Speech - 21 June 2012
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:09): I rise to support the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Maintaining Address) Bill 2011 and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill 2012.
As we know, these bills arise from considerable work by many members of parliament and senators in this parliament over many years and specifically from the work of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to review how our electoral system is operating. I have great interest in these matters, as, I know, many of my colleagues do also, having a deep commitment to ensure that as many people as possible participate in our democratic processes.
The Greens have been in discussion with the government and with many other parties about this important work to ensure that the electoral rolls are well maintained and kept up to date. In New South Wales, we have already achieved a breakthrough, and much of what is set out in this legislation already applies in New South Wales and to some extent Victoria. I will come back to that in more detail because it is relevant to the current debate and shines a light on some of the attitudes and comments of coalition members.
The proportion of eligible people on the roll has fallen in recent years, which I think should trouble all of us. It has gone from 95 per cent a decade ago to around 90 per cent today. But when you look at some age categories their take-up rate for putting their names on rolls is quite worrying. The percentage of eligible voters who actually cast a vote is, as we know, much lower; it was 78 per cent in 2010.
The most recent estimates suggest that about 1.6 million eligible Australians are not enrolling to vote. I think that figure alone tells us that the current system is not working. Analysis by the Australian National Audit Office suggests that, for the younger age groups, the take-up rate is much lower. The ANAO suggests that among 18yearolds the enrolment is only 52 per cent. While it is true that the enrolment rate swiftly improves, it is not until you get two people in their mid-30s that the enrolment rate passes 90 per cent, and then not until the late 40s does it reach the Australian Electoral Commission’s own target, which is effectively the target we are obviously aiming for, of around 95 per cent. So, again, it underlines the need for the legislation that we are considering here today.
As a nation with a long history of compulsory voting for its citizens, we must do better than having 1½ million people eligible who are actually missing from our rolls, who are not taking part in a critical aspect of our democracy: voting come election day. Compulsory voting can be seen as one of the most positive aspects of our democracy. It is certainly something that I am very proud of. Maintaining the electoral rolls is a big undertaking and clearly it is not without its problems, and we have explored many of those on the JSCEM hearings. The integrity of citizens' personal data and privacy concerns are least among these issues. But the principle of full participation in elections is fundamental to our democratic system of government in Australia. So the Greens see these reforms before us today as essential. The work of getting eligible voters onto the electoral rolls remains a large part of the work of the Australian Electoral Commission, or AEC. Clearly these bills will assist those all important endeavours.
The bills deal with two aspects: firstly, updating the information of people who are already enrolled to vote; and, secondly, adding eligible people to the electoral rolls. The maintaining address bill allows the AEC to update an elector's address using relevant and current information it receives from other reliable sources outside the Electoral Commission, such as state roads departments. The protecting elector participation bill will allow the AEC to add people it deems eligible to the electoral rolls. The AEC will contact them to let them know this has happened and give them the opportunity to change their enrolment.
There is criticism of this bill and, having sat on JSCEM, I have heard it time and time again from Senator Scott Ryan and one of the House of Representatives members, Ms Bronwyn Bishop. They have outlined extreme criticism, which just leaves one with the understanding that there is not a commitment to follow in the footsteps of their colleagues in Victoria and New South Wales to make every effort to get as many people onto the rolls as possible. The critics of these bills argue that compulsory voting is draconian. Another argument that comes up is that people choose not to enrol to vote as a snub to our system of party politics and they have every right to do so. This may be the case for some people, but there is a larger section of the community who simply have not enrolled to vote or who have fallen off the rolls for various reasons. Sometimes people are not enrolled because they are newly arrived in the country or they are not acquainted with our electoral system for reasons of education or where they live or pressures in their daily lives. I believe a key responsibility for us is to make the provisions to ensure that it is as easy as possible for the rolls to reflect voters in the wider society.
I want to return to the figures because they are worth dwelling on. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, as at 30 June 2011 only 90.9 per cent of eligible people were on the electoral roll. That means that over a million people are missing out. There is a growing perception that younger people are disengaged from politics and have no interest in voting. I acknowledge that this is a problem—and it is one we could give in on, as the coalition seems to have done in its response to these bills—but it is essential for our democracy that we do engage young people with the political process, address their means of communication and how they take things up. We need to be widening consultation with their generation, specifically how young people get on the rolls, and forward thinking in our own policies and our own vision. We cannot accept that disillusionment is as widespread or as inevitable as some make out, but rather we need to be working with all generations to ensure that we do better. Doing better here ensures that we have a roll that reflects the voters who can participate in our democratic processes.
A report by the Australian Human Rights Commission showed that, whilst all Australians aged 18 or over are required to vote, certain groups are disproportionately more likely to miss out. Those who are more likely to be excluded from voting for legal or practical reasons are young people, people with a disability, those in rural areas, Indigenous Australians, the homeless, and prisoners serving longer sentences. AHRC's report is extremely useful and informative for what we are considering here. Participation in the political process clearly is the basis of our democracy, and that is what needs to be enhanced. The right to vote in elections without discrimination is a fundamental human right, set out in international human rights treaties that bind the Australian government and also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is why I was quite concerned with a number of the comments made by Senator Ryan in his contribution to this debate yesterday, because, essentially, the result of what he wants—that is, not following through with these important bills—denies so many people their fundamental human right to participate fully in our democratic processes. All we are doing here is providing one means to help achieve that. Updating elector addresses on the rolls is one of the ways that the government can deliver on the all-important aim set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other treaties.
