Thursday, 23 August 2012
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012; Second Reading
Yesterday I pointed out the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommendation, which has unanimous support, to remove the unsound-mind provisions in this legislation—and the government is proceeding with that. Today I want to look at other provisions in this bill before the House. The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 contains provisions that will increase the sum to be deposited by or on behalf of a person nominated as a senator from $1,000 to $2,000; increase the sum to be deposited by or on behalf of a person nominated as a member of the House of Representatives from $500 to $1,000; and increase the number of nominators required by a candidate for the Senate or the House of Representatives who has not been nominated by a registered political party from 50 to 100 electors. There are other provisions which I will not go into.
The justification for these deposit requirement provisions is set out on page 3 of the explanatory memorandum, and it is important to read it onto the record:
The amendments to increase the required nomination deposit and to increase the number of nominators required for unendorsed candidates seek to strike the right balance between providing the opportunity for all citizens to take part in elections while at the same time putting in place some reasonable thresholds that candidates must meet.
The Senate election in New South Wales in 2010 provides some context for these amendments. In this election there were 84 candidates distributed across 33 columns. Of the 84 candidates, 42 candidates received fewer than 200 first preference votes or less than 0.005% of the total formal vote. The total of the formal votes polled by these 42 candidates was 2,697 or 0.06% of the total formal vote overall. None of them came from a group which had a candidate elected and all lost their nomination deposits.
The current requirement of 50 nominators for unendorsed candidates has been in place since 1998 and the deposit amounts were last changed in 2006. Since then, both the Australian population and Average Weekly Earnings have increased. Therefore it is timely to increase the figures at this stage to continue to balance a workable and timely electoral environment against the rights of individuals to take part in elections.
These provisions have bipartisan support—and so they should. The current provisions can be abused and can, in effect, allow the stacking of ballot papers to the detriment of people who want to cast a genuine vote and create a ballot paper that confuses people.
Back in 1974, which was the first election I participated in at a federal level, the Senate ballot paper in New South Wales was stacked. There were 74 people on the ballot paper. Twenty of those people were put on the ballot paper by a number of independent aldermen from Bankstown City Council. They were designed to go onto that ballot paper to frustrate, because in those days there was no above-the-line voting; you had to number every square. The informal vote in the Senate at that time was ginormous. We have also had instances in which ballot papers were stacked in the lower house. There was a by-election in the seat of Werriwa with over 20 candidates. We had a recent by-election in the seat of Bradfield, where one political party had nominated six candidates from the same political party—I think it was the Christian Democrats.
From time to time the parliament is required to refine some of these provisions so that they are not abused, because the truth is that shrewd political players can do that. We have seen changes in New South Wales to the tablecloth ballot paper, to group voting and to voting one above the line, to try to bring down the informal vote. In this day and age it is a very expensive exercise to run campaigns. In my first election, in 1990, it cost $55 million to run the national election. My pocketbook here shows that the 2007 election cost $163 million. The Werriwa by-election in 2005 cost half a million dollars, and the Aston by-election in 2001 cost half a million dollars.
So what these provisions before the House today are designed to do is make sure that we have legitimate candidates nominating for election. We do not want to stop the nomination of legitimate candidates but we should not allow stacking of our ballot papers that seeks to manipulate the result. In electorates where there is a large non-English-speaking population, it can result in a high informal vote. Increasing the number of nominators as suggested, and increasing the deposit, is in my view a very modest way of doing things but it has got the balance right.
The member for Mackellar said in her speech that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has not produced unanimous reports in the past—on this we are unanimous. So this is not designed to achieve political advantage; this is about integrity in our electoral system and in our ballots and not allowing people to abuse generous provisions in our Electoral Act to try and influence results in that way. I commend the bill to the House. I think it deserves bipartisan support.
I rise to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. The bill seeks to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 with a number of technical and minor amendments. The bill is a response to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report The 2010 federal election: report on the conduct of the election and related mattersspecifically, recommendations 12, 31 and 32.
Schedules 1 and 2 of this bill are fairly straightforward and are welcomed by the coalition and me. The changes in schedule 1 reflect the fact that, in the 2010 election, the AEC received more than 800,000 postal vote applications. Parliament has previously accepted changes to the Electoral Act which would facilitate the Electoral Commission moving to the application for postal votes occurring online. This bill will allow for a more effective method of more expeditiously processing postal vote applications and of issuing postal vote ballot papers. The changes will also facilitate further adoption to any future changes in technology. Schedule 2 includes provisions that increase the deposit one must pay in order to be a balloted candidate for both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This is the first change to that amount in six years and it raises the limit for the House from $500 to $1,000 and for the Senate from $1,000 to $2000.
Some might be worried that this increase might dilute the plurality of candidates and consequently dilute the contest of ideas at each federal election—and it is easy to see, on the surface, why this is a worry. On the other hand, proponents of this change argue that it would be a positive move to reduce the number of frivolous candidates, the number of which has grown over the decades in both the House and the Senate. I agree that any change that could decrease the democratic nature of Australian elections must be scrutinised very heavily, and I am confident that this scrutiny has occurred during the committee process. I note that the nomination deposits for any candidate who receives more than four per cent of first preference votes are returned, which means the Electoral Act does recognise the value of those people who clearly are backed at some minimum level by the community. The original 2010 joint standing committee report noted that the nomination deposit 'should be an amount that does not unduly hamper participation but acts as a deterrent to frivolous candidates,' a statement with which I broadly agree.
The main practical consequence of this increase is that it may reduce the number of candidates at the election. Indeed, many who take the privilege of voting below the line in the Senate would welcome this change. At the 2010 election, the Senate ballot paper for New South Wales had 84 candidates across 33 columns; it was over one metre wide and had a font size of 8.5. As the committee has noted, that width is the maximum available that the AEC is able to use, so if there are more candidates or columns a further reduction in font size would be required.
Already at federal elections one hears many stories and complaints about electors having to decide whether to put Labor, Greens, the Socialist Party or the Communist Party last as their below-the-line preference and the anxiety that comes with making that decision. Clearly, having a metre-wide ballot paper with 84 candidates makes it unwieldy and overly burdensome, and complex for voters to decide which candidates they want to represent their state in the Senate.
However, today's bill includes provisions not directly related to those recommendations—that is, the changes in schedule 3 in relation to the 'unsound mind' provision, which was previously before the House in March this year as a part of the Electoral and Referendum (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. At that time, the Senate amended the bill and removed the changes to the 'unsound mind' provision. The bill was then passed in the House in agreement with the Senate's amendments.
Before I delve into those concerns, I want to record my appreciation on behalf of many constituents in Ryan for changes in items 8 and 9 in schedule 3. These items amend section 104 of the Electoral Act, which allows for the suppression of an elector's address if the safety of that person or their family could be at risk by having their address disclosed on the publicly available electoral roll. At present, if someone moves residences, they must make a new request to the Electoral Commission to have the new address suppressed as well. When someone with a suppressed address moves residences, the AEC should not presuppose that the reasons for the original suppression have changed. Some constituents have expressed their frustration with this process to my office. I certainly welcome these amendments, which will mean that, when moving, an elector will not have to make a new request, nor will their new address appear on the electoral roll at any stage.
