Australia missing 1.5 million voters (20/03/2012)

09 January 2013

voting.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (19:29): 2012 is the Year of Enrolment. I find it absolutely breathtaking that the member for Canning chose, in his contribution to this debate on the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and cognate Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012, to celebrate the Year of Enrolment by seriously proposing that we disenfranchise the poor people who live in caravan parks and the people who fly in and fly out for their work. That is what he is seriously proposing. He stood up just a moment ago and objected to the electoral and referendum amendment bills on the basis that they would provide a vote for people who reside in caravan parks or people whose occupations are as fly-in fly-out workers. What a way to celebrate the Year of Enrolment!

2012 marks two significant federal electoral events: the centenary of compulsory enrolment and the 50th anniversary of the Indigenous right to vote. Since the scheme of compulsory enrolment commenced in 1912 it has served this country very well. It marks one of the differences between the political system of this country and that of our friend and ally the United States of America, which does not have a system of compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting.

Since 18 June 1962 all Aboriginal people have been entitled to enrol and to vote at federal elections and referenda. From that date, Aboriginal people were able to take up the franchise alongside eligible British subjects, aged 21 years or more. In 1973, as we know, the voting age dropped from 21 to 18 years of age. In 2001 an Australian National Audit Office investigation found that the electoral roll was around 95 per cent complete. That is not good enoughbut it is not a bad result when you compare it with international standings.

I regret that since 2001 the situation with regard to electoral enrolment has deterioratedso much so that the Australian Electoral Commission now estimates that only 90 per cent of eligible Australian citizens are enrolled to vote. That means that around 1 million Australian citizens do not exercise their electoral franchise to choose their representatives in parliament and in others. It also means that 1 million Australians do not have a say in referenda proposals to amend Australia's Constitution.

This situation calls for action. I commend the actions of the Special Minister of State, the member for Brandwho is in the chamber at the momentfor taking that action and bringing these bills before the House. We must do what we can to ensure that those missing 1 million Australians are included on the electoral roll and are able to exercise one of the most important rights and responsibilities of their citizenship: the right to vote.

As part of its celebration of the Year of Enrolment, the Australian Electoral Commission is conducting a campaign to enrol those 1.5 million eligible Australians who are not on the Commonwealth roll, which is good news. It is a worthy endeavour, and I wish them well in reaching their target. Australia has a proud history of ensuring access to the franchise for federal, state and local government elections. That is why, together with the Year of Enrolment campaign by the AEC, the legislation before the House today is so very important. As members of parliament we share the aims of the enrolment projector at least we on this side of the House do. We each have our part to play. As members of parliament we each work daily to engage with our constituents to help them engage with the work that we do in this place in their name. It is in Australia's national interest that in each electorate we have an active constituency that engages in the democratic process and that can make an informed decision at election time, in its best interests.

It is important that we ensure that electoral legislation does not create unreasonable barriers for those who qualify for enrolment and voting and who, rightfully, expect to be able to exercise their franchise at elections and referenda. Unfortunately, between elections some constituents can drop off the electoral roll. Between elections the AEC works hard to maintain the integrity of the electoral roll and to ensure that those who are eligible to vote are correctly enrolled. The AEC utilises a number of strategiesstrategies the member for Canning was just complaining aboutaimed at providing electors and potential electors with opportunities to enrol or update electoral enrolment details. For example, enrolment forms are widely available from AEC offices and the AEC website and from the Post Office, Centrelink offices and the like. The AEC also uses approaches to facilitate the updating of the electoral roll, including visits to residences, mail-outs to residences, mail reviewsin which the AEC writes to residents and to addresses seeking updated electoral roll informationadvertising designed to raise awareness of the need to update enrolment details, and attendance and provision of information at citizenship ceremonies.

I pause to make the observation that the member for Canning said that this is critical work, although at times he criticised some of the work done. I would submit that this critical work is going to be made all the more difficult if those on the other side of the House have their way. We know their plan at present is to slash 12,000 Public Service jobsto push 12,000 public servants from their jobsand we can only anticipate that a good number of those public servants would be from the Australian Electoral Commission. We also know that 12,000 public servants is only the tip of the iceberg. If those opposite are to fill their $70 billion black hole it will take a lot more than 12,000 public servants. Agencies like the Australian Electoral Commission will be in the firing line. Jobs in the Australian Electoral Commission will be at risk, and the capacity to fulfil those important approaches to ensuring and maintaining the integrity of the electoral roll will be at risk. The AEC will not be able to do the things it has routinely been able to do to maintain the integrity of the Commonwealth electoral roll.

