Thursday, 13 August 2009
Electoral Matters Committee; Report
Debate resumed from 22 June, on motion by Mr Melham:
That the House take note of the report.
I thank the House for its indulgence in resuming the debate on this matter. In speaking to this report of the Electoral Matters Committee, I particularly thank the chair of the committee, the member for Banks, and all other fellow members of the committee. In terms of the inquiries we undertook and the submissions we received, I also thank the many, many people who made submissions to the inquiry over a lengthy period of time and thank them for the enthusiasm of the debate that was pursued in those many hearings around the country. I would particularly like to place on record my appreciation to the secretariat of the committee, who worked incredibly well in supporting all the members of the committee in fulfilling their responsibilities. I thank them for their assistance in the preparation of the majority report—in which there are matters that the coalition obviously agrees with and there is support for but, importantly, there are some very real matters where the coalition has some very significant differences of opinion with the government.
As the committee worked through its processes and particularly as we received information in numerous submissions from the Australian Electoral Commission, I think there was one central fact before the committee that we wrestled with, and that was the issue of those who do not vote because they did not enrol to vote, who did not show up to vote or who did not fulfil their responsibilities to vote properly on the day. When you add all those people up, there are around 2.4 million Australians—that is one in seven eligible voters—who did not vote in one way or another. There were around 1.138 million who did not enrol to vote, 715,000 who did not show up although they were on the roll, and 510,000 who failed to complete their ballot properly. This is actually an improvement on the situation in 2004, but the fact that one in seven voters in a system of compulsory voting in this country do not exercise their franchise because they have not chosen to, they did not get it right or they could not be bothered is, I think, a genuine issue of concern. I know that that concern is shared by all the members of the committee, but we have a difference of view about how we go about alleviating that concern.
The matters put forward in the majority report where the coalition has significant problems go to what I describe as the policy of appeasement of apathy when it comes to those who are not choosing to exercise their franchise properly within this country. The government made a number of recommendations through the committee’s majority report. These recommendations, which include extending the close of rolls, weakening the existing proof of identity requirements for those not found to be on the roll, removing any sanctions for failing to maintain your enrolment as required under the act and removing the requirement for voters to fully exhaust preferences for House of Representatives elections, say one thing to me, and that is that it is all too hard, so basically, instead of trying to uphold standards, we are going to lower them. It is easy to help people to meet standards if you just do not have them. When it comes to the integrity of our electoral system, I think standards are incredibly important and they should be preserved by laws, encouragements and sanctions that uphold those standards. The government’s approach in the majority report is basically to say that it is all too hard and that we should walk away and it seeks to weaken very important integrity provisions within the Australian Electoral Act.
We have a system of compulsory voting in this country, and it is a system that I support. If we were to ban compulsory voting, we would leave our democracy hostage to the extremes of both sides of politics, and I think that is a very disturbing element. I have through the course of the inquiry commended the AEC on their positive actions to get people on the roll and on their positive actions to encourage people to vote on election day. It is one of the reasons that, despite what is talked about widely out there in the community, that somehow closing the rolls early led to more people not being able to vote, the evidence before the inquiry was actually the reverse: fewer people missed out on being able to enrol at the last election in 2007 than was the case in 2004.
One of the reasons for that, I think, was the excellent communications campaign run by the AEC, working up to the election of 2007, which had one simple message: value your vote—your vote is precious; take it seriously. In encouraging people to do that, they had a surge in enrolments over the period of the campaign, particularly, as their evidence to the committee showed, during the spikes in activity in that campaign. I applaud those sorts of measures, because they involve people engaging with the process, choosing to be enrolled and choosing to exercise their franchise carefully and in a considered way.
The recommendations put forward by the government through the majority members of this committee actually worked against all of those sorts of positive efforts. What they say is: ‘Look, you don’t have to bother to enrol to vote, you don’t have to bother to ensure that your enrolment is up to date and you don’t even have to bother to fill out the ballot properly, because we are going to lower those standards—if you get all of those things wrong, it doesn’t really matter. When we tell you that you must enrol to vote before an election, don’t worry about it; you can leave it to election day. There’ll be no sanctions, there’ll be no penalties and there’ll be no requirement for you to come and present proof of identity to say who you are; you can just turn up on the day and vote.’
I think this is a very dangerous development for our democracy, because it undermines the positive efforts of the AEC—which, hopefully, at some point will also include a more enthusiastic approach online to assist people, with appropriate safeguards, something we have supported in our dissenting report. We need to ensure that the AEC’s positive measures are not undermined by the undermining of standards that will enable people to basically continue an approach of apathy. Just because we have compulsory voting in this country does not mean that we have to walk away from the standards of our democracy, which I think uphold that democracy. So I encourage the government, when they consider this report, to urgently resist those measures that would seek to appease apathy, which we have seen through the recommendations of the majority report.