Regarding the 'unsound mind' provision in section 93(8)(a) of the Electoral Act, the coalition remains concerned that the government plans to remove this provision from any final or amended version of this bill or indeed from any future bill which might seek to amend the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act. I would point out initially that the final recommendation of the joint standing committee's report was:
The House of Representatives and the Senate pass the bill after deleting the changes proposed in schedule 3 in relation to the 'unsound mind' provision and consequential amendments. The term 'unsound mind' and the current requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner should be retained.
I acknowledge and appreciate the concerns among the community, and particularly of disability groups, that the term can be perceived as anachronistic and possibly construed as prejudicial towards those with a disability.
I also understand that at face value a layman might see the wording and think that is a provision by which a government or the Australian Electoral Commission could exclude someone from their right to vote—a right we hold very dear in Australia and in other democratic countries around the world. I would like to point out, however, that this provision is not intended or designed in any way to target anyone specifically or disenfranchise any group of people. Indeed, the Australian Electoral Commission itself cannot by its own accord use this provision to exclude someone from the electoral roll.
While we might, in 2012, find it bizarre to say that someone is of an unsound mind, this measure is a convention of Australian democracy and was included in the original Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. In practice, the committee noted that it is 'usually someone close to the individual who will have to raise an objection' such that the person be 'excused from the obligation of compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting'. In practice, a series of steps must be followed to ensure the integrity of the process, which I note includes the opinion of a medical practitioner on a medical certificate that the person is 'incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting'. Importantly, the divisional returning officer from the Australian Electoral Commission gives notice to the person and provides them with a chance to respond. Therefore, by design and in practice this measure has historically been used and is used today to ensure that someone who is genuinely of unsound mind does not have to vote.
Some submissions expressed their view that this provision be removed completely, but that would be a step too far. We must of course accept that someone, either for permanent or transient reasons depending on each circumstance, may be mentally incapable of enrolling or voting. What comes to mind is, of course, the many thousands of families in Australia who face the battle of having a parent or grandparent with Alzheimer's, whom they think may not have the mental faculty to fully appreciate the full meaning of voting. Nor would we want the integrity of the democratic process to be undermined by the vote of someone who might fall within section 93(8)(a) being unduly influenced by any other person. The 'unsound mind' provision in the Electoral Act should therefore be retained.
Another concern in this bill is about whether the list of qualified people should be expanded to include so-called paraprofessionals, such as social workers, as opposed to the limitation on qualified medical practitioners. Forgive me for using at length the words from the submission by People with Disability Australia, but they address so eloquently the concerns associated with expanding the qualifications of a person required to deem someone of unsound mind:
Universal suffrage is an integral part of democracy and the power to remove the right of a person to participate in the political process is a significant one. Would the "opinion of a qualified person" simply be a conclusion they make based on their own degree of experience and professional judgement? Alternatively, what mechanisms would exist to ensure that any assessment tool was used consistently across jurisdictions and across the professions of the "qualified persons", especially as they represent different knowledge and skill sets? Which body would provide guidelines and/or training to the professions on how to use the assessment tool and monitor standards, compliance and complaints or appeals? What would be the financial implications of running this system? Would these costs be proportionate to the policy goal of disenfranchising people deemed 'incapable', especially in light of the fact that the policy goal in itself is discriminatory?
All of the issues that People with Disability Australia mentioned in their submission to the inquiry are very important and all of their questions should be thoroughly addressed before making any changes to the Electoral Act.
Lastly, I would like to thank members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their commitment to the Electoral and Referendum Acts, and particularly the member for Mackellar for her decades-long commitment to the integrity of the electoral roll. I agree with the substantive intention of today's bill, and I appreciate that all members must be vigilant when it comes to amending the Electoral and Referendum Acts, such that Australia's democracy continues to serve Australians as it has done for so long. I do, however, place on the record my objections to schedule 3 of this bill, and I ask all members to consider these concerns and indeed those very same objections included in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into today's bill.
It gives me great pleasure to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 today. The right to vote is a very precious and valuable entitlement. It is the cornerstone of our democracy and a right we must cherish and respect. As a woman I am acutely aware of the value of the right to vote because it was so hard fought for by my sisters of the past. Over the centuries people have fought and died for the right to vote. It is a very fundamental, valuable and precious right, but I am concerned that it is not cherished as such. I am a strong supporter of the right to vote and a strong advocate of compulsory voting.
It really disappoints and saddens me that certain sectors in the Australian community take it for granted and do not value the right to vote. Recently, the Special Minister of State said that he was targeting the 1.5 million Australians who are entitled to vote but who are not on the roll. That is one in 10 eligible Australians who are not enrolled, representing an average of 10,000 people in each of the 150 federal divisions. It disappoints me at so many levels because of the fact that so many people have fought for the right to vote and for democracy over the centuries, and particularly my sisters over the last 150 or 200 years.
It disappoints me, because Australia has a long and proud history of assisting in the governance of democracy and in elections. One of my earliest memories of being in foreign affairs is in 1994 when I spoke to a woman who had just returned from Mozambique. She had been part of a group of 18 Australians who were there on behalf of the UN to observe the first democratic elections, held in October 1994.
She told me amazing stories of how people were so excited and grateful for the opportunity to vote that they had been queuing up for days, so much did they cherish that right, because it had been such a hard-fought-for right. The queues wended their way around little towns and cities.
I also had friends from the AFP, the ADF and DFAT who were involved in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, the UNTAC operation, which was established to supervise the ceasefire and subsequent general election in Cambodia. That was the first election held in Cambodia after more than 20 years of conflict. A large force was sent: 12 infantry battalions, support units, military observers, civilians and police, totalling 22,000 personnel from 32 different countries. Those who were around at that time will have memories of the fact that the military component was commanded by Lieutenant General John Sanderson. Australia's contribution increased as the election came closer. Between May and September 1992 we sent a movement control group with members of the three services. Between May and July 1993, the period covering the general election, we sent an additional 115 Australian troops and six Black Hawk helicopters. It was a tense deployment.
By July 1992, the Khmer Rouge had effectively withdrawn from the peace agreement and it was feared that they would disrupt operations. There were a number of small skirmishes and mortar attacks. An Australian signaller was taken hostage when he and three Thai military observers were captured by the Khmer Rouge and detained for several hours. This is what I mean about the value of democracy: it is a very, very valuable and precious right. Australians were out there, getting themselves into strife at times, to ensure that, after 20 years, the Cambodians could have the right to vote.
The AFP also sent a detachment to UNTAC to serve with the civilian police component. Personnel from the Australian Electoral Commission were there to help prepare for the general election. Much of their work related to voter education and registration—so important. As I said, Cambodia had not had a free election since the early fifties and did not have that democratic tradition. By January 1993, 96 per cent of those eligible to vote had registered. That is an extraordinary figure. I will soon talk about some figures relating to young Australians' views on democracy. When the general election took place in May, 90 per cent of those who were registered to vote voted. That was a considerable success. Those are two fantastic examples of Australia's active involvement in assisting in the governance of democracy and the right to vote in other countries, which is why it really does sadden me that so many Australians have not enrolled when they have the right to vote: 1.5 million is a significant number.
