Thursday, 21 June 2012
Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012; Second Reading
Before question time intervened in my contribution on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012, I was commenting upon the difference between appreciating the right to have a vote and the opportunity to have a vote. The opportunity to have a vote is a human right, but actually being in a position to exercise that is not, in the context of this legislation, because there is also a duty upon someone who is eligible to be a voter. That duty is that they should make sure that they are enrolled and they should make sure that their address is up to date. Senator Rhiannon in her contribution commented that voting is a human right. I agree with that, but there is an obligation on the individual citizen to avail themselves of that right. If they fail to enrol, if they fail to maintain an accurate enrolment, then they are absenting themselves from that opportunity. That is not the fault of government, and I do not think government should feel an obligation to step in and do what is the citizen's duty and the citizen's responsibility. That is one of the fundamental stumbling blocks the opposition has regarding this particular legislation.
The coalition's greatest concern about this legislation is its impact on the integrity of the electoral roll. If the address of an elector is changed without their knowledge, which this legislation would seek to give the Electoral Commission the capacity to do, there is an increased chance of error occurring. This is particularly the case where an elector has more than one residence. The amendment proposed by this legislation and the power that it would give the Electoral Commission would dramatically increase the chance that these electors were incorrectly re-enrolled.
In the coalition members' and senators' dissenting report in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report of July 2011, considerable attention was paid to the risks of using external data sources such as the ATO, Medicare or other government agencies to update electoral details. That report said:
The reliance on external data sources that have been collated and that are utilised for other purposes does not make them fit for use in forming the electoral roll.
As outlined in the previous report into these proposals, a 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration: Numbers on the Run – Review of the ANAO Report No.37 1998-99 on the Management of Tax File Numbers, found that:
Similarly, an ANAO Audit Report (No.24 2004–05 Integrity of Medicare Enrolment Data) stated that ‘ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased’.
I think it is clear that the best and most reliable source of accurate information for the enrolment of an individual is indeed that individual. As I said earlier, I would prefer that we had 90 per cent of people who were eligible for enrolment enrolled with accurate details on a robust electoral roll than that we had 100 per cent of people enrolled but with inaccurate details and an electoral roll that lacked integrity. It is clear, I think, that there are many examples of inconsistency and lack of accuracy in Commonwealth data, and I for one do not have sufficient faith in that data to have it as a source of updating electoral enrolment details.
This legislation also has the difficulty that it does not give a specific definition of what the Electoral Commission might regard as a reliable and current data source. What a 'reliable and current data source' is is open to interpretation, and I think that actually puts the Electoral Commission in a very awkward situation of having to make that judgment. It would open the Electoral Commission to unnecessary questioning and would leave the electoral roll also subject to unnecessary questioning.
A number of colleagues have traversed similar ground and no doubt will do so in this debate, but I just want to use the remaining time to say that I think there should be some higher priorities in relation to voting and electoral law than this particular legislation. I think the effort that is being put into this legislation would be much better focused on trying to ensure that Australians who are blind and vision impaired have the opportunity for a genuinely secret and a genuinely independent vote. There was a trial conducted several elections back with computers and electronic voting at particular trial sites. JSCEM found that that was quite an expensive exercise. At the last election, the Electoral Commission provided an interim solution whereby people would go to a divisional returning office and be marked off in that office as being eligible to vote in a particular electorate. The Electoral Commission would then phone another electoral officer at another location. That officer would not know the identity of the voter, but they would know the electorate the voter was eligible to vote in. That officer would then take down their vote and their preferences over the phone. That did provide a degree of independence and a degree of secrecy. But I think it was seen by many as an interim measure.
I know the Electoral Commission has been working closely with people in the disability sector and with the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Mr Innes, to find a more complete, more elegant solution. I know that there are plans afoot—from what I hear they may be quite similar to what was in place at the last election. I cannot help but keep coming back to a version of that old saying: 'Surely, if we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to provide a more independent and a more secret vote for blind and vision-impaired Australians.' There have been great technological advances since the original trial a few elections back. No doubt there are options for people to key in, with passcodes, on iPads or websites. I do not for one second pretend to be particularly technologically aware or adept at identifying solutions, but I do think that, with goodwill on the part of the government and the Electoral Commission, there should be a way to find a voting solution which is widely accessible and cost-effective. I appreciate that both of those criteria need to be met.
I am just taking this opportunity to urge the Electoral Commission, who are no doubt tuned into these proceedings or in the advisers box, and the government, through Senator McLucas on the other side of the chamber, to work together for a more complete solution. It would be unfortunate if we were to end up in one of those situations where the Electoral Commission says to blind and vision-impaired Australians, 'Look, we would love to help, but you really need to talk to the government,' and then the government says, 'Look, we would love to help, but it is really up to the Electoral Commission to work out a solution.' I would hate to see this fall between the two. I am not saying that I think it will; I am just providing encouragement to the Electoral Commission and the government to be lateral in their thinking and creative in looking at the available options.
As I said, I think the effort which has been put into this legislation could be more fruitfully directed to another venture which would give blind and vision-impaired Australians that opportunity which many of us take for granted: a genuinely independent and secret ballot. As I have indicated already, we do have major misgivings about the piece of legislation before us.
In recent times, we have seen many pieces of legislation where we seem to be in desperate search of a problem to match the solution we have just devised. These bills, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012, are yet another example of that. I have been reading the papers and I have not seen an overwhelming movement of Australian people saying that there are issues with our electoral system which require this legislation. I acknowledge fully that there are certain classes of people, especially the visually impaired, who need assistance, but this goes beyond that.
I note that, back in 2002, the Auditor-General did a study of the accuracy, completeness, validity and security of the electoral roll. He found then:
Australia has a system of compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting. By law all eligible individuals must enrol to vote. The audit found that the AEC maintains a balance between encouraging enrolment in line with the requirements of legislation and with not overly intruding in the lives of citizens. As a result, it is unlikely, nor indeed feasible, that the roll will achieve 100 per cent completeness.
For some years, the AEC has set a target of 95 per cent completeness for the roll. ANAO analysis indicated that, at the close of roll for the 2001 federal election, the roll was likely to be 95 per cent complete.
In other words, we were meeting our targets. So where is the problem which requires fixing?
One could be rightly suspicious that, when a government which has given us a long list of fiascos—and I will go into a few of them—decides to automatically change rolls and automatically make payments, it will be another fiasco. So why are we doing this? I think people in our nation have a personal responsibility, if they wish to vote, to at least have their details in place so they can. We have reached the ultimate nanny state if we have to chase people around to give them one of their most precious rights, their right to vote.
I want to go through a couple of things which I think clearly elucidate what is happening here. Remember when the stimulus payments went out? How could we forget? How could we forget the $22 billion which was borrowed from overseas and thrown around? Actually it was not borrowed at that stage; we actually had that money—one of the last bits of our savings. It was estimated that, amongst those to whom the money was sent, 16,000 dead people received payments. This, apparently, is the same system we are going to use and the same competency which is going to be applied in dealing with the electoral roll—16,000 dead people. I remember we had Mr Tanner saying that this was a good outcome—that a lot of stimulation came from the commerce of the graveyard; if money goes to people who are no longer with us, who have descended the pearly vale to the choir invisible, that is a perfectly reasonable outcome. It is no wonder that this is the same government that now finds itself $231 billion in debt. It is a clear example of this government showing no competencies in this area.
Are we going to have 16,000 dead people now getting the vote? One could suggest that in some areas even now there are some peculiarities. You can go to certain booths in the north of my state where I know the Labor Party is supported but its support in some areas seems to have been exceptional—absolutely astounding in some booths. One would not presume that anything untoward is going on, but it does beg the question whether the fervent support of the Australian Labor Party is a true reflection of the constituency. We would hope that people are not being guided in their vote. It is worth drawing attention to this. It is good to see Senator McLucas in here, and maybe she would like to address this matter.
So Mr Tanner was telling us that the stimulus payments to dead people would not go to waste. It shows the problem we have when the government is now deciding that we are going to have the electronic tracking of rolls and the changing electronically of people's place of voting. We know where this is going to end up—we are going to end up with a whole lot of people who are not entitled to vote and we will start to doubt the credibility in certain areas, including certain strategic areas, of the voting. So many elections nowadays come down to just a small number of votes. I remember when I got into the Senate, although I got up at the end after collecting preferences—I think from Pauline Hanson's One Nation, to be honest; right at the end they threw me up—before that, as we went through the exhaustive process of taking people out from the bottom, there were certain gates I got through by only 20 or 30 votes. I understand how important it is that there be absolute diligence and credibility to reinforce the absolute power of the vote. We have to make sure that this is not put at risk in any way, shape or form. I can see this process doing precisely that.
Another example of Labor Party competency concerns the gentleman who had made a pretty handy business out of collecting Centrelink payments for people who were deceased. He managed to rack himself up $330,000. A report of that case states:
A 33-year-old man has admitted to using the identities of dead people to rort about $330,000 from Centrelink and sending some of the money overseas.
