearly the system failed the audit. What else would fail an audit at the Australian Electoral Commission?
In the May Senate estimates I asked the Australian Electoral Commission simple questions. When did the Australian Signals Directorate audit happen? The Australian Electoral Commission declined to answer. What was actually audited? The Australian Electoral Commission gave no useful response. What was the result of the audit? The Australian Electoral Commission declined to answer. What changes to the Australian Electoral Commission's systems have been made in the uplift program? The Australian Electoral Commission declined to answer. Could the Australian Electoral Commission guarantee that the uplift program would render the Australian Electoral Commission computer system fit for purpose? The Australian Electoral Commission responded that nobody could ever guarantee their systems are fit for purpose. Let that sink in. Nobody could ever guarantee their systems are fit for purpose—the Australian Electoral Commission admitted it.
It is disturbing that such an audit could happen behind closed doors without direction or without structure. It is more disturbing still that this program has no legal basis in the Australian Commonwealth Electoral Act. We should not have to rely on the admirable conscientiousness of the Australian Signals Directorate. We should be able to rely on the completeness of our legislation. We need it fixed. It must be fixed.
Then I looked at other issues around election integrity. First up was a simple question: is the electronic data file containing each vote ever compared back to the paper ballot after the vote has been adjudicated? That answer is no. At no time is the electronic record of a vote checked back against the paper ballot. Senator Birmingham and the Australian Electoral Commission have assured us that there is a check, yet when we peer through the veil of language deliberately calculated to obfuscate no such check is happening, contrary to the minister's response. The only time this happens is when a ballot is disputed and a paper ballot is pulled out for scrutiny. After the ballot is adjudicated, there is no further check. These votes are sitting for up to a month in a system that failed an Australian Signals Directorate security test. Data integrity requires that a final audit be conducted immediately before declaration of the poll by pulling paper ballots out at random and comparing them back to the electronic record and vice versa. It's one day's work for all the counting staff as they finish their regular counting. It will not delay the result. It will guarantee that the system has not been compromised accidentally or by a malicious party.
My second question was on the accuracy of the voter rolls. The Australian Electoral Commission used to check the accuracy of their rolls by conducting residency checks. Before this system was discontinued in 1995, those checks revealed a significant number of false registrations: people who had left the country, people who had died and people who had moved. Most of the incidences of multiple voting stem from people voting in their old location and their new location: double voting. This legislation does not address that problem. How can anyone say that the voter roll is accurate if they never check it?
My third question is on the software algorithm at the Senate scanning centre that allocates preferences. The Australian Electoral Commission publishes what is basically a data dump of the raw vote count. Leading cryptographers , led by Dr Vanessa Teague , from the Australian National University , have written a check routine to test the preference flow against the published result. Their finding was that the Senate preference flow was correct, so we know this this aspect of the Australian Electoral Commission software works. Why it is up to the university academics to write complicated software at their own expense and on their own time to audit our elections? Since when did the government decide to crowdsource its job? So, what next? A GoFundMe page to pay for it?
This is why next week I will introduce into the Senate the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment ( Integrity o f Elections ) Bill 2021. This bill requires a preaudit of the Australian Electoral Commission systems prior to each election to ensure the systems are fit for purpose. It requires an audit after the election, as New South Wales and Western Australia require and as the ACT proposes. We propose an audit of the electoral roll and voter ID , voter identification. In short, this bill will audit the elections and the voter. Then we will all have confiden ce in the next election result.
After decades of this Lib-Lab parliament, people are starting to see how parliament is failing our country. The Lib-Lab duopoly, though, is desperate to continue its hold on a parliament that has a record of decades of not serving t he people of Australia. We, though, are keen to restore parliamentary democracy. We have one flag, we are one community, we are one nation.
[by video link] I rise to speak on the electoral legislation amendment bills. Well, what do you know! Here we go! You've just been chipping away, tryi ng to get rid of these micro parties for year s , haven't you? You 'd think you would have learnt your lesson back with preference deals and how you went into a double- D. That actually came back to bite you fair on the backside, let's be honest.
But, with n o more satisfaction from chipping away and trying to get rid of micros and normal people in the parliament , you're now coming in with the jackhammer. Here comes the jackhammer. How about that ! Heavy - handed. Here come the major parties trying to take out the little bloke. Here come the heavies. Can't stand competition. I can tell you, you people, if you had any idea just how diff icult it was out there as an I ndependent in the first place , and then making them get 1,500 signatures—it just goes to show how disconnected you really are from politics. I can tell you that right now.