The figures for young Australians are rather sad. In 2011 the Lowy Institute conducted opinion polls in Indonesia and Fiji which included questions on democracy and human rights. They wanted to see how their views compared with views in Australia. The results suggested some Australians—not surprisingly, given the figure of 1.5 million—are quite blase about democracy. Participants were presented with three statements about democracy and asked, 'Which one of these three statements comes closest to your personal views about democracy?' Just 60 per cent of Australians say that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, similar to the proportion of Indonesians, at 62 per cent and Fijians, at 53 per cent. Interestingly, only 39 per cent of Australians aged between 18 and 29 hold this view, with support increasing with age to 74 per cent for those 60 years and older. Nearly a quarter of Australians—23 per cent—say that in some circumstances a non-democratic government can be preferable. That figure is higher than that for Indonesians, at 16 per cent, but is similar to that for Fijians. Most tellingly, 15 per cent of Australians say, 'For someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have,' with a quarter—23 per cent—of 18- to 20-year-olds holding this view, while 17 per cent of Indonesians and 21 per cent of Fijians say that.
As you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, these figures are incredibly alarming given the fact that women have fought so hard for the right to vote, given the fact that so many people have died for the right to vote and given the fact that Australia has such a strong track record in assisting people in other nations to have the right to vote. It is quite tragic. I do encourage young Australians particularly to enrol and to take part in their democracy.
The amendments presented today bring into force changes that have been unanimously recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I understand, from listening to previous speakers, that coming to a unanimous decision is telling. It is not often that we see unanimous outcomes from committees, and these outcomes reflect the considered views of all sides of the parliament. These unanimously endorsed minor amendments make sensible and necessary changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.
There are some important changes here that address the size and complexity of ballot papers. Having a large number of candidates on expanded ballot papers does create difficulties for voters. I speak from experience here, having scrutineered many an election, including during the early days of the ACT self-government elections, where we had the modified D'Hondt system and very large ballot papers. Scrutineering was a real challenge and not too good for the eyes. So establishing requirements is a useful way to make sure prospective candidates recognise the seriousness of participating in the electoral process. As I said, this is a valuable and precious process. There are measures here that increase the deposits required for nominating as a Senate or House of Representatives candidate. These changes have been made on the basis that it is reasonable that unendorsed candidates are able to show a level of community support for their candidacies.
One of the amendments will delete the changes proposed in the bill in relation to the unsound mind provision and consequential amendments. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters proposed that the term 'unsound mind' and the current requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner should be continued. The concept of unsound mind has not always been properly understood.
The references to 'unsound mind' were going to be removed from the bill in its original form on the basis that the term was considered by some people to be outdated; there was some concern in the community about this term. The bill, as originally introduced, removed existing references to 'unsound mind' which were included in the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. These references have been maintained in the current Electoral Act as a reason for disqualification from being enrolled. In their place, the bill in its original form provided for a disqualification from enrolment if in the opinion of a qualified person the potential elector does not understand the nature and significance of enrolment and voting.
It is important to note that the definition of 'qualified person' was adopted from the Freedom of Information Act 1988 and includes medical practitioners, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. On the subject of this definition the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters carefully considered submissions from the Australian Electoral Commission as well as from other interested organisations. The committee examined submissions from disability advocacy groups and others before unanimously recommending that the existing references to 'unsound mind' and provisions for electoral disqualification should remain as currently provided for in the act.
The joint standing committee certainly recognised and acknowledged the views of those in the community who find the term 'unsound mind' outdated. However, the proposed amendments, in their current form, could serve to broaden disqualification and potentially disenfranchise some electors. That is why the committee recommended that the term 'unsound mind' and the current requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner be retained. Based on the evidence received, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters found that there was not a pressing need to remove or substitute the phrase 'unsound mind'. The committee also confirmed that professions other than medical practitioners should not be able to make determinations about a person's capacity to understand the nature and significance of enrolment and voting. Under Australia's system of compulsory enrolment and voting, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters decided that it is worthwhile having in place a mechanism that is able to address any concerns about individuals who are incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting. These government amendments protect the integrity of elections and help those who might otherwise have to find out from the Electoral Commission why they are not complying with their enrolment and voting obligations.
In closing I come back to the preciousness of the right to vote and to the fact that it deserves respect. I encourage all those who can vote to enrol to vote. As I said, voting is a precious, hard-fought-for right. In my latest electorate bulletin I promoted the fact that people, particularly those who are about to turn 18, need to enrol to vote in order to take part in the ACT elections and the federal elections next year. The right to vote is precious, and we should cherish, protect and promote it. To all of you in the gallery I say: I do not know how old you are, but please enrol to vote when you can.
The key word in the title of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 is 'improving'. If, as its title suggests, that is what this bill will achieve, then the bill represents a positive and sensible step. The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 is before us and has support from both sides.
However, I will make a few points on this legislation. Much of this bill has to do with postal vote applications. The bill centralises the power or the authority to deal with postal vote applications—in other words, packages will be sent out in a centralised manner once an application has been made. Also, the bill empowers the Electoral Commissioner, rather than the district returning officer, to be responsible for postal vote applications.
The coalition believes that the determination and processing of postal vote applications ought to stay with the district returning officer for each electoral division. At present, political parties send out applications and voters respond. The forms then come back to the office of the candidate and are taken to the district returning officer. This enables people to receive the same political information as they would receive if they were attending a polling booth and getting it as they went in to vote. The commissioner has given the shadow Special Minister of State an undertaking that the necessary authority would be delegated to district returning officers so that at the next federal election—which will most likely occur in 2013, though it cannot come soon enough for many—postal vote applications would be handled in exactly the same way as they are now. The centralisation legislation will not alter the way in which postal votes applications are dealt with, because in 1999 the Electoral Commissioner obtained legal advice about the centralising of postal vote applications and that the issuing of PVA packages was permissible.
There is agreement about the increase in the nomination fee for both the House of Representatives and the Senate and the need for 100 people—as distinct from 50, as the law now provides—to nominate for an ungrouped individual. The government tried to redefine the term 'unsound mind' earlier this year when introducing the Electoral and Referendum (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. This bill was amended in the Senate to take away the 'unsound mind' provision, and it was passed as amended in the lower house.
Voting in a democratic election—having a say in how your country is governed—is one of the most important things that anyone 18 years of age and over can do. It is a birthright of being an Australian. It is a privilege also bestowed upon those who have come to this country and been granted citizenship. The way the Commonwealth was formed in 1901 is unique—we as a nation were established with a vote, not a war. Any improvements to the system through which Australians exercise their democratic voting rights are desirable and, as time progresses and technology changes, further ways of bettering the voting system will be adopted.