Once more, this brings a focus onto the irregularities that are abundant when you use the electronic process as opposed to the process of someone turning up in person and enrolling to vote, pursuing their own responsibility in gaining one of the greatest rights you will ever have in this nation, which is the right to vote.
What are the checks and balances being provided to ensure that these problems will not happen? Maybe we are getting to a time possibly of new fracture in the Labor Party. We have all heard that the current Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, does not have the numbers and it is only a matter of time before those numbers against her are exercised and there is a change in arrangements at the top end of our nation again. We are aware that they are currently negotiating who is going to be the Treasurer, whether it is Mr Bowen or Mr Shorten. I am aware we will be possibly going to an election in the medium term, so is this a way to save some of the furniture in some areas? I want to make sure that the stringencies of these measures in our more remote areas is impeccable. I do not believe that the government in its other mechanisms which have relied on electronic analysis and databases has delivered those stringencies. In fact, its performance has been abominable. I could go on all night.
Constitutional issues are usually put into place by the votes of reasonable people, and there are so many other things right now that are vastly more important than this. I think of the recent Williams decision in the High Court. That is an area we should be putting our efforts towards when we have a judgment by the High Court that says, by majority, that funding agreement and payments—such as Roads to Recovery—were invalid because the executive power of the Commonwealth did not allow them. A summary of the decision goes on:
In the absence of legislation authorising the Commonwealth to enter into the Funding Agreement, the Commonwealth parties relied upon the executive power granted by s 61 of the Constitution. ... A majority of the High Court held that, in the absence of statutory authority, s 61 did not empower the Commonwealth to enter into the Funding Agreement or to make the challenged payments. In particular, a majority of the Court held that the Commonwealth's executive power does not include a power to do what the Commonwealth Parliament could authorise the Executive to do, such as entering into agreements or contracts, whether or not the Parliament had actually enacted the legislation.
This is a vastly more important issue. When we read that reference to Roads to Recovery, these programs might be happening but they are probably not legal. That is what I think the nation should be focusing on; that is what I think we should be concentrating on. That is the issue I am hearing loud and clear.
Over the last couple of days, when the local government conference was here, one person brought up with me issues regarding the roll. Yet we have a government that tonight is going to bring in a process that we know will be as totally and utterly mismanaged as everything else they do. They will be true to form. They will show the same competency in this as they showed in the ceiling insulation debacle, the school hall funding, the carbon tax—another fiasco; we now have Mr Windsor amending the thing that they said would never be amended—the payments to dead people in the stimulus package and the defrauding of the Australian taxpayer through their so-called stimulus payments. That is the sort of fiasco that the electoral roll is going to end up being. But this time it is important, because our voting system determines the path of our nation. People will lose confidence in who is electing and where they are, and start having suspicions not only when the vote in certain remote areas is all for one particular party but also—particularly in areas where we suspect there might be some difficulties—when the completeness of the vote is spectacularly, incredibly high. One would have to ask why the informal vote in other areas of the nation was lower. But I am sure that Senator McLucas will very soon be able to give us a very good—
Senator McLucas interjecting—
clear understanding of why that is the case. It might be something on which you will be able to instruct the rest of Australia. You will be able to instruct the rest of Australia, Senator McLucas, as to how we could get—
Fair enough, Madam Acting Deputy President. Senator McLucas might like to inform the rest of Australia how we can get such a high formal vote in other parts of our nation, because Labor have done exceptionally well in some of these areas, exceptionally well—and, I must say, there has been overwhelming support, incredible support, for the Labor Party. But Senator McLucas will soon tell us why and how that comes about, because we are all fascinated and ready to hear why.
So that is the reason why we need to have absolute stringency in how people enrol to vote. We need to have absolute stringency in how people obtain the right to vote. We have to make sure that, when a vote is cast, expressing whatever view, it is actually cast by a person. That would be a good start! A person who is still alive would be even better still! If they are breathing, I think that is a good credential, seeing as we are managing to pay money to people who are no longer with us.
I remembered that there was one person who forgot to enrol to vote. I was trying to think of who it was and then it came to me—
It was the Hon. Peter Garrett. He had not enrolled for three years. But it is good, because that sort of competency has put him on the front bench of the Australian Labor Party; he is part of the government. Maybe Minister Garrett would be assisted by this. He would not have to worry about the inconvenience of enrolling—the fact that, to become a member of parliament, it helps if you are actually on the electoral roll. Maybe there are some other potential Labor Party frontbenchers who need this legislation; maybe that is where this legislation has appeared from.
On a more serious note, no, we should not be reducing the stringency we have in making sure that all votes are authentic, that there is no question of their authenticity. The only way you can judge what will happen in the future is by looking at how a government has acted in the past. This government has been totally and utterly incompetent, and this is yet another instance of that—just like another issue in Senator McLucas's area, the shutting down of the vast majority of North Queensland fishing areas. What marvellous representation that was, Senator McLucas!
What an oracle! What an orb of shining light you are for that part of Queensland, shutting down the fishing areas! In your town, Cairns, where we should be broadening the economic base, you are shutting it down—
tutelage and guidance of the government you represent. What an adornment you are to the north of Queensland, letting that happen! What an absolutely splendid outcome we have, Senator McLucas, as you sat back idly while the north of Queensland shut down its fishing area.
Absolutely, Madam Acting Deputy President. But it is a shame that Senator McLucas was not a better advocate for the people of North Queensland; they might have managed to broaden their economic base rather than narrowing it, rather than shutting it down and exacerbating unemployment issues in that part of the world. We shut down so much at the whim of those in the inner suburbs of Sydney. It would be handy if we had advocates in the north that had the capacity to stand up for those people. But they do not. Sometimes they do not even stand up there.
One would hope that the concentration of attention on that area is keeping the economic base open, keeping the fishing grounds working and broadening the economic base, not letting the Greens run riot and shut the show down. But maybe these bills can in some way assist a certain party to get a higher vote, because, if we break down the stringency of how people are able to enrol, that might well work to a certain party's advantage. It might well work as an addition to the serious questions that have been asked in certain areas of our state already.
Democracy is a fragile flower. It is the standout form of government where people are able to contest elections, advocate for ideas and candidates and vote for representatives of their choice. Democracy largely relies on an unwritten compact, a culture which sees, among other things, the peaceful handover of government by one party to another in the face of electoral defeat, a culture which allows people to freely exercise their vote. As an aside, such freedom should include, in my respectful opinion, the right not to vote, as allowed in most democracies, but I accept I am in a minority not only in this place but also in my party in relation to that particular proposition, so I will move on.
For a democracy to be fully functional it requires people to have absolute confidence in the electoral results. They might not like the results but they need to know they were achieved robustly and fairly and with absolute integrity. That is why I and other colleagues on the coalition benches have consistently inquired into the issue of multiple voting. In a close election result, as we experienced in 2010, we need to know the result was not manipulated.
Earlier this year, on 16 January, I asked some follow-up questions to ascertain the details and prevalence of the scourge of multiple voting. The answer, in case anyone is interested, is in response to question No. 1511. The answer informed us that 16,210 electors were found to be marked off a certified list more than once. The highest number of multiple votes by one person was 10. One thousand, four hundred and fifty-eight electors admitted to multiple voting, yet not a single person was charged and only three were given cautions. If we are to retain confidence in the outcome of our democratic processes, we need confidence in the robustness of the system. The figures I just referred to do not lend themselves to the encouragement of community confidence in the integrity of our system.
I accept—I am a bit of a lone voice on this—that the presentation of some form of identification at the time of voting may be a measure to reduce the incidence of multiple voting. In short, the integrity of our system of democracy in voting is a vital ingredient in the culture of democracy. That is why the integrity of the electoral roll is so important. That brings us to this bill, which will further undermine the integrity of the electoral roll and thus consequentially undermine confidence in our democracy. And that is why the coalition opposes the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011. It slackens what should be a tight enrolment and re-enrolment process. To retain confidence and integrity in the system, we need safeguards. That is why direct and deliberate enrolment and re-enrolment are so essential. I know we will be told about safeguards. We are told the same thing about multiple voting, yet we know it occurs and the official figures confirm it. It happens not once or twice but literally thousands of times each election.
The use of external data—that is, data not collected or validated by the Australian Electoral Commission itself—is a matter of concern. It is that external data which the Australian Electoral Commission would seek to use to enrol and re-enrol people. It is known from previous audits that the Australian Taxation Office, Medicare and other files are not as robust as we might hope. The Australian National Audit Office, who hopefully know something about this, told us in report No. 37 of 1998-99 that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia at the 1998-99 census. We were also told that 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Similarly, a more recent audit report, No. 24 of 2004-05, said:
ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.