What you are doing this morning is absolutely disgusting —a nd then rushing this through ! What, is there an election coming up? Did I miss something? Because I tell you what, it sure as hell does not help normal Australians and microparties out there to get into parliament. Every which way we turn, you want to put that brickwork up against us. Well, Australians are waking up to it ; I can tell you that right now. Whatever happened to elections being about voters choosing their politicians? Instead, no, this bill flips that around. This bill makes elections about politicians choosing their politicians. This bill gives every existing party an incredible amount of power and makes it harder for any other party to challenge them.
The justification for this bill is that some parties are using similar names to larger parties, and that that is confusing voters. Really? You think we're all that stupid ? How demeaning! My G od, what is wrong with you people? Who says that? The Australian Electoral Commission, which already checks new parties to make sure they're not designed to confuse voters, doesn't think any registered party is confusing voters. They say voters aren't stupid. The Liberals say that voters obviously are. Labor says that voters are. They say you can't tell the difference between the Liberal Party of Australia and the Liberal Democrats. Do you know what? You don't own the word 'liberal' just because it's in your name. You don't own that. You don't have the rights to it. Liberalism is a political philosophy. It describes what you stand for. Other people are allowed to stand for the same thing. You don't own this.
Order, Senator Lambie. Pursuant to the order adopted earlier today, the time allotted for debate on these bills has concluded. I'll now put the questions on the remaining stages of the bills. The question is that the second reading amendment to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021moved by Senator Hanson-Young on sheet 1416 be agreed to.
Thank you, Senator Siewert. It is so recorded. Is there anyone else asking for that? No. The question now is that the second reading amendment to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021 circulated by the opposition on sheet 1408 be agreed to.
I have received a request from Senator Patrick that his support for the previous question, on the Greens amendment on sheet 1416, be recorded in Hansard. I will note that. He wasn't available to be online at the time. The question now is that the bills be now read a second time, the bills being the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021 and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021.
Bill read a second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
I will now deal with the amendments to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill 2021 circulated by the Jacqui Lambie Network. The question is that the amendments on sheet 1414 circulated by the Jacqui Lambie network be agreed to.
Jacqui Lambie Network's circulated amendments—
(1) Schedule 1, item 20, page 7 (lines 28 to 29), omit paragraph (2)(b), substitute:
(b) if such application was made after this item commences.
(2) Schedule 1, item 20, page 8 (lines 10 to 12), omit subitem (5), substitute:
(5) The amendments of section 134A of the Act made by this Schedule apply in relation to an application for the registration of a political party made after this item commences.
It is so recorded. I will deal with the amendment from the Australian Greens to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Counting, Scrutiny and Operational Efficiencies) Bill 2021, on sheet 1415, which was circulated after the cut-off time for amendments.
Australian Greens' circulated amendment
(1) Page 8 (after line 10), at the end of the bill, add:
Schedule 2 — Other scrutiny matters
1 Subsection 4(1)
formal preferences report: see section 273C.
2 After section 273B
273C Senate formal preferences report
(1) For a Senate election, the Electoral Commissioner must prepare a report (a formal preferences report) that details, for each formal ballot paper:
(a) relevant identifying information, including but not limited to:
(i) the Division; and
(ii) administrative markings on the ballot paper made under section 209B, such as a ballot paper number; and
(b) the preferences on the ballot paper.
(2) The Electoral Commissioner must publish the formal preferences report, on the Electoral Commission's website, within 30 days after the return of the writ for the election.
273D Auditing of computerised scrutiny of votes
(1) The Electoral Commission must, within 30 days after the return of the writ for a Senate election (the audited election), cause to be conducted an audit of:
(a) the scrutiny of votes at the audited election; and
(b) the use of computers under section 273A to conduct that scrutiny.
(2) The audit must:
(a) select, at random, a statistically significant number of ballot papers received by the Australian Electoral Officer at the audited election; and
(b) assess the extent to which the details of the preferences on the selected ballot papers that have been stored in a computer accurately reflect the record of preferences on the selected ballot papers.
(3) The audit must be conducted in the presence of any scrutineer appointed under subsection (4).
Scrutineers at the audit
(4) Scrutineers may be appointed by candidates from the audited election to represent them at the audit.
(5) Appointments of scrutineers shall be made by notice in writing addressed to a Returning Officer or presiding officer for the audited election, and such notice shall be signed by the candidate, and shall give the name and address of the scrutineer.
(6) The regulations may provide for:
(a) a method for the random selection of ballot papers; and
(b) processes and requirements for retrieving ballot papers; and
(c) the appointment of scrutineers; and
(d) the rights and obligations of scrutineers; and
(e) any other matters to be included in the audit.
Is leave being sought to deal with this amendment?