I rise to make a few brief comments on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. Full participation in elections either as a candidate or as a voter is fundamental to democracy. That is why I and the Greens are pleased to support the postal voting provisions in the bill.
Schedule 1 of the bill will modernise postal voting provisions to facilitate the use of technology, improving the way in which postal vote applications are made and processed by directing all applications to either the Electoral Commissioner or an assistant returning officer. We accept the Australian Electoral Commission's position that the legislation updates existing laws to bring them into line with current practices.
However, there is one matter in this bill that is not supported by the Greens. We will of course be supporting the bill's passage through this House, but my colleagues in the Senate will be raising this matter further when it arrives there—that is, the provisions of the bill which increase nomination requirements for candidates. We as the Greens have serious concerns that the proposed increased nomination fees and increased number of nominators required to nominate as a candidate are undemocratic and will unfairly disadvantage smaller parties and candidates.
The doubling of the nomination fee to $1,000 for a House of Representatives candidate and $2,000 for a Senate candidate and increasing the number of nominators for an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 create, in our view, an undue barrier to small parties, and potentially to Independents as well, seeking to participate in the electoral system. It can create an equity issue for small parties, Independents and people on low incomes. It can also make the cost of running a full ticket in the Senate appear prohibitive for a smaller player.
The Greens acknowledge that the size of the Senate ballot paper getting larger is a problem, and we can see why a higher threshold for nominating in the Senate has been considered. A candidate should be able to demonstrate that they have a genuine pool of supporters, especially on the Senate ballot. But, in our view, these measures combine to potentially create a difficult hurdle for smaller parties and candidates to clear and will likely discourage participation in the electoral system.
I want to be clear: I do not believe that these provisions are likely to be a barrier for Greens candidates. We are not raising this on behalf of ourselves as a party. We have the resources, membership and number of supporters which will mean that for us these provisions will not pose a great difficulty.
However, we are concerned that for many other smaller parties and individuals these new provisions may be a major barrier. In our view, it should be a fundamental feature of any democracy that a citizen should be free to run for political office. Surely the number of candidates participating in an election is a measure of the health of the democracy, not something to be curbed. As such, the Greens do not support this aspect of the bill, and we will seek to address it when it comes before the Senate, but I will be supporting the bill in this place.
I am very pleased to be able to contribute to this debate on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. Clearly, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has done an excellent job in its deliberations on the bill. It follows on from the excellent work that it has done in previous matters relating to the electoral system of our nation. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that we were considering those amendments which related to franchise and ensuring that we have a suitable approach for ensuring that our electoral roll truly represents the full complement of persons entitled to vote in Australia. I commend again the member for Banks for his efforts as chair and the committee for its consideration of the details in this legislation before us today.
As many of the speakers in this debate have remarked, some of the reforms that have been put in this bill really are very sensible and go towards giving the Electoral Commission an opportunity to continue doing the fine job that it does in a very practical way. The amendments in the bill before us today, as many members have remarked, facilitate online applications to ensure that the Electoral Commissioner may use an automated system to receive and to process applications for postal votes. In addition, the bill considers arrangements relating to the requirements for those nominating for election and some of the practical arrangements which will ensure that ballot papers in future do not become things that confuse potential voters and make it more difficult for voters to have their say at election time. Certainly all members of the committee and all members of the House are concerned about ensuring that that is the case.
The bill will require that those nominating for election are given the support through the nomination process of an increased number of citizens. This is a very important measure that has been considered thoroughly by the committee and by the minister. The nominating process obviously is seeking to strike quite a fine balance. We do not want to prevent those seeking to nominate from having the opportunity to present themselves for consideration by the Australian people, nor do we want to see the circumstances that, for instance, we have seen in jurisdictions such as New South Wales, where we have had quite unwieldy ballot papers. I note that in evidence to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters the AEC discussed the expansion and complexity of ballot papers and did consider it to be a problem. I note that, at 2.49 of its report, the committee cited the words of the AEC:
… 'we are reaching a point where, if the candidates increase in New South Wales with the restrictions that we have on the size of the ballot paper, the type size will become so small that it will cause considerable difficulty'.
The committee went on to say:
The size of the ballot papers also increases the complexity of the task of voting.
So, while the committee and all members of the House want to ensure that those who wish to nominate for election have the capacity to do so and have the capacity to be considered by the Australian people, the committee is seeking to strike a balance. Indeed, the committee, at 2.58 of its report, said:
While having a variety of candidates is a feature of Australia’s democracy, having a large number of candidates leads to an expanded ballot paper and increases the complexity of the voting task for electors.
It went on to say:
Setting appropriate nomination requirements is one way to help ensure that prospective candidates appreciate the seriousness of their participation in the electoral process, and that they can demonstrate … community support for their candidacies.
The bill before us will have the effect of increasing the number of people who are required in order to nominate a candidate from 50 to 100. The committee noted:
At the core of discussions on changes to nomination arrangements must be the objective of striking the right balance between providing the opportunity for Australians to take part in elections and having reasonable requirements to reflect that political candidacy is a serious matter.
The bill before us today also contemplates arrangements whereby the fees associated with nomination will be somewhat increased. Once again, this is a practical measure designed to ensure that those who seek to nominate are appropriately serious and are prepared to put themselves forward in a considered way for potential election.
The bill in its original form had considered arrangements for those considered to be of 'unsound mind'. I know that the committee did consider in some detail those provisions in its deliberations and took advice from a range of people including disability advocates. Accordingly, while it has been considered that there may be some offence associated with the term used in the legislation it was considered on balance that it was appropriate not to amend the bill further to remove those provisions relating to persons of unsound mind and their participation in elections. It was felt that there should not be any further amendment to the legislation on that issue.
The bill before us today, as I said, reflects ongoing considerations by both the committee and by the minister to give effect to very sensible and practical reforms to our electoral system to ensure that the AEC can continue to do its job effectively and to ensure that we strike the right balance between getting proper representation and maintaining the robustness of our electoral system.
One of the changes made in the bill before us today ensures that there may be a centralised and automated system to receive and process applications for postal votes. Postal voting, as we know, is becoming increasingly popular, as is pre-poll voting and that is the case in electorates such as mine. It is increasingly popular in electorates where there are people living in quite remote locations, where elderly people may find it difficult to come to the ballot box and where, for a range of reasons, people are working hours which make it difficult for them to attend a polling place on election day. To ensure that people are given franchise and to ensure that they have the opportunity to vote, the postal voting mechanism and pre-poll are becoming increasingly popular. I understand that the AEC received over 800,000 postal vote applications at the 2010 election. So this bill will ensure through its measures that the Electoral Commission can use automated systems to deal with applications for postal voting in a timely way.
I note in the committee's report the AEC was keen to emphasise that these were really practical changes in the bill which reflect its practice at present. The report stated at 2.7:
The AEC stressed that the changes proposed to postal voting are ‘not about changing fundamentally any of the current processes for dealing with postal vote applications’. These changes are intended to have the current practices reflected in the Electoral Act.