So simply to leave to some bureaucrats and, with respect to be Australian Electoral Commission, highly regarded officials to determine what may be a 'reliable and current data source' simply does not cut it for me or for the coalition. It is appropriate for the AEC to make contact with electors based on information to which they might have access to encourage re-enrolment or to update relevant information or enrolment. That makes sense. But we need the protection to ensure that changes are not made in error. Regrettably, this legislation goes that step too far by allowing the Australian Electoral Commission to directly update an elector's enrolled address. That Labor should seek to pursue measures that allow for roll integrity to be compromised does not surprise and should not surprise. We all recall Labor MP Mike Kaiser in Queensland, who rorted the electoral roll. He was later given a safe landing as chief of staff to a certain Labor Premier in New South Wales and then found his way back into Queensland for employment in the Queensland Labor government. Labor simply does not take these matters seriously and, in fact, anybody caught, such as Mike Kaiser, is always looked after, always given a soft landing. Now Labor is going even further with another bill for automatic enrolment, with the Orwellian name of 'protecting elector participation'. In fact, it is conscription. There is no protection about it. It is putting people on the electoral roll whether they ask for it or not.
Let us turn to the explanatory memorandum in relation to that second bill. I note that the explanatory memorandum tells us:
The Bill contains provisions that will:
I think most of us who are active in politics in this place have always been anxious close to an election to get the final electoral roll for particular electorates, so we then can do our mail-outs and our advocacy to the electors. And bundles and bundles and bundles of those letters are returned as 'not at this address'. I remember observing that as Special Minister of State. I understand that, if there is one thing I can lay claim to, I am the longest-serving Special Minister of State. I remember going around to electoral offices—and by 'electoral offices' I mean 'electoral' as in the Australian Electoral Commission offices around Australia, not individual MPs' electorate offices—where the MPs, Labor and coalition, brought to the Australian Electoral Commission all the returned envelopes, including hundreds of people who had been rushed onto the electoral roll in the last few days that you are allowed to enrol before an election.
Senator McLucas just shows her ignorance, embarrassing ignorance, by interjecting: 'How do you know that?' Because, you see, we are given electoral roll updates, aren't we? And we then send letters to those people, welcoming them for being on the electoral roll for the first occasion for this election. When those letters come back, you scratch your head and ask the question: 'Is it because they don't like, for example'—and I will pick on myself—'Senator Abetz?' But you then find out that Labor mail has also been returned from that address. Then you have got to ask the question; 'Why is this so?' A lot of the Australian Electoral Commission staff did assist me when I went around and indicated that, in the lead-up to an election, putting people on the electoral roll is not as robust as it is under normal circumstances. I know the Australian Electoral Commission at Senate estimates always claims that it is exactly the same. You talk to the people at the coalface face-to-face who are tasked with that and they will tell you a different story.
Accidents occur. I am not going to go into any conspiracy theories here, but accidents and mistakes occur. I am sure the fact that Medicare has 62 per cent of the deceased people still on their files is not because of any conspiracy but because they are too slow; they do not update their files appropriately. It is the same with the Australian Taxation Office. We do not want that to occur. If Centrelink does it, for example, what you get is money being paid to dead people. It is an absolute waste of taxpayers' money that Labor specialises in, but at the end of the day it is only money. But when we are dealing with the Australian electoral roll, the Commonwealth electoral roll, we need to know that every single name on that roll is actually that of a living person who is entitled to vote. We want integrity. We want robustness.
Simply purporting that somebody should be put on the electoral roll because of a certain degree of information being provided to the Australian Electoral Commission does not cut it with us in the opposition. We believe people should have to proactively show some identification and sign the request for the electoral roll so that there is actually a document that can be called upon, and of course that is what caught out certain individuals in Queensland with the Shepherdson inquiry. Absent those sorts of documents, people might appear on the electoral roll without anybody's fingerprints on that particular enrolment.
Realistically, how often is this going to affect an election in Australia? Not often, if at all. But we need to have robustness. We need to have integrity. We saw the election for the former member for McEwen, Mrs Bailey. It was contested to the High Court and back. I forget the final margin—possibly Senator Ronaldson can assist me—after the 2007 election.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells suggests that it was about 27 votes. What that means is that if 13 people changed their vote, that seat could have fallen a different way. The extent of multiple voting, which I pointed out earlier in my speech, makes the case that we have to be very careful because individual seats can be decided on literally a dozen votes. As we know, after the 2010 election, if that one seat falls one way or the other—because of multiple voting, because of people being enrolled when they should not be—it can change the government. That is why it is such a serious matter that the electoral roll at all times be absolutely robust, be beyond question and have the confidence of the Australian people.
In the remaining minutes I simply ask the question: what is so urgent about this legislation that it needs to be guillotined? I was written to by the Leader of the Government in this place, indicating a whole raft of bills that needed to be guillotined through this place because they were key bills—they needed to be passed before 1 July since they were budget measures. I am sorry, but this bill does not fit that category, does it? So, what is the real reason? Why are we seeking to rush this through and curtail discussion which goes to the very core of our democracy? I will tell you why. It is like the bills we discussed the other night, which were so important because they put a union representative on a particular training board. And guess who the union appointee was? One Mr Paul Howes of the Australian Workers Union. In case my colleagues opposite have forgotten, he was the one who appeared on Lateline to tell the Australian people that the next day they were going to be getting a new Prime Minister, Ms Gillard. We then had to rush through the legislation relating to the ABC. What was the rush with that? Oh, that's right: getting an employee—read union official—onto the board of the ABC. Where is the time-sensitive nature of that one? Why did that one have to be guillotined? How is that related to the budget?
I am starting to get a whiff here of a Greens-Labor alliance government in its death throes thinking that they cannot guarantee their longevity for much longer, that they may lose the next election and therefore that they will ram everything they possibly can through this parliament without fear or favour or without any concern for the democratic processes of the parliament. Let me remind this place that in this sitting fortnight we will be guillotining 36 bills through this place—in one fortnight. When the Howard government had control of the Senate between 2004 and 2007, a full three years, guess how many bills were guillotined? Thirty-six. That is a bit of serendipity for me and the coalition to be able to point out that in a full three years we as a coalition respected the Senate so much we only guillotined 36 bills.
But here is the Greens-Labor alliance this sitting fortnight guillotining the same number through the place. And if that is not bad enough, we have the Leader of the Australian Greens misleading this place on 19 June, suggesting that we had guillotined the Northern Territory Intervention through this place in 2007. She said it not once but twice, to try to make the point that we continually guillotined matters through this place. I happen to remember that I was in fact Manager of Government Business in the Senate in 2007, and—because of my charm, no doubt!—I was never required to move a guillotine motion. So I knew Senator Milne was wrong—and sure enough, she was. No guillotine, yet she goes out to the media, she makes statements and repeats the falsehood. I must say, the Greens are falling apart with the departure of Senator Bob Brown. I am sure Senator Bob Brown would not have such basic errors. But it is for Senator Milne to correct the record, hopefully some time in the future.
There is no urgency with this bill. There is no reason or rationale for it being guillotined other than a government trying to stack the deck in its own favour.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. I think the matter that causes me the greatest concern about both these bills is that they are another endeavour by the Australian Labor Party to junk the principles that underpin our democracy. It is of great deep, personal regret to me that it is, I fear, being done for cheap political purposes. I also need to express my profound disappointment that the Australian Electoral Commission, which ultimately should be the greatest protector of the integrity of the roll, I am advised supports these moves. I have enormous respect for the senior officers of the Australian Electoral Commission; there is one here tonight for whom I particularly have great respect. But this is ultimately the great protector, surely, of the integrity of the roll. The junking of the principles that underpin our democracy with these bills tonight is an absolute outrage. It does this chamber and it certainly does this government no credit at all to be part of this cheap political stunt.
I have heard talk over the last 24 hours about the people missing from the rolls, and of course that is an issue—and I acknowledge that is an issue. But what about the rights of those who are properly enrolled? Who is protecting their rights with these two bills? The answer to that is no-one. The greatest right we have in this country is the right to vote. But with that comes enormous responsibility. As the coalition dissenting report of the recent inquiry by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters states, their right is to enrol to vote; their responsibility is to accurately maintain their enrolment at their permanent place of address, to cast a vote when the election is called and to fully extend preferences to all candidates contesting election for the House of Representatives in their local electorate. What about the right of the person casting their vote in the ballot box to know that the person beside them is the person who they say they are and is properly enrolled? If the person standing there cannot trust the process to ensure that the person standing beside them fills those two requirements, then why would it be that the properly enrolled person casting their vote would not question the integrity of the system? Why is it that in these bills we are passing responsibilities attached to the right to vote to someone else? Surely it is not too much for us to ask those who are enrolled to fulfil some requirements in notifying the AEC of change of address, to ensure that we know that the person is the person they say they are when they go in to vote.
I am utterly amazed that the Australian Greens and, quite frankly, some of my colleagues in the Australian Labor Party are letting this go through. Can you imagine what would happen in any situation other than this, which has been rammed through this chamber, if someone had the right to write to a person and tell them that they were going to be placed on a public record and that the only way they could be removed would be to object to that? What a remarkable notion. I know what the response would be from those opposite in any other circumstance. I know what the response would be from the Australian Greens and I know what my response would be—that it is an absolute outrage that a government institution can place someone on the public record without their knowledge and that the only way they can be removed is to object.
