Thursday, 16 August 2012
Electoral Matters Committee; Report
by leave—I move :
That the Senate take note of the report.
Apart from one particular change, the bill proposed by the government has the support of the opposition. There are a couple of issues I would like to highlight, because the committee report proposes a change to the legislation introduced by the minister in the other place. That change is to the terminology that is used to exclude people from voting. The current terminology excludes people who are of 'unsound mind'—as defined by a medical practitioner—from voting. The proposal is to change that to what one might call more modern terminology. The committee received some evidence from community groups, essentially complaining that the term has a pejorative meaning. But the committee—and this is a very important point—rejected those particular concerns, for several reasons.
Firstly, it is proposed in the bill that the wording be changed to use the definition of a 'qualified person' that is in the Freedom of Information Act. I believe that would inadvertently result in a wider exclusion of people from voting. The legal terminology around the term 'unsound mind' and a certificate being provided only by a qualified medical practitioner is about as narrow as we can get. It has an established legal meaning, there is an established process and, while there are some concerns about some doctors signing such a certificate—and there were complaints about that—changing the wording as proposed in the legislation would widen the definition and potentially exclude many more people from voting.
Secondly, it was also a concern of the opposition that the definition of a 'qualified person' as contained in the bill was too wide. I do not mean this in a pejorative way, but I would not want someone who is not qualified in medicine—someone who might be a social worker of some variety as opposed to a medical practitioner—to determine whether or not someone had the right to vote. Generally in Australia we like to expand the franchise and encourage as many people as possible to vote; in fact, we make it compulsory. We make enrolment as easy as possible. I believe that the wording proposed by the government could have inadvertently excluded more people.
The other contentious issue in this bill was the substantial increase in nomination requirements, particularly for this chamber, in terms of the number of nominators required, the number of nominators required for people who want to run on a group ticket and avail voters of above-the-line voting, and also nomination fees. There were some concerns that this would restrict the right of people to be candidates. It is important to put this in historical context. A couple of thousand dollars as a nomination fee may seem steep, but the nomination fee for the first federal election in one of our states was £25—which was a hell of a lot more money in 1900 than $2,000 is today. It still represents a substantial reduction in the nomination fee in real terms from our first federal election.
There is also a problem in access to the ballot paper. The New South Wales Senate ballot paper is now as big as can possibly be printed in the time allowed under the Electoral Act, and it is as big as can be printed on a flat-sheet printer. There is no bigger ballot paper available to be printed in the time the Electoral Act allows for ballot papers to be available for postal votes and pre-poll voting. The font size on the New South Wales Senate ballot paper is now down to 9 point. I do not mean to be too technical here but this is going to start impacting, particularly for senior Australians and those with eyesight problems, on the right to vote. We cannot make the ballot paper bigger. I believe the person who sits in front of me, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, whose name has a hyphen, has her name carried over to two lines on the ballot paper because the width cannot be fitted on the ballot paper with the sheer number of other candidates.
It is an important issue to restrict those candidates who some might say are not serious in running in order to maintain the ballot paper at a feasible size and not reach the tablecloth proportions that we did in the 1999 New South Wales Legislative Council election. We do not want to have multiple lines on the ballot paper because that could potentially impact on the fairness of the ballot. I put to the chamber and the people that a $2,000 nomination fee is not extraordinary in this modern era, especially given the historical context. Saying that, I seek leave to continue my remarks.
The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012 amends postal voting arrangements, increases nomination deposits for Senate and House of Representatives candidates, increases the nominators required for unendorsed candidates in Senate groups, changes the unsound mind exemption from enrolment to voting, and covers minor and technical amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
The committee supports the changes to schedules 1 and 2 of the bill. However, it has some concerns about schedule 3's changes to the unsound mind provision and has recommended certain amendments. Schedule 3 proposes to change the unsound mind provision in subsection 93(8) of the electoral act. That section exempts a person from enrolling and voting if they are incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting. Thousands of people are using this provision every year. They may be facing temporary or ongoing mental health challenges that compromise their capacity to cast a vote. It is generally someone close to the affected person who will seek to have that person exempted under subsection 93(8). The Australian Electoral Commission cannot initiate a removal from the roll on these grounds.
The committee is sensitive to community concerns that the phrase 'unsound mind' is offensive and that the provision prevents people from voting. Given Australia's system of compulsory enrolment and voting, it is useful to have a mechanism to address this to protect the integrity of elections and to assist those who are unable to meet the enrolment and voting obligations. Based on the evidence received, the committee is not satisfied that there is any pressing need to remove or substitute the phrase 'unsound mind'. It is an established phrase with meaning in the law. The committee has recommended retaining the phrase 'unsound mind' in subsection 93(8). To remove it risks broadening the exemption and potentially disenfranchising electors.