The AEC advised:
This is primarily an amendment that is designed to reflect the fact that the application for postal vote information system is now highly centralised while the act reflects a postal vote processing system which was designed 100 years ago. All we are trying to do here is get an act that reflects the practice.
The bill in many ways is designed to facilitate better processing of arrangements by the AEC, to ensure that current electoral practices are reflected in the text of the act and to ensure that the AEC is able to go about its role in the most efficient way possible. The bill reflects a very timely set of measures to enable the AEC to undergo the processes it needs to in the lead-up to the next election. I hope the measures in the bill will assist it in fulfilling its role. I commend the bill to the House.
I take very seriously electoral reform. I take very seriously the fact that as a democracy we want to ensure that as many people as possible can participate in the democratic process. I also take very seriously the democratic process. Our electoral system is designed not only to enfranchise voters but also to ensure that it operates in a fair, effective and efficient way. That is why this government has embraced electoral reform. That is why this government has introduced a number of pieces of legislation, as did the previous Rudd government, to streamline the electoral system with the underlying premise that the system will not only operate better but maximise the franchise of voters throughout Australia.
The legislation we have before us today, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012, was subject to an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The committee tabled their report on Thursday, 7 July. It made recommendations that have been accepted by the government and are included in this legislation. I would like to congratulate the committee on the fine work that they do. I have read all their reports with great interest.
This bill serves three main purposes. It simplifies and facilitates the application of technology in postal voting. I will concentrate a little bit more on that further into my contribution to this debate.
It discourages candidates who are not in serious contention—candidates nominate for various reasons—from nominating, which just leads to complexity on the ballot papers, especially in the Senate. And it modernises the act.
The bill will increase the deposit required upon nomination from $1,000 to $2,000 for Senate candidates and from $500 to $1,000 for candidates for the House of Representatives. I think that every voter in Australia has been confronted with enormous Senate voting papers. I remember one occasion in New South Wales when the ballot paper for the Legislative Council was referred to as a 'tablecloth', and it certainly would have covered a small table. A few very stoic individuals actually went in and filled it out from '1' to whatever. A couple of them came and told me so afterwards. But that really disenfranchises a lot of voters. Older voters or people from a non-English-speaking background may become confused when they are confronted with an enormous ballot paper, as is often the case for the Senate and is sometimes the case for the House of Representatives—I think the Bradfield by-election was an example. Sometimes the number of candidates who nominate really creates complexities on the ballot paper—complexities that do not achieve anything other than, in many cases, disenfranchising voters. Increasing the deposit that people are required to pay at the time of nomination means that candidates are more likely to be serious about standing for the Senate or the House of Representatives because they will have to make a significant financial contribution. Whilst $500 for the House of Representatives and $1,000 for the Senate may have been a significant amount in the past, I believe that raising that to $1,000 for the House of Representatives and $2,000 for the Senate is a very timely measure.
The other issue in relation to candidates is that, instead of unendorsed candidates having to have 50 signatures to nominate, as is currently the case, each candidate will now be required to have their nomination signed by 100 electors. I would argue very strongly that, if you cannot find 100 people that are prepared to sign your nomination, then nominating will only cause frustration. On many occasions when I have scrutineered, some candidates have received under 100 or just over 100 votes. Once again, this is timely. It will lessen the confusion on the ballot papers and make it easier for people to cast a valid vote.
The other aspect of this legislation—and it is an aspect that is very close to my heart—is the change in the postal voting system. I have an older electorate, and we have a number of registered postal voters. The divisional returning officer at one stage went around to all the aged-care facilities within the electorate and had the elderly people in those aged-care facilities placed on the registered postal vote list. There has been an active campaign within Shortland electorate to encourage people who would find it difficult to attend a polling booth on the day of the election to register for a postal vote. When an election is called, I always spend a considerable amount of time contacting people and ensuring that those who should have a postal vote actually get that postal vote, because a postal vote is so much easier than having a frail aged person come to the polling booth on the day.
Other levels of government do not encourage the same level of postal vote applications. At the last local government election in my area, I was handing out how-to-vote cards for one of the candidates, and I had an irate voter come up to me because I had not sent them out information on how to register for postal votes. This was a frail aged person. After that, I not only sent that voter an application form to become a registered postal voter, but I also made a conscious effort to ensure that, every time I meet with older people or go along to groups where older people gather, I provide them with information on postal voting. With an ageing population, in many cases we are encouraging people to register for postal voting.
Invariably some people will be absent from the electorate on polling day and will choose to cast a postal vote rather than have to find a polling booth outside their electorate. If they are interstate, their choice is very limited, so they will seek to use postal voting.
In fact, in the 2010 election, over 800,000 postal vote applications were received. This bill will ensure that the AEC can use an automated system to deal with the applications for postal votes. That process will happen in a more timely way, which will benefit those people who are seeking a postal vote, particularly those who may be going overseas or those who are travelling on election day and are not sure of their destination or the place they will be on the day of the election. If the AEC can ensure that voters can receive their postal votes in a more timely manner, it can only benefit voters and ensure that people are not disenfranchised.
So, whilst this is not a very complex bill and whilst the changes it makes are only fairly minor, the changes are really about ensuring that our electoral system works in a much better way than it has. The bill ensures that a candidate that is nominating is serious about nominating. It ensures that candidates are prepared to make a significant financial investment when they nominate. It ensures that, for unendorsed candidates, at least 100 voters are prepared to sign their nomination form. Those are minor changes but important changes.
I think that postal votes are only going to increase in popularity. More and more people will be needing postal votes, particularly as our population ages, and particularly given the nature of our society, where people tend to be a lot more mobile. It is important that the AEC is able to process those postal votes in a very efficient way. We need to ensure that they have an automated system that will process them in a very timely manner.
I believe this is very good legislation. I thank the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for the report they tabled on 7 July. I believe that the opposition will be supporting this legislation. I congratulate them on saying yes. It is always really good when they say yes to a piece of legislation that the government puts before the House.
The beneficiaries of this legislation will be the people of Australia. I commend the legislation to the House.
I, too, speak in support of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. The bill makes common-sense changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act to better reflect practices in today's society. In particular, the changes which facilitate on-line postal vote applications recognise that we have an ageing and increasingly mobile population for whom postal voting is practical, and that the internet is very much part of life and we should make use of it.
Not surprisingly, we are seeing an increase at each election in the number of people who apply for and use postal votes. In the 2010 federal election over 800,000 postal vote applications were requested. I looked back to 1998 and I found that in that year the figure was 489,000. We have almost doubled, in the space of just over a decade, the number of people requesting the use of postal votes. And I suspect that that trend will continue. I suspect it will continue, not only because people are living longer but because people today are travelling a lot more than they used to in years gone by. And if they happen to be away, and know that they are going to be away, at the time an election is called, then they will apply for a postal vote.
It should be the intention of any government and every government to make voting as easy and as practical as possible for the people of Australia. After all, we have compulsory voting and, if we are going to have compulsory voting, let's do our best to ensure that everybody genuinely has the opportunity to vote. The use of postal voting is one of the mechanisms by which we are able to do that.