Senator Abetz talked about return mail. I do not know how many tens of thousands of letters in this country are returned every week because someone has changed address. But to put the onus back on the person who has been written to by the Australian Electoral Commission and effectively say, 'Unless you object, we are going to put you on the public record' is outrageous. It would not be tolerated by the Australian Labor Party or the Australian Greens in any situation other than this, where there is some political benefit to be gained from ramming these bills through. That is the most outrageous aspect of these two bills. If you do not maintain the integrity of the electoral roll, what right do properly enrolled voters have left in this country? That is what these bills are about.
A number of my colleagues have made reference to what data the Australian Electoral Commission will use. There was an expression used by Senator Abetz, which I will get to shortly. Ultimately, we are placing on a de facto government bureaucracy the right to determine what is or is not appropriate information on which they should act. That is the responsibility of this chamber. It is the responsibility of this chamber to say what information should or should not be used in relation to these matters. One of my colleagues earlier referred to the ANAO Audit report No. 37 1998-99: Management of tax file numbers, which found that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia when the last census at that time had been conducted. The report also found that there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals and that 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Similarly, ANAO Audit report No. 24 2004-05: Integrity of Medicare enrolment data found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who were deceased.
So we have this sort of information, we know we cannot rely on this data, but we are giving to a semi-government body the right to determine whether that information can or cannot be used. What an abrogation of the responsibilities of this Senate to the Australian Electoral Commission. When you lose the integrity of the electoral roll, what else in this country have we got left to protect the democracy that so many people have fought and died for? What have we got left if we diminish that? They fought and died to ensure that we had a democracy that, as far as possible, delivered appropriate rights and responsibilities to the Australian community. In one fell swoop we are throwing that right out the door.
Returning to the integrity of the rolls and to these bills, I find it fascinating to see, when I look at the JSCEM report into the last election, that Labor Party members wanted automatic enrolment. When the maintaining address bill was introduced, the then Special Minister of State, Gary Gray, said in his second reading speech:
The bill will not provide the capacity to directly enrol new electors. Persons who are not on the roll will need to enrol in accordance with the current requirements in the Electoral Act.
The other bill we are dealing with today, the protecting elector participation bill, delivers what the Labor Party members of the JSCEM wanted—automatic enrolment. They have got what they wanted. What happened between the introduction of the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill? What a nonsense of a title that is, incidentally. This is protecting no-one at all, but it is diminishing the rights of people in this country who are properly enrolled. Their rights are diminished, because you are allowing people who are not properly enrolled the opportunity to be casting a vote. You are providing an increased potential for the person I spoke about before, standing in the ballot box, properly casting a vote, to have no confidence that the person beside them is casting a vote similarly.
Why is the Australian Labor Party not upfront about the cheap political nature of these bills? It is a philosophical issue that it has been pursuing for decades. It has finally got its wish. But the penalty that this precious democracy of ours will pay for having it play in this space and using voting as its own philosophical plaything will come back to haunt it, as it should. It is not the right of the Australian Labor Party to play with this democracy. It is not the right of the Australian Labor Party to interfere with the right of ordinary Australians to know that the vote being cast by the person beside them is being cast in the same manner as theirs. While those opposite will walk out of the chamber tonight, having guillotined this debate, go back to their offices and say, 'Wow, we've finally got these through! Isn't it fantastic?', I hope they wake up in the morning and reflect on what they have done.
I wonder whether the Australian Greens, and Senator Rhiannon, who is in the chamber now, have not just created the most appalling precedent for themselves by supporting a bill that places onto an individual who does not know they have been identified the onus to object. Senator Rhiannon, through you Madam Acting Deputy President Crossin: tonight you are voting for the placement on an electoral roll of someone who does not know that has happened. The only way they can be removed is if they object. If they are not aware of it they may well be placed in a position where they will have to pay a fine if they do not vote. Senator Rhiannon, through you Madam Acting Deputy President: if that is what you really believe in, please do not come in here and bleat about the rights of ordinary Australians ever again, because the Greens and the Labor Party have abrogated your right to represent that group of Australians. This is a gross abrogation of that right. I cannot believe that you are allowing the Australian Electoral Commission to interpret what is or is not appropriate information to be used when you know full well that there are numerous cases of information being held about Australians that is either not correct or is grossly out of date. You know that as well as I do, but you are still prepared to come in here tonight and diminish the rights of properly enrolled Australians. You are prepared to throw away the right they treasure when they walk into the ballot box. I find that a quite remarkable interference in the due democratic process of this country. This is just another example of the Australian Labor Party's preparedness to junk the principles that underpin our democracy. Why, as Senator Abetz said, does this bill need to be guillotined tonight? Why can't we have an appropriate level of debate in relation to this matter? Why can't the rest of my colleagues who want to talk about this and represent the rights of ordinary Australians have the opportunity to do so? Why is it that we need to put these bills through tonight? As Senator Abetz said, in the three years that we had the balance of power in this place there were 36 bills guillotined, and there will be 36 bills guillotined over the next two weeks alone. I was here and I heard the bleating from the then opposition about bills being guillotined. I heard bleating from the Australian Greens when bills were being guillotined. Yet you sit here and watch 36 bills being guillotined in two weeks. Why aren't you screaming about that now? Where are the Australian Greens when we are seeing this disgraceful behaviour over these last two weeks? Senator Di Natale is smiling. If he believes this is funny, that is okay, but please can the Australian Greens never come in here and complain about due process again, because you have thrown that out. I will finish with this.
Senator Polley says it is a good idea. I will tell you what is finished, Senator Polley, as a result of these bills. In these two bills you have trashed something that I would have thought every single person in this place believed was precious, and that is the integrity of the electoral roll. Yes, I will finish, because I have 51 seconds left. But when you withdraw a right from a group of people who have accepted the legitimate responsibilities which come with that right, when you create an environment where that level of trust can no longer exist, then this is a legacy that the Australian Labor Party and the Greens will have to live with. It is a cheap philosophical stunt with quite dramatic ramifications which will come back to haunt the Greens and the Labor Party. But, regrettably, they will haunt the very things that underpin this democracy of ours.
Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at the annual general meeting of the Australian Blindness Forum in Canberra. It met at the National Disability Services headquarters in Canberra. Unfortunately, the Labor government was not able to provide a spokesman there, but I discussed the coalition's view of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. As I walked into that building, the headquarters of the National Disability Services in Australia, I saw on the front wall, by the front door, a big sticker that says 'Count me in'. The National Disability Services is the peak group for service providers in the disability area. There are over 700 members. 'Count me in' is the slogan that the national disability sector has been using in advocacy to build support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme for almost two years now.
So I was somewhat surprised to receive in the mail the other day a card from the Australian Electoral Commission that said 'Count me in'. I thought, 'Why is the Australian Electoral Commission getting involved in the National Disability Insurance Scheme?' Because I knew, as millions of other Australians know, that 'Count me in' is the slogan of the National Disability Insurance Scheme advocates. But there in my letterbox was a postcard from the Australian Electoral Commission saying 'Count me in'. Unfortunately, as I have since worked out by looking on a website, this was not because the Electoral Commission had decided to support in some way the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It was because the Electoral Commission, their public relations company and their advertising company, who, as far as I understand, had a program that cost about $2.3 million to get people to enrol to vote, had used the same slogan that the National Disability Insurance Scheme people and the disability sector have been using for over two years.
So my first question to the government is: how can the Electoral Commission be so out of touch with reality, so out of touch with what is happening in Australia and so out of touch with the trends in Australia that, firstly, they have such a huge number of people not enrolled—1.6 million people? Having 1.6 million people not enrolled is a serious issue, but secondly there is the fact that they would use and presumably pay for a professional organisation—I should use the word 'professional' in quotes, perhaps—to come up with a campaign using the slogan 'Count me in', despite the fact that the slogan has already been used for almost two years by the national disability sector. How can anyone, particularly the government, have any confidence in this organisation, in the people that it hires to undertake campaigns for it or in the integrity of what it is seeking to achieve? I am appalled that such a slogan would be stolen by the Electoral Commission.
What concerns me even more is that I do not think it was stolen. I think the Electoral Commission, their PR company and whoever else was involved in this did not know that the slogan had been used for at least two years by the disability sector. That is what really concerns me—that they are out of touch with what is happening in Australia let alone within the voting community.
The coalition very much supports the idea that everyone over the age of 18 ought to be enrolled to vote. But we also support the idea that individuals must take responsibility for becoming involved and enrolling to vote. I was worried when I read the views of the minister, Mr Gary Gray, who made the point that, 'Right now only individuals can initiate their enrolment but the bills would give the Electoral Commission the ability to directly enrol eligible people.' The point is that right now only individuals can initiate their enrolment in Australia, where voting is compulsory. The only person who can decide to enrol someone to vote is the individual whose responsibility it is to vote.
