ELECTORAL AND REFERENDUM AMENDMENT (MAINTAINING ADDRESS) BILL 2011 & ELECTORAL AND REFERENDUM AMENDMENT (PROTECTING ELECTOR PARTICIPATION) BILL 2012
March 21, 2012
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:06): There have already been many excellent contributions this morning on these bills before the House. I congratulate the member for Herbert on his contribution and those who have spoken before me in this place highlighting the great value we must place on our democracy. We should never take for granted the opportunity to vote and choose who represents us in this place.
This debate goes to the core of what it means to play an active role in this great democracy we have in Australia. Like many members I get the opportunity to speak to school groups on a regular basis. When I talk to them I often raise what I consider are core values in our community: respect and responsibility. I tell the students it is important they respect others and they should respect themselves and the skills and abilities they have within themselves. It is important they try to achieve their best and make a contribution to our great nation. When I mention responsibilities I encourage them, once they turn 18, to make sure they enrol to vote. I often refer to it. I say, ‘One of the responsibilities you have as an Australian citizen is making sure that once you turn 18 you enrol to vote and have your say in the future of this great nation.’
I welcome the school group that has just walked in here today and encourage them, right now, that when they get to the age of 18 they enrol to vote and come into the polling booths, when the time presents for them, and make a choice of who will represent them in their electorates. It is an important thing. It is a responsibility we should never take for granted.
The member for Herbert was correct when he said that the right to vote is precious. He, like me, writes to new members of his electorate, when they change their enrolment details, and introduces himself. It is not very hard for people when they move to our electorates to change their roll status, to make sure they keep it up to date. I do not believe it too onerous to place that responsibility on our citizens, but it is something this bill seeks to change.
I know it is not fashionable to be standing up in parliament or standing up in school classrooms and talking about responsibilities. We have seen a progression over many years, at state and federal level, of a nanny state approach by this government and the Greens parliamentary team. I am concerned that these bills before the House send a message from the Labor Party and the Greens that they do not trust Australian people with this core responsibility of making sure that their electoral roll details are up to date. It is a bizarre judgment to be making upon our community—that you cannot be trusted with the most basic responsibility of making sure you are enrolled to vote, that your details are updated when you move and that you exercise your rights at an election.
I refer to the dissenting reports which were submitted by coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. I congratulate the coalition members of that committee: the member for Mackellar who is a fierce champion of issues relating to electoral integrity, the member for Fairfax, Senator Ryan and Senator Birmingham for their contributions to the dissenting report. The key issue they raised in this reportwas the integrity of the roll.
I am sure that even the most casual observer would understand that the integrity of the roll is very important. The importance of it is very clear to the most casual observer. The recent election is a great example of that. There was not a clear majority; there were many seats won on a wafer-thin margin. That has always been the case. In fact, the member for Hinkler was telling me just the other day that in the seven elections he has contested four of them have been won by a margin of less than 500 votes. They are very close results. No wonder the member for Hinkler is turning grey in this place. It is important in those very close results that the people in that electorate, and the broader Australian community, have confidence in the integrity of the roll. If they are to accept the result of these very close-run contests they must have confidence in the integrity of the roll. These are the key concerns that the coalition members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters raised in their dissenting report.
Their concerns were that the legislation will severely damage the integrity of the electoral roll by adding new electors, who may not be entitled to vote, without their knowledge and potentially without their consent should the elector not receive the Australian Electoral Commission’s notice of enrolment. The concerns about integrity in the report go on to state: ‘When the responsibility for enrolling and updating individual elector details is taken from the individual and given to the AEC’, as this bill will do, ‘the potential for errors to occur is significant. It also opens up the roll to fraud.’ The Labor and Greens members of JSCEM as well as the Australian Electoral Commission seem to consistently downplay this issue of the integrity of the electoral roll. It was the member for Mackellar who made this very clear and highlighted the critical importance, from a legal point of view, of the electoral roll being reliable and accurate at all times.
This leads me to concern about the sources of information that are proposed for updating the roll under the government’s approach in the legislation as it is presented to the House. As the dissenting report indicates, the AEC has said in its submission to the inquiry that it will use Centrelink and state government records from the Roads and Traffic Authority. As previously stated, information from Australia Post will not be used. The use of these agencies is not legislated but they are merely stated as sources the AEC considers reliable, without providing any evidence to establish the reliability of this information. The dissenting report states that in reality the AEC could use any data source it sees fit, including records from the tax office or Medicare. The coalition has previously highlighted in its dissenting reports to the JSCEM inquiries into the 2010 federal election and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 the extraordinary risk of using those agencies, given the high number of duplicate records.