The same applies with respect to the increase in the deposit required for Senate candidate nominations from $1,000 to $2,000 for each nomination. For House of Representatives candidate nominations the fee rises from $500 to $1,000. Those amounts better reflect today's real costs in terms of the administrative expenses that are incurred by the government and the community broadly when someone nominates to stand for election. Importantly, they also reflect real costs in terms of what people can afford to pay today as compared with years gone by.
The two changes—that is the use of the postal votes and the increase in nomination fees—are linked to trying to ensure that we have a much better system. Both changes seek to strike a reasonable balance between ensuring all Australians can stand for election and weeding out those who simply nominate for mischievous purposes.
The member for Banks, in his remarks earlier today, made extensive reference to this very issue. I believe he used some examples of how elections can be manipulated by using frivolous candidates. I am sure that all of us in this House have seen that occur from time to time over the years.
We should not allow the system to be in any way abused and misused, as has often occurred.
I want to refer particularly to a matter that other members of the House have also referred to and which was covered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report—the issue of whether people are of sound mind. This is a matter that was canvassed at length and initially there were some proposed changes intended for the act but, on reflection, those changes were not proceeded with. This is a matter I do not have a great deal of experience with because in all my time in politics it is not an issue that has been raised with me and therefore I cannot speak on the merits of changing the current definition. I do want to quote a section of the act that deals with who is eligible and who is not eligible to vote. Section 93(8) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act states:
A person who:
(a) by reason of being of unsound mind, is incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting; or
(b) has been convicted of treason or treachery and has not been pardoned;
is not entitled to have his or her name placed or retained on any Roll or to vote at any Senate election or House of Representatives election.
Section 118(4) then goes on to say:
The Electoral Commissioner shall not remove an elector's name from the Roll on the ground specified in paragraph 93(8)(a) unless the objection is accompanied by a certificate of a medical practitioner stating that, in the opinion of the medical practitioner, the elector, because of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting.
I expect that this is an issue that will arise even more in the years to come. I said earlier that people are living longer, and that trend will continue. Regrettably, however, we also know that as people continue to live longer some of them end up with illnesses such as dementia. Whether they are capable of making up their mind about who to vote for then becomes an issue. I expect that people being of sound mind is an issue that will not go away, and we may have to deal with it at a future time.
I want also to talk a little more about the provisions requiring increased deposits by candidates. I said earlier that it should always be our intention to make voting as simple as possible, ensuring that we do not disenfranchise people. It would be common for informal votes in both state and federal elections to be in the order of four to five per cent. Some of those informal votes are deliberate but many of them are not. They are informal votes because people have unintentionally made a mistake when filling out their ballot paper. Unintentionally making a mistake when you fill out your ballot paper is more likely to occur if you have a long list of candidates, which in turn complicates the ballot paper. This is particularly unfortunate when some of those candidates are deliberately putting their name on the ballot paper and nominating because their surname may be similar to that of another candidate on the list. Confusing and complicating ballot papers has been a tactic used to win elections over the years. This is particularly of concern in electorates that have high numbers of new citizens who are new to the Australian voting system and the processes required and who quite often are the ones who intended to lodge a formal vote but regrettably were unable to do so.
Given that we also know that so many elections hang on a handful of votes—Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, you would know that better than anyone else in this House—every vote does count. Those informal votes which are not intended to be informal votes could quite often make the difference to an election outcome. So, we need to take every step we can to make ballot papers as simple and as easy to complete as possible. That is what I believe these amendments propose to do—to weed out mischievous candidates and ensure that candidates nominate only if they are genuinely seeking election to public office and not simply putting their name on a ballot paper to complicate the process.
The electorate of Makin was established in 1984. My understanding is that since that time there has been an Australian Electoral Commission office located in the electorate. Up until a couple of months ago it was located adjacent to my own electorate office. A couple of months ago the office closed and relocated to the Adelaide CBD as part of the Australian Electoral Commission office there. I accept the undertaking that when an election is called the Australian Electoral Commission will temporarily establish an office within the Makin electorate. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that that office has been closed.
Given that it was located adjacent to my own office for the nearly five years I have been the member for Makin, I know just how many people used the services of that office. I know that because more often than not they would in fact come into my own office first and then we would redirect them to the office next door.
My real concern is simply this: given that the office has been relocated, if people in the Makin electorate want to make changes to their enrolment, they have to go into the Adelaide CBD, unless of course they can do it online. I am not sure if they can, but assuming that they can, that might be of assistance to them. But more often than not people want to personally go in and ensure that the details they are providing are correct and the forms and the changes they are proposing to make are all in accordance with the requirements of the act. I just hope that that does not result in a higher informal vote or that it does not result in a high number of people who simply do not vote because they have not taken the time to make changes to the electoral roll in respect to their own individual circumstances.
The next election will be the first election since the Electoral Commission office in Makin was closed, so it will be interesting to see just what kind of an impact it does have on future elections. I understand that the Makin electorate is not unique in that but that it has happened across the board in many other electorates. But it will be an interesting exercise to evaluate what impact it has had on electoral registrations and the like, particularly in some electorates. I am referring to electorates where there have been a lot of new citizens, who will go into the office to register so that they can be placed on the roll. Not having an office presence could be a problem. I know that the Australian Electoral Commission—and I commend them for this—always provide a presence at citizenship ceremonies and the like. But nevertheless not everyone takes advantage of that opportunity. For those electorates that have high numbers of new citizens it will be an interesting exercise to see what happens in the future.
In referring to the offices of the Australian Electoral Commission in Makin, I close by thanking the officers who were there during the time I have been the federal member for Makin. I always found them to be of great support not only to my office but to the people we in turn referred to them. I believe they did provide a very valuable service over the years, particularly during election times, and for that I am very grateful. This legislation brings in some common-sense changes and I commend it to the House.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 is designed to improve the operation of our electoral system. It is one of a series of bills that has come before the House in this term. I would like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate my friend the Special Minister of State for his diligence in ensuring that we maintain an up-to-date and effective electoral system, an electoral system that ensures we have free and fair elections and that everyone has the right to contest, but at the same time also puts a responsibility on people to be good citizens within the electoral process. I note once again that the system is organic and requires updating and changing at times to ensure it keeps up with the developments and changes occurring within our society. This legislation is part of that. It is another example of the government taking up opportunities to ensure we have and continue to have one of the best electoral systems in the world. I would also like to take this opportunity in that respect to thank the Australian Electoral Commission, Commissioner Ed Killesteyn and his officers for the work they do in ensuring we do have free and fair elections and an electoral system we can all be proud of.
With respect to this particular legislation, there are a couple of points I would make about the changes it introduces. The two points I will particularly focus on go to the questions of postal voting procedures, the deposits required for nomination and the number of nominators required for unendorsed candidates.