It is often very heartening to see many people who become citizens of Australia who have come from countries where they do not have the option to cast a vote in a democratic election lining up to have the opportunity to enrol to vote. Whereas it is some of our teenagers and younger people who have been born here and do not appreciate what a privilege it is to be able to vote who are not on the roll.
So this government have chosen, in my view, not just the easy way but the nanny-state way of trying to do something about improving the number of people on the electoral roll. They have not gone about this by trying to educate young people to enrol to vote; they have gone about it by saying: 'Don't worry. We'll do it for you.' The long-term outcome of this will be very interesting because these people will have been enrolled without them having had to put any effort into it. They will not even have had to initiate their own enrolment. As the minister said, the Electoral Commission can just do it for them. Will the Electoral Commission be voting for them? Will the Electoral Commission be picking them up and taking them down to the booths? Will the Electoral Commission be explaining to them what their options are? Will the Electoral Commission be telling them how the party system in their electorate works and who the candidates in their electorate are? No, they will not. The Electoral Commission will be doing none of that. So what we will simply end up with is a far larger number of people who either do not vote at all, who fail to arrive to vote, or lodge some sort of an informal or donkey vote. That is what we will end up with out of this system. There is an inability to accept that individuals have to take responsibility sooner or later for their own actions. This is surely a core responsibility that individuals must take. If you want democratic government to continue in this country—and we do it very well, in my view—you as an individual must take responsibility for enrolling to vote and for ensuring that you continue to be enrolled to vote by changing your enrolment when you move.
I admire the Electoral Commission's recent moves in the past few years to work in high schools and the like to ensure that 17-year-olds have the opportunity to register to be enrolled when they turn 18. This was not available when my own children turned 18, but within their birthday cards they got their enrol-to-vote forms. I have no idea why any parent who is concerned that their child would not enrol to vote would not do that. It is such an important part of our democracy. That is the sort of work we should be doing. We should be encouraging people at that level to enrol to vote.
The flipside of that is that we must continue to try to make the point that their vote counts. We must try to make the point that the system does have integrity and honesty and is genuinely democratic and that people who involve themselves in it actually do have a chance to have a say. This is something that can be undertaken by the Electoral Commission, by schools, by the community and particularly by parents.
I was somewhat startled today during the debate on the dental services bill to hear Senator Urquhart say, 'Unfortunately, we cannot monitor teeth brushing by children.' She was talking about children's dental health. Well, I am pleased that as a government we cannot monitor children's teeth brushing. We do not belong in the bathrooms of Australia checking to see who brushes their teeth and whose mummy and daddy watches properly and whose does not. This sort of attitude—regretting not being able to look at that sort of individual behaviour—is what underpins a bill like this, when you have the minister saying, 'Currently only individuals can initiate their enrolment and the Electoral Commission do not have the ability to directly enrol eligible people but it will be wonderful when they do.' The coalition does not think that will be wonderful. The coalition thinks that will be a very backwards step. The coalition thinks that will result in numerous inaccuracies. The coalition thinks it will cause problems with the integrity of the roll and also that it sends completely the wrong message to individuals in Australia, the voters of Australia, who are the people responsible for electing the government of Australia. Surely this is one place where we do need to have respect for individual ability and individual responsibility, if ever we were going to have it.
I might also point out that—like most senators, I imagine—I send out letters to people newly enrolled in Queensland, whose addresses are provided to me by the Electoral Commission. These are people who the Electoral Commission advises me have either moved to Queensland or changed their address within Queensland. In some months we send out up to 10,000 letters and in some months we get back 1,000 or more that say 'address not known; return to sender'. One assumes that the current information provided not only by the Electoral Commission to us but also to the Electoral Commission can go out of date very quickly or be inaccurate. I would like to think that the information I am getting is going out of date very quickly, not that it is completely inaccurate. But, in terms of where this legislation is going, the level of error demonstrated by the number of returns I receive of letters that have been sent out and come back unopened saying 'return to sender; not known at this address', when the addresses are based on information recently sent to my office by the Electoral Commission Queensland, really concerns me.
The minister pointed out that he sees the feature of this bill as its allowing the Electoral Commissioner to directly enrol a person if the commissioner is satisfied that the person is entitled to enrolment, that the person has lived at an address for one month and that the person is not currently enrolled. If the Electoral Commissioner is satisfied that someone meets those criteria, the commissioner can give them written notice that he has enrolled them and they have 28 days to say, 'I'm not at that address' or that they are not entitled to enrolment. I am a bit confused as to how someone who is not at an address will be able to respond to a letter and say, 'I'm not at that address.' If I live in Jones Street, Grange, and someone sends a letter to me in Smith Street, Grange, and I do not answer it, what does that mean? I cannot respond to a letter and say, 'I don't live in Smith Street' if the letter goes to Smith Street and I live in Jones Street. I am constantly amused by a sign at a local shopping centre near where I live, the Stafford shopping centre. There is a large sign that says, 'Unattended dogs must not enter'. I spent some months trying to work out how an unattended dog would read the sign and know not to enter. It would be only dogs that were actually attended that would benefit from the information on the sign; no unattended dog is going to be able to read the sign. It seems to me that this legislation is based on exactly the same theory: I will write to you at Jones Street and if you do not live at Jones Street you can write back to me and tell me you do not live at Jones Street—except of course that you never got the letter, because you do not live at Jones Street.
I have no idea of the philosophy underpinning this bill but or of the practicality of this bill. I was appalled by the suggestion of the minister, Minister Gary Gray, that this legislation gives the Electoral Commissioner:
... the ability to use modern processes to protect the participation of eligible Australian citizens in the electoral process.
This is fundamental to maintaining the strength and resilience of our democratic system of government.
Currently 10 per cent of the potentially eligible citizens of Australia are not enrolled. According to the government and the Greens, inaccurately enrolling large numbers of people and not having a clue about whether the results of that are accurate are not, and enrolling them whether or not they understand the political process or have been encouraged in any way to participate in the political process, is going to strengthen and improve the resilience of our democratic system of government. That is a complete nonsense; it is absolutely complete nonsense. It is not going to do anything of the sort. We firmly believe in the responsibility of the individual elector to maintain their enrolment details when they change addresses. We also firmly believe in the individual responsibility of an elector to enrol to vote. The reason we believe those things is that it is a serious and important thing to enrol to vote. The privilege to vote in a democratic society like Australia is not something that people should be signed up to whether they know about it or not. The way to go about improving the enrolment of people to vote is to point out to them, educate them and teach them about the critical importance of exercising their vote—the immense freedom that Australians have in being able to exercise their vote. I know a number of people have said to me—if I knew their names and addresses, I would pass them on to the Electoral Commission, but I do not know their addresses—that they are not enrolled to vote because what does it matter to them? It is not about signing those people up, because it still does not matter to them. What is relevant there is trying to teach those people why it must matter to them and why it is important that they become involved in our democratic process, not nanny-stating them through, the way this government is intending to.
Today I rise to speak on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. I look across the chamber and I see my new Senate colleague Senator Whish-Wilson up the back there now. I welcome him to the chamber for his first day and congratulate him on signing in and attending. I also welcome another winemaker into this chamber. It is great to have somebody on the other side whom I can now go and talk to about such matters, and I hope that he brings a commercial application to the role that I rarely experience from that end of the chamber. Let us hope that in our work together, Senator, we can get down to getting some good outcomes for all Australians.
Along with my coalition colleagues and, I think, any thinking person from the free world, I strongly oppose these measures. This government legislation introduces an amendment to the Electoral Act which will allow the Australian Electoral Commission to automatically update the details of an elector when they change their residential address, based on information obtained from other sources. Let me be very clear—
No, I am not; I have got plenty here, Senator Feeney. I will be very clear. For a government on the ropes, they seem to have all these desperate measures to try to squeeze any advantage they possibly can, thus clearly answering the question—and I will use a Latin phrase for you, Senator Feeney—cui bono, or for whose benefit?
Before exploring that core motivation, I first turn to the myriad of practical problems with the measures proposed in this legislation. The first of these to which I turn is of paramount importance—namely, the integrity of the electoral roll. In a proposed system whereby the state can change the address of an elector without their knowledge, there exist and will no doubt be many errors. For an elector who maintains more than one residence, there is a distinct and all-too-likely possibility that they may be incorrectly re-enrolled under the legislation. I can see it playing out now. Most of my winemaking mates from the Clare Valley have a second residence, of course, and what will happen? Some department will pick up their second residence, and what will happen? They will turn up on election day where they think they are registered and enrolled to vote, only to be told that they are enrolled 150 kilometres away. It is just a recipe for disaster. Who is thinking about the ramifications of this? I myself may fall into this trap because, if I am travelling from my home in Clare to my place in Adelaide, where I launch from to come to Canberra, who knows what department will pick up what address that I might be registered at? And then all of a sudden I will find myself on polling day driving halfway round South Australia.