I noticed some interesting comments from Bernard Keane in Crikey earlier this year. He noted that the government wanted to introduce these bills so that it could increase its share of public funding by getting more people on the rolls. I acknowledge this would be a consequence of the bills, but it is hardly the primary motivation. Cynicism abounds within certain areas of our community, but I did think that was a step too far. It is important to consider that if we did not have a compulsory voting system, much of that public funding would be greatly reduced. Having talked to so many people on this critical issue, I do believe that the motivation is about ensuring as many people as possible can participate in our democratic process.
When it comes to electoral reforms that will benefit parties, what the Greens want most is to move to a system of proportional representation. I want to take the opportunity in this debate to emphasise that key policy point, because it is something that is overlooked time and time again. We are a party that at the 2010 election received around 1½ million votes, and in the House of Representatives we gained one seat. Depending on the form of proportional representation introduced, and we know that there are many systems, we could have anything between 13 and 17 members of the House of Representatives and a number of other smaller parties would probably also pick up some representation. That is something that really does need to be addressed. It is another aspect to enhancing our democracy. I realise it is not part of these bills, but I do like to bring it in whenever we get down to talking about how we improve the workings of our democracy.
I want to return to some of the issues of privacy. There are genuine privacy related concerns with this legislation, which is moving from an opt-in to an opt-out system. People's personal information is stored by a range of government agencies—we know that; it happens already—and we know that it can subject to inaccuracies. The electoral roll can potentially be updated with inaccurate information, which could then in turn be passed on to other agencies that use the electoral roll as a reliable source of record. An increased power to change electoral details without consent warrants an increased onus on the AEC to ensure the reliability of the data. In many ways this comes down to that. The AEC is clearly working to ensure the integrity of its data that is becoming more complex in our digital age and resources are obviously critical to them being to achieve that.
I signal that this issue of privacy and the responsibility that rests with the AEC need be priorities for the government to address in its privacy review of these new laws. Another priority will be to assess how the AEC is meeting its responsibility to avoid compounding and passing on any errors in the source data that it relies on to update the rolls. The AEC, I know, is well aware of these problems and has plans to review how these privacy considerations are affected by these new laws. But technology can offer solutions, as well as create problems. The answer lies in getting the system right from the beginning—that is, how the data is updated and how it is checked. I am pleased the government has increased the operating budget of the AEC, but we are still arguing that it needs close attention, because it would appear that resources will be critical to this work.
On balance, the Greens believe that the undertaking before us is important and must be allowed to proceed. We have signalled our privacy concerns here and on a number of occasions with the government. We will engage fully with the privacy review of these new laws, which I understand will be undertaken in the near future.
I also want to take up some of the issues relating to homeless people being able to vote. This is something that, as I mentioned, was touched on by the Human Rights Commission report. The rights of homeless people are often overlooked in our society. I draw senators' attention to some very useful submissions from Homelessness Australia to some of the reviews of past federal elections and other issues we have addressed on JSCEM. They raise the very important concern of how we ensure that people experiencing homelessness have every opportunity to vote at elections and they take up the issue of the change in the law.
I think it is worth putting on the record what happened under the former, Howard government and how it really brought a great disadvantage to homeless people and people who may not be able to quickly change their details, for a whole range of reasons. The situation previously had been that voters were given a seven-day grace period from the date the election writ was issued. But, as we know, under the Howard government this changed, with people having to enrol by 8 pm on the same day that the writs were issued, bringing about difficulties for many homeless people. Often they may not have even been aware that they had to respond so quickly. It is important and good that those issues are being addressed.
I want to put on record some other suggestions that Homelessness Australia have made because they are relevant to the overall thrust of an issue that we deal with regularly as a Senate, which is how to ensure our democratic process involves as many people as possible. They have suggested that there should be more extensive education and training for electoral site managers and volunteers on how they can assist homeless people in exercising their right to vote. They have taken up the issue of polling places, stating that they should also be set up in places that are accessible and highly visible to people who are homeless. There is the very good idea that has been trialled in some areas of having mobile polling booths regularly visit areas where homeless people often gather. I am not just talking about where they may sleep but places like Centrelink, emergency accommodation and other places. I find the next recommendation interesting, and I know some people have challenged it. It is about being registered. Homelessness Australia state that homelessness should be seen as being sufficient reason to register an individual with no fixed address. I think it is time that we started looking at those provisions.
I also want to touch on developments in New South Wales. As I mentioned earlier, both New South Wales and Victoria have changed the way in which rolls are managed. We have seen worrying developments recently where there is an inconsistency between the state rolls in those two states and the federal roll, which has meant that some people have missed out on a vote come federal election time because they thought they were on the federal roll. One of the very important aspects of these two bills before us is that consistency will be brought back between the two rolls.
The current enrolment system in New South Wales and Victoria is similar to what is in these bills, with voters having to independently enrol for federal elections. That is where there is confusion. It is quite clear that many people would not understand that that is what they had to do. It is not how you would logically think an electoral system in Australia, which is seen as being fairly up-to-date and modern in how it manages these things, would expect people to respond.
Another issue relates to high school students. The systems in New South Wales and Victoria have focused specifically on high school students' eligibility and responsibility to enrol. That is a really important development but again it underlines why we need these two bills passed, because clearly many young people would have no understanding that they had to get themselves on the federal electoral roll.
There are so many good reasons why we need these two bills passed and implemented as quickly as possible. The integrity of our electoral rolls is really a foundation of our democratic process. The efforts that the coalition have gone to to discredit the two bills that are before us now I think is enormously revealing. It highlights that their arguments are essentially those of self-interest. They are not interested in getting these new voters, many of whom are young people or disadvantaged people, on the rolls. When we approach these questions we should be looking at how we put our democratic process first, not the self-interest of our own party. I am very pleased that the Greens have been part of and have worked on these bills.