First is the issue of postal votes. This is an example of what has been happening within our electoral system over the last 20 years. When I first stood for federal parliament, in 1993—what feels today roughly a hundred years ago, but I am told is only 19½—postal voting was very much for those who were travelling and the elderly. A very important part of what you needed to do as a candidate was to ensure that people had the opportunity to make a postal vote, but it was only one of a number of things. In relative terms the number who utilised that means of casting their vote was quite small.
Now, the best part of 20 years later, with an ageing population and a more mobile population, postal voting has been steadily on the increase. In fact, in more recent times that increase has been exponential. More than 800,000 postal vote applications were received by the AEC for the 2010 election. That was a significant increase of, I think, between 15 and 20 per cent on the 2007 election. What it shows is that it is becoming a means for more and more Australians to exercise their democratic right, and in those circumstances we need to be very conscious of ensuring they get that opportunity.
Also, over time we have seen new technologies develop. The one thing we need to ensure is that those new technologies are opportunities to improve the electoral system and are not impediments to ensuring that people are able to exercise their democratic right.
These amendments will ensure that the AEC is able to better centralise the casting of postal votes and the processing of those postal votes—so, applications coming in and postal vote packages going out.
That centralised approach is necessary, given the volumes we are talking about and given the times that we are now facing.
I would also like to take this opportunity to say that I think there is more we could do in this area, and I think it is something the government should look at—the fact that, if you like, postal voting has become a very important part of the electoral system and, when we look to the future, I think there are other reforms that could be made that could ensure the system is improved even further. I would urge the minister to consider some of those questions in the future; they are important questions.
On the question of the figures in relation to deposits required to nominate for a seat in the House of Representatives, which is proposed to be increased from $500 to $1,000, and with an equivalent amendment for the Senate from $1,000 to $2,000: these figures have not been changed since 2006. In conjunction with the complementary amendments to increase the number of nominators for an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 electors, as well as requiring each candidate to have the nomination form signed by 100 electors, these are also important reforms. But it is always a balancing act. The argument—and you will hear it sometimes from minor parties or from Independents—is all about the question of ensuring we have an electoral system which gives people the opportunity to stand, the opportunity to take part and the opportunity to test the will of the people. And that is a very important principle in any democracy.
But, again, you go to the question of when is it a right and when is it a responsibility. There is no doubt that we have seen, for example, in the Senate—and certainly, at times in some individual lower-house seats—a proclivity for people to stand in a situation where they have no reasonable expectation of any electoral success. We have seen in New South Wales, for example, Senate ballot papers basically a metre long. Also in the New South Wales upper house we have seen people accused of endeavouring to 'farm' preferences in order to try and achieve electoral outcomes. So I think it is an important reform, to ensure that those who would stand are able to exhibit (1) some financial willingness to, if you like, 'put up', and (2) that they are in a situation where there is some indication that they may have some electoral support. Through those means we should be able to ensure that we do not take away from people the right to stand, while ensuring that those who do stand are in a situation where they can actually show they have some level of support within the broader community. That point of balancing those rights is an important point from an electoral point of view, with respect to the operation of our system.
There are a number of other, minor, amendments which I will not go into at this stage. What I would say, though, is that our electoral system and our Electoral Commission is something that the parliament can be proud of and that the community can be proud of. We have a luxury in this country, compared with many other parts of the world, in that we can actually be confident that when we have an election—even if they are really close sometimes—we end up with a democratic outcome that we can all live with and work with into the future. And we can be confident that, when our Electoral Commission undertakes those elections, they do it fairly, they do it honestly and they do it with integrity. These measures, which arguably on their face are not significant, are part of an ongoing process of amending a system that has worked well, a system which provides us with the opportunity to test the will of the people and to come to a conclusion which will lead the nation into the future.
The commission, as I have said, does a very good job with respect to administering the system. These changes are a small part of ensuring that that system keeps up with the times, that the system is able to adjust to the requirements of modern technologies and, through those processes, ensure that we get a good, sound electoral system in place on an ongoing basis.
I again congratulate the minister for coming forth with this legislation. It is one of a number that he has brought forward in his time as minister. I think all of that has led to the system adjusting to the needs of the future and, in those circumstances, ensuring that we can all be confident with the electoral system we have. In that respect, I commend the bill to the House.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 is going to amend the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act. It makes some machinery reforms and I am pleased to see that it is being supported by the opposition. In particular, it is going to ensure that the Electoral Commissioner can use automated systems to receive and process applications for postal votes. As a number of speakers have commented, postal votes have become increasingly popular in recent elections. I think every member of this House would be familiar with the increasing number of postal votes that are cast. At the last election, in 2010, the Australian Electoral Commission received over 800,000 postal vote applications. What these amendments do is not only recognise what has become the practice but they have been written in a way that will allow for future technological changes.
There is a very helpful report by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on the bill that is now before the House. As the chair of the committee, the member for Banks, commented in his foreword to the report, which approves this legislation and recommends that the House does pass it, most postal vote applications are already processed centrally and postal vote packages are distributed through the Australian Electoral Commission's central print system. It is no longer the case that the divisional returning officers are primarily responsible for postal voting activities, as was the case some decades ago.
The electoral commissioner is going to continue to delegate his powers in relation to postal votes to divisional returning officers, and the change in this bill is not going to affect the way individuals or political parties interact with the divisional returning officer on postal voting matters. As is the current practice—and these amendments recognise this—political parties are still going to be able to distribute postal vote applications with campaigning material, receive the completed postal vote applications and forward them to the relevant divisional returning officer.
The committee was at pains to reiterate the advice it had received from the Australian Electoral Commission in relation to this proposed amendment about postal voting. It said—and this is recorded in the joint standing committee's report—that the AEC stressed that the changes proposed to postal voting are 'not about changing fundamentally any of the current processes for dealing with postal vote applications' and that these changes are intended to have the current practices reflected in the Electoral Act. The committee thought it useful to set out another statement by the Australian Electoral Commission:
This is primarily an amendment that is designed to reflect the fact that the application for postal vote information system is now highly centralised while the act reflects a postal vote processing system which was designed 100 years ago. All we are trying to do here is get an act that reflects the practice.
The other important changes that are included in this amending bill are some changes to the deposit requirements for nomination for a seat in the House of Representatives and for nomination for a seat in the Senate—an increase in the deposit for a seat in the House from $500 to $1,000, with the matching amendment for nominations to the Senate involving an increase from $1,000 to $2,000. It is some time since the deposit was increased; the last time this sum was increased for candidates for election to both houses was in 2006.
There are complementary amendments that are intended to—and will—increase the number of nominators for an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 electors as well as requiring each candidate to have the nomination form signed by 100 electors. There is no change to the law with respect to endorsed candidates. The government's view is that these amendments, in increasing the deposit requirement and increasing the number of nominators required, strike the right balance between providing an opportunity for eligible Australians to stand for election to this parliament while putting in place some reasonable thresholds that candidates must meet.