So what is this legislation? What is Labor's approach to dealing with these issues? We have two bills before the House. The first bill, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2012, amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984. This bill, in line with other legislation brought before this place by the Special Minister of State, implements the recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and its report into the 2007 federal election. In examining the electoral issues arising from this election and in its report, this committee has done important work for our electoral franchise. The main focus of the committee's work was to look at whether changes made to enrolment and voting provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act by the previous Howard government had the effect of enabling or restricting the franchise and, if the changes were found to be restrictive, whether those restrictions were in any way offset by the achievement of greater electoral integrity in the lead-up to and at the 2007 election. That is to say, in shorthand, were the changes that were brought into place by the previous Howard government restrictive? Did they deny people their right to exercise their vote in a Commonwealth election?

As we know, preceding the 2007 election were a number of legislative changes that significantly altered the processes for applying to be on the electoral roll, updating enrolment details and voting. At the 2007 election, election enrolment saw an increase of just 1,466 electors over the close-of-roll enrolment figures. History has told that some of these changes have subsequently been chucked out by the High Court of Australia and the legislation was returned to its pre-amendment condition. But this legislation furthers the work. The bills before the House further the job that needs to be done to ensure people are not denied their right to vote.

The joint standing committee report found this to be an extremely low increase compared to the high of 97,425 electors added to the roll in 1998 and the previous low of 35,671 electors added in 1993. I will not use the word 'rort' but you can see that the changes put in place by the former Howard government had the effect, in the 2007 election, of denying somewhere between 34,000 and 95,000 Australians their right to vote. On that basis alone these bills should enjoy the support of every member of this House.

The committee report found the significant decline from 2004 to 2007 to be the product of the legislative changes that were made between 2004 and 2007, when those on the other side had control of the House. The bill before the House can be seen in one sense as remedial legislation, restoring to those affected Australians the right to vote at the next election.

The second measure, the maintaining addresses bill, will allow the Australian Electoral Commissioner to directly update an elector's enrolled address following receipt and analysis of reliable and current data sources from outside the AEC that indicate an elector has moved residential address. The bill will implement the intent of the government response to recommendation 10 of the report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the JSCEM report, on the conduct of the 2007 election. The bill will assist in meeting the urgent need to arrest the decline in enrolment rates across Australia by ensuring that the federal electoral roll is as current and accurate as possible.

The second bill, the protecting elector participation bill, will amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act to provide for direct enrolment and reinstatement to the electoral roll of certain persons casting declaration votes. This protecting elector participation bill implements the government's legislative response to recommendations 1 and 24 of the JSCEM report on the 2010 federal election. The proposed bill will amend the Electoral Act to allow the Electoral Commissioner to use accurate and timely information, received from reliable sources, to enrol an eligible person without the person submitting a claim for enrolment. Direct enrolment will assist in meeting the urgent need to arrest the decline in enrolment rates across Australia. It is a measure that is in place in many state jurisdictions of Australia and works very well.

The amendments will provide that, where a declaration voter who is entitled to vote has been omitted from the electoral roll, and the omission was due to an error or mistake of fact, his or her vote may progress to further scrutiny in certain circumstances. The bill will also amend the Electoral Act to provide that the Electoral Commissioner may enrol a person who meets certain criteria. Reinstatement to the electoral roll and the admission of votes to scrutiny will assist in ensuring that the votes of otherwise eligible electors are counted.

Amendments in both these bills are needed as soon as practicable to ensure that the measures are implemented to deliver an accurate electoral roll before the next federal election. Australia has a tradition of inclusive entitlement to the voting franchise; it is what distinguishes us from many other countries around the world. It is why we have a healthy and robust democracy. It is something that all Australians should be very proud of. This inclusive franchise has been a feature of federal elections throughout our history as a nation. The bill before the House today strengthens that franchise. For these reasons and all the reasons adumbrated by those on this side of the House, I commend the legislation.