I will pick out another one of those. This particularly relates to the issues of where the government members are effectively arguing that, instead of being required to fill out your ballot paper in sequential order, from 1 to the total number of candidates that are before that election, you can get the first few right and, after that, if you cannot get it right, that is okay. We are either going to have a system of compulsory preferential voting in this country or we are not. While I support compulsory voting, when it comes to the issue of whether there should be a compulsory requirement to issue preferences all the way down the line, my view is that you have one system or the other, and you do not have the system which is proposed in the majority report, which basically says, ‘If you get it wrong, we’ll count it anyway—if you could please fill it all the way out, as the law actually requires you to do so, but we will turn the other way if that does not happen.’
In New South Wales and Queensland we have a system of optional preferential voting. As the evidence before the committee showed, that drastically reduced the amount of informal voting in both of those states. The fact that we have a different system of voting in state elections in New South Wales and Queensland than we have at the federal level is actually a fairly significant contributor to the level of informal voting at a federal level in both of those states. Instead of trying to bite the bullet on some serious reform, the majority members of the committee took the view that they would have some sort of ‘look the other way’ proposal when it comes to preferential voting. If they are serious about reform then they should seriously take on the issue of optional preferential voting.
That was the evidence put forward by all the experts who came before the committee. I took special care to ask them when this model of ‘look the other way’ was put forward by the government members of the committee. I specifically asked each of them, from Antony Green to others: ‘But, isn’t it your preferred method that, if we were going to go down this path, we would choose optional preferential voting?’ Their answer was the same on every occasion: ‘Yes, it is.’ If you are going to move away from compulsory preferential voting, it is best not to go to what some may describe as a ‘mongrel’ of a system; it is best to go to a pure system when it comes to our electoral process of optional preferential voting.
So that is the debate which I think the majority members of the committee refused to engage in. They ducked the issue, I think. In the dissenting report you will note that the coalition members said, ‘Well, if we are going to go down that path then we certainly should be considering optional preferential voting as a preferred alternative, but our actual view is that we would prefer to stay with the system as it is and uphold the integrity of that system all the way through.’
The other issue I would draw attention to is the requirement of proof of identity for those who were not correctly enrolled. The requirement before the last election was that if you turned up and you were not on the roll then you would be required to show proof of identity. If you did not have proof of identity then you could lodge your vote and you had seven days to get to the Australian Electoral Commission office in your electorate to present your proof of identity. It turns out that at the last election there were 33,901 provisional voters who failed to provide this identification on polling day. Only one in five of those voters subsequently turned up within the seven days to show some identification. That is very concerning given that the majority members’ report is actually suggesting that this measure be overturned.
One of the issues that was raised and argued in the committee process—and even in fact stated in the majority report without any supporting evidence—was that provisional voters do not turn up because within a week the result of the election is pretty much known and they cannot be bothered. Not only are they going to appease the apathy of such an approach; it is also not true in fact. In the seats of McEwen and Swan the results from the last election were not known for some weeks, in fact months, later. In those cases there were 260 provisional voters in the electorate of Swan and 188 provisional voters in the electorate of McEwen who failed to come forward and present proof of identity. So I would argue that to lower the standards and appease the apathy, which is what the majority members of the committee have recommended to the parliament and to the government, would be a very dangerous way to go. I would urge them very strongly to reject those considerations and instead opt to preserve the standards that we have in our electoral process and our electoral system.
I will conclude on this note. In return for citizenship and the right to vote in this country we ask that citizens do some very basic and easy things—that you enrol to vote; that you maintain your enrolment, just as you would for a drivers licence, for your power bills or for membership of your local RSL or football club; that you turn up to vote on election day; and that when you get there you follow the instructions and you number the candidates from one all the way through to the highest number of candidates that are there. I do not think that is a very onerous task; I do not think there is a very onerous task at all.
Australia was one of the few democracies that existed over 100 years ago. We were in the minority back then. Fortunately, today there are many nations who join us as democracies around the world. I think they look to a country such as Australia to be a standard-bearer for these things. What will they think when they hear that we in this country are prepared to say to people who are not prepared to vote properly, turn up or maintain their enrolment: ‘It’s okay. We’ll appease you by lowering the standards’? What we are saying, I think, is that we do not take the responsibilities of our citizenship terribly seriously. As I said, I am a strong supporter of compulsory voting, but I am not a strong supporter of appeasing those who are not prepared to take the responsibilities that come with compulsory voting seriously. If you are not prepared to do that then the sanctions that exist in terms of additional inconveniences and other penalties—and maybe there are other penalties that should exist—should be applied. We should encourage all of our fellow Australians to turn up to vote and make sure they are doing the right thing by all their fellow citizens in exercising their vote carefully and in a considered way so that we can get the governments that the people of Australia want.