I think all of us have become familiar in recent years with what the committee described as the 'expanding size' of ballot papers for the Senate. I would suggest that we should perhaps describe it as 'exploding size'. For example, the committee referred to the 2010 federal election, when the New South Wales Senate ballot paper contained the names of 84 candidates distributed across 33 columns. It was 1,020 millimetres wide, which is the widest ballot paper that can physically be printed as a single sheet. I think we have all seen voters at polling stations wrestling with the scale of ballot papers that look like that. It involved reducing the font size on the ballot paper to 8.5-point. As the committee also commented, if we were to see any increases in the number of candidates appearing on ballot papers or the number of columns appearing on future ballot papers, it would be necessary—because we have already reached the physical limit of the size of the ballot paper—for the Australian Electoral Commission to further reduce font sizes and hyphenate names and for voters to cast their vote on over a metre of paper.
It is obviously undesirable that there be a proliferation of candidates in certain circumstances. This is not to be suggested as any wish on my part or on the part of the government to reduce the number of people who are standing for election. Nevertheless, we need to ensure that standing for election to this parliament is taken as the serious act that it is. Where candidates are endorsed by political parties, it can be taken that they have the support of a substantial number of people in the community already, through the endorsement process in their political parties. These amendments seek to look at the position of candidates for election to the Senate and candidates for election to the House of Representatives who have not received the endorsement of a political party. It is really to impose on unendorsed candidates a requirement that shows that they are intending seriously to participate in an election campaign and stand for the high public office of membership of this House or membership of the Senate.
I would suggest to the House that the way these amendments have been framed will impose some small brake on the scale of the ballot papers we have come to see in recent elections. They do lead to an increase in the complexity of the voting task for electors. These amendments will simply ensure that prospective candidates do appreciate the seriousness of what they are about in standing for election, in participating in the electoral process. It imposes some requirement that they can demonstrate some level of community support for their candidacy. I commend these practical amendments to the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act to the House.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 implements three of the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—specifically, recommendations 12, 31 and 32. I note that opposition members of the committee did not oppose these recommendations in their dissenting report, and I thank those members. I thank all members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for the work they have done to ensure that these amendments arrive in this chamber with the support all our respective members.
That is important because modernising postal voting provisions, as we will do through these amendments, is a task which the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has had under consideration for quite some years. Schedule 1 to the bill will modernise the postal voting provisions to facilitate the use of technology to improve the way in which postal voting applications are made and processed. These amendments implement the government's response to recommendation 12 made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report into the 2010 federal election.
We have heard many speakers speak on this bill. I appreciate that and thank all of them for their contributions. At the 2010 election the Electoral Commission processed over one million postal votes, which was nearly 18 per cent higher in volume than the number of postal votes which were processed at the 2007 election, which itself saw an increase in the number of postal votes processed at the 2004 election. This rapid escalation in postal votes allows the Electoral Commission to think through the measures which it might like to introduce that would create efficiencies in the counting of those postal votes.
The amendments in schedule 1 to the bill simplify postal vote arrangements by directing all applicants to either the Electoral Commissioner or an assistant returning officer. Assistant returning officers, who may receive postal vote applications from overseas voters, will be located outside Australia at places such as Australian high commissions and embassies and certain Australian Defence Force operations. Upon receiving an application, the Electoral Commissioner or an assistant returning officer will then send, or arrange for the sending of, a postal vote package to the applicant. Directing the majority of postal vote applications to the Electoral Commissioner will enable the centralised processing and centralised dispatch of postal vote packages. The amendments do not fundamentally change the existing policy underpinning the current arrangements for postal voting.
The amendments made by schedule 2 to the bill seek to address concerns arising from the increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections. They are proposed as a means of discouraging candidates who are not seriously in contention for election, thereby reducing the number of candidates on ballot papers.
We have heard many comments in this debate about the size of the New South Wales Senate ballot paper at the 2010 election. I have a copy of that ballot paper here at the table. The ballot paper was in excess of a metre wide and, as we have heard on many occasions, reached the printing logistics capability of those printing firms that supply ballot papers for elections. At that election there were 84 candidates distributed across 33 columns on that ballot paper. Of the 84 candidates, 42 receive fewer than 200 first preference votes, none of them came from a group which had a candidate elected, and all lost their nomination deposits. Only 2,697 people voted for such candidates.
The increasingly large number of Senate groups contesting elections has an impact on formality due to a ballot paper that is growing in complexity and size and a voting system that requires that every box below the line be numbered if the voter chooses that voting option. At more than a metre wide, the Senate ballot paper for New South Wales is already the largest that can be printed. If more Senate groups contest the next election than did the 2010 election, the font for the ballot paper will have to be reduced. Reducing the font will further affect readability, and that increases the risk of informal voting.
Schedule 2 to the bill will increase the nomination deposits that must be paid by or on behalf of the candidate from $1,000 to $2,000 for all Senate candidates and it will increase the nomination deposit that must be paid by or on behalf of all candidates for the House of Representatives from $500 to $1,000. The last time the deposits were increased was in 2006. The increases were recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, recommendations 31 and 32, as supported by the government and the opposition—and I thank them for that.
Schedule 2 to the bill will also increase from 50 to 100 the number of electors required to nominate an unendorsed candidate. Unendorsed candidates are candidates who are either not endorsed by a registered political party or not sitting independent candidates. Further, for unendorsed Senate candidates who have made a request to be grouped, each candidate will require 100 unique electors to nominate them. For example, if two Senate candidates make a request to be grouped, that group will need 200 unique electors. There is no change in the number of nominators required for endorsed candidates of registered political parties or for sitting independent candidates as defined in the act. The amendments to increase the required nomination deposits and the number of nominators required for unendorsed candidates seek to strike the right balance between providing the opportunity for all eligible citizens to stand for parliament and, at the same time, putting in place some reasonable thresholds that candidates must meet—thresholds that will contribute to ensuring the effectiveness and integrity of the electoral process.
There are also a number of minor and technical amendments to both acts. One of the proposed amendments sought to make a change to the law relating to who may be enrolled and who may vote at elections. There has been a longstanding prohibition on people who are described as being of 'unsound mind' such that they are 'incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting'. Following the introduction of the bill on 27 June 2012, that matter was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for consideration. The Joint Standing Committee report does not support amending the Electoral Act to omit the use of the term 'unsound mind'. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, in its unanimous report, considered that the amendment could result in some persons using the change to circumvent the compulsory voting obligations contained in section 245 of the Electoral Act. In reviewing that matter, I am persuaded by the reasoning contained in the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. These amendments are found at items 3, 4, 10 and 11 of schedule 3 of the bill and they will be omitted.
The government amendments to the bill will remove the proposed amendments.
I would like to thank all members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for their deliberations on this bill and for the work that they have done in providing the reports on the 2010 election and on subsequent matters. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is a unique facility of our parliament that allows members of parliament, political parties and interested political participants to make their views known on the execution of elections and it allows this parliament to maintain an Electoral Act and an elections culture, which is both up to date and which allows for immediate response to problems as they arise and opportunities as they become available. I believe that in the matter of postal votes, in the matter of deposits and in the manner of candidates standing for public office that these amendments respond in a timely fashion to the outstanding work that has been done by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.