The heavy reliance on external data sources such as Medicare, the Australian Taxation Office or other government agencies to update elector details exposes the elector to the inherent errors of using information not collected for this express purpose. This essential electoral information will now be downgraded to a mere by-product of the day-to-day implementation and administration of policy—and, God knows, the bureaucracy makes serious mistakes enough in its own work. Such errors should be able to be mitigated or at least under the control of the individual, as participation in the democratic process is inherent and it is a civic responsibility of the individual.
The coalition's dissenting report of July 2011 gave us a taste of the flood of examples of inconsistency in Commonwealth data management. For example, way back 13 years ago, a 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration, Numbers on the run: review of the ANAO report No.37 1998-99 on the management of tax file numbers, found that (1) there were '3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia at the last census', (2) there were '185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals', and (3) '62 per cent of deceased clients' were 'not recorded as deceased in a sample match'. In the same vein, the Australian National Audit Office Audit report No. 24 of 2004-05: Performance audit: integrity of Medicare enrolment data, stated:
ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased.
More recently, the Rudd government sent cheques off for $900 each in stimulus payments to 16,000 people who were deceased.
This is an example of the government bungling this simple exercise, so how can we trust them with this proposal?
Why should our citizens have faith in the ability of the Commonwealth bureaucracy to properly handle this electoral data if it is only a by-product of their core work? The potential for error is even greater when using data from state or territory governments, as the Commonwealth cannot determine its accuracy. They cannot reach in and properly audit or otherwise check the integrity of the data.
Should the potential list of errors made by government be lengthened—and with data as necessary to the integrity of our democratic processes as the electoral roll? That is a good question. Our democratic process must have integrity and our faith. It must be above reproach in the midst of our ongoing, yet ultimately constructive, conflict over ideas and subsequent policy implementation. The only way to ensure the integrity of the electoral roll is not to cede the demands of our civic duty to the bureaucratic be-all and end-all of supposedly seamless electronic record keeping and a promise of competency. Instead, we must make sure that the current system is maintained to ensure that electors continue to be responsible for changing their details.
This leads me to, and is reinforced by, my next point. The bill does not give a specific definition of what the Electoral Commission may regard as a 'reliable and current data source' from which to change elector details. What is considered a 'reliable and current data source'? That is open to interpretation and the coalition believes this power is not within the purview of the Australian Electoral Commission, an unelected body. Coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters noted this in July 2011 in their dissenting report:
We are concerned that the power to deem data sources ‘trusted’ in determining the use of such data in compiling the roll as a potential risk to the office. The inclusion of such data, if erroneous, would be extremely damaging to public faith in our electoral process. Furthermore, the inclusion of such data may well be controversial due to lack of faith in its inclusion or utilisation. Placing the Electoral Commissioner at the heart of such a potentially politically charged dispute can only damage the standing of the office and the AEC.
That is a perfectly reasonable statement, compelling in its simplicity and its fairness.
The logical question to ask is: how have these measures that have played out in the states held up as the exemplars of their success? Both New South Wales and Victoria introduced automatic enrolment at their recent state elections, which means a number of electors in these states are enrolled for state but not federal elections as a result of the differences in state and federal legislation. Let us be clear on that: in both New South Wales and Victoria, automatic enrolment applies only to a voter's state enrolment. It does not apply to their federal enrolment. As such, when electors have their details changed or are added to the state electoral roll in New South Wales or Victoria, they are then sent an enrolment form by the AEC.
Arguably one of the country's most prominent and trusted political commentators on electoral matters, the ABC's Antony Green, has reported that, for the 70,000 enrolment transactions included in the electoral roll since the introduction of the new system, two-thirds of which were updated address details, only 12 per cent of the people affected filled out the AEC form to ensure their federal enrolment was correct. Furthermore, of the 20,000 people in New South Wales whose address details were changed automatically, only 87.5 per cent turned out to vote—below the overall attendance of 92.3 per cent. For those automatically enrolled for the first time, the turnout was only 64.3 per cent. Can you imagine their faces when the fine for not turning up at the voting station comes? They did not even know they were enrolled.
The fact that only 12 per cent of the people who had their details changed by the New South Wales Electoral Commission at a state level had taken steps to ensure that their federal enrolment was correct demonstrates that electoral commissions at both state and federal levels are having difficulty contacting electors whose details have been automatically changed. As such, many would be unaware that they have been re-enrolled or that their enrolment details have been changed. Given that information from government agencies can be unreliable, there is no way of knowing whether the individual has been re-enrolled correctly. It is thus imperative that the responsibility to maintain one's electoral address remains with the individual voter.
This brings me to my next point—namely, the serious concerns raised about privacy. The inquiry into the maintaining address bill heard some evidence from Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation regarding the extensive concerns about individual privacy which accompany this legislation. There are a number of risks for people who do not want their details published on the electoral roll. They may be involved in domestic violence disputes or have stalking fears. They may be under police protection. There is the very real possibility that, because of this legislation, the elector's details could be placed on the electoral roll without their knowledge.
Dr Clarke outlined a number of these concerns, many of which could be exacerbated by this legislation, to the JSCEM hearing on 15 February 2012:
Stalking and, in recent times, cyberstalking, is quite common. Stalking is not only of celebrities. Victims of domestic violence are of course the extreme end of that problem. We are not suggesting that these are things that the AEC is unaware of and does not deal with, but there are a great many of these circumstances and very few of them are directly supported by government. Protected witnesses and undercover operatives, which is a subset of the very last category, are the only forms which are directly supported by governments in Australia.
Dr Clarke went on to say:
The rest of those people have to fend as they can, and in this case the point that we make in this section is that, where people suffer from these difficulties, they have to fight with the electoral commissioner, they have to apply, they have to disclose a considerable amount of distressing information—which is a further source of vulnerability for them—and they then have to fit into the very narrow constraint of 'because it places the personal safety of the elector or members of their immediate family at risk'. That is the only head that they are allowed to argue from. Then they depend on the grant of the discretion by the Electoral Commissioner. This is not something that represents care being taken by the federal parliament or by the Electoral Commissioner of the many people in Australia who are at risk.
This was compelling evidence given to the inquiry and at the end it is laid squarely in this chamber. I reiterate:
This is not something that represents care being taken by the federal parliament or by the Electoral Commissioner ...
We can hardly bring the Electoral Commissioner into it, can we? But this is what this bill is all about—this is what Dr Clark was talking about when he talked about the safety of these people. This is yet another unintended consequence resulting from Labor's gross oversight.
My short foray into the myriad practical problems with this legislation must be complemented by some comments on the broader ideas at play. The coalition not only are concerned about the impact that this will have on the integrity of the roll but also firmly believe in the responsibility of individual electors to maintain their enrolment details when they change addresses. As outlined in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters dissenting report on the 2010 election, the coalition note that it is the duty of each Australian citizen to: enrol to vote, accurately maintain their enrolment at their permanent place of residence, cast a vote when an election is called and fully extend preferences to all candidates contesting election for the House of Representatives in their local electorate. It is not an impost to vote—in many countries around the world people are dying to vote. Here we are, in this nanny situation we seem to be in, trying to take away people's responsibility to take part in the democracy they enjoy. How much we want to reach into people's lives is beyond comprehension.
The coalition does not believe this responsibility is too onerous for individual electors and opposes moves to water down this requirement. This Labor bill assumes that individual electors are unable to update their enrolment details when they change address and it is thus up to the government to do it for them. Senator Boyce made it very clear she did not want the government in the bathrooms watching the kids clean their teeth, and I thoroughly concur with her sentiments. Let us get governments out of the households, out of the businesses, out of people's lives and facilitate the taking up of responsibilities rather than, in this case, carrying out a thorough invasion of something that should be an aspiration of every 18-year-old—enrolling to vote.
Labor's changes undermine the very sense of civic duty that we should be encouraging; they encourage a timid deference to Labor's all-wise nanny state. These dramatic changes to these electoral procedures should not be enacted lightly. Why then do Labor and the Greens insist on doing away with due consideration and deliberation? This bill proposes myopic change for change's sake. In doing so, it risks undermining our democratic traditions for what is, at best, a way for so called progressives to feel better about the all too often elusive chimera of e-governance and, at worst, a shrewd electoral tactic for the Labor and Greens parties to exploit. While there are obviously some problems with the current system, such a radical and ill thought out series of changes to such fundamentals is unwarranted, and thus I cannot support this legislation. I urge all those in the chamber not to support it, either.
'Vote early, vote often' is an expression I have come to know and understand is used by people of a different political persuasion from myself. Vote early, vote often is a catchcry of people who seek to abuse the democratic political process by committing acts to subvert and undermine the integrity of the electoral roll. Vote early, vote often is a blight, is an attack, is a cancer on the way we do our democratic political business in this country. These provisions support and make much easier the subterfuge and the dishonesty described by the expression 'vote early, vote often'. These electoral and referendum amendment bills do nothing to protect the integrity of the roll—they take us in the opposite direction.