The committee also supports keeping the current requirement for a certificate from a medical practitioner. With other professions such as psychiatrists and social workers making these determinations, it could fairly disenfranchise people if these additional qualified people are less stringent in judging a person's capacity to understand the significance of enrolment and voting.
I now turn to schedules 1 and 2 of the bill, relating to postal voting and nomination requirements. In referring the bill, the selection committee noted that the bill was ambiguous in relation to specific changes being made to processing postal vote applications. In its review of the bill, the committee found that a number of the changes relating to postal votes largely reflected existing AEC practices. These changes will simply ensure that the electoral act correctly outlines the processes that have evolved to help ensure efficient processing of postal vote applications (PVAs) and the distribution of postal vote packages (PVPs). Most PVAs are already processed centrally and PVPs distributed through the AEC central prints system—93 per cent for the 2010 federal election. At the next election there will also be the option to apply online. These online applications will be centrally processed.
The divisional returning office is no longer the main conduit for postal voting activities; however, the electoral commissioner will continue to delegate his power in relation to postal votes to the divisional returning officers (DROs) and other AEC officers. This change will not affect the way in which individuals and political parties interact with their DROs on postal voting matters. As is the current practice, political parties will still be able to distribute PVAs with campaigning material, receive completed PVAs and forward them to the relevant DRO.
In the case of issuing PVPs to a person rather than specifically to an elector, the AEC indicated that it already uses PVPs to unmatched applicants who are not found on the electoral roll. The returned ballot papers are then subject to further scrutiny and then admitted to the count only if the person is verified to be an elector. This is in keeping with the approach taken with declaration voters.
While having a variety of candidates is a feature of Australia's democracy, a large number of candidates means an expanded ballot paper and increases the complexity of the voting task for electors. Setting appropriate nomination requirements is one way to help ensure that prospective candidates appreciate the seriousness of their participation in the electoral process and that they can demonstrate some community support for their candidacy. Increasing the nomination deposit from $1,000 to $2,000 for Senate candidates and from $500 to $1,000 for House of Representatives candidates is reasonable and appropriate.
The increase from 50 to 100 nominators required for candidates not endorsed by a political party is reasonable. It is important that unendorsed candidates be able to demonstrate community support for their candidacy. Similarly, if unendorsed candidates wish to be grouped on a Senate ballot paper, it is appropriate that each member of a Senate group be able to demonstrate community support for the grouping. The bill will increase the nominators from 50 for the whole group to 100 per candidate, as the proposed new requirement is for unendorsed candidates to have 100 nominators. They should be able to draw on this support base to secure their Senate group box.
On behalf of the committee I thank the organisations and individuals who assisted the committee during the inquiry through submissions or participating at the roundtable discussion in Canberra. I also thank my colleagues on the committee for their work and contribution to this report and the secretariat for their work on this inquiry. I commend the report to the Senate and seek leave to continue my remarks.
The Greens do not support some of the recommendations of the parliamentary committee inquiry into the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Procedure) Bill 2012. Those recommendations that increase nomination requirements for candidates are problematic. Schedule 1 to the bill will modernise postal voting provisions to facilitate the use of technology to improve the way in which postal vote applications are made and processed, directing all applications to either the Electoral Commissioner an assistant returning officer. We support these aspects of the recommendations. The Greens support those aspects of the bill except the Australian Electoral Commission's position that the legislation update existing laws to bring them into line with current practices. They certainly are important developments. However, we have serious concerns that the proposed increased nomination fees and the number of nominators required to nominate as a candidate are undemocratic, and will unfairly disadvantage small parties and candidates.
Doubling the nomination fee to $1,000 for a House of Representatives candidate and $2,000 for a Senate candidate, and the number of nominators for an unendorsed candidate from 50 to 100 nominators, creates an undue barrier to small parties seeking to participate in the electoral system. It actually creates an equity issue for small parties and people on low incomes. It also makes the cost of running a full ticket in the Senate close to prohibitive for small players. The Greens certainly acknowledge that with the size of the Senate ballot paper becoming very large, particularly in New South Wales, we have a problem. We need to find the balance here. So we can see why a higher threshold for nominating in the Senate has been considered. But a candidate should be able to demonstrate that they have a genuine pool of supporters.
The Greens very much believe that a foundation of democracy is to recognise the right of voters to run in elections. We see that these measures combine to create a difficult hurdle for small parties and candidates to clear, and could work to discourage participation in the electoral system. So the Greens will not be supporting this aspect of the bill and will move amendments to remove those aspects, and to restore a fairer system in terms of people who choose to run for office, when the bill comes before the Senate. I thank the Australian Electoral Commission for their advice, their evidence and their submissions that they provided when we were considering this bill, as well as all those who put in submissions and the other committee members. I always find these issues about how to improve our electoral system very interesting.