The coalition has great concern that individuals not entitled to vote may be added to the roll because of this bill. They go to the core of our issues in relation to the integrity of the roll. For all the reasons I previously mentioned it is clear that the first responsibility of the AEC is to uphold the integrity of the roll. But there is a concern with the direction we are seeing, through this bill, that the AEC is tending to focus now on maximising the number of people on the roll. It is a point that was raised during the inquiry process by Dr Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation. In his submission he said:
I believe part of the problem is that the presumption is that there is a desire to maximise the number of people on the rolls. I do not believe that is an appropriate objective. The notion of the vote is a right—it is an entitlement—and turning it into an obligation, which is what that entails, I just do not believe is appropriate in a democratic process. The intention should be to maximise people’s opportunity to enrol and to vote, and this goes well beyond that.
It is not much to expect eligible Australians to actually enrol to vote when they turn 18 and then make sure that their details are kept up to date. That is a responsibility that best rests with the individual and not with the state. During this debate we have heard a lot of discussion about what could be the motive of the government in relation to this issue: why is the government seeking to move in this direction? The government’s view seems to be: ‘Simply trust us. We know what is right for you. You can trust us to do the right thing.’ The member for Bradfield in his contribution highlighted that those on this side of the House have every reason to question that motive—and I am not going to go through the long history he outlined—but, when it comes to manipulating the roll for political advantage, the Australian people simply have no reason to trust a government which is saying: trust us. I think there is an enormous trust deficit between the current government and the Australian people. You only need to refer to the famous quote from our current Prime Minister that ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’ to understand that fundamental breach of trust.
The coalition has concerns, first of all, with the motives of the Labor Party and the Greens in relation to these bills before the House, but there are also concerns that it will make it more difficult to investigate and prosecute cases of alleged fraudulent voting. In the dissenting report it was highlighted by the coalition members that they had some level of disappointment about the failure of the AEC to prosecute any cases of fraudulent voting stemming from the 2007 legislation despite there being over 20,000 cases of multiple votes at that election.
I would like to refer to Senator Scott Ryan’s contribution in the dissenting report in which he raised a valid point about how this legislation would make it harder for the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute cases of fraudulent voting. When electors are put on the roll automatically, potentially, without their knowledge or consent, there will no longer be a signature available for the returning officer to compare it to, if an elector is making a declaration vote. Senator Ryan said:
If there are cases of potential electoral fraud, that is one less piece of evidence the commission will have in its armoury.
You currently have a form that you can compare signatures to if, for example, people are using declaration votes and have to sign the envelope. That will not be available under these provisions.
I think these are legitimate and well-founded concerns on this side of the House about the motives of the bill put before us today and the need for these bills in the first place. I believe they are unnecessary. I think they are intrusive and have the potential to undermine the integrity of the electoral roll. As I have stated earlier, I believe it is a nanny state provision that should be resisted in this place.
I think this is more about Labor and the Greens seeking to achieve some form of political advantage than actual genuine electoral reform that will boost confidence in our democracy. I believe it will have the reverse impact: it will erode confidence in the integrity of the roll. My greatest concern is that the key elements of these bills have the capacity to weaken rather than strengthen the integrity of the electoral roll. I join my colleagues in the coalition in opposing these bills.
The bottom line is: it simply should not be up to the AEC to determine when a person has moved; it is up to the individual to notify the AEC, as is their duty as an Australian citizen. I do not believe that is too much of an onerous responsibility to place on the Australian people. Being an Australian citizen bestows great rights upon a person, and we all benefit from those rights that, sadly, too many Australians have fought and died for in conflicts in the history of our great nation. It also places some important responsibilities on our citizens. Our citizens are expected to uphold the laws of the land, to make a contribution in whatever way they can to our great nation. But, surely, one of these responsibilities which remains and can remain into the future is to enrol to vote and maintain the accuracy of your own address and to exercise that right and that responsibility at election time. I have great faith and every confidence and trust in the Australian people that they can exercise that responsibility into the future. I am worried this government does not believe they have that capacity.
This government seems to think so little of the Australian people that they do not believe they can be trusted with even that most basic responsibility. They are taking away that responsibility, which I believe sets a very negative precedent. The level of government influence in our lives is already quite extraordinary. We are subject to a ridiculous array of restrictions on our activities under nanny state laws and regulations that send the message that people simply cannot be trusted to accept responsibility for their own actions. We in this place need to push back at every opportunity when more of these nanny state intrusive regulations are placed before us. As I have said, this is a bad move. It is unjustified and it should not be supported in this House or any other place.