In Western Australia we have a Minister for Electoral Affairs, and we believe that enrolling is a right and a duty that is not too onerous and one that should be fulfilled by a deliberate act of each elector or potential elector. People should voluntarily and earnestly undertake the responsibilities of the democratic process. The situation with respect to Western Australia is, as I have said, that they have a separate stand-alone and independent Electoral Affairs portfolio. When the Howard government brought in the Langer amendment to the electoral laws to insist on full, consecutive numbering of House of Representatives ballots, the then Court government in Western Australia deliberately went the other way to allow for errors in numerical sequence. It is a minor point, but it is a significant one because it shows that partisanship is something that must not be able to enter into the fundamental operation of the electoral roll and its underlying philosophy through these bills. In Western Australia, for example, prisoners are disqualified from voting if sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment, whereas in the Commonwealth, by contrast, it is three years.
The joint roll arrangement between state and Commonwealth electoral administrators is very sensible. It is cost-effective. It means that there is a capacity to ensure that the people who elect a state government are close to being the same people who elect a Commonwealth government. In Western Australia, enrolment requires a witness. Under federal law, it is simply a matter of proof of identity. This results in limited numbers of people who are on one roll but not on the other—and this is a negative. This is something that does not advance the democratic process.
The discrepancy created by the automatic federal enrolment provisions contained in these bills will blow out the discrepancy between the legislative base of the roll in Western Australia and that of the Commonwealth roll. We can assume that the majority of apathetic enrollers will not enrol for state elections, so we will have the Commonwealth roll and the state roll heading in different directions. There will be one roll for the state and one roll for the Commonwealth. Furthermore, this situation apparently does not occur in New South Wales or Victoria, so we will have a plethora of electoral rolls state by state, with the Commonwealth assisting that by having a separate basis for enrolment—that is, automatic enrolment.
There will be major headaches in the joint electoral roll in Western Australia, and Western Australians resent having these changes foisted upon them through unilateral federal legislation. A joint but accurate electoral roll incorporating the same basis for federal and state enrolments, on a non-partisan basis, is sensible and efficient.
A joint roll in Western Australia will also have a greater capacity to deal with Indigenous people in particular. This is an important issue between state and federal elections, when different agencies try to analyse who is present in desert communities to work out who is going to be present on polling day and, indeed, present on the arrival of the mobile polling booth. And the basis of their participation—I am talking about the Central Reserve residents in Western Australia—should be the same. This legislation will make it more difficult, and the integrity of the electoral roll will come under greater threat. It assists those who believe in, as I mentioned earlier, the adage 'vote early, vote often'.
I turn briefly to automatic enrolment using databases. Automatic enrolment will occur without people's knowledge or consent. Here we are in the brave new world of government officials putting people and their details on the electoral roll without their consent or knowledge. I think that is a problem. Again, given that people have different names and given that the databases from which these names will be taken may have no integrity—or are not checked by anyone for their integrity—the integrity of the roll is under threat.
The coalition's concern with automatic enrolment is obviously, as I have said, to do with the integrity of the electoral roll. In enrolling people without their knowledge, there is a significant chance of errors occurring. There is the potential for electors who are not Australian citizens to be enrolled, again assisting the adage that I think sums up the threat to the integrity of our whole system: vote early, vote often. To enrol electors who are under 18, or electors who use different names, without their knowledge damages the integrity and the reliability of the roll, and that is the problem here. Having electoral officers acting on their best understanding is not satisfactory for maintaining the integrity of what is a very vital, basic ingredient of our democratic process.
As mentioned, following the inquiry into the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill, coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters noted in their dissenting report in July 2011 the risks of using external data sources such as the Australian Taxation Office, Medicare and other government agencies. They said:
The reliance on external data sources that have been collated and that are utilised for other purposes does not make them fit for use in forming the electoral roll. As outlined in the previous report into these proposals, a 1999 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration: Numbers on the Run—Review of the ANAO Report No.37 1998-99 on the Management of Tax FileNumbers, found that:
There were 3.2 million more Tax File Numbers than people in Australia at the last census.
Goodness only knows that rings a number of alarm bells and let me say fits right into the mischief I have portrayed in the expression 'vote early, vote often'. The quote goes on:
There were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals; 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match.
Similarly, an ANAO Audit Report (No.24 2004–05 Integrity of Medicare Enrolment Data) stated that ‘ANAO found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who are deceased’.
Vote early, vote often is given a much better opportunity here with this sort of nonsense going on referring to databases—tax databases, Medicare databases—which are completely inaccurate and have been an administrative nightmare for the Commonwealth for many years:
It is clear that where there are such examples of inconsistencies in Commonwealth data, there cannot be sufficient faith in this data being used to automatically update the people on the electoral roll.
One should not need to have to say that:
The potential for error is even greater when using data from state or territory governments, as the Commonwealth cannot—
roll its sleeves up, wade into state offices and determine the integrity and accuracy of that data. No access is available to Commonwealth officials to state offices :
The only way to ensure that the integrity of the Electoral Roll is maintained is to ensure electors continue to be responsible for changing their individual details.
That is the Australian way. That is the way we have done things in this country since 1901. It has served us well. Turning to the minister's second reading speech, he said on 23 November 2011:
This bill will allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly update an elector's enrolled address following receipt and analysis of reliable and current data sources from outside the Electoral Commission.
It might surprise you to know that the bill says nothing of the sort. Those words, 'reliable and current data sources', are not mentioned in the bill. Clause103A(1)(b) says that the Electoral Commissioner are simply needs to be:
satisfied, for reasons other than a claim under section 98 and a notice under subsection 101(5), that the person lives at another address—
in order to change a person's address. What on earth was the minister up to? Why would he say:
This bill will allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly update an elector's enrolled address following receipt ... of reliable and current data.
The Electoral Commissioner is not empowered to go exclusively to reliable and current data. He simply has to be satisfied. The minister is saying something here that is patently not true. I go on. In the same speech, the minister says:
This bill will enable the Electoral Commission to deliver a more accurate electoral roll. The Electoral Commissioner will be permitted to use accurate and timely information from reliable sources to maintain the current address of already enrolled electors.
The bill says nothing of the sort. We are being sold a pup here. The minister has dressed this up as something that is going to create greater integrity in the electoral role of the Commonwealth. It is not true. The Electoral Commissioner only has to be satisfied that there has been a change of some elector's address, on any basis. I could go to the Electoral Commissioner in say, 'Do you know Fred's moved two doors down?', and if the Electoral Commissioner believes me, he can change the address of that elector. Why would the minister not mandate, as he seems to imply he has, that the Electoral Commissioner must rely upon reliable and current data sources? He is, wittingly or unwittingly—and I will give him the benefit of the doubt—giving succour to the expression 'vote early, vote often'. He is undermining the integrity of our electoral system. Why would he say that? We all know you have to be able to find words in the bill. This bill does not only allow the Electoral Commissioner to use 'reliable and current data'. It just allows the Electoral Commissioner to do whatever he wants to do as long as he can say, 'I am satisfied.' There is no integrity whatsoever in this.
As with the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011, the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Amendment (Automatic Enrolment) Bill does not give a specific definition, as I have said, with respect to 'reliable and current data source'. There is no such definition; there is no reference. It is open to interpretation and we believe this power should not be within the purview of the commission; it should be laid out specifically on the bill. The coalition members of the joint standing committee noted this in July 2011 in their dissenting report. When they said:
We are concerned that the power to deem data sources ‘trusted’ in determining the use of such data in compiling the roll as a potential risk to the office. The inclusion of such data, if erroneous, would be extremely damaging to the public faith in our electoral process.
That is obvious. It continues:
Furthermore, the inclusion of such data may well be controversial due to lack of faith in its inclusion or utilisation.
Placing the Electoral Commissioner at the heart of such a potentially charged dispute can only damage the standing of the office and the AEC.
And may I add: and its independence and its reputation. The problem with all of this is that none of these amendments deal with the impact on special category electors. Special category electors are people who have decided to be silent electors, who are prisoners, general postal voters, Norfolk Island and Antarctic electors and itinerant electors, including homeless electors. These electors are absolutely problematic for the terms of these two bills.
Let us just take silent electors. The risk we have here, with this proposition, is that the Electoral Commissioner will change or publicise the electoral details of a silent elector through administrative oversight or will not record or will record a change of address for one of those other categories of elector. In the case of silent electors, an application for enrolment requires that the applicant sign a statutory declaration that they meet specific requirements. The bill does not provide separate provisions relating to special category electors. One possible consequence of automatic enrolment, as anticipated in these bills, is that an elector who is enrolled under one of the special categories can potentially have their enrolment updated and lose their status, as I have said, as a special category elector.
The AEC has indicated that special category electors would be administratively excluded from the process of matching data from external agencies. I would not want to leave it to chance. I would want to put it in the bill. How difficult is it to mandate the fact that special category electors shall have their special category preserved, notwithstanding the provisions of this legislation? There is the wording of the act; it is that simple. In New South Wales there is no specific provision in the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act that excludes special category electors from being part of the automatic enrolment process. They have problems with that. The legislation states:
While special category electors are proposed to be excluded by administrative rules from the automatic enrolment process, it may be appropriate—
Perhaps I will start at the same place that my colleague Senator Johnston did when he talked about vote early and vote often. This is a phrase that has often been used. It had its origins, as I understand, in the United States in the mid-19th century. Apparently, it had an early appearance in Britain when a newspaper reprinted correspondence from an American solicitor. But, of course, the phrase did not receive widespread recognition until its usage in the early 1900s, when it was used in relation to the activities of organised crime figures in Chicago, and it was best known in the form of Mr Al Capone.
So goodness knows! We have certainly seen this practice quite a lot in New South Wales. In particular, in recent elections, we had quite a number of instances with the usual people, inevitably from the union movement, turning up at different polling booths and well and truly advocating the Labor motto of voting early and voting often. Even when you take photographs of them and produce that sort of evidence, nothing much seems to be done; it is just not something that we worry too much about. And if the votes do not make too much difference for that particular electorate, why bother doing anything about it?
Senator Abetz, in his contribution to this debate, made reference to being a lone voice in relation to identification and the need to produce identification. I assure him that he is not a lone voice in this matter. I, too, share a hope that one day we will have photographic ID needed to be produced to vote. Also, I would like to go a little bit further. My personal view is that we should be voting in our own ward areas. I have had occasion over the years, being of Italian background, to observe the Italian political system. The Italians have got voting down to a fine art. They do it a lot. They have done it very often in recent history and certainly they seem to have perfected it to the point where they require not only your ID but also voting in your local ward, which could probably go a long way to resolving some of these issues and problems.
I now turn to the bills before us, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012. Certainly of concern to the coalition is the impact these bills will have on the integrity of the roll; but, more importantly, this goes to the question of responsibility of the individual elector. In Australia we talk about rights and responsibilities as citizens. We go to citizenship ceremonies. We often hear our rights and responsibilities talked about.
Our responsibilities as citizens include enrolling to vote, accurately maintaining our enrolment at our permanent place of residence, casting a vote when an election is called, fully extending preferences to all candidates contesting election for the House of Representatives in their local electorates and other responsibilities. But there are also rights and a very important right in this area is to know that the system you are participating in is one that is characterised by full integrity, a system that you can have faith in, a system that is fully transparent. That is your right as a citizen in this country. I do not think it is too onerous on us as citizens to have the responsibility to enrol and to keep our enrolment updated. It is the very least we can do.
Senator Abetz made reference to the reason for the urgency of this bill. I asked myself the same question and thought that an election is perhaps in the wind. But, as Senator Abetz correctly pointed out, it is very clear, and history has shown many times, that when the Labor Party think they are going out of office they always try to shut the door on the way out to make life a lot harder for those who come after them—whether that means leaving a huge bill to pay or something like this legislation. Perhaps an election is in the wind. Perhaps Mr Rudd will finally have the numbers, and if he becomes the prime minister he might suddenly decide that everyone loves him to go to an election. But we will wait and see.
Let us look at some of the concerns that were raised in relation to this legislation by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I will start with the integrity of the roll. As parliamentarians, we are entitled to know that the roll is accurate and reliable. Errors, and the potential for errors, create difficulties and there is far more opportunity for fraud to occur under the proposals before us. It is very clear that the Greens-Labor alliance consistently plays down the issue of the integrity of the electoral roll. In the joint standing committee report there was a recommendation that the data sources used by the Australian Electoral Commission to automatically enrol voters should be subject to disallowance by the parliament, but that has now disappeared in this legislation, because we are now going to outsource this to the Australian Electoral Commission. Without denigrating the AEC, outsourcing to a bureaucracy causes an even more worrying situation, because of the scope for error—and, dare I say, fraud—if that data is hacked into or some other problem arises.
Another concern is that the bill does not give a specific definition of what the Electoral Commission may regard as a reliable and current source from which to change an elector's details. What is a reliable and current source? This, of course, is open to interpretation. I would have thought that as a very pertinent point it should have been clearly defined and delineated in this legislation, but it has not been. Therefore, as coalition senators have said, we are concerned that the power to deem data sources trusted in determining the use of such data in compiling the roll is a potential risk to the office. As they continue, the inclusion of such data, if erroneous, would be extremely damaging to public faith in our electoral process. Furthermore, the inclusion of such data may well be controversial due to lack of faith in its inclusion or utilisation. They go on to say that placing the Electoral Commissioner at the heart of such a potentially politically charged dispute can only damage the standing of the Australian Electoral Commission.
Another concern is that people will be automatically enrolled. The bill does not specify which data sources are considered to be reliable sources, and there are no restrictions on the data sources the AEC can use to enrol an elector. There are no provisions for specifying the standard of proof the AEC needs to be able to enrol an elector. Every single one of these things is left in the air, left open to interpretation, which 99 times out of 100 may not necessarily lead to any problem. But for that one occasion when there is a potentially politically charged dispute, it can, as I have said, only damage the standing of the office of the AEC. During the hearing, we learnt that the Australian Electoral Commission would use information from Centrelink and state government road and traffic authorities. It had previously stated that information from Australia Post could also be used. Well, well, well. We saw with the mailing of the $900 cheques that some went to people who were deceased or even to family pets. What sort of reliability would that lend to a system based on similar data sources in relation to this legislation?
Previous speakers have referred to the ANAO report of 1998-99, which outlined that there were 3.2 million more tax file numbers than people in Australia when the last census was conducted at that time, that there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records for individuals and that 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match. Previous speakers have also highlighted, and I wish to reiterate, the serious assault on the integrity of the system by these proposals. ANAO Audit report No. 24 2004-05: Integrity of Medicare enrolment data found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who were deceased.
Another issue of concern is automatic enrolment. How many people will find their way onto the electoral roll who are not eligible to be on the electoral roll? We have seen the potential for spelling inaccuracies, so people may be enrolled under names with a combination of different spellings, and suddenly two or three voters are registered to vote when in effect there is really only one person. Where is the integrity in the system when you cannot ascertain an individual's eligibility to enrol? Has the potential for errors that can occur as a result of automatic enrolment been examined or has there simply been a process by the AEC of assuming that there will be errors but downplaying the effect that can have? It is like double voting at elections: unless the result gets really close, why bother about it? We are not going to pursue the issue. Again, there is a focus on issues of integrity.
Dr Roger Clarke from the Australian Privacy Foundation told the JSCEM roundtable hearing on 29 February 2012:
We are not aware of any risk assessment having been performed. We were not aware of any privacy impact assessment having been performed. We were not aware of consultation processed which the Electoral Commissioner has just referred to. We are not aware of the APF or any of the civil liberties organisations being involved in any of those.
It goes on and on. This legislation clearly has a deficiency in the risk assessment process, which, as I said, goes to the very heart of our democracy. Proper risk assessment of this legislation was not undertaken.
Dr Clarke was also very concerned that this legislation enables electors to be put on the electoral roll without their knowledge and for their address details to then be made available to members of the public, who can view the roll. There are legitimate concerns for victims of domestic violence or people who may be involved in custody disputes or those sorts of areas, where, for safety reasons, it is legitimate for that information to be suppressed. But of course this will all go on the roll automatically without the silent elector status being properly adhered to.
Then of course we come to fraudulent voting. I have mentioned before that I think the attitude to that has certainly been evident in the failure to prosecute any cases of fraudulent voting. This is despite the fact that, as the joint standing committee indicated, at the 2007 election there were over 20,000 multiple votes. An important point that was also picked up at the inquiry was the fact that when you enrol there is a signature, there is a verification of details, and that will not occur with automatic enrolment. That further waters down the possibility of prosecution for fraudulent voting. Not only do we have an attitude issue here—'It is not important; we will not worry about it'—but we are making it even harder by not having a proper verification process that at least allows you to have a signature on the record.
I take the opportunity to commend the HS Chapman Society for the work they do in relation to electoral fraud. They are very vigilant and they are very consistent in pursuing these matters. I place on the public record my admiration for the work they do. As members of the society who have approached me have said, despite their efforts at various elections to produce evidence of electoral fraud to various electoral commissions, regrettably the attitude remains the same. It is not a high priority. They do not want to know too much about it, despite certain instances in which there has even been photographic evidence.
I would like to look at some issues relating to difficulties with automatic enrolment, which have been evidenced in particular in New South Wales and Victoria. Automatic enrolment at recent state elections has meant that a number of electors in those states are enrolled only for state and not for federal elections, given the differences in the two sets of legislation. People who may have been enrolled for one think that they may have been enrolled for both. So, all in all, it is little wonder that the coalition will not be supporting this legislation.